by Mark W. Tiedemann
Author of Gravity Box and Other Spaces
Recently I had a brief conversation about the changing nature of science fiction. Not so much the stories being written, although that was part of the discussion as well, but the faces we see populating the lists of writers publishing new work. There was a bit of blow back in the conversation, which could have gotten ugly over what was being argued, when the challenge was made that “all this literary SF is a dead end. It’s a shrinking market, so why are we giving awards to these kinds of books?”
There was a lot of underlying assumption in that question, more than a little code for a suite of grievances that had more to do with what kinds of works no longer make those awards lists and why a certain kind of science fiction seems only to dominate movies these days, but at the end of it all it was a whine of pain for a fading scene. The fear of obsolescence attends all creative endeavors and science fiction is not immune simply because it presumes to talk about the future (how can The Future be obsolete when it hasn’t even happened yet?), and few things elicit melancholy more cutting than to watch something you love become passé.
A more positive way to look at this process is to see it as growth.
That doesn’t mollify those who seem, for a variety of reasons, unable or unwilling to go along, and perhaps all those other (coded) reasons for protest play a stronger role than we wish to admit. The face of science fiction is changing. It doesn’t look the same anymore.
Nicola Griffith has written a finely-considered piece on “who owns science fiction,” and I recommend it to anyone interested in—I say this without the least embarrassment—the future of literature.
The kind of science fiction being defended in my conversation had to do with an idealized form of so-called “Golden Age” science fiction, which dealt with the technology, the engineering, and the explorer/colonizer model of SF. Star Trek is exemplary of this kind of SF. It hasn’t really been the heart and soul of written SF for some time, but it is still held up as the motherlode, the source of everything else we do that we call science fiction. Because it held that position, everything else was seen, in some ways by some people, as sub genre to it.
This is very much not true anymore.
That “literary SF” of which my conversant complained and which he asserted was a shrinking market? Well, it seems the case that less of it is being published with the bold SF on the spine to define it and more of it is being published either as straight (mainstream) fiction (Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguru, Lauren Beukes) or as YA (Veronica Roth, Marissa Meyer, James Dashner, Patrick Ness) and is more or less leaving the old precincts of what used to be called the SF Ghetto. Science fiction is permeating non-genre literature. Look at William Gibson’s most recent trilogy, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History and consider how much it reads like SF—but isn’t—and then how much it reads like very good mainstream/thriller—but isn’t.
In a sense, science fiction has finally “won” the argument about its own validity, its relevance, its right to be taken seriously by the wider culture—only the flag planted has no spaceships on it, so the territory gained doesn’t look like what we once thought it would.
For one, there are all these other people with ideas of their own writing science fiction about what they see, what they feel, what they find important…and not about what people still insisting that SF is about one kind of thing. These new voices have planted different kinds of flags and have changed the conversation—because science fiction has always been and is nothing without the conversation it seeks to promote—and moved . Moved us on.
As it should be. Science fiction has always been and remains about where we’re going. It has never been about prediction but about anticipation—and discovery.
Mark’s most recent novel is Gravity Box and Other Spaces.