Friday, October 3, 2014

The State of the Genre


by John Popham

There are two things for which I’m actively searching these days.

The first is a good coffee house or café.  You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a place with a “just so” combination of good coffee and a creative ambiance in DC.  Starbucks and Pain Quotidian are too institutional and the food is unappealing.  The coffee shop at Politics & Prose is too small and usually crammed with double-wide strollers.  Then there’s the small indie coffee shop a few blocks away with the uninteresting and poorly lit interior that serves marginal coffee; I think not.  I had hopes for the recently opened Bread Furst, which is a solid fit to my needs.  Sadly, many others share that opinion and its tables are occupied as soon as it opens; an eloquent statement on DC’s unsatisfied demand for good places to sit and think.

Am I being too demanding; setting the bar too high? Oh, yes. Yes I am.  Life is too short to spend on bad coffee and unpleasant surroundings.

The other thing I’m looking for is decent science fiction novels to review.

Finding any reasonably good new science fiction novels seems a chore these days.  Really. I swear, the state of the genre where novels are concerned is nothing short of woeful.  And bear in mind, my internal measuring stick for ‘woeful’ is pretty low.  Science fiction has always been a continuum when it comes to style and quality, with one foot firmly rooted in the pulps of the early 20th century.  Squids from space, Bug Eyes Monsters (or BEMs as they are sometimes called) and granite-jawed starship officers legitimately share the science fiction table with Pyanfar Chanur, Valentine Michael Smith, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and Hari Seldon.  However, even if one allows for a healthy dose of pulpy goodness, an inordinately large percentage of the science fiction hitting the retail outlets these days is mind-bogglingly awful.  The genre science fiction novel is, from a critical stand point, in deep decline.

Fantasy has not suffered a similar drop in quality over the years.  Quite the contrary, in fact.  There are a lot of good writers putting out a lot of good fantasy novels.  There’s some bad stuff of course, but as with any genre fiction that’s to be expected.  The bad writers are generally kept at the fringes of the market by ample competition from capable writers.  This suggests that the fantasy’s talent basket is much fuller than science fiction’s.  Which may explain the prevalence of post-apocalyptic and zombie novels in the current science fiction market, as those sub-genres tend to unfold as fantasy with only trace quantities of science fiction in their make-up.  Thus a certain amount of overflow of writers from the crowded fantasy market into those sub-genres is reasonable.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I believe the reason for the decline in the science fiction novel is a generational failure of imagination and a growing pessimism.  As a culture we’ve become increasingly mistrustful of science and people in the sciences.  We increasingly treat science and the laws of nature as if they were offerings at a Mongolian barbeque, selecting only the bits of science that don’t discomfort us, that don’t cause moral or political indigestion.  Denial of established science has become commonplace and, worst of all, tolerated, as though immunology and climate science were like politics or religion, matters of opinion or articles of faith.  It’s no wonder that fantasy and zombies are the hot ticket these days for writers of speculative fiction.

What's to be done?  Well, as I often say, you can only begin from where you are.

For myself I will put more emphasis into reviewing science fiction.  And in so doing I’ll be tossing aside the rule of thumb about not saying anything at all if there’s nothing nice to say.  I’m finding that too many reviewers of science fiction would rather not review a book at all than to give the book a bad review.  I’m not here to get invited to the right parties or to be fawned on by publishers.  I’m here for the stories. I’ll be unstinting with praise when I find a rare jewel, but I won’t be shy about taking the rod to a bad piece of work, even when written by an author who’s well respected by me or beloved by the SMOF community.

Going forward I will have a few rules of engagement:

The books must be recently published or forthcoming.  A few weeks ago I asked a publisher what science fiction they had by female authors that was new or recent and was provided a title that had been in print for more than a year. The nerve, I tell you.

The books must feature stories in which science is an essential element. Which is to say, no subbing in ray guns for six shooters and no time vortexes that lead a modern lass to romance in 17th century Scotland. No space westerns and no science fiction romance or other non-SF genres dressed up as SF.

I won’t review post-apocalyptic fiction or novels featuring zombies or zombie surrogates. Not even if they're martians who happen to behave like zombies. Just no.

No full reviews for truly awful prose.  However novels containing passages such as
 “Sweat dripped from his lean frame and his muscles writhed with intoxicating interest – the women couldn’t tear their gazes from him.” (Vaughn Heppner, The Lost Starship
will be called out as objects of derision and scorn in periodic “Authors Who Must be Stopped” lists. We shall point fingers at them and laugh.

Am I being too demanding; setting the bar too high? Oh, yes. Yes I am.  As with coffee, life is too short to spend on bad fiction.

I don’t expect I’ll make friends doing this. Nor do I expect that The Infinite Reach, an admittedly small patch of literary earth, will influence much or many.  Oh, it might nudge things, ever so slightly, in the right direction but not much more.  Given that, why bother.  Why not just go along to get along?  I suppose it’s because science fiction and I go way back.  Because some debts should be paid.

As ever, I’m here for the stories.

1 comment:

  1. Sadly, it seems that too many equate space with science fiction. If it happens in space, its therefore science fiction.

    For me, science fiction has always been the questioning about what it is that makes us human. By taking the current world, and modifying a particular aspect of it, and seeing how it unfolds as a way of highlighting how we humans are.

    Maybe we've shone a light too often under the couch and the dust bunnies no longer bother us. Maybe we no longer like what we see in the mirror, so we no longer care to peer.

    Science fiction grew out of enlightenment. The excitement and wonder at the glorious complexity of the universe and all the cogs and gears that drive it seem to be missing these days. The hope and limitless possibilities founded on hard science have faded. It seems we no longer look 20, 50, 100 years ahead to what might be, but seem to be stuck at 2 to 3 years of what will probably be. I believe people have become fearful of accurate prediction, fearful of what will come, averse to risk. Hence the retreat to full blown fantasy that is unlike our current world, the growth of fundamentalism, the continued retreat into smaller and smaller enclaves of people just like us.

    Post-apocalyptic stories can be good science fiction, sadly the particular setting has been overrun by the mindless.

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