I believe that science fiction’s best days are ahead of it, because I have read a lot of science fiction. And if this genre has taught me anything, it’s optimism about human ingenuity—along with a belief that the unexpected is just around the corner. I’m not alone: Many people seem to feel like science fiction is healthier than ever.
Which is funny, when you consider that science fiction died in 2003, or maybe 2004.
Back when I was first trying to break in as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, it seemed like every big book-related convention was having a panel about “The Death of Science Fiction.” At these panels, authors and experts would lament all the trends that were destroying the genre that Mary Shelley, Hugo Gernsback and a host of authors had built.
The causes of science fiction’s impending death were many and varied, but they included a pervasive sense that reality had “caught up” to the things that Golden Age authors had written about in the 1940s. Either we’d already gotten the things we’d been promised (incredible computers, smart medicine, space travel) or we’d learned they were not coming any time soon (space colonies). And partly because the future had arrived or been superceded, literary authors were writing about science-fictional ideas, but this crossover appeared largely one-sided: Apart from Dick, Le Guin and a few others, science fiction authors did not feel they were getting embraced by fancy book critics. And publishing was changing, so that authors who didn’t write bestsellers (the “midlist”) were squeezed out. Those wire racks that sold cheap paperbacks in drug stores and groceries were going away.
But as someone who just published a new novel with science fiction (as well as fantasy) elements yesterday, I believe that the doomsaying was premature. And I feel like I’m not alone.
In fact, the process of writing All the Birds in the Sky left me convinced that science fiction has more to say about the present, and the future, than ever. And I’m optimistic about science fiction, in part, for the same reasons that these panels were warning about its demise back in the early 2000s.
Last week, while I was performing the disheartening task of writing the obituary for David G. Hartwell, the incredibly influential science fiction editor, I came across his introduction for an anthology called The Science Fiction Century. Back in 1996, Hartwell wrote: “The twentieth century is the science fiction century. By the middle of the 1990s, we are living in the world of the future described by genre science fiction of the 1930s and ‘40s and ‘50s, a world technologies we love and fear, sciences so increasingly complex and steeped in specialized diction and jargon that fewer and fewer of us understand science on what used to be called a ‘high school level.’” Science fiction, Hartwell wrote, is a literature for people who want to understand how things work.
Some 17 years later, Hartwell co-edited an anthology called Twenty-First Century Science Fiction with fellow Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. [Full disclosure: Nielsen Hayden is my editor.] In the intro to that volume, the editors write that science fiction, far from being consigned to the 20th century, is more influential (and more accepted by the literary establishment) than ever. In 2013, they write, SF “far from being marginal, is a firmly established part of the cultural landscape.”
So even if mid-twentieth century science fiction has, in some sense, “come true,” we are still in need of science fiction’s power to explain how things work, and speculate about how they could work. Even if we’re less captivated by imagining the wonders of tomorrow and more baffled by the complexity of the wonders of today, we still crave answers. And better questions.
So here are things I learned while writing All the Birds in the Sky, my novel about a mad scientist and a witch who grow up together, grow apart, come back together, try to save the world, and maybe possibly find love.
Getting past meta
First off, I found myself falling into a lot of unexamined tropes. I wrote about some of this over at John Scalzi’s blog yesterday, but in a nutshell, the idea of combining science fiction and fantasy immediately seemed like an opportunity to get kind of “meta” and throw together lots of plot elements from Harry Potter, Star Trek, and all sorts of other things. But the deeper I got into the story of the relationship between Laurence and Patricia, the less I wanted my book to be commenting on genre in a self-aware way. I wanted to find ways to make the genre elements feel “real” and connected to the world in my novel, so I could focus on the characters and their emotions.
And I think that in the early 21st century, we’re all hyper-aware of tropes and genre expectations, and that’s a double-edged sword. We’ve all gotten sucked down the rabbit hole of TVTropes and other such sites. This is great, in that it forces us to try harder to bring something fresh to our work, to use these tropes in a new way (or at least “lampshade” them.) But it also creates the danger that writing genre fiction will turn into being in an Aerosmith cover band in a dive bar where the ice hockey is also on the big-screen TV during your gig: You’re playing the greatest hits to a jaded, inattentive crowd.
There is a huge opportunity, in 2016, for authors (and creators of all kinds) to scrape off the accumulated layers of meta from old story ideas—and to come up with brand new story ideas as well. But you have to be willing to start from the position of hyper-awareness that all us TVTropes junkies have, and then put in the sweat-lodge time, figuring out what the essential truth of a trope is, and how it can feel like a real piece of history in the world you’re creating. This is incredibly tough, and I’m not at all claiming I pulled it off—just that I wrestled with it.
There is just a famished, intense desire for optimism out there. While I was writing All the Birds in the Sky, I also took part in the Hieroglyph anthology project that Arizona State University spearheaded, which came out of Neal Stephenson’s call for science fiction writers to offer more hopeful visions, more solutions, and more ideas for ways the future could be greater. (This doesn’t mean pretending massive problems don’t exist—as io9 founder Annalee Newitz proved with her optimistic book about our coming mass extinction, Scatter, Adapt and Remember, which came out while I was writing All the Birds. We’ll talk more about climate change in a moment.)
But people desperately want upbeat future scenarios that feel real and not pie-in-the-sky. The more connected to reality, and the more plausible, the better. But just being willing to believe in a decent future is a massively important act in the early 21st century.
In fact, one thing that’s changed since everyone started proclaiming the death of science fiction (I think it started in the late 1990s) is that most people seem to believe the world has gotten worse. There’s more political instability, the environment feels more perilous, people talk seriously about economic slowness being the new normal, and politics have gotten uglier and weirder. I believe the relevance of science fiction has trended upwards as the world has gone further down the tubes. (We’re also just more aware of the ways the world sucks, thanks to social media’s echo-chamber effect.)
Scientists actually talk to me
And meanwhile, another thing I discovered in the process of putting this book together was that scientists will just talk to random strangers who are writing science fiction. It was probably easier to get scientists to talk to me as a science fiction writer than as a journalist. I started taking advantage of this for some of my short fiction as well—I have some pretty hard science in some of the stories I’ve published in the past few years.
My impression is, scientists know that we’re confused and overwhelmed, and they are sincerely interested in communicating science to ordinary people. And they absolutely see science fiction books and stories as a vehicle for talking about, and hopefully even educating about, actual science in the middle of so much misrepresentation and misunderstanding. (Science fiction movies? Maybe not quite so much.) I used to be scared of bothering scientists with my dumb questions, but it’s amazing how open they often are to talking. (And there are actual programs for authors, like the Launchpad Workshop.)
The neutral zone
Meawhile, the line between the “near present” and the “near future” is where the action is. People used to talk about setting stories “15 minutes into the future,” meaning a world that is recognizably our world but includes a few futuristic inventions and changes here and there. But in 2016, how can you even tell the difference between the present and the immediate future? New devices and innovations are coming along all the time—imagine saying to someone in 2009, “Oh, I just got my DNA sequenced.”
So that ambiguity between the futuristic present and the near future is where the fun is. It’s a place that authors like William Gibson and Cory Doctorow have explored to great effect, but it’s still wide open territory, with a lot of great places to go. Writing All the Birds in the Sky, I wanted even the furthest future stuff to feel very much like the here and now, and sweated over anything that might be too dated. (While revising the book, I shed a tear at having to remove a part where Laurence, as a young boy, goes to a Radio Shack.)
For a while there, the fact that things are changing so quickly made a lot of science fiction authors nervous about tackling near-future settings. It seemed too risky: Your book could be outdated before it was even published. (I definitely had that worry about the “Caddies,” the next-generation handheld computers that everyone uses in the near-future parts of my story.) But I think that’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity, if you’re willing to play chicken. The ambiguity between “now” and “five minutes from now” is just super exciting and lets you comment on all the anxieties and insecurities of our hyper-technological, increasingly weird era.
And on a related note, publishing has changed again—the traditional book world seems to have stabilized somewhat, and science fiction book sales have rebounded. But meanwhile, as everyone from Andy Weir to Linda Nagata can attest, the e-book world has replaced that spinning rack at the drugstore, allowing authors to sell books cheaply and (maybe) claim a bigger share of public attention.
We’re scared, and science fiction can help
We still haven’t gotten to one of the reasons why everyone thought science fiction was on its death bed a dozen or 15 years ago: literary fiction was seen as encroaching on SF’s territory, without giving SF authors the respect they deserved. And now, I feel as though SF is getting more and more acceptance as the literature of our time—but meanwhile, literary fiction is increasingly apocalyptic. When you see an acclaimed new literary novel that plays with speculative ideas, it’s almost always about world-ending plagues, technology that kills us all, or straight-up zombies.
But I think a lot of people are getting tired of apocalypses that are unstoppable and just barely endurable. There is an apocalypse towards the end of my novel (and I’ve gotten some flak for having the “A” word associated with it!) but it’s more of a Buffy-style apocalypse. It’s an apocalypse that we can maybe do something about.
And I didn’t just include an apocalyptic scenario to raise the stakes in my book, but because I believe our fears about the future are grounded in real issues, and they’re worth addressing.
I was at an event a week or so ago, where Kim Stanley Robinson was talking about his belief that science fiction should address the reality of climate change. Because it’s our actual future, and if you claim to be writing even a semi-realistic vision of the world to come, you need to acknowledge this scientific consensus.
And yes, I was just saying that we need more can-do optimism—but here’s the thing: Writing about climate change can be an optimistic act. One reason to write about the potential disasters and nightmares of climate change is because you believe that humans can make smart choices. We can recognize when our own behavior is outrageously self-destructive, and try to fix it.
Back during the Cold War, pop culture served up tons of visions of nuclear war and other atomic apocalypses, from On the Beach to The Day After. And we’re only just now understanding how close we really came to having an actual global thermonuclear war in real life, on a few occasions. We were an itchy finger away from mass genocide. And here’s a crazy thought—even if all those books and movies about nuclear annihilation only made a slight difference in the mass consciousness, maybe it was enough. Maybe someone hesitated just a second longer to push that button because of On the Beach. We’ll never know, but it seems at least possible.
So I don’t doubt that pop culture can make a massive difference in the real world, and I am certain we can do this with climate change, widespread extinctions, and other environmental challenges.
And in general, we have a lot of fears, as a society, that science fiction has an opportunity to address. The very fact that we’ve spent so much time lately debating whether science fiction should include “message fic” about real-world issues proves that, yes, science fiction does have an opportunity to talk about real-world issues. Including racism, sexism and other atavistic hatreds, but also including our massive fears and insecurities as technology makes careers obsolete and creates problems that we couldn’t even imagine a decade ago. I reject the idea that science fiction cannot talk about anything real.
If anything, the more I write and read science fiction, the more I feel the 21st century, not the 20th, is the science fiction century. Now is when we’re discovering exoplanets by the score, coming to a greater understanding of human biology and inventing the first real practical robots. Now is also when we’re confronting weirdness and insanity on a scale that would make Philip K. Dick feel like a stenographer. We need science fiction more than ever, but we can also do more awesome things with it than ever before.
All images via NASA/Hubble Space Telescope