Is science fiction dying?

The genre set the groundwork for our current century, but is it on the decline?

Published December 17, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

"Hull Zero Three" by Greg Bear
"Hull Zero Three" by Greg Bear

This year completes the initial decade of the 21st century -- unless, of course, you are a numerical fussbudget, and wish to choose 2009 as the culmination. But tell me truly: Does the year 2009 really resonate with you as an evocative, memorable milestone?

In any case, the 21st century is undeniably the century science fiction built -- if not in utter hands-on reality (though even that proposition is debatable, given the inspiration the genre has provided for influential scientists and geeks), then in the public imagination. Since the birth of genre SF in 1926, and for almost the next 75 years, simply to set a story in the third millennium AD was to signify extravagant extrapolation and a futuristic, far-off milieu when flying cars and food pills would reign -- or dystopia would prevail. The year 2010 is automatically one of yesterday's tomorrows.

Barnes & Noble ReviewOf course, as we all now realize, the 21st century is proving both more and less science-fictional than the literature imagined, in strange and perhaps essentially unpredictable ways. This condition bedevils SF to some extent, as both its continuing credibility and utility come under question. Some authors and critics have recently even gone so far as to pronounce the mode deceased. Such statements regarding the death of SF are eternal. In 1960, for instance, a famous seminar was conducted under the heading "Who Killed Science Fiction?" (You can read the whole historic document here.)

It seems fitting, then, at this early juncture in the new millennium, to examine some recent representative SF books of differing types and check their pulse for signs of health or illness. Does the genre continue to have new and useful things to say? Is it still intellectually and narratively interesting? Or is the genre suffering from a case, as H.G. Wells so direly phrased it, of "mind at the end of its tether"?

The Original Anthology: If it's become cliché to maintain that short stories are the cutting-edge laboratory of science fiction, it's only because, as with most clichés, a nugget of truth gleams at the center of the truism. The short form allows quick, timely and innovative forays into new speculative territories: a big payoff for minimal author and reader investment.

With the remaining small band of old-school print magazines in dire financial straits these days, and online zines stumbling around for a viable business model, much of the best work at these lengths now occurs in the original anthology, which trades periodical timeliness for a greater shelf life, the occasional backing of deep-pockets publishers, and an expanded audience.

One of the best anthologies of recent vintage is Jetse de Vries' "Shine." Its virtues are easy to enumerate. It offers a clear-eyed theme and unique remit: optimistic, near-future SF. It features a wide range of voices and styles. Its editor is young, knowledgeable, energetic and hip (the anthology was assembled with heavy reliance on social media sites). On all counts, it's a rousing success, the very model of a modern project, and points the way toward a healthy future for SF short stories. All that remains is for the book to rack up some deservedly healthy sales.

Not every story in the volume achieves unqualified greatness: A number favor earnestness over entertainment. They work so seriously to illustrate that there is hope for humanity that they seem to forget that the reader has to want to imagine herself enjoying life in the future, even while facing challenges. That was always the secret of Heinlein-era SF. This joie de vivre deficit becomes apparent only when you come to a contrary story such as Gord Sellar's knockout "Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic)." Its high-octane characters and language and devil-may-care attitude cloak serious issues just as vital as those embedded elsewhere in the book. But it's also a slavering whirlwind of manic energy, in the mode of the Looney Tunes cartoon Tasmanian Devil. Others in this admirable vein include Eva Maria Chapman's "Russian Roulette 2020" and Kay Kenyon's "Castoff World."

The Hot Trend: So long as science fiction can pinwheel off new movements and manifestos, new fads and fashions, it seems to me that it remains alive and vibrant. Bandwagons can get overloaded, stylized, and mob-minded. But then along comes another freshly painted barouche full of troublemakers to join the long parade.

Steampunk is hardly a new phenomenon, dating back in its fully codified form some 25 years at least. But as culture watchers know, it's recently experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Mark Hodder's debut novel, "The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack," is a remarkably sophisticated and well-executed manifestation of the sub-genre, showing us that new talent can excavate gold out of the most well-plumbed mines.

Hodder has arrayed in his book the full panoply of steampunk riffs: weird machinery, Victorian cultural attitudes, class hierarchy, the supernatural, famous historical figures, surrealism and absurdity, amusing fictional sidekicks to famous personages, and a sense of adventure across a relatively unexplored globe. Layering this cake with a frosting of mystery, suspense and time-travel shenanigans, he has created a compulsively readable romp that recalls the best of Tim Powers and James Blaylock.

Hodder's paired protagonists are the explorer Richard Burton and the poet Swinburne. In the year 1861, they inhabit a time stream in which Queen Victoria's assassination in 1840 unleashed a realm of oddball steam- and bio-tech. The legendary boogieman of the title appears to be a time-traveler intent on repairing the damaged continuum. Or is he?

Hodder's prose is stately yet not archaic, and the plot unfolds with a satisfying cleverness. His descriptions of the era -- a crucial point for any novel that aims for historical atmosphere -- are palpable, rendering a miasma-shrouded London and environs. If his book does not precisely build a new wing on the steampunk mansion, it does polish the banisters brightly and garland the halls gaily, showing visitors the best of the old manor.

SF from the Literary World: Despite the long (and, let's admit it, fun) tradition of SF writers complaining about "outsiders" from the literary "mainstream" never getting our beloved genre right, the picture is rapidly changing. As science-fictional ideas permeate the culture more and more deeply and widely, writers from MFA programs and the New Yorker, from Granta and Yaddo, prove themselves adept at handling all the riffs of SF in acrobatic and ingenious fashion, often contributing new stylistic angles and perspectives to the field. Case in point: Charles Yu's "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe."

Yu's mordantly funny book follows the entertainingly dreary and screwed-up existence of a time-travel machine repairman named -- Charles Yu! Metafictional Yu's drab and anomie-filled existence, dominated by his desultory search for his missing father and his on-off relations with his mother (Mom's chosen to live in a "Polchinski 630 Hour-Long Reinforced Time Loop," "Groundhog Day"-style) is peppered with chronal paradoxes and bureaucratic annoyances. As a creation, Yu represents all failed ambitions and compromised dreams, his plight a symbolic statement of a generational quandary. (Yu turned 34 years old this year.)

Yu has obviously ingested the vast body of classic time-travel SF, and he has formulated a consistent theory and practice of time travel, full of hopped-up jargon, which he uses to illustrate existential themes rather than produce action-adventure sequences. There are traces of Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Barry Malzberg and Philip K. Dick throughout these pages. But the book resembles nothing so much as a fresh approach to the tone of the late, great George Alec Effinger, whose novels "What Entropy Means to Me" and "The Wolves of Memory" practically defined this voice.

But perhaps the best description of Yu's book is the one he applies to his malfunctioning pocket universe: "the reality portions of [Minor Universe 31] are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped around it."

Satirical SF: When we are introduced to an exuberantly manic post-scarcity milieu perched paradoxically atop the oppressed crumbling ruins of an indigent planet, with one industry or preoccupation reigning supreme, we know ourselves to be firmly in the quintessential Galaxy magazine mode of science fiction satire, exemplified most famously by Pohl Kornbluth's classic "The Space Merchants." Once identified by Kingsley Amis in his critical study "New Maps of Hell" as practically the whole raison d'être of SF, the mode has lately fallen out of popularity, although talented folks such as the writers of the animated series "Futurama," Max Barry ("Jennifer Government") and Christopher Moore ("Fluke"), continue to plow the pasture profitably.

Now comes a bright and witty new practitioner of this honorable mode of speculatively savaging humanity's foibles. Jon Armstrong has archly labeled his own work "fashionpunk," since it takes the whole daft scene connected with haute couture -- media overkill, celebrities, status and wealth -- and rakes it over the coals by way of absurdist amplification.

In Armstrong's debut novel "Grey" we were introduced to a crazed yet consistent future in which clothes literally make the man -- especially our hero, Michael Rivers, a 19-year-old airhead in thrall to his corporate image, who eventually learns to rebel. Company mergers here are facilitated by the ritual marriage and public deflowering of scions. A private automated highway literally encircles the midsection of the planet. Press conferences are vast media orgies. And draped elegantly over everything, beautiful smart fabrics conceal bodily and spiritual ugliness.

"Grey" smartly followed the time-tested template of many such dystopian tales, using an ignorant member of the elite as focal point and dragging him down for a visceral education into the muck and mire. In the new book, "Yarn," Armstrong decides to tell the flip side of the story: the rise of a peon to these synthetically uplifted heights.

We have already met protagonist Tane Cedar in "Grey," where he served as exclusive tailor and fashion designer to the privileged, including Michael Rivers. But now we get his whole life story, as backdrop to an adventure being experienced by the ascended Cedar, which involves the fabric-cum-drug known as Xi. Born as a "slub," one of the serfs who toil in the vast corn plantations that support the economy, Cedar mounts the social and artistic ladder rung by bloody rung, until he becomes the figure we met in "Grey." Along the way, we get further revelations into this Lady Gaga-inspired future, where the sales warriors of Seattlehama battle for market share and allegiances are as disposable as underwear.

Half the fun of Armstrong's books is the lush, ornate, rococo language, worthy of a Russell Hoban or Anthony Burgess. The neologisms are captivating, the dialogue is both sophisticated and rude, and the descriptive passages are boldly visual. In toto, these books do something brilliant which I had always half-believed was possible, but which I never dreamed of actually seeing. They replicate in prose the logically insane and hyperbolic graphic novels of Jodorowsky and Moebius and their collaborators: The Incal/The Metabarons/The Technopriests. It's proof that in the right hands, style is substance.

Hardcore SF: Language maven William Safire was one of the first to recognize the birth of "retronyms." This term is applied in cases when a word that was once perfectly descriptive all by itself needs a retrofit to acknowledge changing circumstances. For centuries the word "clock" said everything. But then with the arrival of digital technology, we had to say "analog clock" when we meant the original kind with hands and static face.

So it is with "science fiction." Once upon a time, that unadorned term encompassed the whole smallish field. But with the proliferation of sub-genres, readers and critics have had to use retronyms. "Hardcore SF" refers to the formerly ubiquitous kind of tale that employs the core genre conceits: robots and ray guns, interstellar empires and starships, gadgets and extrapolations. (Somewhat confusingly, what has been dubbed "hard SF" is a different beast, admitting only rigorously scientific ideas, and not dodgy apparatus such as teleportation and psi powers that hardcore SF gleefully employs.) Once the dominant mode, hardcore SF is now just another specialty, its practitioners rather like 21st-century poets still writing sonnets and sestinas.

But such allegiances to noble old forms often inspire great craft and commensurate rewards. Greg Bear is one contemporary master of the old ways, and in "Hull Zero Three" he gives the generation starship theme -- crystallized beautifully by Robert Heinlein in 1941's "Universe" -- a vigorous makeover.

Bear's protagonist, an amnesiac who eventually assumes the name Teacher after his programmed function, wakes to find himself in a "sick Ship." This enormous and complex interstellar vessel, intended to crawl at a fraction of lightspeed across the galaxy to plant a new colony, has been mysteriously damaged. Embarking on a dangerous odyssey of knowledge gathering, Teacher and his shifting posse of oddball companions must battle the deadline of disintegration to salvage what they can of the mission.

Bear brilliantly evokes all of the heart-racing thrills typically associated with the classic hardcore SF trope of exploring a "Big Dumb Object." Savvy readers will flash on such past milestones as Algis Budrys' "Rogue Moon," Robert Silverberg's "The Man in the Maze," Larry Niven's "Ringworld" and Arthur Clarke's "Rendezvous with Rama." A sly allusion to Heinlein's benchmark generation-ship tale occurs when a pair of clones realize that two heads are better than one: Heinlein's protagonist, Joe-Jim, literally wore two heads on one body. And the traditional riff of "conceptual breakthrough," in which larger and larger frames of knowledge keep opening up, is played deftly. In a neat stylistic maneuver, Teacher's language skills keep pace on the page with his growing understanding.

But even grander than all this is the subtle parable of Teacher's plight: born naked and unwitting into a dangerous environment, in which only cooperation and curiosity ensure survival and success. Isn't this a simple description of the human condition? Teacher's journey, like Buddha's, is universal. And even if he experiences moments of Beckett-like despair and anger, he overcomes them with logic, hope and ingenuity. What better formulation for the guiding attitude of science fiction, hardcore or otherwise? Writers like Bear prove that SF still has some tomorrows left, even as 2010 joins the pile of yesterdays.

By Paul Di Fillippo

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