In service of all the dead
In 1958 the American magazine sf market collapsed. Most of the pulp magazines went out of business, the rest struggled. And it seems to me they have been struggling ever since. Read any summing up of the year in science fiction for any year since then (in Locus, for instance, or the Gardner Dozois best of the year anthology) and you will encounter the same humdrum, depressing story: falling circulations, markets closing, all the familiar doom and gloom. There are always odd rallies: the sudden explosion in the number of original anthologies in the early 70s that had fizzled out by the second half of the decade; the internet boom we’re seeing now, though we’re already seeing website short fiction markets closing. In general, the movement is all one way, and it has been for 50 years. The reason for the magazine collapse in 1958 is fairly easy to identify: rising costs and falling circulations, and circulations were falling because the focus of sf was already shifting from the magazine to the novel (remember, Robert Silverberg, the last big-name writer to emerge in the magazines before the 1958 collapse, sold a hardback novel before he sold his first short story). The response to the collapse is more interesting: Judith Merril produced a best of the year anthology.
Merril's first best of the year anthology came out in 1956, when there must have been the first mutterings about the stability of the magazine market; but even if the two events are not directly related, the coincidence of timing is suggestive. Her series certainly served two functions: boosterism, telling people there’s stuff to value and be proud of in science fiction; and expansionism, she included many so-called mainstream writers, forcing a rethink of where we might imagine genre boundaries to lie. Put it another way: when the sf pool starts to shrink, laud the stuff you do have, and pull more stuff into the fold.
Science fiction and, more recently, fantasy have been beset with best of the year anthologies ever since. Some of them (many of them) are excellent collections in their own right (Terry Carr’s series was at the heart of my own discovery of sf in the 70s); most of them seem to emerge in response to another downturn in the market and all of them fulfil one or other or both of the boosterism/expansionism functions. Today we are drowning under the damned things, which would seem to suggest a particularly acute crisis in the genre ecology they are all feeding on. But with so many best of the year editors preying on what seems to be an ever-shrinking gene pool, something has to give.
For me, what gives is the sense that there is actually anything to laud in science fiction. Too many of the best of the year anthologies I read, and I’ve read a lot, leave me feeling that if this truly is the best the genre has to offer, then I’m not interested. I’ve seen stories lauded that are technically incompetent: slipshod writing, poor characterisation, anything that counts as bad prose can make a best of the year collection. I’ve seen stories lauded simply because the author manages to do a convincing imitation of a noted author from the past (more often than not this turns out to be Jack Vance, but then over-ripe prose has always been easy to imitate even if you don’t get to the heart of what made Vance distinctive). I’ve seen stories that have all too clearly been included because of the author’s name rather than for any intrinsic merit in the fiction. And over and over again I see stories that simply do what has been done before, sometimes with a little new technological glitz but rarely with any real deep novelty. None of this does any service to the genre. And if none of this is exciting someone like me, someone who has been excited by the possibilities and achievements of science fiction for well over 30 years, what on earth is it going to do for anyone else. To proclaim something as the best of the year is a challenge, both to those of us within the genre and to those outside who might be tempted to see what sf has to offer, to see what’s best about the genre. All I get from the great majority of the works we hold up every year as some sort of template for quality is a deep sense of weariness.
Part of this weariness, I think, comes from the fact that so many of these science fictions (and even more of the fantasies) take as their resource, their reference, their foodstuff, other science fictions or fantasies. The genre is eating itself. Back in the 80s when we first started to get self-referential science fictions, like Take Back Plenty or Consider Phlebas, which used the tropes of an earlier sf to overturn the conventional expectations of the contemporary genre, it was a sudden vivid flash of freshness in a literature that was becoming tired. Now it seems that writers cannot do anything in the genre without rehashing the past, and that in turn has become tired.
Science fiction is a genre that foregrounds the new. Whether the new is technology, landscape, psychology, history, what have you, without something that turns the work aside from the conventional world we know, we don’t recognise it as sf. But there are two corollaries of this. In the first place, if all the fiction does is rehash old novelties, sf devices and situations we have seen a thousand times before with no more than cosmetic variations, it stops becoming new, and in a sense stops being science fiction. Unless we experience that ‘shock of the new’ the sf is not fulfilling its purpose, and it seems to me that more and more science fictions from the genre heartlands, both short stories and novels, are relying on worn out, over-familiar tropes and are therefore failing on precisely this count. The second corollary is that because the novelty that is an essential element in science fiction involves a turning aside from the conventional known world does not mean that science fiction should not engage with that conventional known world. In fact science fiction is often at its best when it does engage with the everyday. Let’s face it, science fiction is a product of a rationalist worldview, the sense that the universe is understandable, explicable, within the bounds of human knowledge. Thus sf is part of the way we make sense of the world, whether on the macroscopic or the microscopic level. It is a way of exploring possibilities, variables, might bes and might have beens. I have the distinct impression, however, that more and more genre writers are uninterested in a rational approach to an explicable universe. Gods and supernatural forces now regularly intrude, often in a lazy unconsidered way, off-the-shelf solutions to stories in which the puzzle matters but not the answer.
Galling as it is when someone from outside the genre makes use of genre tropes without any real understanding of what lies behind them (P.D. James, Paul Theroux), it still seems to me that the borders are where science fiction still has some sense of the new. I am thinking both of non-sf writers (David Mitchell, Audrey Niffenegger) making use of genre ideas to explore and explain the world without being shackled by the dead hand of genre expectation; or genre writers moving away from the heartland (William Gibson) to explore the everyday world but with genre sensibilities intact. In other words science fiction is at its most alive when it is not rehashing other science fictions but is simply acting as a springboard for ideas about the world. And what we see within the genre these days is too much work that plays with ideas about the genre.
Is this working up into a plea for a new purity in science fiction? Don’t be daft! A pure science fiction would be as dead as the inward turning self-referential stuff I’m complaining about. Science fiction is many things and needs to remain many things, there is no purity there. If I am making a plea it is only for science fiction writers (and editors, publishers, critics, readers, the whole damned lot of us) to think more about what we are doing with science fiction, and to think in terms that are not restricted to other science fictions.
And will this bring in a new generation of readers, will this suddenly open up the genre the way we all believe it so richly deserves? No, of course not. I don’t believe in vast audiences out there just waiting for the one text, the one writer that will break the dam and bring them flooding into the genre. The two most consistent best-selling writers in Britain today are J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett. Between them they have introduced a vast new audience to fantasy. So where is the knock-on effect for the rest of the genre? The biggest blockbuster films and television programmes are science fiction. There are novelisations galore that have somehow failed to make a mark on the bestseller lists. The thing that takes up more and more of our time, computers, the internet, blogs and so forth were colonised first by geeks and sf fans, you can barely move on the internet without finding science fiction references. It hasn’t exactly made all those bloggers rush out to consult the early works of William Gibson. This is just wishful thinking, a romantic notion that the world conforms to our desires not to our rational understanding. But if we continue to produce work that opens up the world rather than closing it down, work that stimulates intellectually the way we were intellectually stimulated by the first science fictions we read, work that satisfies emotionally enough to keep us reading, then at least we’re keeping open a way that new readers might discover.