January 9, 2007

Science Fiction Down the Tubes

Whenever my brother and I get together, we spend a good portion of our time bitching about the state of modern science fiction. Our father is a huge SF buff; he grew up reading the greats, like Clark, Asimov and Vance. Naturally his sons starting reading the books he had lying around and I still get a kick out them.

I don't like everything that came out of the golden age of sci fi. A lot of it was xenophobic garbage. But I think what I love about that era was most of the authors writing were scientifically trained or scientists themselves. You can almost always count on a well-thought out, clever story.

Generally, it's not so in modern sci fi.

In his lifetime, Asimov noted a decline in scientific literacy among sci fi writers:

Unfortunately, in many cases, people who write science fiction violate the laws of nature, not because they want to make a point, but because they don't know what the laws of nature are.

With the exception of Star Trek, good science-based fiction does not exist anymore, at least, not like it used to. We have fantasy parading as science fiction, dressed up in space suits, pushing faster-than-light drives and toting laser pistols and other futuristic equipment. All you have to know is that it works; authors no longer need to explain how.

It seems to me that is where the real challenge is for the science fiction writer. Creating a situation within the laws of nature (perhaps slightly bent), logistically following through with the idea, and crafting an interesting, believeable story.

I think most modern science fiction is categorized incorrectly. It has very little to do with science, and very much to do with fantasy and its rudiments.

The problem most likely lies in, like Asimov said, most authors’ unfamiliarity with science and the laws of nature. The formula is already there for space opera or post apocalyptica, one only needs to read and regurgitate. Which, by the way, is how fiction works, and should be a natural part of the writer’s process, as it lies beyond his or her hands to block out all influences, but the themes and technology of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in particular are almost replicated, even by respected authors like Terry Brooks and Timothy Zahn (who seems to write only Star Wars fiction nowadays; it’s easier and probably pays better).

It seems like one of the few science fiction writers monitoring modern science for inspiration is Michael Crichton, especially in his perennial fan fave, Jurassic Park. But Crichton is also a paranoid Bush-hugger and a baseless climate change denier (epitomized by State of Fear). His stories typically have a simplistic singular embodiment of Dr. Faust (like Hammond in JP), we cross the moral boundary (for no other reason than arrogance) and are punished for our greed (because the power goes out on their cages? Give me a break). His ideas are neat, but his philosophy sucks.

Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Anansi Boys, as well as creator of the Sandman graphic novel series is another mystery to me. I don’t understand how the guy became popular outside of the comic industry. He is a terrible novel writer: Monotonous, plodding, uninspired and trite—and yet he gets rave reviews for his mediocrity. Gaiman obviously identifies with the Hot Topic folks; his characters are twelve-year-old girls (who wear black) or foul-mouthed outsiders (who wear black) or one-eyed gods (who wear, what else, black). Whereas Crichton, even with all of his hang-ups and inaccuracies should still be topically categorized with science fiction, Gaiman is considered science fiction without any semblance of science incorporated into his work.

I’m calling for a change in categorization, I suppose, if for no other reason than clarifying which stories are actually science based and which are fantasy for my own personal use. I’m tired of endlessly searching the tangle of the bookstore science fiction shelf for something decent to read. There needs to be a distinction for the readers and the writers of true science fiction, especially since the shelves have become needlessly crowded with manga as well.

I imagine that the actual number of science fiction novels (as I have defined them) available is relatively small, but I’d be willing to bet that I’m not the only reader of science fiction who feels the same frustrations.


  1. Gaiman is probably better understood as a "dark fantasy" author, a subgenre of speculative fiction that usually has more contemporary setting than most fantasy, a strong mythological component, and overtones of horror.

    "American Gods" tended to plod, but once I got into it I enjoyed it
    immensely. "Anansi Boys" remains one of my favorite recent reads, and it seemed much more mature than his other novels (which are a bit hot topic).

    If you're looking for plodding and trite, try Robert Jordan.

    I think there are certain classes of novel that are hard to enjoy
    unless you can empathize enough with the world view; Gaimen's work
    probably qualifies. I'm not sure what his religious beliefs are, but
    Anansi Boys and American Gods speak pretty strongly to the modern
    pagan world view.

  2. Nice post. :-) I've been there before.

    I agree with you (not surprisingly) about Gaiman. I sincerely hope that Gaiman steps up to the plate and fully realizes that he will never be Ray Bradbury; he lacks the man's elegance. I do think there is a decent novel writer in Gaiman somewhere, but he needs to drop the act.

  3. Well, some of the current SF writters know and utilize science well, e.g., Greg Bear, David Brin, Joan Slonczevsky and John Kessell.

  4. Bear's stuff does seem promising. I'll have to check out the other authors you listed.

  5. David brin has written some really good stuff and kim stanly robinson. also get a subscription to analog. it has pretty decent hard sci-fi.

  6. Cambias5:02 PM

    I think you're missing some good, and very rigorous, SF writers. Greg Egan, Alistair Reynolds, Charles Stross, and Will McCarthy all "play with the net up" as Greg Benford puts it. Geoffrey Landis doesn't just write about science, he designs space probes for NASA. These are just what I can think of off the top of my head -- I'm sure there are others.

    Jim Cambias

  7. Thanks for the suggestions, Jim! I was hoping that by making a generalization I might draw out some recommendations.

    When you ask for suggestions, you generally don't get any.

    I would still like to see a categorization change among booksellers.