The Trouble With Science Fiction

Over the years, I’ve been developing an aversion to modern science fiction — both literary and cinematic. So, in the true spirit of blogging, I thought I’d share some of my complaints and suggestions with the world that is the Internet. Here goes.

My chief complaint is that science fiction these days is all too frequently just about the science, never the fiction. In fact, a great deal of it reads like a lengthy, flowery technical manual, or like something written by a futurist. Nowadays, very little time is taken in character development or plot structuring. This problem plagues sci-fi movies with an especial severity. Now, many will no doubt protest that the “sci” is what sci-fi is all about, but I beg to differ. To me, it seems  that sci-fi should only ever be deployed as a tool to allow the telling of stories that aren’t possible in other genres. For example, there are few genres that can so eloquently explore the ramifications of mankind’s creations the way AI-centric sci-fi does. Interspecies tolerance — or lack thereof — speaks potently about our own tolerances and intolerances of each other, in a way that is frequently more poignant and direct than the literarily bogged-down novels of the past.

There is of course a much more serious problem with modern science fiction, and that is that it all seems to be written or filmed by a bunch of pimply adolescent technophiles with about the same amount of imagination as the average armadillo. Most science fiction novels — at least those by the “up and coming” writers — seem to be getting uncomfortably close to the gauzy rococo fantasies explored in the fantasy genre and Japnese anime (I must take a moment to warn my readers, I am terribly un-fond of anime. I think that it’s a bloated, stereotyped medium that Westernizes more sloppily than almost any other Japanese format). While I have no problem per se with either of these, I think that they tend to make the work clichéd and uninteresting. After all, how many angsty twentysomething protagonists with blue hair do we really need?

And as for the lack of imagination, if imagination were oxygen, then somewhere in the world would be a huge pile of asphyxiated sci-fi writers. About seventy-five percent of them would be screenwriters. It seems to me that there are about five science-fiction plots out there, and that whenever a young writer wants to get into the business, they simply pick one, add on some extra bits, throw in some filler, and call it a day. Now, this may indeed be the way that most novels are written — after all, there is only a finite number of plots out there, they’re bound to get re-used eventually — but the problem with that is that science fiction is a very dense pocket of literature, and any excess overlap brings it dangerously close to homogenity. What happened to the Arthur C. Clarkes, the Charles Strosses, the Isaac Asimovs, and the Phillip K. Dickses (Yes, Dickses. I am going out of my way to avoid being juvenile here, give me a break.)? What happened to the ebullient, enterprising spirit that made sci-fi great? After all, as I said before, science fiction is merely a stepladder to reach the previously-inaccessible reaches of literature. What happened to the galaxy-spanning civilizations, the beings composed of ions and magnetic fields, the self-made destructions of civilizations, and the kind of remarkable creativity of a story like Asimov’s “The Nine Billion Names of God”?

Here are my suggestions to my fellow writers of science fiction, in my standard, convenient, lazy, bulleted format:

  • Don’t be afraid to step outside of humanity. What science fiction really needs right now is somebody with the talent to make readers feel connected to a character of an entirely different species. Anyone who can do that — or has done that — with any elegance can have my pocket protector.
  • Don’t rely on archetypes and stereotypes. If your writing has become the standard test-of-the-hero’s-mettle stuff, then smack yourself in the face with your manuscript.
  • Only use sci-fi where it is truly needed. Some stories can be told much more elegantly within the confines of a far less exotic genre. Imagine if John Steinbeck had been born a generation later, and had tried to express the beautiful themes of Of Mice and Men as a space opera. The mind recoils.
  • Don’t, I repeat, don’t be a slave to the genre. Sci-fi does not necessarily need pitched space battles, homogenous gray-skinned aliens, and advanced weapons to be great. Isaac Asimov did it without aliens altogether. Arthur C. Clarke went beyond the whole “Take us to your leader” thing. And Charles Stross went — and is going — beyond the idea of humanoids as the only viable kinds of aliens. And none of the previous needed any kind of blinky, flashing lights or space battles to do what they did. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, don’t write anything that resembles any science fiction movie produced in the last thirty years.

Those are my thoughts. Enjoy.


6 Responses to “The Trouble With Science Fiction”

  1. Torbjørn Says:

    Do you feel that you have a great knowledge/overview of current science fiction writers/writings? Who are these unimaginative writers you’re talking about?

    In any genre you will have bad writers and bad stories, but there surely are a lot at the other end of the spectrum as well.

    It’s also quite funny that you compare Stross to Asimov and Clarke, when Stross surely is as current as you get. What happened to the Charles Strosses? They are right there!

    Some modern science fiction writers I enjoy in addition to Stross.., feel free to tell me what you think about them:
    * Peter Watts (quite scientific, but also very original)
    * Alastair Reynolds (some rehashing, but also mind bending)
    * John C. Wright
    * Ian Watson (he’s still around, have you read Mockymen?)
    * M. John Harrison (still going strong)
    * Richard Morgan (great thrillers with strong character development)

    Personally I also enjoy Peter F. Hamilton, but he might actually fit your group of genre slaves. But what about Vernor Vinge.., to old?

  2. Torbjørn Says:

    PS: Theodore Sturgeon said (Sturgeon’s Law) that “90% of science fiction is garbage” and then clarified that “90% of everything is garbage.”

  3. asymptote Says:

    In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was more of a general impression based on scant “research” on my part. I am not nearly as well-read in this “genre” as I’d like to be. Still, with that in mind:

    While I very much appreciate your comment, I fear you may have missed my point — which is in all likelihood my fault, not yours, since I seem to have a talent for making my points easy to miss. I am aware that there are still some great science fiction writers out there — how could there not be, in a “genre” with such a rich history? — but that wasn’t the real purpose of this post. The real purpose (and I apologize if I’m sounding defensive here, but I’m simply hoping to clarify my point, especially for those who might read my words and come to the same conclusion: that I don’t think there’s any good science fiction out there), was to serve as a cautionary tale. The post wasn’t so much a condemnation of one particular author or group of authors, but as a warning against a trend that I’ve observed. It simply seems to me (and I’m known for being a cynic, so I may be wrong on this account), that the balance of science fiction is drifting dangerously above Sturgeon’s 90% ratio.

    All I really meant to do was to encourage neophyte authors of science fiction, and also to put in my two cents on the topic.

    In the end though, you’re absolutely right: If I’m going to write something that sounds like I’m trying to prove a point, I’d better have something to back that point up. But as I said — and used so many words to say above — this was more of a general impression than a reasoned argument.

    Thanks, anyway, for your comment! I keep hearing Alistair Reynolds’s name, and I intend to read him as soon as I get the opportunity.

  4. Blue Tyson Says:

    If you are going to complain about SF being mostly about the science, etc., then using Asimov as one of your paragons of when things ‘used to be good’ is a really bad idea, as he is the famous archetype of what you started to complain about.

    I haven’t noticed any movies that are really full of science, either.

    Basically what you have written here contradicts itself multiple times, so it is no surprise that someone misses your point.

    Otherwise, as the previous poster points out, you are stuck somewhere in 1969, Stross aside.

    Go have a look at the LibraryThing suggester, for example.

  5. asymptote Says:

    That’s fair enough, I suppose. That’s the reason I never re-write things (I’d started this post once, but then, for one reason or another, ended up having to re-write it), because I tend to lose track of my main points anyway.

  6. “Extreme Science Fiction” « The Life of a Math Major Says:

    […] June 20, 2008 — asymptote Last December, I wrote a poorly-argued post about the trouble with modern science fiction. Almost immediately, someone viciously cut me down, and I put up a rather pathetic defense against […]

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