The Curse of Science Fiction

Media, Observatory, Reading & Writing

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Some friends of mine recently restarted Michael Moorcock’s classic SF magazine ‘New Worlds’ as an online subscription mag, and encountered the usual prejudices that seem to bedevil SF literature. They commissioned work from a number of authors (including, rather bravely I thought, me, with a new story called ‘OFF’) but are struggling to hit the target figures which will allow them to continue. Small independents have little clout against the might of the soft SF juggernaut (read ‘kiddie-friendly films) from Hollywood. You can however get each issue for a few pence here.

While many would regard SF as having its golden era in the 1960s and 1970s, there’s a ton of terrific SF being written today, but it’s fighting to find audiences who prefer to watch their SF in watered-down formats on TV and in films.

But literary SF remains the motherlode – a place where ideas can be richly expounded and a sense of galaxy-spanning otherness created. As a child I loathed ‘Star Trek’, which simply felt like a retread of old SF concepts, mashed down to a juvenile level wherein the villains ¬†largely appear in a version of blackface and speak in absurd cod-Elizabethan declamatory prose. I don’t feel much different about TV SF now. Friends raved about ‘Battlestar Galactica’ but to me it felt like one idea – the old chestnut about the difference between fallible humans and ‘inhuman’ aliens – endlessly reworked.

Instead I grew up with the incredible outburst of paperback SF that appeared then, including Alfred Bester, JG Ballard, Arthur C Clarke, Brian Aldiss, Joe Haldeman, Ursula LeGuin and a hundred other wonderful writers who seemed something more treasurable than watching Californians in lycra self-consciously discussing big themes with forehead-people.

Iain Banks was one writer who bucked the UK decline by carefully drawing across his more mainstream readers into his other persona. But generally publishers don’t help readers by presenting SF as a closed world which has distinct demographic walls around it. I’ve always favoured the subversive approach of packaging good SF to look like mainstream speculative fiction – instead we usually get the restrictive images of spaceships and distant worlds, which suggests a lack of humanity – why not faces, as in other genres? ‘New Worlds’ and ‘Interzone’ are among the few not automatically using these tropes. Crime novels suffer from it too, endlessly using fences, moorlands and jetties – I’m one of the few authors at work who insists on putting my detectives on the cover.

Interzone magazine features around six stories an issue, along with some of the most perceptive reviews of SF books, films and media that I’ve ever read. They also monitor national press disdain for SF very amusingly, noting that the press feel now climate change is known to be happening, it should no longer be written off as mere SF. You can subscribe here. I think if you were keen to encourage new writing right now, though, ‘New Worlds’ would be worthy of your small change.

6 comments on “The Curse of Science Fiction”

  1. Ken Murray says:

    By a strange coincidence I recently picked up a few ScI-fi novels on a recent troll through the local book fairs. I hadn’t read anything in the genre for hears although, like you I grew up reading the likes of Arthur.C. Clarke and JG Ballard. Yet it seemed now the time was right for a revisit? I think I’ll try Beyond The Fall of Night by Clarke then maybe something by Steven Donaldson.

    Interestingly as part of my recent haul I picked up two volumes of a hardback collection called: Great Cases Of Scotland Yard (introduction by Eric Ambler). Which details a number of famous and obscure old cases, complete with old photos and photos. Very Mr. Bryant!

  2. John says:

    My problem with a lot of the older science fiction is that it’s just not readable today. Too much has a happened in the 21st century that was never imagined by most writers who made their living inventing altered futures. The inventions they did dream up are laughable and their presence only serves to take you out of a story that is supposed to offer a brilliantly envisioned brave new world. Too few writers saw the importance of electronics and computers and how those would alter the way people interact with one another. All the emphasis was on exactly what you mention above — what I like to call “Klaatu barada nikto malarkey”. Perfect example of the failed altered future: all those videophones in science fiction stories. Everyone thought TV and telephones would merge. We may have Skype but what’s more popular — sending typed messages on a device meant for talking. Who would ever of thought of that? It’s a counterintuitive concept and texting mania still puzzles me. THE NAKED SUN is an excellent example of how science fiction can be truly prophetic. Asimov’s Solarians in that book are not far removed from what we have become in our present day techno-mad world. Bester, too, was an orignal. THE DEMOLISHED MAN is completely unique, a ground breaking book in the genre.

  3. J. Folgard says:

    Great point about the absence of characters on covers. Recently though, I received my copy of Adam Roberts’ ‘Jack Glass’, and I think the publisher & the designer did a wondeful job, producing an eye-catching and distinctive cover that’s a real showcase for the story inside.
    Solaris Books rekindled my love for SF almost single-handedly, thanks to their nice, attractive anthologies: Jonathan Oliver, Jonathan Strahan, Ian Whates and the writers they assemble in these anthologies have reminded me that you can mix big ideas with genuine character moments.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    “altered futures”? altered from what? I like the phrase since it matches with “altered history” but still…. It depends on which authors you read as to whether they’re readable today. The stories which fixated on technology are exactly as you say, laughable today because we solved problems in a different order than they thought we would, but authors like Clark and Asimov (the best and second best science and science fiction writers in the world according to them)(It was a joke dedication)who were more concerned about how people would react to a different set of circumstances are most definitely still readable.

  5. Janet Wilson says:

    I think the unreadable old SF is mostly that which is set in the ‘cities of the future’. Technology changes, the infrastructure largely stays the same, or changes much more slowly. And does human nature change with new technology..?

  6. Ken Murray says:

    Oh one other problem I’ve noticed about trying to get back into reading Sci-fi, is that a lot of current books seem to sequels or part of a long running sequence. Is it that authors prefer to mine a winning formula or just a trend for extended story arcs? Either way it makes it a tougher genre to dip into.

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