A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On the Disappearance of Science Fiction

Kirkus Reviews has revealed the Best SF of 2010.  I am sure that all the books they list are very good, but I was interested to note the virtual absence of SF from the list.  As near as I can tell only two of the fifteen books are SFnal, and there is something very borderline about the last one. 

How much of this is due to the collapse of the Modern Ages?  Recall that the modern ages were bourgeois, industrial, and scientific, and it is no surprise that a type of fiction developed that featured imaginable technological innovation as a key background element.  In early genre fiction, it even comprised the foreground! 
But with the post-modern shift of emphasis

  • from matter to form,
  • from logos to icon,
  • from reading to seeing
and the demonizing of science and technology as patriarchal, polluting, and oppressive, the future is less clear.  In my own youth, children played with chemistry sets, electric workbenches; we built things with erector sets and set up telescopes in the back yard.  There had been, just a little earlier, no embarrassment in reading magazines with titles like Astounding!  Amazing!  Galaxy! or Thrilling Wonder!  But we are now well into a time when the youth is more likely to say "Whatever..." than "Amazing!" 

It was around the 1950s, historian John Lukacs noted in Outgrowing Democracy, that the circulation of Psychology Today exceeded that of Popular Mechanics, something that would have astounded(!) folks from the early 1900s.  Thereafter, the psychology of a story became steadily more important than the mechanics or gadgets.  That's certainly not all bad.  Stories are better written -- but the speculative science or technology has dimmed.  Partly that is because newer writers don't know enough about science to write well about it.  Hence, more and more fantasy.  Fewer writers are physicists or chemists and more are lit-majors and critics.  The form of writing has improved even as the matter has not. 

This is in line with that other change of the 1950s: the replacement of "I think that...." with "I feel that...."


  1. "This is in line with that other change of the 1950s: the replacement of "I think that...." with "I feel that....""

    Though not even born until 1957, I'm a hold-out on that.

  2. ... a corresponding shift (possibly related) is the use of "I think that ..." to mean "I'm guessing that ..."

  3. Possible turning point: I was really, really excited to get a chemistry set in about '92.

    It had no chemistry involved in it. Not even so much as the reaction of baking soda and vinegar.

    I could scratch rocks and coins to figure out their relative hardness, look at things under a zero-shard-chance microscope (my mom's ancient magnifying glass had better resolution for the job of "look at one of your hairs"), and there was PH paper. Also a small collection of rocks that was dwarfed both in interesting characteristics and geographic breadth by the amateur collection my grandfather built into the family fireplace. If it wasn't for my folks pulling out their old schoolbooks and having INTERESTING stuff to try out, I'd probably have been cured of any interest in science, let alone sci fi. Oh, I almost forgot, there were goggles you were supposed to wear. Because scratching a penny with a paper clip could put an eye out.

    I've SEEN the science kit my dad and his brothers had as children-- it had as lovely a collection of stoppered vials with various chemical salts as you could wish, a dozen types of metal, several tweezers, several measuring spoon things and a small but respectable microscope. No goggles, but there may have actually been some reason to WEAR them.

    If that's what the folks who wrote the classic sort of sci-fi that I've enjoyed (even when it's incredibly philosophically different from my own!) then it's no wonder not much of it is around any more.

    How can you write about sharp edges when not only are there none around you, but even the smoothed curves are wrapped in foam padding?

  4. Good point, Foxfier. I'd blame the damned lawyers (and the asses who hired them).

  5. Actually, most of the characters in today's books are extremely alien and difficult to believe. Especially the people portrayed as being ordinary New Yorkers and Californians.

    Even romance novels are getting like that, which is pretty much the end of the world. (Okay, romance always includes some lack of realism, but the romanticism was always comprehensible even when it was reprehensible. Now I don't get it at all.)

  6. Foxfier, I point this out to my chemistry students. Wired Science has a video about it, and there are several books out (the last is a bit old) that provide guidance in building your own chemistry set.

  7. NAWC-
    Thank you! I'm going to add that company to my interesting links side bar and re-post that video-- I KNOW there are other geeks who want that!


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