Sunday, July 08, 2007

Oh Noes! Intarnets Killed the SF Star!

I've heard a lot of references to the "science fiction is dying" debate. I've never really spotted evidence of it in the wild, on my own, devoid of anyone linking to some blowhard's blog. But folks talked about it so much within the genre itself, I felt sure that it had to exist. And lo, five years after my self-indoctrination into the field of science fiction, I have spotted my first specimen. In the August issue of Discover Magazine, no less.

Excuse me while I commence with the present tense, to make this read more as if I'm hosting some wild safari show.

I'm caught by the "title" of the article, which reads more like a quote from the piece itself:

At a gathering of potential Jules Vernes and H.G. Welses, one wonders if science fiction is losing its predictive power as reality becomes increasingly fantastic.

Blimey! It's presenting! It's doing the mating dance of "Science Fiction is Dead" right before my eyes, telling me science fiction can't function because reality is too much like science fiction. Where's my camera? It's like spotting Big Foot!

I catch a whiff that something may not be quite as remarkable as it seems, though, as the article continues its multicolored "do me now" extravaganza.

...this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement.

I turn away from the specimen so as to snort laugh into my sleeve. Never did I think that, upon my first sighting of SFID, I would also see the equally remarked upon from within but rarely seen from without phenomenon of "SFWA Represents Genre Writers to the World." Forget the camera, I want a chair, a beer, and some popcorn. This dance could take a while, and there's not a chance of the specimen seeing anything beyond itself.

The lack of couch potato comforts is doubly-felt as the ritual continues.

Fiction is a job for people with Big Ideas, not a flair for small talk...they're generally too concerned with topics like the human condition and the fate of the world to worry about their appearance.

Great Tropes of Eternity! He's invoked the sacred act of "Writers are Unsocial, Unkempt, and Smell Bad" before even finishing the first third of the first segment of the dance. Ladies and Gentleman, I am truly witnessing something amazing here. I only regret that I had to experience this alone. No one will believe what I've seen.

OK, I have to stop there, or else this is going to take too long, and I'm going to open myself up to copyright violation problems from quoting too damn much of the article. As I said above, it's in the August 2007 issue of Discover. It's the "Blinded by Science" departmental piece by Bruno Maddox on pages 28-30, and it's truly a wonder of journalistic accomplishment.

All my "Crikey" kidding aside, this article does sum up just about all the things I've heard folks within SF as a genre bemoaning. Plus it ups the ante by saying that it's not just SF that's in trouble, it's all fiction in general. It's those pesky Intartubey thingies that's ruining it for everyone while simultaneously letting anyone be a person of Big Ideas, if only for the moment it takes to push "Publish" in their blogging software. (Crikey! That's a steaming pile of irony, folks! Let's just step carefully around it.)

The one very interesting thing about the piece that gives me food for future research is that Maddox attributes the demarcation between "hard" SF and "soft" SF to various spats between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. I hadn't heard that before. In fact, I had heard (from a female professor, I believe) that "soft" SF was a term coined when all those silly wimmin began writing SF that focused on silly things like biology and the like. (By the way, Maddox's discussion of SF is completely male-centric, right down to the "shirtless bodybuilders with Thor hairstyles" featured on the "brightly colored works" glutting the SF section. What bookstore is he frequenting, and can he give me directions from Phoenix?) However, this one interesting morsel that distinguished "hard" and "soft" as dealing primarily with the gee-whiz science vs dealing primarily with the social impact of the science was not enough to salvage the entire piece.

I loves me some drama, as my mother will tell you, but even I couldn't help but snicker at the realization that Maddox was at the friggin Nebula Awards (not the actual ceremony, but lounging at what sounds like the SFWA version of a Con Suite), generalizing for the genre because a bunch of old men are picking at fresh from the can bean dip and acting as if they're avoiding the big elephant in the room (which is, of course, the death of SF). Maddox is upset because he hasn't stumbled into anyone doing that costume thang or the other tried author-in-public trope of putting on a jacket and using a pipe to punctuate statements in some frenzied debate. But that's not really what he's missing. He's missing that sense of energy that he thinks should be suffused in any gathering of potential future SF greats. Maybe the Good Ol' Boys were tired after all that Election Debate Frenzy. Or perhaps they were still recovering from their Internationl-Pixel-stained-Technopeasant-Wretch-Day-induced heart attacks.

Yes, not a paragraph after zinging the room for being naturally taciturn and unsocial, he berates the congregation further by grading their effervescence. All while saying that SFWA = the past, present, and future of SF (won't SFWA be proud), and that SF is dead and we all know it. This is before the first section break.

Then it's the bit about Wells and Verne and hard and soft, and past SF influences. And it's all pretty good reading until it goes right back to SFWA Nebula Con Suite cruisers = SF Golden Days heirs. And from there, on to the whining about those lurid fantasy covers taking up all the damn shelfspace.

As if I couldn't be amused enough, though, Maddox goes on to toll the virtues of Michael Crichton's pre-Timeline work, citing Andromeda Strain as the pop culture reference du jour of the media whenever, get this, "some mysterious virus escapes from a lab." (Dude, if I had a nickel for everytime those pesky labs are releasing their Frankensteinian concoctions into the world and the media gets all Andromeda Strain about it. (Actually, wouldn't the more relevant pop culture reference be Hot Zone? Or perhaps Outbreak?)) Then Maddox regains some of my interest by lambasting Crichton for both Timeline and Prey, and that warms my heart, it does.

But wait! Crichton's nose dive into the realm of badfic--even though Maddox himself in this article admits that the man writes techno-thrillers, not SF (though he labels that as a petty distinction suited for purists, mostly for the purposes of his argument, which I realized as I read on)--must be indicative of a trend for all "serious science fictionists." No supporting evidence there. Must be, again, that bookstore with the choice manflesh on the covers.

The reasons for the crappy SF are two-fold. First one up to the plate: The Evil Internets as Destroyer of All Fiction as a relevant "delivery system for big ideas." (So why was he in that bookstore, and why are they so dreadfully jam-packed with male nipples?) Afterall, why slave away at a book for several years (Jiminy Crickets! We're beyond a stereotype trifecta here, folks! He's going for the world record!) when you can just crank out a quickie post that says the same thing and not even worry about those silly typos?

Second reason SF is crap/dying (yes, did you catch when he equated the two phenomenon): The iPhone! Apparently Maddox is so gobsmacked by Steve Jobs that he can't possibly imagine how much further science and technology can go. I'm reminded of a conversation I had as a grad school applicant with an entrenched professor at CU. I had barely shook the man's hand and turned to settle into my chair in his office when he loudly proclaimed that there wasn't anything left to discover in science. I think I actually laughed to his face rather than turning to snort laugh into my sleeve (so naive I was, then). It's this sort of thinking that ultimately got me out of grad school and into writing SF. In SF I can take the foundation of scientific knowledge I spent six years gathering, build on it, dream it out bigger than it can be right now, and go nuts. I mean, the implications of mapping the human genome alone are astounding (both in the hard, gee-whiz sense and in the soft, social implications sense; and, no, it hasn't all been done any more than any idea in fiction as already been done).

As I finish up the article, I'm already laughing at Maddox for not unterstanding his research subject beyond the surface and tropes. But I'm somewhat perplexed how his little piece actually adds up to a discussion of why SF is dying or how the Internet and iPhone-like technological advances are kicking the ailing corpse into the grave. Then I read that SF writers should take heart! (And he tells me to do so in tongue-in-cheek fashion, admonishing himself for snarking on the SFWA Smelly Ol' Geeky Geezers Club. Surely I should be listening to him now!) Rather than let SF die, society should go into the bookstores and:

Let everything but the truth be "Fantasy," I say, and let the truth--the searing, unmanageable, discombobulating truth of the lives we have invented for ourselves in a world it took artists to imagine--be Science Fiction.

"Fantasy is for escapist losers" for the win! So the entire article is revealed to be nothing more than sour grapes over all those shiny topless hunks wielding swords against dragons. He has completely convinced me of his argument.

Science Fiction is Dead! Long live Science Fiction!

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