Thursday 4 October 2012

Exhaust gases

As I mentioned in the previous post, the critic Paul Kincaid has recently ignited a debate about the perceived state of exhaustion of science fiction. It's worth reading PK's original review, and the subsequent interview relating to it, and worth also taking a look at Jonathan McCalmont's lengthy (and broadly supportive) response. PK confines his focus to short fiction - indeed, he does not appear to regard novel length SF to be suffering from quite such a serious malaise - but JM's complaints are more wide ranging, and significantly more lacerating in tone. Both commentators, though, are in agreement on the main points. Literary SF has reached a state of creative crisis, due to a number of factors. I won't reiterate the main arguments since they are made clearly enough by both authors, and you can easily find some surrounding commentary from other parties.

As someone intimately involved in the production of written SF here in the second decade of the twenty first century, I obviously have some stake in the continued vitality of the form. PK is careful to note that he is not predicting the death of SF, but instead noting a sense that SF has become insular, self-referential, disengaged from the present. It has stopped saying anything useful about the world. It is ceasing to innovate from within itself, ceasing to explore the possibilities of what it could be, rather than what it already is. Tropes are being recycled, games of recognition and irony are being played against the knowing reader. People are writing SF about SF. Writers have stopped having confidence in their own creations. Everything feels a bit thin and under-imagined. Too much SF consists of moving around bits of science fictional furniture, with nothing deeper going on under the surface. There is an absence of intellectual rigour.

Clearly, I don't feel that SF is mined-out. Perhaps it isn't a terribly good idea to read lots of SF in one go, any more than you'd want to listen to lots and lots of blues or jazz in one continuous stream. I don't consume art that way, and in fact never have. I've hardly ever read an anthology cover to cover, much less three in one go. Sometimes it's good to get away from things. These days, in fact, SF constitutes only a very small element of my reading, and on the occasions when I do read it, I'm invariably excited and enthused by the experience. But there's more to PK's complaints than simple reader fatigue. As it happens, I have quite a bit of sympathy for some of his criticisms.

When I aspired to become a science fiction writer, that's all I wanted to be. I didn't want to be a hard SF writer or a new space opera writer, just an SF writer. My heroes were Clarke, Asimov, Philip K Dick, James Blish, James White, Harry Harrison. Later, I discovered Haldeman, Pohl, Niven, James Tipree Jr and others. Later still, Ballard, Harrison, Priest - and through Interzone, a whole slew of new writers such as William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Gwyneth Jones, Geoff Ryman and others. Gene Wolfe took the top of my head off in the Book of the New Sun. Kim Stanley Robinson blew what was left of my mind with Icehenge and the Memory of Whiteness. And yet, I'd very nearly turned away from SF completely. Shortly before leaving school for university, I'd written a mainstream short story which won a prize - the first payment I received for any piece of fiction, in fact, and the first story of mine to be reprinted in something resembling a professional publication. Later, via one of my teachers, I learned that someone had commented that the story reminded them of Malcolm Bradbury. Suitably encouraged, I went off and read Bradbury, and then David Lodge, and that was the gateway to a far wider world of literature which - I'll readily admit - I had not hitherto explored to any great degree. Around the same time, I also encountered an issue of Analog SF which seemed to me to contain some of the worst fiction I'd ever read. Interzone, at least, seemed to have been written for grown-ups by grown-ups - most of the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I'm sure that my assessment of Analog was overly harsh but at the time it seemed rather childish and frivolous, not really about anything except the recycling of tired old ideas.

That reaction, for me, encapsulates something fairly central to my subsequent relationship with SF. I don't care for a lot of it. Never have done, never will. But at the same time, I doubt that I'd feel much inclination to write it if it were not for that generative friction, that grit in the oyster. There are two impulses at work when I produce SF - a sense that no one else is doing it exactly the way it should be done, and an acute desire to write it as well as it is written by the writers I most admire, whoever they might be at the moment. Ask me now: David Mitchell, perhaps. If I was truly happy with the state of SF, in other words, I suspect I'd feel very little incentive to write it. When I wrote Revelation Space, for instance, I perceived a massive, book-shaped hole where one ought to be - a book that was true to Einstein, true to our view of the limits of life and intelligence in the universe, true to our understanding of our own evolution, and yet which was also faintly Medieval, and rather ornately gothic, a sort of dark mash-up of the Name of the Rose and Ringworld. I failed, obviously, but that was the impulse - and in the end it produced something quite different from the objective. I'd be delighted if Revelation Space proved sufficiently irritating and wrong to another writer that it served as their generative grit. Pushing Ice, a more recent novel of mine, was written out of a sense of annoyance with the way so much SF cooked the books when it came to speculation about alien intelligence and galactic evolutionary timescales. House of Suns, more recently still, was written out of a conviction that it was possible to create a novel that felt galactic in scope, and yet which was still strongly constrained by the real physics of causality. My most recent novel, Blue Remembered Earth, was written to full another book-shaped hole - a perception (rightly or wrongly) that nobody was doing a mid-term, spacefaring future in quite the way I wanted it to be done. I am very happy to be told that I failed at all of these things, but these were the impulses.

What I am trying - and perhaps failing - to articulate here is that for me, I do not think I could write SF if I were not disenchanted with large areas of the field. Those areas of disenchantment are precisely the interesting interfaces where I can begin to feel my imagination doing useful work. So in that sense if I would be a bit worried if everything was all right with SF. I don't think it is - but then, I don't think it ever has been. Rather than perceiving a particular crisis affecting SF now, I see the field as being in a constant state of stagnation and renewal, constantly exhausting itself, constantly hitting new seams. This is not to disagree with much of what PK has to say. I find that far too much SF has nothing to say beyond its own echo-chamber of cleverness. I do find that a great deal of modern SF has totally abdicated any engagement with the present, and has more or less given up on the future completely.

I am not ready to surrender. The future still seems to me to be a profoundly interesting thing to think about. I am not intimidated by that at all, any more than I am intimidated by fears that the world is now changing too quickly to be modelled by SF. I am of the strong conviction that, contrary to perceived wisdom, science fiction really can say cogent things about the future, as well as the present, or at least speak to the human condition of living there. We're doing that already, how does it feel? Pretty weird, actually. How much weirder will it feel tomorrow, or the year after next? Sorry, but I can't stop thinking about this stuff - it's what gets me out of bed. SF can't predict the future, transparently, but there is nothing to prevent it from deploying interesting thought experiments. As I've said elsewhere, one way of thinking about SF is a tool for mapping the space of possible futures - probing the parameter space. That, to me, is intensely exciting. But SF is the ultimate literary Swiss Army knife, it doesn't have to do just one thing - nor should it.

And now I'm off to write some.


  1. Perhaps the "traditional channels" of SF are a bit clogged, but from this reader's perspective there still seems to be more great new stuff out there than I have time to read. And if you look at some of the stuff that's either just come out or coming out (Yourself, Paul McCauley, Iain M Banks, Hannu Rajanimi, Gary Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, David Brin ... (and many others I haven't mentioned)) it's not as though we are in some sort of drought.

  2. In anything as successful and as necessary as SciFi, there will be the truly creative and then there will be those jumping on after their particular train has long since left. I consider Fantasy fiction to be in the latter case incidentally. There remains a need and there remains those willing to go there ... and there always will. DRD.

  3. Great post, and thanks for helping give my interview with Paul the attention his epic answers deserve.

    I like the framing of disenchantment as motivation. I think that's how it should be, and when things have gotten overly institutionalized, it's the only way--really--to force a paradigm shift.

  4. Here in the US, the bookshelves are crammed with wizards, zombies, vampires, and military or cyber SF. Very little "humans-in-space" exploratory works, as if those tales have all been told (I do not believe we've even come close to telling those tales, and am grateful for authors like you who keep taking us back out there). Do you think this could be related to NASA and other agencies scaling back astronaut programs, and going for robotic research instead? Is this muting the dream?

  5. Yay on David Mitchell (and I can't wait for the Cloud Atlas movie).

    To the point(s):

    1) I most certainly understand the urge -- after reading something that disappoints -- of "I can do better than that". Or "I can approach that from a more original angle".

    2) But doing that in a field where the *average* result is not really quite good -- as many voices now seem to be saying -- is not much of an achievement, right?

    3) So wouldn't excelling in a field where the competition level is considerably higher be more rewarding and satisfactory? Roughly speaking, a football analogy: it's quite nice and fine to be champions in, say, the Gwent County League, but it's quite another thing to beat Barcelona F.C.

    Just a thought.

    Having said that, of course we should not be afraid of the (near) future, nor afraid of writing about that. But you already knew that...;-)

  6. Hello, Mr.Reynolds,

    Excellent article !
    I'm Cristian Tamas from the Romanian Science Fiction&Fantasy Society (, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of both genres.
    I'm kindly asking you to allow me to translate into romanian and to post on our site your articles "Exhaust Gases" and "On Mediocrity". Of course, you'll be credited as author, we'll mention your permission and insert a link twowards the original materials.
    Thank you.

  7. Certainly, Cristian - my pleasure.

    1. Thank you very much, Mr.Reynolds ! I will let you know when the two materials will be posted.
      Kind regards,

  8. Excellent piece of article..Really liked it..