Tuesday 4 December 2012

A compass

Paul Kincaid has concluded his series of articles on the state of SF with this piece which I recommend you to read if you have not done so; I think it provides a good encapsulation of his main grievances. This has been a useful discussion, I think, conducted without too much rancor.

I've been thinking a lot of PK's points, and the discourse surrounding them, and how they might factor into the kind of SF I want to keep writing. I'd hesitate to call the following a manifesto, but at the very least it might serve as a kind of personal compass, to keep my writing heading in what I hope is a fruitful direction.

  • Avoid recursion. I'll be doing my best not to be too encumbered by what has gone before. Most of us are in this game because at some point we connected with SF on a deep emotional level. We love SF, we know its history well. We can tell our Kornbluths from our Cordwainers. That fondness has never left me, and I hope some of that comes through in my writing. That said, there's always a danger that it can shade too strongly into nostalgia or a kind of stale recycling of familiar imagery and tropes. For instance, I love the work of Arthur C Clarke and when I think about the deep future, about the limits of human potential, it's very hard for me not to connect with the version of myself sitting in a caravan in the Lake District during one spectacularly rainy summer holiday, gobbling up the pages of The City and the Stars and being possibly more mesmerised and awestruck by the vistas of Diaspar and the adventures of Alvin than any human being at any point in history. Quite a lot of my work, especially the far future stuff, is me attempting to hit some of the same notes - while at the same time having the benefit of another fifty years of scientific and social advancement through which to filter my ideas. But really, it's a kind of nostalgia trip, and if you didn't happen to connect with Clarke to the degree that I did, many of these notes are going to ring hollow or will in fact not ring at all. So a bit less of that, if I can help it. I also won't be writing SF that explicitly depends on intimate knowledge of the genre - no stories that are in intricate argument with earlier ideas or traditions. Start with a blank mental slate, and pretend no one had written a word of SF before today, and then off you go.
  • Try and be true to the present, and what the present tells us about tomorrow. The Revelation Space universe is massively good fun to write, and I get plenty of requests for more from it. But it's also a kind of fantasy. Yes, the events in the books and stories are to some degree "realistic" in the sense that there is subservience to Einstein's laws and the worlds and biologies make as much sense as they can, given the premises. But as a possible future it feels like a wildly unlikely thought experiment, a kind of hermetic game detached from any actual speculative foundations. Pushing Ice, on the other hand, for all that it gets into deep cosmological territory, does begin in what (at the time I wrote it) seemed like a plausible idea of the mid 21st century. Even House of Suns, which in terms of its technologies and landscapes is much trippier than the RS books, still feels in some sense like a valid perspective on life in the year six million AD. Century Rain, on the other hand, which I personally am very fond of among my books, is again a kind of fantasy. And Blue Remembered Earth, about which I have said more than enough, is my attempt to be as true as I can be to the real world. It is not about moving tropes around or being in cosy dialogue with the past. When I inserted robots and spaceships into that story, I wasn't thinking about Asimov - I was thinking about the actual robots and spaceships that are already in our world or in the minds of researchers. So, a bit more of that kind of book, anchored to the present and trying to be sincere about the likely direction of things. It doesn't mean that I won't be writing more Revelation Space, just that I don't want to be defined by it.
  • Try and be a better writer. There, that's easy, isn't it? But honestly, I want to be better at this, and to keep getting better. That's a war waged on many fronts, of course. I want to write elegant and efficient prose that avoids the cliched and the pedestrian. I want to get better at dialogue, better at delineating my characters. I don't particularly care whether or not people like my characters, but I do want people to be able to tell them apart, and also to care about their fates - for better or for worse. I want to get better at integrating plot and theme, better at pacing and structure. I want to start thinking about form - about the ways to tell a story, or convey an idea, that are not simply a linear sequence of events. I don't think SF should cut itself any slack - we should aspire to the same high literary benchmarks as the rest of fiction, and be called out when we under-perform, and if that means accepting that I'm not very good at some aspect of writing, so be it. At least I can try to better. That's how it works in other areas of life, after all. When my guitar tutor tells me my barre chords are crap, I don't take it as a personal sleight - just an invitation to work on that area of my craft.
  • I am happy to think of myself as a science fiction writer. As I've said before, no one put a gun to my head and forced me to choose this genre. I love SF unreservedly. But at the same time, I am massively bored with endless circular in-genre arguments about taxonomy and ghettos and acceptance and rejection by the wider literary community. I firmly believe that the more we fixate on these perceived genre boundaries, the more we unconsciously reinforce them. The best course of action is to be agile and open-minded, to be a free agent, to read widely and be prepared to have your work evaluated within a larger fictional discourse. I have had, in my limited way, quite a fruitful series of interactions with the academic literary and critical establishment - they're not my enemy, and I'm not theirs. Yes, there will always be commentators and critics who take a narrow view of genre - but so what? It's their opinion, they're entitled to it, it doesn't make them bad people. When Terminal World lost the Wales Book of the Year award in 2011, it was the only work of prose fiction on the English language shortlist - a fact that went all but unremarked in SF circles, even though the prize was much higher than any SF award. And in the course of the award being decided, I met many pleasant members of the Welsh literary establishment who had not only genuinely enjoyed the book, but told me that it was the first work of SF they had read. "I didn't think it was my thing, but ..." was the phrase I heard over and over. That was even more gratifying because TW is in some sense one of my most hermetic novels, beginning who knows when and who knows where. There's a degree of blowing my own trumpet in all this, of course, but I merely make the point that I did not feel like any kind of outsider, merely someone who had written a big, bouncy book with airships and monsters in that could be read with some enjoyment by someone not steeped in SF tradition. Ever since then, I've tried not to presume that there is hostility to SF, because that perceived distaste or skepticism may not exist. But as soon as we start talking about high-falutin' literary types, so-called mainstream literature, us and them, we've basically had it. I won't be doing that.


  1. I think sf is inward looking because we are basically a nerd-culture. Nerds tend to look to other nerds for acknowledgement and think everybody else is against them, especially mainstreamers. That's why I think we love winks or comments towards other SF so much. We feel smug or proud to have seen or understand such a reference and others haven't. We feel empowered, smarter by it.

    But more importantly, stagnation and the following renewing of genres is (like everything in history) a recurring event. Readers (and people in general) look for things they are familiar with. For everything there is a first time, but when you like it, you want more. And although writing is romanticized as an highly idealistic and artistic profession, you do have to pay the bills... so you (or your publisher) tries to write what sells and therefore you do write more of the same. And then more and more of the sime types of books appear. But eventually people 'grow over' the subject and something new will pop up. And then everything starts all over again: this new refreshing book will be loved and when it's loved, people want more of the same untill people get bored again... This is just the way it is. You see this not only in SF, but in every cultural outing the world over!

    And one more thing: not everything has to be important and life- (or genre-)changing. It's not a shame to enjoy something that has no pretentions at all and is just pure and simple fun. Do what you enjoy, enjoy what you do!

    I applaud you for being critical towards you own profession and your own writing, and I really hope your next book will be one of those startingpoints for a new wave of sf literature, but pleaes, give us more Revelation Space books! ;-)

  2. Well, I'm a fan of the genre anyway, so I don't have an issue with things being self-referential that way as long as the story being told still stands on its own. After all, it's commonly mentioned that science fiction literature is really a large conversation - each novel expressing an idea that future novelists will take, think about, and answer with a story of their own. I wouldn't want to see that go away or be diminished for fear of becoming too insular.

    But I'm thrilled to see that you are so committed to improving your own efforts. You are already at the very top of my short list of favorite authors, so here's to you achieving your goals.

    And I would't get too upset if you decided to revisit your RS universe either.

  3. I'd be interested in your view of these "Gatekeepers" that Paul says people keep bringing up. In my limited awareness, they would seem to be a phalanx of risk-averse editors. For example, one major SF/Fantasy author has stated that she can only get contracts to write the umpteenth novel in a successful series, to the exclusion of other works that she might prefer to write, in fresh settings.

  4. When you imply that you want to cut your fantasy quotient, is this because you have been convinced that it is doing SF no favours, or because it doesn't move you personally as much as it did?

  5. Going along with point 2, I think there's a place for all of those SciFi subgenres.

    However, there's something to be said for a universe that is not necessarily extrapolated from the present time. You insinuate that this is "fantasy" SciFi, but I merely call this good fiction. The feeling of being immersed in an unfamiliar universe yields the illusion that it was *already there* and that the reader is merely exploring it. This is why Pushing Ice and RS were such spectacular novels.

  6. I don't know who the gatekeepers are either. I will say that (and I've no idea who the major SF/Fantasy author is) if you write a number of books in a series, don't be surprised if that's all your allowed to write from that point on. But speaking for myself, I've never encountered pressure to churn out more of the same. Case in point: when Gollancz, my agent and I were discussing the 10 book deal, I went into it assuming Gollancz would want to start things off with a Revelation Space novel. But in fact they were much keener on me starting with something completely new that could hook in new readers, which suited me fine as I was itching to get started on BRE.

  7. Rob: I think it's more the case that it is doing SF no favours. But to go back to anon's comment, I'm not talking about completely abandoning a particular approach, or of not having fun. Writing can be difficult, indeed it should be, a lot of the time, or your not pushing against your own limits. But you'd be surprised how often it's also bloody good fun.

  8. Just wanted to say that, while I'm a big fan, especially of your short fiction, going back some years, I have been really, really, enjoying this blog lately. I'm not particuarly engaged in the argument that Kincaid makes one way or the other, but the transparency I've seen here recently as you frankly discuss your aspirations as a writer and within the SF field more specifically have been refreshing.
    So, thank you.

  9. I have a soft spot for Terminal World as well. I like to think it's close to what we would have got if some insane Hollywood executive had contracted Gene Wolfe to write a Mad Max movie.

  10. Re Point #1: The biggest inside nod for me throughout my scifi addiction has been the use of the word Ram Scoop. I had no idea what it meant--and began wondering if all sci-fi writers had agreed to solve the interstellar space travel conundrum with the same fiction--until I finally looked it up http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RamScoop

  11. James Davis Nicoll5 December 2012 at 20:31

    Pushing Ice, on the other hand, for all that it gets into deep cosmological territory, does begin in what (at the time I wrote it) seemed like a plausible idea of the mid 21st century.

    I would be pleasantly astounded if the propulsion and power supply technologies implied by the Rockhopper existed in 2057 and if they did exist in 2057 I am pretty sure cometary sources would be way the heck down the list of possible sources of water in the Solar System and even if they weren't, probably there would be a much higher reliance on automation on space craft than Pushing Ice had.

    Justifying the tinned apes in space in situations except where having tinned apes in space is the whole point is often a bit of a puzzler.

  12. Good list of points.

    I would add though that there can be a danger in over thinking the structures and relationships in a book, making them seem stiff and forced. Of course I probably don't have to tell you that, I just thought it was worth mentioning as I feel it's a huge problem in ambitious writers.

    My favorite books are the ones where the authors afterwards said that the characters wrote themselves.

  13. I'm surprised you give Paul Kincaid as much air-time as you do. I think that speaks more about your forbearance and consideration than it does about his insights. I find him overly verbose and unbearably grumpy, an armchair critic of a grand final match. You're a better writer than he'll ever appreciate, and you'll never please him, so don't try.


    PS. Your personal compass is a great guide for all science fiction writers

  14. James: you're right of course but I was thinking more of the geopolitics, China as a big spacefaring power etc. But yes, we probably won't be tooling around in big nuclear powered mining ships in 2057. However, you could argue that there will always be situations where it's better to have people in proximity to teleoperated robots, rather than having completely autonomous robots operating far from human supervision.

    Peter: The thing is, there are few people in a better position to have an opinion on the state of SF than PK. I know him slightly, we've met at SF events, he is sincere in his convictions. But anyway, I've said more than enough now.

  15. James Davis Nicoll10 December 2012 at 10:23

    Yes, if you park a rotating tin can full of humans somewhere in the vicinity of the robots you would be able to avoid long delays in command processes. The end result might not look much like the classic SF solar system of yore, though. Which wouldn't be bad.

    The one resource space offers is a place to shed heat. We are worried now about warning effects from effluents but if the human economy was a few thousand times larger*, which doesn't take all that long even at modest growth rates, the heat we produce could itself threaten to push the Earth over into a Venus-style runaway greenhouse scenario and every model I've seen suggests quite detectable negative economic effects from exterminating the human race and everything else on Earth. The bottom line might demand we shift at least some of our industrial activity away from the one biosphere we are adapted to live in.

    I am aware I treading here on ground Dyson walked on first.

    * IIRC, about five thousand times larger. At 1% growth, that's not a problem for another 8 centuries or so but we might want to deal with the issue before we're teetering on the edge of a boil off.

  16. I just ran across this letter from Phillip K Dick, and was reminded of this discussion: