Monday 29 October 2012


The debate sparked by Paul Kincaid's essay on SF's state of exhaustion rolls on. Here, for instance, is PK's latest statement - it's well worth reading, and also includes a handy set of links to some of the other contributions to the dialogue.

It's always hard to know how to engage with this sort of thing. As writers, we are strongly discouraged from responding to our critics, advice which I think is eminently sensible and which I have tried to abide by. Even the simple act of linking to or mentioning a negative review can be seen as a kind of attack by proxy, since many writers have extremely loyal readerships who will not hesitate to take up the sword on the writer's tacit behalf. I don't approve of that sort of thing, but I have seen it happen many times and I can easily think of some serial offenders. With a few excusable exceptions brought on by moments of moral weakness, I have tried not to do it and I have very little time for writers who indulge in it as a matter of course. It's gang politics, the crude tactics of the playground. Critics should feel free to speak up without fear of personal attacks. That is an obvious truism in literature as a whole, but it applies even more stringently within the extremely clubby, collegiate world of science fiction.

A piece like PK's original article invites, I think, a different kind of response. It's a not a review, and it doesn't mention my writing. In the sense that I have a view of PK's opinion of my SF, I sense that he is more inclined to see my work as part of the problem than the solution. Looked at another way, the class of SF that I am often associated with - call it heartland SF, whatever - seems, broadly, to be the kind that PK is now finding to be in a state of exhaustion. The writers he has been most recently impressed by are, generally, those operating on the margins of the form, far from the heartland. None of them are writers whose work sits squarely in the crosshairs of what we think of as genre science fiction. They are pushing against the boundaries of the form, interrogating it from one or other side of the border. As it happens, they are all writers I either already admire intensely or look forward to investigating. Christopher Priest's work, for instance, couldn't be more fascinating to me as a reader, even though it's not remotely the sort of thing I create. Similarly, I can't read a page of M John Harrison without questioning my entire commitment to writing. But there's no escaping the fact that I operate in a fundamentally different mode to these writers and that, eleven or twelve novels into my career, I obviously choose to do so. The question for me now is two-fold. Firstly, is it possible to engage with PK's discussion in a way that is neither defensive, nor a form of attack by proxy? Secondly, given the obvious and sincere substance of PK's opinions, what can I do to improve not only my own craft, but (and if it isn't too arrogant) in some small way the state of SF?

To take the first point - I hope that it is possible to respond, and to do so in a civil and constructive way. As I hope was clear from my earlier posts, much of what PK says makes perfect and depressing sense. In fact I would have welcomed engagement from many more writers than those who have already responded. Agree or disagree, I'm sure we all have something interesting to add.

The second point is obviously much harder to address. But here I want to mention something that my colleague Paul McAuley wrote on his blog back on the 5th of October - - which was to say "... let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become part of the problem." Now, I don't think PM is part of the problem at all but those are nonetheless excellent words to live by. As writers I think we ought to ask ourselves that question on a pretty regular basis. Am I good for science fiction, or is science fiction good for me? If I had not written a word, would the field be better or worse or indeed no different? I can't be alone in sometimes feeling as I've lucked into my SF career - as if, rather than bringing anything new to the field, I've just somehow managed to slip into the party and find myself a corner. On my better days, I tell myself that I'm doing useful work, adding to the conversation, treating the form with the seriouness it deserves. On my less good days, I feel like a complete fraud, and I expect the knock on the door at any moment. But it seems to me that, whether you are an imposter or not - and posterity's going to have the word on that one, not the blogosphere - it is a pretty good thing to remain in a state of questioning self-doubt, striving constantly to step back from your own work and examine the easy assumptions and platitudes underpinning it. A discussion like that sparked by PK's essay can only be healthy.

With that off my chest, in my next blog post I want to talk a bit about space travel, why it is not just about moving tropes around, and why I think there is intellectual value in the theme.


  1. James Davis Nicoll29 October 2012 at 11:49

    I want to talk a bit about space travel

    [hypnotic gesture] with an eye to how delta vees small enough that the Oberth Effect matters facilitate interesting plots [/hypnotic gesture]

  2. ^^^A polite way to say WTF? Al ^^^
    In a way, the SF field is something like a roller coaster. I don't have the intellect to use big words like you, so I use easy analogies and such. It could be said that there's a bit of a dip at the moment, as there have been in the past. A way to address it though IMO could be to have a SF writers con. Just you guys! Bring a few 'useful' critics along if you want. You can flesh out where you think SF is at the moment, where you think it needs to go...I don't think it's anywhere near a dormant industry, but I've noticed over the last decade or so that the Americans are a bit on the back foot regarding SF output generally. I hardly read (US writers) now, yet I'm always looking!
    But, like any true believer in things good, SF WILL bounce back, and what comes after a trough...?
    On a personal note, your good self, and a few others have kept me firmly entrenched in SF, so you're certainly not a part of the problem as I see it. You're also cluey enough to evolve your work, and have a rethink which I've seen plenty examples of in the decade or so I've been reading you!
    That's me for now!

  3. James Davis Nicoll29 October 2012 at 23:50


    Contrary to 50+ years of SF, gravity wells aren't things decent rocketeers avoid but rather valuable assets for getting around a decent amount of time. You'd be surprised what you can do with a ship as capable as a gas core nuclear thermal rocket or a laser thermal rocket, as long as you have a taste for extremely close encounters with gas or ice giants and a casual disregard for the hazards inherent in very high velocity aerobraking. Oh, and you have to be able to deal with enough radiation to kill you in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee if you are using Jupiter but that goes without saying.

    It follows that controlling access to large masses could in theory be useful. Plot! And you can generate surprisingly large amounts of energy by using Jupiter's magnetosphere to de-orbit its lower moons, energy that can be used to facilitate Setting Details, although whether you want to use it to power passing laser thermal rockets or blow people who have not updated their planetary encounter licenses out of the sky is up to you.

  4. As much as I like authors like Scalzi, Hamilton, and Banks, they rarely tend to write challenging new idea type SF (as they might have earlier in their career). I suspect that they are more the target of accusations about pedestrian SF as opposed to the stuff that's coming out by yourself and McAuley.

    A lot of SF published today (the comfy stuff) could have been written 40 years ago without a reader from the early 1970's feeling that they were being challenged on the idea front - the ideas in those books are ideas that were already permeating the SF community.

  5. In the US, marketing has veered firmly over to wizards, vampires, and military-SF to accommodate the vacuous worldview of pop. Publishing houses are probably dubious about the money to be made in serious SF right now. A shame.

    All the authors mentioned here are great (I will add China Mieville to this list, whose aliens in Embassytown were sterling!). But we definitely need more space exploration and mind blowing ideas to keep us going, and that seems to be coming largely from the UK. Thank you, Mr. Reynolds (and McAuley, Hamilton, Banks, etc) for keeping the faith with us.

  6. James Davis Nicoll30 October 2012 at 09:31

    It used to be there would be some Big Thing that would send ripples through SF every ten or fifteen years: the Campbellian revolution in the 1930s and early 1940s, the rise of alternatives to Cambellian SF in the late 1940s and 1950s, the New Wave(s), the sudden burst of women entering the field in the late 1960s and 1970s, and so but I'm coming up short for anything analogous from the last generation. MilSF, maybe. Mundane SF was dead on arrival.

    Actually "badly thought-out dystopia" seems to be a thing now and not just the young adult books. Maybe that's our version of New Wave. I cannot express the enthusiasm I feel at the prospect of second-rate Bacigalupi knock-offs in my to-read stack.

    I note that SFnal young adult fiction is carefully not labelled as SF.

  7. I haven't read the PK stuff. However, to my mind SF sometimes develops a problem when it gets a little pretentious. When it tries really hard to be literary, clever, uber-original or uber-scientific.

    Of course it's important (essential) to write well and to try t be clever and original; for me it's very much preferable if the world and the science gives off a strong sense of realism / plausibility. But all this isn't enough in itself. For me, if there's "a problem" it's that some SF authors are failing develop characters a reader will care about, and failing to generate passion, excitement, tension. Some authors a preaching clever concepts and clever science using clever prose, but it comes over dull and contrived and heartless.

    Al, whatever posterity will one day have to say about your contribution to SF, I can say this: you've written some dark, twisted, exciting, atmospheric, page-turning novels that have fired my imagination and given me great, great pleasure. All this high-brow talk of sci-fi as a field of endeavour are fine, but don't let it distract you from all the fundamental things you do so well.


  8. # "... let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become
    # part of the problem." Now, I don't think PM is part of the problem
    # at all but those are nonetheless excellent words to live by. As writers
    # I think we ought to ask ourselves that question on a pretty regular
    # basis. Am I good for science fiction, or is science fiction good for me?
    # If I had not written a word, would the field be better or worse or
    # indeed no different? I can't be alone in sometimes feeling as I've
    # lucked into my SF career - as if, rather than bringing anything new to
    # the field, I've just somehow managed to slip into the party and find
    # myself a corner. On my better days, I tell myself that I'm doing useful
    # work, adding to the conversation, treating the form with the seriouness
    # it deserves. On my less good days, I feel like a complete fraud, and I
    # expect the knock on the door at any moment.

    I think this is called 'Being for others'. You need to be more selfish. Write what you want to write and to hell with the consequences. Worrying about 'what am I giving to the genre' is like worrying about what you're giving to the universe. It was here before you and will be here after you're gone.

    Much of the debate about what SF should be or should be doing stems, in my opinion, from a view of the genre as a limited resource, where only one thing can be 'done' at any one time. This is the 'movements' paradigm that is so dominant, where 'new waves' come in and push out the old. You don't see this paradigm in music. In music a new form joins the collection of existing forms, music is a house of many mansions. SF thinks of itself as a tiny contested island, and only one form of the genre can be occupying the island at any time. Thus a new movement is treated with suspicion by fans of the genre, as it is a threat to the existing forms they know and love. This, I believe, explains much of the hostility to cyberpunk, and more recently to 'New Weird'. It is a mindset we need to break out of. We should be doing multiple streams of SF at once, in my opinion, and some of that should be 'mundane' or 'hard', and some of it should be 'soft' or 'galaxy-spanning flight of awesome fantasy', or any mix of those.

    If you've found yourself a comfortable corner at the party, then good. So long as you're happy there what's the problem? You are not responsible for making sure others have a good party, your only duty is not to act so as to give others a bad party, and to make sure you enjoy the party yourself.

    As your books sell well there are clearly people who like what you are doing. Why sell them out in order to win the applause of pundits who want to see SF become more 'serious'? If they want serious SF, then they should be writing. If you want serious SF, then fine, write that, but don't be bullied or guilt-tripped into doing what others think you ought to be doing.

    I don't totally dismiss the points Mr Kinkaid has made, but I'm not sure it's even possible for us to 'pull our boots up' and be 'less exhausted'. Part of PK's perception of the genre as 'exhausted' probably comes from the fact that he's read a great deal of it, and is now possibly a little jaded.

    Write what you want to write, and don't beat yourself up about it.

  9. You worry too much. There are no mined-out genres, just mined-out authors. Since you are not one of those, feel free to write about rockets, robots, or whatever: your spin on these will make them as fresh as can be.

  10. You are not part of the problem... As a science fiction writer, I enjoy your works because they're thought provoking. Pushing Ice could have treated the Janus moon as a BDO (Big Dumb Object) but you developed the concept into a "galactic zoo," bringing together intelligent species that would otherwise be separated by the insurmountable distances/times involved, and so would never meet. That's a serious scientific proposition to resolve the tyranny of spacetime distances, and I loved it.

    Along these lines, you might enjoy...

  11. Oh geeeeezzz...I could NOT get through that essay if my life depended on it. WTH? Someone just spit it out in ten words or less, what was PK getting at and did he ever hear of the phrase, less is more? What's the problem here? I love your stories AR, Especially House of Suns, so in my view - you're good for SF, you inspired me to write, you inspired me to think differently about the world and what may be possible out there. Enough said.

    I'm writing SF, I'm writing it my way, and maybe it's not your cup of tea but it's someone's cup of tea and that's good enough.

    We just need to keep producing, keep coming up with new ways to see things, and we'll all be just fine.

  12. Hi all. Thanks for the comments. The danger with this sort of thing is that it can seem as if you're fishing for compliments, which - although you'll obviously have to take my word for it - was not the intention. As I hope I've made clear, there are some powerful home truths in PK's essay, and in the discussion activated by it, but the fact that I'm thinking about them doesn't mean I've been stricken by some terrible crisis of confidence in my own abilities. Or, to put it another way, there hasn't been a day in my writing career when I haven't had a crisis of confidence about *something* and I would be a little worried were that not the case - after all, if we get it into our heads that we are doing fantastic, unimprovable work, where is the incentive to better our craft? So the process of self-examination triggered by PK's essay is really just a phase in an on-going project, just as I tried to take a step back from my work during the great debates around gender and race which played out a few years ago.

    But no, in terms of the larger direction of my writing, I've been mining more or less the same set of concerns for thirty years (and thank your stars only I got to sit through the first ten years of my output) and I doubt that there will be any radical changes of direction for the rest of my career. What I hope to do is return to the same set of themes, but with a steadily improving toolkit at my disposal.

  13. Well, I wasn't fishing for a compliment! lmao
    I'm still sifting through PK's stuff, but he is making some valid points. I'm personally not worried at this stage about the immediate future of SF, as there is still a varied enough output to keep me happy.

  14. Read PK's thesis (so far) and many of the responses. I'm thankful to be turned on to some authors I didn't know about, but other than seems to be much ado about nothing. I loved the classic SF of the 30's - 50's, loved the New Wave (called Speculative Fiction) of the 60's - 70's, and thought SF was largely dead until the late 90's. There is room for dangerous trailblazing and room for comfortable tropes re-examined. The presence of both in the genre is optimum. You, Mr. Reynolds, are a little of both. Just keep it closer to SF than Fantasy, and we'll forever be literary friends!