Existential Threats and Silly Ideas about Genre SF

Charlie Stross gets things going with a post about the dissipated habits of current science fiction. Chad Orzel says not so fast, you foreigner science fiction hasn’t dissipated it’s just been outflanked by wacky internet fads. John Scalzi pipes up with a comment about how American just don’t care what other people think of our politics and John M. Ford tells it like it is - selective futurism.

I think something has happened to science fiction and fantasy in the last two decades. I don’t have the rhetorical flair to sum it up as well as Charlie does. But it nags at me every once in a while.

I recently read Way Station by Clifford Simak, a golden age SF novel published in 1963. At my discussion group meeting about the book we all agreed that the ending was way too trite and too convenient. But the deus ex machina felt trite to someone reading the book in 2006. Today we know that a spiritual machine or an alien technology from the skies isn’t going to change our lives for the better overnight. It feels like we’ve gotten a lot more jaded.

Perhaps the true anomaly isn’t pessimism today but the optimism of the past. The middle decades of the twentieth century - the 1950s and 1960s - seem to be the decades that everyone across the political spectrum pines for. Conservatives want to harken back to the safety of some imagined fifties suburban paradise, while liberals long for the fighting faith of the civil rights movement or the certainties of the anti-Vietnam age.

Something odd happened in those decades. A combination of spreading economic prosperity and demographic baby booms altered the self-perception of America. And that can-do perception, the belief that everything can be solved with just a bit more effort, showed up in a genre like science fiction.

Today everything feels muddier. The wars aren’t nearly as clear cut, bad guys could be hiding everywhere, the threats are long-range and unpredictable. The war on terrorism doesn’t really have an enemy we can put on a poster or sum up in an easy cliche. The changing fortunes of the nation-state and the global economy pose a threat and an opportunity for which our current political structures are unequipped. The threats of global warming, emerging diseases, peak oil, and economic disarray are very different from the everything-could-end-tomorrow-with-the-flick-of-a-switch nuclear scare of the past.

I’m thankful for the end of the Cold War and mutual assured destruction but living in today’s muddy world is ideologically hard. And to transform that into fiction may be even harder.