Thursday, 31 January 2013

My Reading Year 2013 Part Two: Science Fiction is Dead

This year I read just 16 books of prose. It’s a pretty disappointing number; well down on my usual efforts. I think the most books I’ve read in a year is 32, so it’s half of that, but I generally manage about 25. I haven’t had much time for writing, either. I’ve written no fiction but I did write four reviews, which I suppose is more than in either of the last couple of years.

As mentioned in part 1, it’s mostly because of my new job and the house move: if didn’t do as much reading or writing as I’d have liked, it’s because I was busily occupied on the business of getting on with life and moving on. But because I was distracted, my reading felt a bit random and purposeless this year.

I finished off my series on Necronomicon: The Best Weird Fiction of H P Lovecraft, and gradually lost interest in the early 20th century popular gothic. Instead I got a dose of the real thing. when I found a copy of The Great Beast: The Life and Magic of Aleister Crowley by John Symonds in the basement of my new house. I read a bit of fantasy including the low fantasy novel Bringing Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel while watching the alt-historical drama A Game of Thrones on DVD, and then read World Fantasy Award winner Osama by Lavie Tidhar.

Late in the year, this now infamous review by Paul Kincaid made me ponder my own relationship to the genre because I don’t read a lot of prose SF and fantasy in comparison to my younger days and I’ve been wondering why that might be. While I’ve only just begun to investigate the question, starting with my series on Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, the early diagnosis isn’t encouraging. As far as I can tell, science fiction is dead.

NOTE: This is really long, maybe my longest post yet. You have been warned. 

I started the year, though, in the early 20th century popular Gothic – sometimes called ‘weird fiction’ - of H P Lovecraft, whose career corresponds to the decade and a half when SF was taking shape as a well-defined genre. After HPL’s death, the appeal of the Gothic declined while SF thrived as it better responded to the changes taking place in America and the rest of the developed world.

I think the Gothic has similar roots to SF: both are a reaction to the growth of rational materialism. During the 19th century supernatural fears were being driven out of the popular consciousness by the industrial revolution and the rise of Empire. However, they clung in the figurative dark corners literalised by the Gothic in rambling old houses, weird traditions and decayed aristocratic families. They perhaps reflected a fear that abandoning the protections of traditional ways, mankind might yet be prey to the demonic forces once held in check by the old beliefs.

The same reaction to progress and technology bred the fad for occultism in the decadent demi-monde of the Edwardian era. For a decade or two it was the height of fashion to join a secret society that claimed to offer exclusive access to secret knowledge, often revolving around alluring promises of freedom from the usual bourgeois moral codes. Perhaps the greatest exponent of this way of life was Aliester Crowley.

While the house move temporarily affected my available time and cash for buying books, a slight positive of all the mayhem that there piles of old and interesting books left lying around. In a rotting trunk in the lowest basement was a copy of The Great Beast: The Life and Magic of Aleister Crowley by John Symonds, a tatty old paperback somewhat afflicted by damp and yellowed by time. It’s book I’ve been wanting to read for ages but never stumbled across in a suitably serendipitous way. This was its suitably creepy moment!

Crowley’s life is a truly amazing story. I can see immediately why he was idolised by the sixties rock gang. His extraordinary life reads like a fall-from-grace rockstar story. Crowley didn’t quite have the humble roots of the rock god, but he was something of a parvenu among the wealthy intellectual set that he parasitised over his long life. He was a glamorous and shocking figure in his day, a flamboyant mountain climber and adventurer, vilified at his acme and ruined by drugs and excess in a way that I’m sure intrigued sybaritic rockers. And behind everything he did, his most debauched excesses was an apparently sincere desire to ‘break on through to the other side’.

However, unlike the rock gods of the 60s though, Crowley’s only talent seems to have been creating notoriety. He looks to me like one of those rare fraudsters able to lie with such conviction that he convinced himself he was telling the truth. His ideas are clearly ridiculous, and Symonds quotes moments of self-awareness from Crowely’s diaries, but he had to believe in himself absolutely or be found out.

He certainly threw himself into it and all those heiresses and neurotic aristocratic pseuds who funnelled money into his pockets got their money’s worth. For a few months or years they lived entirely in a magical world fuelled by drugs, drink, sex, reckless creativity, violence and contact with entities from other planes.

It’s clear he was a monumental bastard, an egomaniac and driven by his basest appetites, but he masked all guilt and shame he might feel behind the will of his Guardian Spirit, whose inclinations always seemed aligned with those of Crowley’s libido and peripatetic instincts.

Symonds’ biogrophy is great fun, too. It affects a certain sympathetic distance from Crowley. He becomes almost a character in a comedy, constantly trapped in somewhat farcical situations of his own making. It’s occasionally arch at Crowley’s expense, especially through selective quotation to pop Crowley’s bombastic self-importance. But at the same time he treats occult Crowley’s mission as an entirely serious one and devotes long passages to descriptions of Crowley’s magickal ideas and practices. The path is pure, but the man is weak. I suppose these occultists really did understand that the fool sometimes outranks the king.

Crowley’s times passed, though, with the times that created him. The nature of esoteric spirituality changed, too, taking on a less flamboyant air with the growing influence of Buddhism and scientific sounding movements like Jungian philosophy, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, and Crowley’s direct spiritual descendant (via the rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons) L Ron Hubbard.

So, my thoughts on the passing of science fiction are related to the passing of the Gothic. It seems to me that times are changing once more and SF has lost its relevance. I got started on this train of thought by this big review of the current crop of ‘best of the year’ anthologies by Paul Kincaid. I haven’t read any of these books but Kincaid isn’t impressed with what he sees. He complains that the stories are mostly either fantasies, mainstream stories wrapped up in SF clichés or retellings of old ideas, concluding that the fantastic genres have ‘reached a state of exhaustion.’

A book I instantly thought of was Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Fractal Prince, which Ireviewed for the Zone earlier this year. I’m not sure I really got the measure of it for the review, and perhaps one of the reasons I didn’t get on with it are the reasons cited by Kincaid. It deal in old ideas - the rivalry between the Sobornost and the Zoku is a replay of Sterling’s Mechanists versus Shapers, and the virtual world antics are working the same seam as the cyberpunks. Familiar SF ideas are expressed in the language of fantasy – genies, flying carpets, sorcerers and holy men – make them seem new. The previous book in the series, The Quantum Thief, was a bit more enjoyable than The Fractal Prince but still has some of the characteristics identified by Kincaid as evidence of the genre’s exhausted state.

I suppose it sounds a little perverse to make this assertion when SF and fantasy are apparently ubiquitous in movies and TV, mainstream authors have been turning to SF to express their idea while a few genre authors like China Meilville get mainstream critical recognition. Some authors – Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett for example – have too much mainstream appeal to ignore. As Kincaid observes, the exhaustion of the form doesn’t seem to have adversely affected output.

One reason for the resurgence in the popularity of these genre tropes in popular culture is explored in Osama by Lavie Tidhar, which won the World Fantasy Award. I read it before the award and couldn’t really figure it out at the time. When I heard it won the award I started thinking about it again and the more I think about it the more it sinks in.

Osama uses a kind of many-worlds fantasy to examine the political effects of genre fiction, in particular thrillers. Casting Osama Bin Laden as a character in a series of pulp fiction thrillers artfully points us in two directions. On the one hand, it highlights the shallow nature of the demagogue’s support – the people who kill and maim in his name are no better than fans of trashy thrillers, cheering when the hero shoots a stereotype in the face. On the other hand, it makes us look again at the underlying narrative of Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher and Jack Ryan. How do these stories shape our political views of countries declared enemies of the state by our leaders? How much do these stories reflect the popular ethics? How much do they form them?

I talked about this tendency in fantasy and SF before before in relation to Black Sun. The fascists used their racism as an excuse to let their murderous nature run wild. In the real world these fantasies of absolute good and evil are incredibly dangerous, but in fiction they’re incredibly rewarding. They let our protagonists get away, literally with murder and execute all sorts of extreme courses of action all in the name of justice.

The current wave of fantasy and sci fi films are generally of this type, with the racial stereotypes either better or worse disguised. Super-heroes, space captains and futuristic action heroes have taken the place of war films and westerns in popular culture. Nazis are still just about fair game, but I don’t know if something like Zulu or Fort Apache could be made in quite the same way these days. Fantasy foes provide a handy outlet for these types of story. It’s what most sci fi and fantasy is in any medium – movies, TV, comics and books.

At the same time as I read Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, I was watching the first series of A Game of Thrones on DVD and was struck by the similarity of the stories. Both deal with the advisers of bibulous monarchs and in the difficulties of securing the line of successions. I’ve said it before – history’s just fantasy without wizards and fantasy is history without research. It frees the writer from tiresome fact checking and the reader from the moral scruple of worrying who was really right or wrong, Crusader or Saracen, or the dreary homily that maybe we’re all a little bit right in our own way.

It’s always been the same: the genres have always been a vehicle for wish-fulfilment fantasies a safe enough distance from reality that they can’t infect our world view. Dour and sadistic dystopian SF in particular – The Hunger Games, Wool, Children of Men, Little Brother, Black Man – wraps the usual atavistic tendencies in a pious robe of obvious satire. When you hear people talking (or columnists writing) that the geeks have inherited the Earth, this is what they mean. If we did inherit it, then it’s only because the racists left a gap in the market.

While I enjoy these types of thing well enough, especially in comics and movies, I sometimes wonder if this is all the genre is for. At their best, the new popular SF and fantasy is still generally a re-hash of what we’ve seen before. The re-tellings of super-hero movies, fresh but ultimately unsurprising re-examinations of themes laid out by Orwell and Huxley, colonial narratives of space exploration, old myths rewired for the modern mind. At the more respectable end of the market is the use of SF as metaphor, expressing an essentially mundane point using SF trappings as a metaphor. This is the basis of Philip K Dick’s mainstream: he’s a literatry writer – and wrote non-SF literary novels that he could never find buyers for – who uses the metaphor of androids and the irreal worlds of drugs to express ideas about consciousness and the human existential state. These can be a good read, too, but I don’t think they’re really SF, either.

The commonly thrown around axiom that SF is never about the future, but always about the present is nonsense. SF is and always has been futurological. It looks forward to some plausible extrapolation of science and society and establishes some kind of conflict based on the the changed circumstances.

SF sputtered into life during the early years of the century as a reaction to the expansion of rational materialism into every aspect of our lives, often taking the form of technological change. Fiction rose up to address this type of progress, to question it and probe its limits. It’s particularly connected with the atomic and space ages, when our view of the world was confounded by the ideas of the complexity of matter and the possibility of interstellar travel and the existence human like intelligence either on other worlds or in the shape of created machines.

As the likelihood that these technologies are even possible receded, the need for in-depth speculation on what the consequences might be seems a bit pointless. In I, Robot, Asimov predicts the arrival of the positronic brain in the mid-nineties. Lots of readers – likely Asimov included – would have felt this was a reasonable timeline of discovery for artificial intelligence. Part of the urgency of these stories, even when I read them, was their sense of imminence. It felt like it was important to understand this type of technology because it would soon be here changing our lives.

It’s this type of SF that’s dead. Technological change is now embedded in our lives. We have a pretty clear view of what different futures might look like. We understand the threat and promise that technological change can bring. We even have a pretty good idea of what kind of technological change is possible. Furthermore, we know that many of the promises of SF aren’t possible – ESP, faster than light space ships, artificial intelligence.

Maybe SF has done its job too well. The technological revolutions that seem likely – more efficient information and communications, some degree of genetic engineering, emergent energy technologies and the threat of ecological catastrophe – have all been well addressed by SF in the past. Because these ideas are still current they continue to be re-interpreted – in popular culture in blockbuster movies and video games and in the genre itself where an old idea can be given new life by re-framing it in different ways. In particular, it thrives in the young adult category, where the audience is new to the ideas, but would find Asimov off-puttingly anachronistic.

There doesn’t, however, seem to be much more to say about the old problems that were thrown up in the early days of SF. It’s not the genre itself that’s lacking, but that the forces that made it vital have dispersed. The cyberpunks seem to be the last word on it all, although their main schtick was about how all the previous generation got it so wrong! It’s the hippier end of the cyberpunk generation that led naturally to the post-singularity fantasy style that Kincaid highlights in his review, and that’s where we are. We’re living in the future, now. SF has lost its unique place in the cultural debate as its concerns have become anachromistic dreams or just another part of everyday life.

What’s left? There’s medical technology and genetic engineering, but even these ideas have already been well and truly strip-mined over the years. Beyond that, the boring worlds of expert systems, improvement in telecoms, tedious asteroid mining and god help us 3D printing, which just seem like extensions of today’s dreary workaday world rather than dreams that inspire a sensawunda. That job’s gone to fantasy now, because science no longer has the power to move us.
The symbolism it built up will be with us for years to come. It will always have an emotional resonance reflecting the ambitions and hopes of the age of science, in a way that pirate novels evoke the freedom of the age of sail and private eye stories make us think of mid-century alienation. It’s already getting a nostalgic gloss through steampunk re imaginings (a curious throw-back to the Gothic era), self-referential updates, tributes, alternate histories and meta-fictional genre mash-ups.

But the idea of SF as a valid form is sustained by a well-developed fandom. When I was young it seemed to be in decline, but the arrival of the internet gave it massive boost, since SF geeks were among the first to latch on the the new technology. Paul kincaid’s part of it, and perhaps that’s why the death of SF leaves him at such a loss.

But fandom isn’t about fiction, it’s a style tribe. It’s not just going to disappear, that’s why is keeps churning out product – more than ever, in fact as Kimcaid notes. It has to, to keep itself going. It won’t disappear for a while I think, maybe it will linger as long as the symbolism of SF, but one day there’s be no one around who can quite understand what all the fuss was about and at that moment the future imagined by SF writers can be said to have at last arrived.

What I read 2012 (in no particular order):

A Dreamquest for Unknown Kadath by H P Lovecraft
Supernatural Horror in Literature by H P Lovecraft
A Reflection in Glass by Jeffrey Hewitt
A Short History of Western Thought by Stephen Trombley
Redlaw by James Lovegrove
Osama by Lavie Tidhar
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
A few John Service stories by Algernon Blackwood
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Great Beast: The Life and Magic of Aleister Crowley by John Symonds
I, The Jury by Mike Hammer
The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaneimi
I, Robot


  1. In Neal Stephenson's Anathem, a group of scholars known as Lorites believe that the human mind has already come up with every idea that human minds are capable of coming up with. The Lorites, consummate historians of thought, greet the announcement of a "new" concept or theorem with "That is Saunt So-and-So's Assertion from 320 years ago." In this way they prevent their fellow scholars from reinventing the wheel.

    I agree that SF is a victim of its own success as its coolest tropes are merrily appropriated by mainstream culture. The esoteric becomes the commonplace with frightening speed. The Internet makes Lorites of us all!

    A look at the genre from 10 years ago: somewhat rarefied in that it consists not of reviews of SF, but of reviews of books ABOUT SF. Fascinating all the same, and a good Harlan Ellison anecdote never fails to amuse.

  2. HI varleyfan,

    Yes, very interested to read Anatem now! Did some background reading about it and the quantum mind theories of Roger Penrose which I want to know more about. If SF can still exist it's in this capacity of bringing scientific theory alive, and there are still some writers doing this - Greg Egan used to do mind-bogglingly brilliant work in this regard. I just don't think the world is very interested anymore.

    One of the topics I didn't quite touch on here is the age old gripe og genre fans everywhere, and SF fans in particular: why don't SF writers win the big literary awards? The decline in public interest in books like Anathem - even since Snow Crash, which I recall attracted some mainstream comment as recently as 20 years ago - is a big part of that.

    A topic for another day. This post is long enough as it is!


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