Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

The Future of Futuristic SF

Posted by hyperpat on April 9, 2007

There’s been a fair amount of blather lately about the general health of the fantasy/science fiction market, which by just about everyone’s account is not doing all that well, and sf worse off than fantasy. Publishers are deliberately trying to present such books as something other than sf, or at least are doing covers for them that don’t scream SF! Don’t Touch! to the prospective buyer. Circulation figures for Asimov’s and Analog are down, as are overall sales of sf books. Why?

At least part of the reason can be traced to my last post on the SF info dump. New ‘hard’ sf is tackling concepts, gadgets, and environments that are well beyond the average reader’s comprehension and comfort space, and these concepts are complex enough that short, simple explanations just won’t do. The writers are left with a choice of trying to educate the reader, normally to the detriment of the story, or self-limiting their audience to those who already have some idea about these things, which is a very small (and probably shrinking) set of people. I certainly would not hand anyone not already steeped in sf some of this year’s Hugo nominees: Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Stross’s Glasshouse, or Watt’s Blindsight, regardless of how well they are written, or what neat ideas they contain, as they would be nearly incomprehensible to the average man in the street.

Beyond the ‘hard’ sf realm, there is also a paucity of books for younger readers. While David Gerrold and John Varley have added a few works to this area, the days of the Heinlein and Asimov juveniles are long gone, and it is difficult to find books that are captivating to young minds that are not outdated.

Which leaves us with only a very few modern entries that still have that ‘gee-whiz’ factor without blowing the reader’s mind. John Scalzi’s efforts of the last few years certainly qualify in this regard, with his Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Androids Dream, but he seems to be something of an exception, as he deliberately is trying for something that is accessible, part of what he calls the ‘New Comprehensible’. Fantasy is another part of this group, not surprisingly,  as in general fantasy doesn’t have the same problem, and can present settings and story arcs that have large elements of familiarity (or at least don’t require a Ph.D. to figure out).  And then there are the series related works, the Star Trek/Star Wars/Game-Inspired stuff, which are ok are far as they go, but leave little room for true innovation or possible great literature.

Perhaps science has reached the point where Mr. Average Joe simply can’t assimilate not only its current state but projections of what it will mean and the effects it will have in the future, though at least some of the blame for this state of affairs can be laid (at least in the US) to an education system that is doing a poor job of getting kids excited about the possibilities inherent in current scientific and technological research. Clearly, if sf is to survive as a viable genre of literature, there needs to work done by the authors to make it more interesting without being too complex, the marketing of this stuff needs to try and grab readers who would never normally touch the stuff (and it looks like they are making at least some attempts in this area), and our schools could do a better job of introducing young people to the wonders of the field. But most importantly, we, the science fiction fans, need to spread the word to our non-sf fellows, finding works that will interest and captivate them, while not being beyond their capabilities to understand or believe in, till they can graduate to the cutting edge of today.

6 Responses to “The Future of Futuristic SF”

  1. fencer said

    Part of it may be that there aren’t many scientific developments lately that have caught the popular imagination in the way that the moon landings or the older space program did.

    There’s something in the current cultural climate that does not engage with the exciting possibilities that are embedded in the science journals everyday.

    Need something like a Harry Potter in space to get youngsters excited about the subject again…

    Regards

  2. hyperpat said

    Expect to see HP in Space on the shelves next week! There probably is some fan-fic out there that is already exploring this concept. And if something like this were ever really produced and published, it just might help the overall sales of SF, as it would serve as an entry point for readers to get interested in the genre. This is a point that Scalzi has also brought up, along with the complaint that as of right now there don’t seem to be any easy entry points of this nature: popular, understandable, and leading to the desire to find more of the same.

    However, even when HP gets his light-sabre, it still won’t fix the basic headache. Cutting edge scientific theory has moved well beyond the range of things the average person can understand. A rocket to the moon? Outrageously impossible in 1870, but the concept was very comprehensible, another new frontier that was just a little harder to get to, and didn’t require you to actually be a rocket scientist to understand. What’s comparable to this today? Dark energy, black holes, the ‘Singularity’, quantum mechanics as it applies to the macro world, nano-bots, AI’s running the world’s economy, etc, etc. It’s difficult to use these things in a novel without providing some explanation of what they are and how they work, as most people have neither heard of nor thought about these possibilities, nor can most relate such things to their everyday lives of today. People don’t dream about what it would be like to become an uploaded computer consciousness, certainly not the way a great many people dreamed about going to outer space.

  3. Fred Kiesche said

    There have been a couple of attempts to get a YA space series or science series going, but most have failed. Have you seen the latest attempt to do Tom Swift, Jr.? Horrible scientific mistakes, silly writing “PC characters”, etc. Charles Sheffield had his “Jupiter” series several years ago, but most of the entries were pretty mundane.

    Where are the “Mad Scientist Club”‘s, the Heinlein YA series, the Andre Norton’s of today?

  4. hyperpat said

    I’m afraid that those doing YA works today have pretty much all gone over to the fantasy camp (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not SF). The latest I’ve read is China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, which was actually quite good, with Mieville’s typical absolutely outrageous flights of fancy and great images.

    Varley’s Red Lightning and Red Thunder and Spider Robinson’s The Free Lunch are about the only recent ones I can think of within the SF field. These are good, but just not enough! Heinlein wrote at least one/year (in addition to his adult works), Norton often put out three or four in a year, and the young reader knew that these authors put out something for them on a regular basis. Perhaps the YA market just doesn’t seem lucrative enough for today’s authors to devote themselves to it?

  5. Not lucrative enough? Just ask J.K. Rowlings if it isn’t lucrative!

  6. hyperpat said

    But no other recent YA book has come even close to her sales. Few do more than earn out their advances, if that.

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