Has science fiction "run out of steam?"

This post began life as a Slashdot comment in response to Has Sci-Fi Run Out of Steam?:

I doubt it, any more than science or technology has run out of steam due to a lack of imagination. Rather, I wonder if the science fiction publishing business has either run out of steam or become an active roadblock between writers and readers. It seems that most publishers are trying a play-it-safe approach that demands repetition over originality. This is based partially on what I see featured in bookstores and partially on my own experience, which I discuss extensively in Science fiction, literature, and the haters. It begins:

Why does so little science fiction rise to the standards of literary fiction?

This question arose from two overlapping events. The first came from reading Day of the Triffids (link goes to my post); although I don’t remember how I came to the book, someone must’ve recommended it on a blog or newspaper in compelling enough terms for me to buy it. Its weaknesses, as discussed in the post, brought up science fiction and its relation to the larger book world.

The second event arose from a science fiction novel I wrote called Pearle Transit that I’ve been submitting to agents. It’s based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—think, on a superficial level, “Heart of Darkness in space.” Two replies stand out: one came from an agent who said he found the idea intriguing but that science fiction novels must be at least 100,000 words long and have sequels already started. “Wow,” I thought. How many great literary novels have enough narrative force and character drive for sequels? The answer that came immediately to mind was “zero,” and after reflection and consultation with friends I still can’t find any. Most novels expend all their ideas at once, and to keep going would be like wearing a shirt that fades from too many washes. Even in science fiction, very few if any series maintain their momentum over time; think of how awful the Dune books rapidly became, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama series. A few novels can make it as multiple-part works, but most of those were conceived of and executed as a single work, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (more on those later).

The minimum word count bothers me too. It’s not possible for Pearle Transit to be stretched beyond its present size without destroying what makes it coherent and, I hope, good. By its nature it is supposed to be taunt, and much as a 120-pound person cannot be safely made into a 240-pound person, Pearle Transit can’t be engorged without making it like the bloated star that sets its opening scene. If the market reality is that such books can’t or won’t sell, I begin to tie the quality of the science fiction I’ve read together with the system that produces it.

If the publishing system itself is broken and nothing yet has grown up to take its place (I have no interest in trolling through thousands of terrible novels uploaded to websites in search of a single potential gem, for those of you Internet utopians out there), maybe the source of the genre’s troubles isn’t where PC Pro places it.

In addition, although science fiction publishing might appear sclerotic at times, science fiction in movies and TV shows continues unabated—many of which draw material from books. One commenter realized this: “The huge change in SF since I first started reading it in the 70’s is that these days, movie/TV SF is a gigantic, popular commercial enterprise, utterly dwarfing written SF.”

Still, I’ve found fun and fascinating SF writers thanks to the Internet: Jack Vance started as a recommendation and an article in the NYT magazine; Charlie Stross writes a blog; and others have sent good advice on where to look. But I think a lot of SF has turned towards the cerebral, towards alternate / fake worlds, and towards dealing with massive institutions on earth. These are all broad claims—too broad for a blog post—that I might follow-up in a future essay, but they’ve been churning in my mind enough for me to look for them in fiction—where they seem to be almost everywhere.

One other funny item: PC Pro uses the antiquated cliche “run out of steam,” which refers to steam engines that probably haven’t been widely used since the 19th century, to refer to a genre concerned with how the present represents the future. Maybe this indicates language itself can run far behind whatever the perceived times are.

August 2010 Links: Bookshelves, query letters, and more

* Good advice from Jaron Lanier: how to be on the Internet.

* Exactly the sort of thing that appeals to me: bookshelf porn (note: this link is entirely safe for work, unless you have an office that bans employees from looking at books).

* I want to read this book too, based solely on the query letter.

* The Golden State’s War on Itself: How politicians turned the California Dream into a nightmare.

* Awesome: In German Suburb, Life Goes On Without Cars.

* The inevitable envy among writers.

* Salinger’s toilet up for auction — seriously?. Note that the appendage “seriously?” is from Carolyn Kellogg, although she expresses my sentiments as well.

* I love Slate’s “Bogus Trend Stories of the Week” feature, in which they discuss stories based on questionable or phony numbers, anecdote, moral panic, hysteria, fear mongering, and the like. The best part: cited numbers or statistics often contradict the overall thrust of the stories themselves. Sex often plays a role, as it does in this week’s topic: Child pornography, sextortion, and Chinese hymenoplasties. Samples:

Presented with convincing data, I’m prepared to believe that child porn is growing. But if a Department of Justice report states that the number of offenders is unknown and the quantity of images and videos of child pornography being traded is also unknown, how can anybody say that the distribution of child porn is on the rise?

* Measuring colleges for what they do instead of who they enroll: finally.

* The bizarre place that is Russia:

For the disastrous Russian heat wave has exposed a key failing of Russian society: The flow of information has stopped. There is not a single newspaper that even strives to be national in its coverage. The television is not only controlled by the Kremlin; it is made by the Kremlin for the Kremlin, and it is entirely unsuited to gathering or conveying actual information. Even the Russian blogosphere is bizarrely fragmented: Researchers who “mapped” it discovered that, unlike any other blogosphere in the world, it consists of many non-overlapping circles. People in different walks of life, different professions, and different parts of the country simply do not talk to one another. The same is true of political institutions: Since the Russian government effectively abolished representative democracy, canceling direct elections, there is no reason—and no real mechanism—for Moscow politicians to know what is going on in the vast country. Nor do governors need concern themselves with the lives and the disasters in their regions—they, too, are no longer elected but are appointed by the Kremlin.

Some Americans suffer from information overload; Russians suffer from the opposite.

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