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.

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