Tuesday, February 22, 2011

People who used to read science fiction: 4

So far in this series we've looked at television, films, video games, franchise novels, and anime as fixes for speculative fiction fans who've given up on original literary science fiction as a genre over the past two decades. What else remains?

Fantasy!



Fantasy has been largely untouched and uncomplicated by the cynicism and heavy-handed political tones that have poisoned literary science fiction. And so fantasy continues to sell well and to take up more and more shelf-space in the speculative fiction corners of brick-and-mortar bookstores.

No doubt the George R.R. Martin fans among you must be wondering how I could say that cynicism hasn't entered into fantasy.



He's the exception to the rule in my view. That and while his books are brutally realistic with regards to the violence and ruthless politics of the European Medieval period, that darkness is also offset by the heroism of some of his primary characters, and the often surprising redemption of some of the series worst villains. (For those who are interested in the bloody nature of political maneuvering of Medieval Europe and how it interfaced with family and war, I can warmly recommend Alison Weir's gripping biography Eleanor of Aquitaine, which presents a similar mixture of brutality and idealistic aspirations.)

Fantasy, however, is not a universal solution by any means for ex-science fiction readers. Only about half the former readers whom I know or have talked to read fantasy. Those who enjoy fantasy novels read fantasy even before they dropped science fiction. Among the other half, most over the age of fifty have never read fantasy and have no interest in it. Many of those who are under fifty dislike high-fantasy (elves, dragons, mythical settings etc), but will read a good modern urban fantasy--particularly of the grittier variety.

So: Film, fantasy, television, games, anime, and sometimes tie-in novels are the solution for much of our former readership. A readership put off by the lack of enthusiasm for technology in a genre about technology and its implications; a readership that longs for optimism or at least a sense of challenge from a literary community that serves up doom, gloom, and anti-heroism; a readership whose members who tend to be empirical in outlook and clustered around the pragmatic center of the political spectrum, only to be served up works by editors and authors have shifted to the Chomsky/Moore/Wolf far left.

Now that I've flogged this dead horse all the way into the antipodal Indian Ocean, where should we have gone back in the 1990s?



In many ways The Matrix ended up embodying the direction of speculative fiction storytelling I had been hoping to see literary science fiction go twenty years ago. The first film was an elegant fusion of Big Ideas and storytelling, one that was better balanced than the intelligent but sometimes clunky science fiction novels of the 1980s.

The Matrix took epistemology--one of the knottiest branches of philosophy--and made it sexy. The questions of "what do we know" and "how do we know" it were woven into the characters and fueled the plot. The concept explanations and data dumps were deft and well balanced against action scenes that demonstrated or even introduced important ideas.

One of my favorite moments was Lawrence Fishburne holding up that copper-topped battery to sum up his character's expository dialog on how the machines had reduced humanity to components in an exploitive system. Sure, I wish that he had held up a CPU or some other bit of computer hardware after explaining how the machines were using people as cheap neural net hardware rather than as a power source. Scientific endo-thermal implausibilities aside, it was still a great explanation and a fantastic use of imagery to get a concept across. It's the kind of experience that I think could be replicated or at least emulated in literary science fiction.

And yes, there are politics in the film. The Wachowski brothers are out in the Noam Chomsky corner of the left wing, but they were subtle in applying their ideology to their art. The underlying ideals and ideas of the film makers’ beliefs are so deeply integrated into the flow of the film that it's thought provoking rather than alienating or indoctrinating. William Gibson's first three novels are similarly light-handed with the author's political views, and all the more effective for it in my eyes.

The last two 90s science fiction novels that I truly enjoyed were Neal Stephenson’s Snow Cash and Diamond Age. As clunky as these were--and Snow Crash was pretty damn clunky in the data dump department--these books were heroic and engaging enough to make up for the rough integration of big concepts.

Engaging.

Unfortunately that's a word that I haven't been able to apply to any novel in the genre that I’ve read since then. While I've gutted through several books off and on in the meanwhile, but it’s been a long time since anything in the field has had that magic balance between ideas, sympathetic characters, and action that holds my interest rather than me having to actively try and maintain an interest.

Next up: The publishing plan

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