There’s something I’ve been struggling to put my finger on about a lot of newer SF; it has to do with the prevalent mood, pacing, and characterization I’ve been seeing for a number of years. Let me preface by saying that there are certainly very good stories being written, and that some of the people whose work sometimes falls into the realm of these criticisms have a great deal of my respect. But.
But there’s a sense of flatness to most lead characters I come across lately. It seems an echo of the cyberpunk ethos, something more hip (even in loser-ey characters) than I am drawn to, something just a bit too self-comfortable, too solid, too witty and vernacular. It’s not so overt or extreme, most of the time, that it ruins stories, but it leaves me feeling a bit empty, like I’ve watched a heavily-produced film or ad campaign. I find myself, especially now that I’m knee-deep in my own stories and can recognize such things, asking the same set of questions: what is the motivation? Is this character a real person in some universe? Is she round? Is she too consistent? People aren’t a set of clear goals, an area of obsession, and a neurotic tendency. But that seems to be the rule lately. Beyond the characters, there’s simply a sort of atmospheric paradigm that screams of a very particular and relatively limited influence. It’s post-Gibson, post-Sterling, maybe, if we’re lucky, post-Stephenson. And all these writers have something to offer, especially the latter, in my opinion. But there’s a thread of aesthetics and values that seems to emanate from this school and which seems to have set the tone total for modern SF.
The problem? That 80s cyberpunk school was largely an oppositional movement – it didn’t intentionally incorporate older SF influences in the way SF had always done, even f it was critical and carried out critically. It ignored it. That’s the “punk” in cyberpunk. But for a generation of writers to echo only (or largely) the kinds of worlds implied, if not created, by these writers is to eschew a lineage of writers and works whose influence is sorely needed. Where are the writers who could be accurately (though not thoroughly) described as post-Dick, post-Delaney, post-LeGuin? If they exist, are they SF writers?
One of the factors that drives a wedge between this heritage and the prevalent narrative is that of science – in particular its unambiguously positive powers. But it’s not just that there’s too much utopianism (maybe there is a hint of an older SF influence, but if so, it’s old and stops at Asimov, still neglecting the entirety of the “New Wave”). It’s also, quite simply, its ubiquity. Yes, technology everywhere in our world. And no, I’m not advocating a harsh revival of dystopian SF, with all its didactic finger-wagging. But let’s face it: the role of SF is more nuanced than either extreme; it’s not some luddite warning-cry that despises progress. But it’s not the futurist consultant telling you how to fix everything with science either. We’ve gained too much ground, become too relevant, and we’ve done what so many before us have done in such a position: slid easily into the comfortable role, the vizier role. SF shouldn’t be all about saying “wow, look how far this could go!” It should be, by its nature, self-critical, world-critical, paradigm-critical. It should always be asking what things are like for the underdog.
I feel a distinction needs to be made when it comes to science. Science, for all its might and beauty (and I revel in the amazing discoveries being made as much as any wide-eyed SF fan), is a language of description, not of articulation. The biggest hole in most SF now is not the believability of the technology or its implications; it’s the way the dirty, ugly, boring, compromise-laden translation of discovery into anything you can use as a plot device is completely neglected. SF writers who say, “Hey! Check out all these technological, engineering solutions. Isn’t physics cool?” are being irresponsible. There’s a lot of space between the observations and the implementations, a space of culture-clashes and pragmatic issues, where other civic and technical languages (like engineering, law, public policy, ethics, ownership rights, politics, etc) have to take the static and make it dynamic without killing everything in sight, including the beauty and meaning of the discovery. We need to stop equating things which are different. The ripples are not the stone.
But beyond that, we only see how these things filter through a very limited set of disciplines, despite the obfuscation of that process: we see the outcomes in engineering. We sometimes see it in politics. And, in an increasingly mundane way, we of course see it from the standpoint of people. But people are a little bigger than the sketch of a life. People are where the lofty questions find poignancy. If nothing else, our characters, flat and culture-perfect, show us a documentary-style glimpse at a handful of implications. But not enough. What I do not see is the way those things filter through ontology, through spiritual thinking, through legality; I don’t see nearly enough of what happens at the edges. There’s been a retreat, even as more cultural diversity is seeping into SF, from a critical examination of colonialism, globalism, education.
I keep going back to the pre-Socratics, to the whole mess of human history where there weren’t the hard delineations there are now. Of course I’m glad science isn’t in the purview of the church anymore; but the separation of the physical from its non-corporeal counterparts has killed entire schools of thought, entire disciplines, that I am amazed every day to discover still have value. Whither cosmology that is neither physics nor theology? Whither latent forms, metaphor as both symbolic and true, soul as literal substance, universe as mind? Natural Philosophy has become science, which is not philosophy at all, while philosophy has failed to keep up with the questions posed by scientific discovery.
SF should never be simply the wagging finger or the optimistic smile. It should be the devil’s advocate, where the devil is whatever stone has been left unturned. Science is great, though it’s not synonymous with technology; but we know that. In this respect, SF accomplished part of what it set out to accomplish. And that means, for a field as vital as ours, that it’s time to move on, to look at the latent, the hidden, the troublesome, the ambiguous. Perhaps there are other stories worth telling.