Thursday 3 May 2012

Who's afraid of Science Fiction?

"Stop running away from me!!!"

Margaret Atwood claimed that she wrote speculative fiction, not science fiction. Because science fiction was about spaceships and monsters.

She got a lot of flak for saying that. And of course, she was completely wrong. On the other hand, she was also completely right. Or rather - she had a valid, if unpalatable, point.

You see, from the day it was born, science fiction has been trying desperately to get away from the sordid, squalid image of the 1920's pulps.

The roots of science fiction lie in the nineteenth century when the wonders of science became all the rage among Victorians, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the optimism of Empire. Writers like Jules Verne and, later, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley explored science in their writings. They were not however considered science fiction authors since, as a genre, it didn't actually exist. They simply partook of science as a theme whenever they felt like it. Most of their other writing was not science fiction at all and, like many other writers, they felt free to dip in and out in an eclectic manner that is quite rare today. There were simply fewer boundaries then.

By the 1920's and 30's the cheap pulp magazines were gleefully bringing sensational stories of monsters and spaceships to their avid readers, mixed in with romance and adventure stories. Even then science was simply a theme that was considered fair game for any writer to have a go at alongside their crime and adventure stories. It is only when we reach John Campbell in the 1930's that science fiction acquired its first definition - and its firm boundaries.

John Campbell is acknowledged as science fiction's most influential figure. He was also its jailer. Science Fiction had to meet exacting standards, and it was better served by specialist writers who knew their science, rather than fly-by-night hacks.

It was in fact he that invented the ghetto that many in science fiction complain about. And for all his standards, this Golden Age of science fiction is still characterized by spaceships and monsters (aliens and robots) and lurid covers with scantily clad ladies on them.

From the sixties onwards authors tried to get away from this narrow focus, declaring an interest in non-space speculative fiction, better written 'Literary' fiction and more socially oriented fiction. The genre also got a lot more political, attracting Libertarians, Anarchists, Marxists, Feminists... you name it, science fiction got it - a whole bunch of earnest writers eager to broadcast their ideas to the world. Science became just a vehicle, rather than the point of interest, because, after WW2, most people had become accustomed to what science could do. The 'sense of wonder' that is often talked about in SF became less valid to the masses than it was to the Victorians. Dresden and Hiroshima had already been bombed. Airliners already crossed the oceans.

Apart from odd spikes of interest during the space race and, later, the release of Star Wars, science fiction never again reached the heights of popularity, in relative terms, that the Golden Age reached.

But far from shrinking, science fiction as a genre ballooned, spawning categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, all playing a zero-sum game of defining what science fiction was.

It was no longer a genre, it was a battlefield. With Science Fiction's intense colonisation by sub-genres and special interest groups, and with all of them eager to bend the title around to represent their interests, the very term 'Science Fiction' became problematic, meaning different things to different people.

Science Fiction today is a corpse that's been left over from the Golden Age, and the only reason it's standing up and tottering about is because the maggots inside are standing on each others' heads, fighting to control its direction.

To writers and critics outside the genre, science fiction is disappearing up its own ass and becoming a literary black hole. No light escapes from it and writers are fearful of being sucked in lest they never get out. Hence Margaret Atwood's reluctance to become soiled by the term. And considering the number of SF writers who complain about being typecast and kept out of other markets, it's perhaps a valid fear.

And what do the readers think? Well, the hardcore insiders still cling to their fragment of SF as a means of identity. The rest don't care so much and will read anything provided it contains characters they like and a plot that keeps them turning the pages. If SF stops providing that then they'll stop reading it. Science Fiction will become synonymous with insular or boring writing and will echo with the sighs of publishers as they pulp unsold books and write off their investments. 

Oh wait... that's happened already.

So what now, eh? Well, personally I think we ought to stop running away from science fiction's origins. It was about space and adventure. And in the movie and game industry it still is. There is no shame in the term there, no kiss-of-death when someone mentions the word during a conceptual stage. Viewers lapped up Star Wars, Alien, Avatar and, if it's as well made as the others, will lap up Prometheus. And Gamers can't get enough of Mass Effect, even though it treads the same old ground of planet hopping, blaster packing, empire trading, yada yada yada. No movie or game producer who approaches backers with an idea for a kick-ass-thrill-ride-in-space idea will be met with sneers of, oh but what about new ideas, or a new concept, or a vision of a progressive future that we should be encouraging, or a utopia of equality and feminism or blah blah blah?

No, the first critieria of any new project will be, will the audience love it? Based not on views of what the audience ought to like, but on evidence based knowledge of what they actually like. It's crude, but it remains a good starting point. If a movie is based more on concept than appeal, it's arthouse, for which there's a select audience. But arthouse isn't enough to support the whole movie industry - it's the industry that enables arthouse. 

I think science fiction should be defined exactly as the public think it's defined - as about space and monsters. Speculative and pseudo-political fiction should be separated out from the term. I don't want to cause offence, but frankly I think they should fuck off and create their own genre to exercise their angst in. And we'll see then whether they sink or swim, rather than hitch a free ride on us and causing us all to drown.

But realistically we're probably too intertwined, and the term science fiction too compromised, for that to actually happen. We can't escape our own history.

What the hell. I'm going to do a Margaret Atwood - I too am going to distance myself from the term SF. Speculative Fiction that is, and its colonial grip on the original genre. Sod the concept of utopian ideas, political propaganda and Booker Prize ass-kissing. The story, and the characters, come first. Because that's how every other genre operates.

So I declare: I don't write science fiction. I write space fiction.

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