Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why fantasy and not science fiction?

When I was a kid, back in the 1970s, I was a science fiction fan. I loved me some early Star Trek, and then became a huge Dr. Who fan when it became available in the States. Of course Star Wars came along and blew my young mind, as it did for a whole generation. Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999 were also favorite shows, though looking back neither holds up well, in my opinion.

As a teen in the 1980s, I read all the Asimov I could get my hands on, and went back to check out the early masters, Verne and Wells and the like. There always seemed to be a Heinlein novel somewhere around me. And comic books, though not considered serious reading material at the time, were still full of science fiction elements.

Then along about the mid-1980s, I slowly began to lose interest in science fiction. By the '90s, what interest I had had was pretty much dead. Today I rarely read the genre, though every once in a while I will check out a hot author or peruse an old favorite.

What changed? Why do I no longer read science fiction?

For that matter, since I write so much speculative fiction, why don't I write much science fiction?

I've thought about this a lot of late, in no small part due to various postings over at the Black Gate site, and I've come to something of a mixed conclusion, though I'm fairly sure it's one not a lot of science fiction fans will like to hear.

Here's part of my conclusion: I didn't change so much as the genre of science fiction changed, and not for the better, in my opinion. The things I looked for in great sci-fi back in the day are rarely present in modern science fiction, or at least I'm not seeing a lot of it.

This begs the question, well, Ty, what is it you look for in science fiction?

The same thing I look for in most fiction. Good stories. Quality characters. Decent dialogue. Convincing and interesting plots. Etc.

But also, specific to the genre, I look for boundaries to be crossed, and I look for a sense of wonder.

I'm sure all that can be found in today's science fiction literature, but I'm not seeing much of it.

What do I see?

I see lots of military science fiction, which there's nothing wrong with, but I've read enough of it to find it lacking, meaning less relevant and compelling, compared to earlier works, Heinlein's Starship Troopers being the obvious but not only choice. The modern military sci-fi I've perused feels more like a video game than an actual story, with high body counts but little humanity.

I see some hard science fiction that I simply find annoying, and this is someone who has read a fair amount of Asimov. The thing is, Asimov told actual stories amid all his hard science. As an author, he provided me with that sense of wonder by raising questions and proposing possibilities. I see little of this in modern hard sci-fi. I see overly analytical and pedantic texts that everyone wants to argue about, whether the science is factual or used correctly, etc. There is no sense of wonder here. If I want such material, I can always go check out a physics textbook. For the most part, I could really give a shit about whether an author's science is 100 percent accurate, at least if he or she is telling a good story and gives me something to think about.

And then there's the modern version of softer science fiction I see. Like a lot of the bad but hot-selling thrillers on the market, much of this material reads like a fast screenplay. The science is practically irrelevant. The characters blank. The plots thin. But there'll be a mystery and some explosions and lots of running around without much getting done, at least not until the very end when everything is tied up in a little ribbon.

Okay, here's where somebody always chimes in with the argument, "well, you say you're not reading much science fiction today, so your opinion is obviously invalidated since you don't know what you're talking about." Let me just say to such arguments, yes, as I said, I don't read a lot of today's science fiction, not from beginning to end, but that doesn't mean I don't read book blurbs, that doesn't mean I don't skim novels and such online or at bookstores in order to get a feel for the story and the author's style, that doesn't mean I don't check out reviews and read fan forums and the like, and that doesn't mean I'm completely out of the loop, regardless of one's fan boy snideness.

And let me add, before someone's panties get bunched up, that I'm not saying modern science fiction is necessarily awful, that you aren't allowed to enjoy it simply because I do not. This isn't junior high and I'm not saying your favorite band sucks.

What I am saying is that the genre has moved on, and that I have little interest in it today. I've outlined most of my reasons above, but the great big reason, the elephant in the room, the rhinoceros on the nightstand, the hippopotamus on the toilet, is that I simply no longer find any sense of wonder in modern science fiction.

Which is why I tend to fall back upon the masters when I want to read the genre.

And which is why I turn to fantasy so often for my reading and writing.

Actually, fantasy might be the only genre left that still instills in me any sense of wonder. I'll admit much of modern fantasy also falls under some of the faults I listed above, but not all of it, not enough of it to kill my complete interest. Some horror comes close to providing that sense of wonder, but so much of horror today is about the scare or the blood and gore, with little thought given to anything beyond.

I do want a good story, but I also want something that makes me think but does so without my having to go back to college to get a degree in one of the hard sciences, and this is coming from someone who gets most of the references and jokes on "The Big Bang Theory." Not everyone goes along with that line of thinking, and that's fine, not all books nor all genres are for everyone. I'm fine with that.

But once upon a time, science fiction was for me. And now it's not. And I kind of miss it.

6 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Other than Star Trek, and older books, I haven't read a lot of SF in the past few years either. I think a lot of it is the "Sense of wonder" thing, and I wonder if some of my problem is that I'm just getting older and more experienced, and thus finding it less easy to experience that sense of wonder.

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, I've wondered the same thing, but, speaking for myself, I know I can still gain that sense of wonder by reading older sci-fi, but not the modern stuff.

It might also be that the modern world is so skeptical and critical that it bleeds over into our fiction, even when not intended. While not necessarily contrary, I don't feel such attitudes would allow for much of a sense of wonder.

Keith West said...

Ty, I think you're absolutely correct. The sense of wonder is missing. I've said as much publicly at several science fiction conventions when panel discussions have opened up for audience comments.

I grew up living, breathing, and bleeding science fiction. I've read Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, and more masters of the genre than I'll take time to name.

I read very little science fiction now, and there are days when I miss it. Jack McDevitt is about the only science fiction author I'll still buy in hardcover.

Much of the problem, at least as I see it, is that too many authors have forgotten about sense of wonder and having fun. Instead they feel they have Something Important to say, and that gets in the way of the story.

You're correct that much modern fantasy suffers from the same problems, but you're also right that not all of it has.

The Wasp said...

Very interesting to read this. I think it was about seven or eight years ago that I noticed I rarely read sci-fi anymore and for exactly the same reasons you listed. I wonder if growing up before the deluge that is modern geek culture has any play in that.

Fantasy on the other hand still can bring me to the fantastic realms new sci-fi rarely can. I had problems with Ringworld during my recent rereading but its scope still awed me AND the science was integral to the story. If I need a sci-fi fix I'm more than happy to pull out a Jack Vance or Clifford Simak book.

Ty Johnston said...

I hadn't thought about "the deluge that is modern geek culture," but I think it's an interesting point. I might not even have thought of it in such terms. More likely, I would have thought of it as "fanboy culture," which I have to admit I find quite repulsive in a lot of ways.

The Wasp said...

I think part of the "problem" is as sci-fi became more popular it got more watered down in order to become even more popular. I think that's how we've ended up with such weak tea passing itself off as sci-fi these days.