[From “Nothing Much — And Then Even Less”] Progressive Fiction

Recently, I submitted a near-future hard-ish sci-fi piece to an “Optimistic Sci-Fi” anthology. It was rejected with the explanation that what the editor looked for was sci-fi that tackled “current” issues, and mine (centered on spaceflight, and, to a lesser degree, social alienation at the work place and the nature of what drives humans to explore) simply didn’t.

I don’t mind the rejection — only an editor can decide what is right for their publication, and there’s no guarantee that my story was written well enough even if it were the correct material — but his justification of the rejection got me thinking about what I perceive science fiction to be, versus what I’ve been seeing in certain “serious” publications and other writers/readers’ opinions online.

To start, the greater whole of science fiction is as diverse as literature itself. If it contains a relevant to the story speculative element (from an unlikely piece of technology in modern times or a twist on a historical event, to a whole world that is based on principles of physics that stretch our imagination), then the piece of prose can be classified as “sci-fi.” Everything else, adventure, heroism, romance, mystery, drama, humor, high-concept, introspection, political or social commentaries, etc. etc. — is fair game, as long as it works with the speculative element and helps turn the concept into a story. And what is popular today is merely a subset of the greater whole, and is fickle as any other fad.

Furthermore, different media nurture different flavors of science fiction. So, to make sweeping generalizations about the essense of “modern” science fiction is impractical and any generalization will be most certainly incorrect as soon as I put it down in a sentence.

But here are some of my observations for the traditional print markets (POD and small press are a different matter, and I’m afraid I don’t know enough to comment on them).

Longer form seems to be, as always, dominated by the Big Names, who can do whatever they damn well please, but, thankfully, mostly stick to the old and tried, whatever that happens to be for them. Then, you have a smaller batch of Fad Cronies (are we out of the silly vampire/werewolf phase yet? wassdat, steam punk?), some of whom will fade into oblivion as soon as their sub-genre is replaced by the next fad, and some who will go on to grow into Big Names and do whatever they damn well please. And then, you have the few Wild Cards, who may be lucky enough to initiate a fad and become Big Names, but will most likely either carve out a niche for themselves, or crash and burn (or just be dismissed and quickly forgotten). (by the way, I’m not including the existing universes books not because I don’t consider them science fiction, but because they come with preset tropes and topics, and are only slightly influenced by the passage of time and editor/audience preferences)

Shorter form seems to have a similar distribution, except that the Big Names experiment a little more, Fad Cronies tend to have a smaller page-share and sometimes only restricted access, and the Wild Cards appear to be encouraged to go shorter than short, but have more slots. Also, shorter form publications (especially anthologies) sometimes attempt to resurrect old fads, or call for specific themes that aren’t usually a focus in the mainstream of the genre.

All that said, I’m still talking about science fiction. Which means, no matter the tradition, fad, experiment, or unlikely theme, it still needs to have that speculative element central to the story. And, after having taken the scenic route, I’m finally arriving at my point.

I’ve been seeing a lot of thematic fiction (gender/racial/etc. oppression, environmental decline, overpopulation, large-scale aggression, etc.) with barely a touch of speculation in it, in science fiction publications. Not that these themes aren’t important, poignant, actual, and so on. On the contrary. But I’ve often felt these don’t belong in the genre. It’s like slipping on a pair of medieval boots with that super-nice tux and going to a ren faire. Sure people will notice the tux. You may even get a compliment on the boots. But you’ll get the tux dusty — and you probably won’t get quite the same reception as if you had gone to that formal social mixer. That is, such thematic fiction may get a lot more attention and appreciation outside the genre of science fiction. Not because it stains the genre or something silly as that. But because fiction in the genre is supposed to be built on its speculative elements, not on the message.

To take the quite worn-out example: yes, Starship Troopers (the book) had a lot of political and social commentary in it. But at its core, it was a story about humans dealing with aliens. You change the bugs to people and bring the action to Earth, your circumstances, strategy, and resolution change to the point where you have a different story. Does the commentary change? Not necessarily, but that’s what helps a science fiction story resonate with its readers — it still needs to have underlying themes that, whether or not the reader agrees with the messages, are related to universal or current topics.

But, nowadays, from comments on blogs, webpages, and forums, I’m getting the impression that there are many people out there who cringe at aliens as if they’ve just found a cockroach in their breakfast, think space is so 50’s, believe science and math are boring unless they are somehow twisted into “art,” consider technology and gadgets fine for flakes like Bond, but not much else, find fifty years into the future to be too far out to bother with … and, for whatever reason, still call whatever they want to read/write “science fiction.”

Er?

I don’t read only science fiction (or fantasy) — actually, most of the books I’ve purchased lately haven’t even been fiction. I believe that there’s fine reading outside the genre, and I just don’t understand why some people are dead-set on pushing for “progressive” science fiction, when, in fact, they are just asking for contemporary fiction with a touch of speculation in it.

The science fiction genre is quite rich in itself. It already has its traditions, its culture, its cycles of fads, and baselines and classics, and constantly evolves within its own — granted, pretty fuzzy — boundaries. We, as the fans of the genre, may sometimes get frustrated with certain fads and their Cronies, become disappointed with Big Names, and yearn for Wild Cards to our tastes. We sometimes may think the market is going to hell and claim to have the best solutions for its “revival.” But, at the end of the day, I think that we still want our stories to require us to take an often times quite literal leap of imagination — that precious geek-out moment, if you will — and we still want the speculation at the core of our story, with all its controversial or heart-warming messages in tow.

Or, I guess, I do.

And if I wanted to read a handbook on current world issues and possible solutions (for the optimists) or aftermaths (for the pessimists) in fiction format, I’d be more than happy to walk over to a different section of the bookstore. “Progressive fiction” sounds like a good term, I think. Any takers?

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