Wednesday, December 12, 2012

“Fictionally Interesting” Science Fiction: A Response to Alastair Reynolds

Popular science fiction author Alastair Reynolds recently posted on his blog about a perceived condescension toward recent publications of big concept/abstract sc-fi—you know, space ships, aliens, laser guns, and the like.  Feeling that the large-scale entertainment side of the genre is being overlooked in favor of near-future dystopias, he makes some interesting statements in response. I quote one here:

“SF should not concern itself with writing about the most probable future, it should concern itself with what is the most fictionally interesting - be that probable, possible or downright unlikely.”

Fictionally interesting, hmm, a wide open door if I’ve ever seen one…

Reading Reynolds’ sci-fi, one is not surprised he would state such an opinion.  His novels predominantly retro in style, they utilize many of the genre’s well-worn tropes and are written in a style even he calls transparent.  Upgraded entertainment for a new generation, there is little new or challenging in the books.  In other words, they easily fit into the category of “fictionally interesting” science fiction, but unfortunately few others.

Such a mission statement leads one to wonder: what of writers of near-future dystopias who are supposedly in favor?  What of those sci-fi authors whose intentions are more rigorous in aim?  William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ian McDonald, Ken Macleod, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and many others have won acclaim from both inside and outside the sci-fi community for their ability to write stories set within near-future scenarios that comment upon the human condition in both entertaining and socially relevant fashion.  And it is precisely this narrowing of aim—sci-fi with a social conscience—that sets their writing apart from the crowd of “fictionally interesting”. 

The Modernist age spawned great hope that man would soon be walking amongst the stars, much of the science fiction of the times extrapolating in parallel.  The half century since, however, has put a damper on this joie de vie.  Humanity’s inability to escape its own humanity, to put conflict and greed, poverty and hatred behind itself, has deflated the balloon.  It should be no surprise then, that writing—especially the genre whose forte is the future—reflects this change.  Living among the stars is once again a pipedream.  Into the resulting void of ideology steps the cyberpunk movement—a reining in of big concept/Gernsbackian sci-fi to a more realistic speed.  Bringing back into focus precisely the concerns Modernism was supposed to eliminate, its near-future, dystopian outlook starkly contrasts the spic-and-span utopia of Golden Age sci-fi.  In other words, it presents technological and social issues that strike much closer to present reality than the ideas-for-idea’s-sake redolent throughout the more fictional side of the genre.  (Witness the contrast of Macleod’s The Execution Channel and Lucas’s Star Wars for proof.)

To a certain extent I agree with Reynolds: sci-fi should not limit itself to a specific form.  There should be room for imaginative exploration, to press on with humanity’s vision for a brighter future and to explore the limits of the genre.  If writers and artists cannot dream, who can?  But I also disagree with Reynolds.  If that which is “fictionally interesting” is the only aim for sci-fi writers, then the problems and issues humanity are currently facing, or likely soon face, will often go ignored in favor of abstract escapism.  In other words, it is near-future dystopias which most often link science fiction to reality, and in turn, most often make the genre socially, culturally, politically, and personally relevant.  Far future sci-fi likewise capable of such feats, Reynolds’ brand which emphasizes “fiction” will, however, most likely be remembered for its volume of sales and space opera qualities, not for its commentary on the human condition or discussion of socially relevant matters.  Though a need for all approaches to the genre exists, emphasis and media focus should remain on the literary side of the genre for it to retain its integrity and be more than just pop-art.

I give an example in support.  Reading forums and reviews of Reynolds’ Revelation Space series and one finds comments like: “fun”, “interesting”, “cool ideas”, or, “The Inhibitors escaping genocide was just fascinating”, “Who would win a fight in a vacuum: a Conjoiner or Ultra?”, “What happened to the Nestbuilders?”  In other words, the result is nothing more than comments and questions on the superficial details of plot and character.  Does this discussion improve society?  Does it lead humanity to a better place?  No.  Save the economics of book sales, fans naming their children after characters, and a few hours of fun, it has no lasting effect on the real world.  But there’s no doubt it’s fictionally interesting. 

Looking at forums and papers written on Ursula Le Guin’s work, however, and one finds a completely different caliber of discussion.  Her books full of material rich with purpose and substance, professors, scholars, and erudite fans alike discuss the cultural, mythological, and anthropological implications of her work, various literary studies spinning off in the process.  It isn’t about whether Ged’s magic could defeat Harry Potter’s in a wizards’ duel, it’s about issues personal and social.  In other words: concepts that have real value to real people, and can be applied in real life to real effect.  Le Guin writes about humanity’s tomorrow to comment upon its today so it might have a better understanding of tomorrow.  Reynolds writes about tomorrow so you can relax and enjoy today, tomorrow just a dream.

Certainly there is something to be said for the pleasure and sense-of-wonder in reading a good, entertaining science fiction novel.  It relaxes the soul and takes the imagination to places a person normally does not think of.  (And the Lord knows my shelves are full of such books, including Reynolds'.)  But its value is temporary.  Entertainment with “fictional interest” as its aim can generally be taken no further than enjoyment.  Without a strong thematic base, without specific parallels and juxtapositions to the real world, and without commentary, whether moral (Le Guin), cautionary (Orwell), or expository (Lem), it’s difficult for response to go beyond plot reiteration and opinion on the originality of future tech.  Literary science fiction, on the other hand, spawns discussion on the state of cultures, of people, of theories, and of the interaction and possible interaction amongst them.  In other words, it’s relevant to humanity’s past, present, and future.  As such, Reynolds has no cause to complain when his and other less rigorously thematic works whose only aim is to be “fictionally interesting” are overlooked in favor of books more focused on social and individual concerns.


  1. I started reading Reynolds early in high school and have kept up with some of his releases throughout and past university. Over that time I perceived what I thought to be a consistent decline in the quality of his work. I wonder how much of that was just due to maturation as a reader on my own part.

    1. Reynolds' language is a little saltier and he pads his novels with A LOT more spurious verbiage, but besides these differences, his stories could be Golden Age science fiction, such is his approach. So yeah, it doesn't surprise me people grow out of him.