Science Fiction and Space Opera

by Sherwood Smith

At a LosCon panel a few years ago, a surprising number of people said that they don’t read science fiction any more. They read mysteries—fantasy—historicals, whatever. Not SF.

The thing that surprised me was that these were former fans. Granted, people can get tired of mainlining any genre. But to say “I don’t read it anymore”—that surprised me.

So ever since then, I’ve been keeping an eye out for similar discussions, asking if people read SF, and if not, why? Where has science fiction failed you, or ceased to spark the sense of wonder, or failed to engage your interest?

Answers vary all over the map, as usual, but there were a few general observations to be gleaned. The main one seemed that at least these readers are no longer intrigued by the possible.

So many of my generation delighted in fiction that furnished the tantalizing sense of peeking round the corner into the future. Trying the future on for size. For many that’s no longer fun, or even interesting. In some, it generates a feeling of anxiety, as if the future is bleak any way you approach it.

Some said that future-guessing is no longer fun because the technology of Now is changing with a rapidity that feels like we’re already living in the future.

I am not attempting to predict that SF is dead. SF has been around for far too many centuries; just the other day I saw a reference to a science fiction story published somewhere around in the 200s A.D, in which dog-faced men fought on the backs of modified beetles against invaders. In another post I mentioned a French science fiction novel that was a best-seller not only right before the Revolution, but all during it, as the writer hastily emended editions to incorporate the latest political turns of the Girondisten, etc.

There are plenty of readers who love their nuts’n’bolts, the more the better, and plenty who want those grim dystopias, the darker the better, because (as one person said) when I get done reading one, it’s like waking up from a nightmare. I might not be able to fix the future, but at least today doesn’t seem so bad by comparison!

But the majority who exclaimed that they love their SF said that they get their SF fix from space opera mode, that is, the tropes of SF but presenting a universe that is just as improbable as fantasy. In space opera, there remains that sense of wonder that they had as kids.

I’ll come back to space opera, but first, what about kids and SF?

Though my sample is confined to kids I’ve taught and spoken to, I’ve come to a tentative conclusion that sense of wonder shapes differently for kids now than it did for us forty years ago. Just generalizing here: they don’t want scientific discovery as a goal—that’s too much like the slog of science class. What they really want is the impossible.

One year fairly recently, just before I retired, I asked a class about this, after I got a forest of hands when I asked “Who likes fantasy?” but only a lone hand when I asked about science fiction.

So I asked why. The most frequent answer was some version of: People in science stories are always boring. All they talk about is the stuff they are learning.

“What about cool experiments?” I asked, and got a shrug. Experiments aren’t cool, they’re something you have to do for school, and get graded on. But if I rephrased the question along the lines of “You want the experiments to do something, right? You don’t want to read about experiments being the thing the kids do,” I got a chorus of Yeah!s,

When I asked, “Don’t you like stories where the people go to interesting places?” The answers centered around the fact that the kids wanted other worlds, not Earth—or if it had to be on Earth, they wanted jetpacks, hovercars, invisibility beams, blasters. And in one class discussion, when one boy said, “I want dragons!” there was another spontaneous “Yeah!” They just had to be science fictional dragons.

One can say that kids are pretty straightforward in their tastes. They haven’t been alive long enough to form sophisticated needs in their fiction. They preferred fantasy because you didn’t get science teacher lectures about how the world is ending and there’s no way to fix it, they got action from heroes with agency—and cool creatures, like dragons.

Space opera seems to map over epic fantasy reading, for adults. Space opera is set so far in the future, or so distant from Earth, that it leaps over all the anxious questions about which we feel so helpless now. The canvas is vast, the trappings fantastical. As my co-writer and I have been in the process of rewriting a space opera (the first book of which goes live here at BVC on May 17th) that my co-writer and I first published in the nineties, I’ve been thinking about the elements that make space opera so much fun.

It really does map over a lot of the same territory as epic fantasy—vast landscape (worlds and worlds! All reachable by FTL, so you don’t have to waste generations of travel time between planets), complicated storyline, big cast, larger than life heroes and villains, the full roller coaster of emotions, from humor to horror, interesting relationships, fast action, maybe even a touch of the numinous. Sense of wonder as well of sense of fun. In both epic fantasy and space opera there is room to slip in those what-if questions, and play out possible answers while slamming around in high-speed action.

Anyway, if you like science fiction, what kind, and why?

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Science Fiction and Space Opera — 38 Comments

  1. Interesting question. When I was a teenager I was entranced with the Pern books and also discovered Heinlein, Julian May, the Dune series.

    Today by far and away the vast majority on my bookshelves is fantasy, ranging from epic to space to urban/paranormal. Why? Because somewhere along the way SF got ‘hard to read’. It got gritty and political and hard core science and for me lost the sensawunder required to enjoy it. If I was to put it into one sentence the story stopped being about people and more about the ‘things’ or the ‘concept’

    Am still reading and enjoying the Culture books, but Ian MacDonald and Alistair Reynolds leave me cold. And I totally don’t get China Meiville at all (brilliant and funny guy tho).

    If I was to put it into one sentence the story stopped being about people and more about the ‘things’ or the ‘concept’.

  2. I particularly like the highly imaginative SF that includes both projected science and elements that feel like fantasy — Gwyneth Jones’s brilliant series of books that begins with Bold as Love comes to mind. It’s got the world crumbling due to climate change, a high tech power source from the human body, and magic. China Mieville also excels at blending the two elements — maybe it’s a British thing.

    But Jones’s Life, which is all SF and deals with the complex issues of the near future, is still my favorite book of the 21st Century. Though to be truthful, I’m the opposite of the folks you describe: I’ve pretty much stopped reading traditional fantasy. I’m bored by more or less medieval worlds and heroic quests and dragons and sorcerers both good and evil.

    I tend to like the fantasy that illuminates our lives by adding a supernatural element to the mundane world. Some of the “New Weird” is too weird for me, but a lot of it does what literary fiction ought to do, but doesn’t because it is too obsessed with being “real.” The best books of this type are by Karen Joy Fowler; the supernatural element in some of her books is small, but it makes all the difference in the story.

    It comes to me that I’m also bored by a lot of space opera. But then, I started reading SF/F because literary and mainstream fiction seemed so devoid of ideas and possibilities, and I got really hooked on the genre by reading people like Chip Delany and Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ: people who wrote highly imaginative stories that were full of ideas. That remains my standard, whatever literature I’m reading.

  3. I prefer SF thrillers to mainstream thrillers. Give me technogeekery and lots of excitement. The main difference between an SF thriller and a mainstream thriller, in my opinion, is that in the mainstream thriller, the politics or the law has to drive the thrill. It’s either a spy story or a crime story.

    In an SF thriller, the McGuffin can be the driver. You can have the dynamics of relationships/politics/law as well, but there’s the possibility of the gadget causing the thrill which lifts it to another level. Much more fun!

    Of course I like space opera.

    What I don’t like is poorly written SF that throws in the kitchen sink, like one recent small pub book I tried and failed to read. About the time the attack rabbits started up, with no clear implications before then, I dropped the book. Insufficient foundation for the story. If it’d been written better and not with a lot of “throw in a lot of weirdness to cover up for crappy writing,” I’d have liked it. Instead, it was Book, Meet Wall.

    Good space opera that explores deep themes also fascinates me. Alternate futures, alternate dimensions, even dystopias. But don’t throw in the kitchen sink and couple it with boring, crappy writing!

  4. BlueRose: Didacticism is something many have complained about in mainstream fiction as well (what some call literary.)

    Nancy Jane: I agree about Karen Joy Fowler, though I’ve mentally slotted her in magical realism rather than SF.

    I think my tastes are simpler than yours. For example, though I love Delany’s essays passionately, I have never been able to finish one of his novels. Give me Bujold, who (I think) also writes about ideas, but I care about her characters. Deal breaker for me.

    Joycemocha: Good point about SF thrillers!

  5. I have to admit to being one of those people who “used to” read science fiction but no longer does as a rule (though I do have some China Mieville waiting to be red, along with Octavia Butler and Atwood.) I have to agree with commenter Blue Rose in that it started being about the concept rather than the people/story, but I think there’s more to it than personal likes and dislikes. I think it also has a lot to do with what’s being presented, and how.

    I’m thinking back to the 70’s and 80’s when science fiction (in the movies) was Star Wars, Cocoon, and Close Encounters; or Terminator and Alien. A fairly good balance between hardcore scifi and softer scifi. Movies, I believe, tend to follow what people are reading rather than the other way around, and still do–maybe more so than ever. But it’s on such a larger scale these days. Movie after same movie, book after same book. Certainly, it happened, but to the extent that it does now? I just don’t think so.

    We are innundated with so much of the same, same, same. The glut of these dystopian, cautionary tales makes it seem like that’s all that’s out there, and those (like me) who’ve traditionally only dabbled in scifi, don’t have the wherewithall to search out the fare they fell for as younger versions of themselves. Those die-hard fans with their fingers on the pulse of everything science fiction are going to know what’s good, what’s not more of the same thing. Those more like me, I think, have quietly backed away.
    (The opinion of a former science-fiction reader whose #1 and #2 books of all time are The Giver (Lowry), and The Dispossessed (LeGuinn).

  6. Interesting question. I noticed myself a few months ago while exploring a new bookstore that what I now tend to read is classified more as Fantasy than SciFi – whereas it used to be the opposite.

    Formerly,
    Sci-Fi: imaginative, exploring, character driven with only occasional paragraphs on technology and few rants about politics
    Fantasy: lots of Tolkien wannabes

    Now:
    Sci-Fi: lots of emphasis on technology, politics and social structure. less on exploration and adventure. grittier and darker. More wars in too much detail.
    Fantasy: imaginative. character driven. Less orc/elf battles to the end of civilization.

    Obviously the above are exaggerated, and there are elements that cross back and forth.
    Still….

    I loved Heinlein, Norton, Campbell, Asimov as a child and young adult (and others whose names I cannot at present remember)

    I get enough of the realities of everyday life at work; I prefer to read about possibilities and adventure rather than people coping (or not) with current or near-future events.

  7. I like just about any science fiction except military and dystopian (although I loved cyberpunk), but I’m just not finding a bunch of what I like on the shelves any more. I’m not a huge fan of the central hero SF like Honor Harrington, Miles *bless you for that sneeze name*, or others like it. They tend to be military SF, which doesn’t interest me at all. Therefore, I get left out of a large amount of what’s on the shelves these days.

    Right now, my SF reading is pretty much the newest Jack McDevitt, Alistar Reynolds (although it takes a lot for me to read him), Peter F. Hamilton, or David Weber’s Empire of Charis series. I’ve read all the oldies but goodies (except the ones I couldn’t read back when), and there’s just not a lot else coming out that makes me want to pounce on them. It’s frustrating because I do want to mix SF and fantasy reading. I miss reading SF, to be honest. I want more. But it’s just not there.

  8. Possibly we are no longer intrigued by the possibilities because the possibilities offered are no longer intriguing? Take Mundane SF — which intentionally rules out a lot, some of which is possible even with today’s knowledge.

  9. I recently picked up an older SF story, read two pages, and sighed happily – not because the book was good or I loved it – I mislaid it and read something else so I can’t judge – but because I have missed the level to which SF writers used to ask readers to suspend their disbelief: it’s a novel about a character dealing with 300g at the equator of his planet who is in radio contact with a human many times his size: deal with it. From the couple of pages I read this very much _will_ be a hard science novel – but it starts at such an unlikely, far-out location that it made me swoon.

    That doesn’t mean that I hate all near-future techno-thrillers (just reading a Laundry novel by Charles Stross and loving it) – but if science ficiton is limited _only_ to likely technological developments, much of the woonder leaks out of it for me – because one of the fun bits about reading other people’s books is reading about scenarios *that I could not have imagined*. By that measure, fiction about the internet is, by and large, boring.

    The other very common form of SF are post-apocalyptic novels, and much as I might like individual writers, as a genre it does nothing much for me – and it, too, is very much grounded in the possible and forseeable, rather than leaps of faith.

  10. I love science fiction, but I think I can see where teenagers today would be disillusioned with it. I think it has to do with the “absolute right” of science-fiction. The “absolute right” is the belief that science is infallible, that it leads to better things, and that it is indisputable absolute truth. These things just aren’t true today. There are news stories every week about how scientific discoveries are being refined, overturned, and redone with different results. The system of how science is conducted, with one testing variable, leads to mistakes or errors in assumption. It also leads to unexpected consequences when a study is implemented (such as the “people like sugar” study that led to sugar being in every fast food item that’s a large contribution to the obesity epidemic). Add in the fact that there are prominent cases of people falsifying scientific data (anti-vacc) and people who actively campaign against belief in scientific fundamentals (evolution) and you get an environment today where science just isn’t the solution to all our problems like it was fourty years ago. Instead it’s the contributor to the downfall of society, which is where I think the current dystopian trend finds its niche.

  11. Aurora Celeste: in the 1950s there was an otherwise forgettable Bob Hope movie with Sophia Loren or one of the Italian actresses of the time, in which it was blithely posited that all department stores by 1960 would have X-ray machines at the front for the customers to get a perfect fit and a quick future-science checkup at the same time. Because Progress was inherently good.

    A decade later, when the proliferation of awful diseases began implicating the happy-go-lucky nuclear bomb tests that were so common all through the fifties and early sixties, and the damages caused by radium treatments and the like began cropping up, the belief in Science and Progress as the cure of all ills began to seriously falter.

    The real lesson was that all actions have consequences, but people tend to like easy fault-finding, and so Science as a faith began to take some serious hits.

  12. It seems that I stopped reading sf when people stopped being human beings. It is real world technology that did that too. With our current capacity to already manipulate our genetics, to incorporate mechanical and micro devices into our corpuses — corpii? — we are well on our way to the Transformer leap. Can’t conceive? Get fertility treatments, or use in vitro technology, or many other options. Nor does love have anything to do with it! Or even sex, as we used to experience it.

    I’m probably not making much sense. What I am trying to say, is that for me, the future doesn’t look in the least rosy. Sf hasn’t provided any visions of how we might possibly get from this state where we seem posed on the edge of the canyon that will wipe out — at least for most of us — what positive social, medical and cultural gains we have made — to avoiding large scale tip of catastrophe to a few vicious ruling corporations over all the rest of us, who will not even be able to afford dentists. The only sf author who does try to do this seems to be Kim Stanley Robinson.

    What we have are fantasies of our former imperial world dressed up in weird exoskeletons of rube goldberg mechanics. Steampunk is about design, but mostly it seems design like W Hotels, in which human bodies aren’t taken into account, so when you work at one of their ‘desks’ which is the wrong height and so forth for a human body, you get pinched nerves and pain. But o, that desk looks so cool! And the bed — not for bodies to sleep in, but for a wild shag with your business collegue while out of town.

    I’m not saying things should be different. It’s just what it feels like for me, and why I don’t read much sf any more — or for that matter much fantasy either — all that mash-up and snark that thinks it’s witty as Jane Austen!

    This is why the first Dune is still the best space opera ever. Despite all the transformed pilots of the Space Guild, the Face Dancers, the capacity of Bene Gesserit women to control their fertility, they still bred via breeding lines, like the Thoroughbred still must do — no artificial insemination allowed if you want your babies to go into the Book. Despite grand technology, we had an essentially Roman/Byzantine imperium — just longer. We had tribes and heroes and hand-to-hand combat — and everyone was still human.

    I’m one of those people for whom machines aren’t fun, and neither are such over-menchen who live as avatars immortally. I seem inevitably stuck in the blood, the mud and the soul. IOW, my age is showing!

    Love, C.

  13. Space opera is my favorite by far, but I also enjoy disaster SF and some technical SF, too.

    If I had to choose one, though, space opera, with sweeping planetary back drops, lots of alien cultures, and fantastic elements is definitely the way I’d go.

  14. I think as we move out of the space age, we’re entering into a sort of neo-romanticism in our literary tastes, more emphasis on emotions and relationships, characterization, in other words, and less on rational worldbuilding. Hard scifi is frequently all about sacrificing characterization for complicated technological explainations. Also, a lot of scifi lit that doesn’t fill up with technological explanations is more concerned with a concept than it is with characters, not in a “ooh, shiny fun world!” way, but in a “if we had time travel, we would screw up history” kind of way, stories as teaching philosophy as opposed to stories for story sake.

    I’m wondering if the current popularity of historical punk genres might not have to do with the fact that most of the tech is mechanical, and therefore understandable to anyone who passed middle school science, the explanations are short or nonexistent, and there’s a general “just go with it” attitude?

  15. I’m very much an example for this trend. I used to read a lot of SF in my teens and throughout my twenties, but then I gradually migrated to other genres. Part of the reason is that I ran out of enjoyable backlist SF to read, part of the reason is that I became more sophisticated as a reader and was no longer willing to put up with the cardboard characterization of some golden age works or do the heavy lifting to mentally add in the characterization that was never in the original (which I realize now I was doing as a teenager, because a lot of the characterization I remember from books I read back then only existed in my head) and another part is that the new stuff simply didn’t scratch the SF itch like the old stuff did.

    I started reading SF during the height of the cyberpunk era, but I never read cyberpunk at the time. Instead, I gravitated towards space opera and old-fashioned planetary romance, though I also read some hard SF, invasion stories and even the occasional dystopia. Though I hated eco-dystopias even back then – there was too much eco-pessimism going on in the 1980s. But sometime in the late 1990s/early 2000s SF changed. The near future and cyberpunk stuff increased, which had never done it for me at all. Space opera changed as well, the infodumps became longer and less digestible with a lot of emphasis on “plausible” science (i.e. no FTL, hyperdrives, etc…) , political blathering increased as well, while the characters remained or became paperthin cardboard cutouts. There were also a lot less rebellions against evil regimes, which had always been an important component of the SF I liked.

    A few years ago, I read an SF novel by a highly acclaimed SF author with several Hugo nominations under his belt and it consisted of an interesting premise, but lots of indigestible technobabble dumps, characters with less dimensions than paperdolls pushed around the plot. Two characters were supposed to fall in love during the novel, but I just didn’t see it. And book after new book was just like that. Add to that that I did my MA thesis on SF and therefore seriously overdosed on SF criticism and I went completely off SF for the next two years or so.

    However, I didn’t migrate to epic fantasy from SF, because the cod medieval settings of much epic fantasy never really did it for me. I prefer my fantastic worlds to have indoor plumbing, thank you very much. That’s why I migrated to urban fantasy, which has fantastic settings, a modern level of technology, better characterization (well, the good stuff) and lots of women with agency. I also read some Steampunk, which also does a good job scratching that SF urge (though some of it can be icky), but the only SF I still read are writers like Lois McMaster Bujold or Linnea Sinclair who still provide the sort of SF that made me fall for the genre in the first place. I suspect that military SF would scratch the space opera itch for some, but I have to be careful with it, because I don’t like too much military blathering about honour, duty, etc… The Vorkosigan novels are just about right (or Suzanne Brockmann for non-SF), but anything more is too much.

    As for kids, I don’t see many of my students reading SF. Even the readers haven’t yet discovered the trendy YA dystopias, they prefer paranormal romance. I have one student who is an SF fan of sorts, but for him the appeal are big spaceships (and big ships in general), big spacestations, monsters and dinosaurs. He also writes and read one of his stories to me, which consisted of extensive descriptions of a space cruise ship taking off, getting lost due to a wrong turn, refuelling, etc… The only named character was named after the author, there were hardly any other characters at all. I see a budding hard SF author there.

  16. I think I’m more or less in Nancy’s camp: I’m most impatient with “epic” fantasy, and I really like Gwyneth Jones.

    I enjoy crunchy-hard science fiction, “how things work” topoi and all, but that subgenre goes in for a certain baseline level of casual sexism which I find distracting.

  17. Some good, chewy ideas here.

    Re Foxessa’s Uebermenschen, since those have been a stape of epics since Gilgamesh and the Odyssey, clear up through Ariosto etc, I feel confident in predicting that they are here to stay.

    Attackfish: I wonder if during times when people perceive their paradigm, or culture, rapidly changing, there is a tendency toward fiction that looks backward for setting, if not always for ideas. Like, take a gander at many of the big novels of the mid 1800s–so many of them were set in the previous generation, before the noise and dirt of trains, yet they possess rather forward-looking social ideas.

    To oversimplify, ,maybe when we’re comfortable, we get restless, and look for excitement, shock, thrill–including the thrill of terror. When there is too much shock and terror seemingly looming right outside the door, then we look for comfort.

  18. Sherwood, what I always find interesting is that the “looking back nostalgically” novels always are followed closely by a bunch of novels saying “shut up, it wasn’t that good,” like the Scarlet Letter. A sort of “don’t press your own values on the past” thing where the characters hold the values of their time, but the narrative doesn’t.

  19. Attackfish: Yes! Novels in conversation with the past, as well as positing what will happen with various social and or attitudinal changes.

  20. I still read Sf written by authors I didn’t lose faith in during my SF reading years.

    The exception: space opera. I’ve read a few space opera series within the last decade.

    Why I stopped reading Everything Else… hm. It was so much work to find a book that was about the characters. There were plenty that started off promising — enough so that I would bring the book home and settle on the couch to finish it. But somewhere around the 1/2 to 3/4 mark, the character would do something that didn’t make sense *specifically* so that the author could make a point or flash a technology. I don’t know if I had a bad run of book selection luck or what, but this happened about four or five times in a row. Other than the oddball book by a trusted author or someone I came to respect through LJ, I haven’t risked a purchase in about seven years. And this was my genre of choice for ages…

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  22. I do read more fantasy than SF these days, although I scorned fantasy when I was younger. I’m not entirely sure what’s up with this (I have often thought maybe I’m not as smart as I was at 20, or I’m less interested in teasing out the techno-stuff to make sense of it.) I never much cared for reading Space Opera; when I consider it, the books that most grabbed me were stories with a cool idea that slammed into real people, whether the cool idea was immortality (as in Cities in Flight) or cloning (Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang, or…well, whatever. I grew up in the late 60s-early 70s, and was bitten hard by the dystopic “if this keeps up we’re all gonna die” bug (which, curiously enough, does not show up in my own fiction. Go figure) but that’s not the only kind of SF I like. I suppose that for me SF is a lab to see how people react under extreme situations, and to play with what a human system unlike my own might do to the people living in it.

    I have the feeling I’m not being very useful here.

    I have to add that I don’t much care for epic fantasy, either. I’m too urban for a lot of the trek-over-many-mountains-to-destroy/capture/liberate-the-magical-thingie fantasies. Whatever is left is, I guess, what I like.

    Until I find something that completely changes my mind, of course.

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  24. Well, I’m not reading very much fiction these days; scientific literature, design, research, and politics (sigh) have taken over. That said, I think fantasy has always been more popular than science fiction; a great deal of science fiction is fantasy dressed up with technology.

    It’s hard to undertake Poul Anderson’s unitary approach to science fiction, in which, “philosophy, love, technology, poetry, and the minutiae of daily living would all play parts concomitant with their roles in real life, but heightened by the imagination of the writer.” There have never been many people who have done that well. It is perhaps harder now, when technological change is so heavily hyped.

    In 2009 or so, I saw an automatic dress-fitting system, based on millimeter-wave scanning, the same technology used in some of the airport scanners, proposed as a project in an interface design class. (At least it doesn’t also do medical tests.) As we move from fictionalizing near-future scenarios to realizing them, attention has shifted from near-future fiction to actual technology.

    As a mirror of this pattern, we more and more integrate fantasy elements into actual life. One of the most attention-getting elements of GoogleIO, the recent Google technology conference, was a demonstration of a home automation technology. It is not so far a leap from that to a castle where the walls respond to your voice.

    But there remains the human desire for a world with meaning, and this fantasy speaks to.

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  26. Space opera may often “leap over all the anxious questions about which we feel so helpless now” but it, like other forms of science fiction, address contemporary issues metaphorically.

  27. One of the things that this discussion has made me think of is the rise of Steampunk. For me that meant reading the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and then going back and reading all the original late 19th early 20th century books that it incorporated.
    I think that Steampunk is actually a way people are trying to deal with the desire for science fiction without the inescapable doom that seems to go along with it. At the turn of the century, some people were predicting science as the downfall of society, but most people were looking up and forwards. The world was limitless, progress was limitless. Science could bring us all our dreams, even if sometimes they were nightmares.

    Now we’ve mapped the globe. We know what is in the deepest ocean and the upper atmosphere. We know that there are no martians, no alien life in range of contact. We know that progress is slowly strangling our world, but we also know that trying to save it is a fight so difficult it seems useless. We know that science can give us pretty shiny things, but it cannot fix people. It cannot save our society. It cannot get us out of the mess we got ourselves into.

    I can’t bear to think about the future. Steampunk gives us the opportunity to pretend that things could have happened a different way. Until science actually does manage to save the world, or at least make enough promising steps in that direction, and overwhelm the corporate interests that are against it, I don’t want to read sci-fi. Particularly no romances that suggest we can fix things with a miracle and a smile.

    I like Phillip K. Dick, and Heinlen, and Bujold, But the first is about here and now, really (with occassional bits of Cold War paranoia). And the other two are space opera, with ideas and points and social criticism, of course, but in the end: space opera. They’re not lies about science when we’re in desperate need of truth.

  28. “Space opera is set so far in the future, or so distant from Earth, that it leaps over all the anxious questions about which we feel so helpless now.”

    I realize that now, for me, that’s a key attraction of space opera. And, of course, epic fantasy, which is (usually) infinitely distant from Earth.

    But another factor is the “archetypal perspective:” the viewpoint possible only in art that puts bigger-than-life actors into a bigger-than-life landscape without losing the details of either, and always leaves the sense of there being more just around the corner that didn’t fit into the story, or might be another story (even if one has no expectation of it ever being told).

  29. I think another attraction of steampunk (I forget who first said this) is that it centers on the last major technology that the average person could understand.

  30. Looking at my SF shelves, I have a whack of space opera (Doyle & Macdonald, Bujold, Jane Emerson), a few crossover authors I discovered mostly via the fantasy side (Obvious example: Elizabeth Bear) whose SF I also like, and then:

    John Scalzi, Steven Gould, James Alan Gardner, Sandra MacDonald, Toby Buckell, Chris Moriarty, and Karin Lowachee. Plus the teenagehood favourite of Joan D. Vinge. Alfred Bester (The two most obvious of his) is the only really golden age. I’m at a bit of a loss to figure out the common thread, but I can say none of these disappointed me with the characterization (Gardner has some missteps about other religions or the like, but not ones that lost me.) and most involve a fairly brisk and adventuresome pace. (The Vinge books I didn’t keep seem to be ones I recall meandering a lot more.) if someone else can suggest the common ground, I’d love to figure it out.

    My husband, by contrast, reads more SF when he reads, but he also mostly reads older authors.

  31. On the subject of sizing-scanners, a friend linked me to this article just a few weeks ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/25/business/25sizing.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=general
    (Me, I know we’re really in the future when I can buy clothes and they fit.)

    The talk about kids reading sci-fi brushes the edges of a bunch of disorganized ideas that have been wandering around in my head lately. I’m not sure how well I can write them down at the moment, but here goes (and bear in mind that I’m largely hypothesizing about times I did not live through):

    -I think children’s literature is conceived, written, and marketed differently than it used to be. I don’t just mean the fairly new categories of middle-grade readers and teens, but I have the impression that children weren’t always as much of a catered-to audience as they are now, and that there is much more variety in children’s literature.

    -However, I’m not sure how much sci-fi is written for children. Not preachy science concepts phrased as sci-fi, but genuine sci-fi. This may be better than it was ten or fifteen years ago, but I’ve been thinking back over the sci-fi I read as a kid (and my father is a huge sci-fi buff) and coming up with a pretty scant list. L’Engle, Pern, Acorna, The Plant that Ate Dirty Socks, Artemis Fowl when I was in middle school, but that verges into urban science fantasy, Enchantress from the Stars, a few other discrete works by people who usually wrote fantasy or historical fiction or realistic fiction.

    And I know you can say, “But there was less science fiction for kids when I was a kid,” but perhaps kids made the jump to adult fiction earlier? Nowadays you can read from board books to late-teen-YA, and mostly it’s not science fiction, except for a bit that mostly seems to be the depressing dystopian future end of sci-fi (not to say that there haven’t been a couple of really good YA sci-fi books in the past few years).

    -I’ve been wondering if it’s somehow harder to write science fiction intended for children. That it’s easier to say “it’s magic,” but if it’s science there’s some need to explain it, unless you jump far enough into the future that it’s sufficient to say, “it’s science.” And the American school system is doing terribly at teaching science. Are there basic scientific concepts that a lot of sci-fi takes for granted that children haven’t necessarily learned yet?

    -But I think the question that it really circles back to for me is, “What are the gateway science fiction books for today’s children?”

  32. Miriam: There actually was science fiction written for kids. The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree was for seven year olds; Eleanor Cameron wrote the Mushroom Planet books for middle graders. Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and that’s just a few. There were also the series, like Danny Dunn and Tom Swift.

    Pern, etc, were not written for kids, but for adults, however those were the years when bad language and graphic stuff was rarer. But then children’s books were fewer in number previous to the early seventies. I remember when all the lead titles of any publisher could be displayed on a single modest sized table at Vroman’s in Pasadena, CA–they had a chilren’s section. Now, of course, that would be impossible.

    As for attitudes in publishing, there has always been a strong conflict between what adults felt that children ought to read and what children wanted to read. I understand that many debates have occurred over this at Newbery Award sessions, etc. I don’t think it’s any different now, except that now that the lid is off most of the formerly forbidden subjects (though not all), the dividing line for “young adult” seems to include books that will probably have more appeal for college students than actual teens.