Don’t get me wrong. Science fiction isn’t dead. It’s alive and well, and Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, and many others not quite in their stratosphere are entertaining hundreds of thousands, and often, hundreds of millions worldwide.
Written science fiction as was practiced by, say, Robert A. Heinlein? So embarrassingly dead it’s almost not worth mentioning.
Did this happen because people aren’t interested in sfnal concepts any more? Hardly. They’re so interested that Optimus Prime is a household name and this week’s episode of Numbers could have been written by Amy Casil on a bad, hungover day. I have to say that Bumblebee is my favorite though, even though he doesn’t every get any lines (I think it’s because he doesn’t talk).
What could have caused such a thing? How could what were “fringe” ideas only 20 years ago be so inextricably woven in the fabric of our lives that half the TV lineup and more than a third of movies are basically sci fi? At the same time, the few books of science fiction still published with that label on it sell in numbers that make self-publishing look like a viable alternative. More than 95% of the current Amazon “science fiction and fantasy” top 100 books are about vampires, werewolves, fairies or fae.
It has been forgotten, among the small group that still publishes written sci fi for adults, that people generally want to be entertained by what they read. They want to feel engagement, they want to be able to follow a story, and most of all, they want excitement, reward, and that all-important “sense of wonder.”
Take for example, the simple, crass, commercial idea that a decent, semi-cool kid’s first car is in fact, an ultra-sophisticated alien-created metal-organic living hybrid, engaged in interplanetary warfare for the fate of the universe. Take the other crass, simplistic idea that a rich second-generation arms manufacturer and mechanical genius suffers an epiphany of life after almost losing his, that makes him create the gnarliest exo-fighting suit ever known, thus becoming Iron Man. It helps if you cast Robert Downey, Jr.
The more confused and screwed up our world becomes, the more appealing hero vs. villain stories become. The more imaginative and inventive the landscape in which the hero and villain contend, the greater the entertainment.
At the same time, all the Usual Suspects were, for decades, publishing opaque work of uncertain provenance, and while many things had literary merit, there were few with simple, comprehensible ideas, relatable characters and comprehensible conflicts like the two I just mentioned. Transformers started out as toys, and Iron Man comes from the Marvel factory, which knows that which it makes and why people like it. At best, print fiction sci fi stories in the past two decades were told well, by writers of skill and craft. At worst? F’an’t’s’y and S’C1-F1. In the past ten years? I cannot count on the fingers of one hand a written science fiction book for adults that I found compelling. I can name a number with excruciating characters, bizarre premises, and especially bad voice – bad, bad, bad, bad, bad voice. There’s a peculiar sort of tonedeaf sci fi voice sung with chalkboard scratch “wrong” notes, and then there’s a separate, cheap tonedeaf knockoff of noir film narration that I think got its start during the “cyberpunk” years. That one won’t die, and I think over time, it has been a very big nail in adult-oriented written science fiction with that label on it. Now, this flies in the face of “above the title” fiction that’s plenty sci fi – from Michael Chabon’s humane, well-written books to The Road by Cormac McCarthy to J.D. Robb’s futuristic detective series about Eve Dallas. It was picking up J.D. Robb’s books that indicated powerfully to me that sci fi as in “stories about the future” or “stories featuring technology that’s not quite here yet” was anything but dead. J.D./Nora Roberts’ stories feature things that we know well from TV and film, and somewhat from predictive news articles and magazines. They’re suspenseful thriller/crime stories about a strong heroine with a lot of personal baggage. If anything, they’re a little Blade Runner-ish, and there’s no “new” sci fi in them at all. Meanwhile, this bothers her legions of readers not one bit, and I am sure it isn’t bothering her a bit either.
The reason these books are successful is that their authors know how to tell stories. They know what a story is. For at least ten years, and more like 20 to 25, the great majority of sci fi writers I’ve run across wouldn’t know a good story if it smacked them in the face, and that’s not the problem, really. The problem is that the people who were charged with buying and offering the material to the public didn’t know, either. They knew so little, and were so fixated on their single-minded involvement in the hermetic, endless sci fi community “debates,” that they let the bad “voice” creep in. They promoted “the voice” as good, gave awards to it, and through the combination of low pay, poor treatment and social cooties-by-association drove off anybody with any sense of storytelling, talent or gift.
Here’s an opening line for you. It’s current.
Sidibé Traoré ended up as Earth’s diplomatic representative because she was an astronaut who loved to pop the blisters on a sheet of bubble wrap.
Maybe some of the bad voice could be derived from a grave misunderstanding of a few of Cordwainer Smith’s stories. A legitimate cold warrior, he wrote with peculiar grace and understood innately the strange stories he told and how to communicate them. So, the opening of “Game of Rat and Dragon.”
Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living. Underhill was furious as he closed the door behind himself. It didn’t make much sense to wear a uniform and look like a soldier if people didn’t appreciate what you did.
The problem with the bad voice is rooted in rhetoric. First, in order to say anything of worth, a point needs to be clearly understood before it is made. Then, after the point or purpose is clear, in telling the story, writers need to remember that people best understand new things presented one at a time. Today’s successful film and TV sci fi is capitalizing on years of familiarity with what once was unusual and new. Meanwhile, written sci fi continued down a path toward an uncertain destination and along the way, it seems to have lost its way. And the gravest failing is the ideas, which are increasingly incoherent, and the writing, which veers too often into the clumsy, incoherent, uncertain bad voice. The borrowed voice; the bad, bad, bad multi-copied and translated file with every third word substituted, every name just off (and often, not just a little “off” – majorly off), and worst of all – nothing of import happening.
As I said in a slightly different venue, it’s the bad voice that killed sci fi. The subject matter that drove sci fi into the ground, and that meant that there is no appreciable new adult sci fi right now – for a very good and understandable reason. It’s the voice of an angry nerd with no life and no heart who screamed what he thought was a story at the world until they finally turned his channel off.