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Charles Stross has written the following on his blog:

I’m just not that interested in writing science fiction this decade. Nope: instead, I’m veering more and more in the direction of urban fantasy.

… Over the past few years I’ve found myself reading less and less far-future SF and more and more urban fantasy. If you view it through the lens of the future we’re living in rather than the future we expected in times gone by, that’s not so surprising. Starships and galactic empires and aliens are receding into the same misty haze of unreality as dragons and demons: instead we’re living in a world with chickens with tails and scales and teeth, magic mirrors with answers to every question (many of them misleading or malicious), dominated by abhuman hive minds.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise to discover in the world I’m now living in I can engage better with the subjects of my fiction by writing urban fantasy, rather than by extruding good old-fashioned space opera just like grandpappy wrote. This doesn’t mean that I consider traditional space opera to be dead (any more than high fantasy with elves, dwarves and dragons is dead): but it’s not something I’m engaging with much, if at all, these days.

Before I continue, I want to be clear: I am not picking a fight with Stross. He’s a fine writer and should write what he wants to write, and his essay is worth reading in its entirety. I simply have a different take.

When I’m in a bookstore, looking at new releases, I notice an abundance of dark urban fantasy, grimdark fantasy, zombie novels, and (to a lesser extent) novels set in Lovecraft’s universe. Space opera is less common, though people still like it, as evidenced by the fact that Ancillary Justice won pretty much every award last year. Near future SF is also comparatively uncommon.

Stross’s explanation for why he is giving up classic SF is worth considering, but I have other explanations for the lack of SF.

  1. Reading New Scientist, I am acutely aware of how fast science and technology are changing—and in many areas. Cybernetics, biotechnology, nanotechnology are all evolving quickly. Theoretical physics and cosmology are very much in flux, with facts that don’t fit into current theory, such as dark matter and dark energy, and hypotheses which can’t be tested, such as superstring theory. So how does a writer imagine the future, with so much changing rapidly and so much uncertain? That’s one problem. 
  2. The near future looks to be grim, if world governments—especially the US—don’t start moving on Global Warming very quickly. A headline in The Guardian of 10/14/2014 says, “Pentagon: global warming will change how US military trains and goes to war. Climate change to become immediate factor for all strategic, operational and planning decisions.” But the Federal government is not, as far as we know, planning for Global Warming. The writer of near future SF is going to have to imagine rapid technological change and resource wars, mass migrations as parts of the world become uninhabitable, the loss of coastal cities, the end of the American breadbasket as the Midwest dries out, the increasing danger of epidemic (such as Ebola) as the planet warms and public health systems break down. It goes on and on. Most of it is not cheerful.
  3. In addition, we have a world economic and political system which is both rigid and fragile (it looks to be going into another recession or depression right now, after having never recovered from the last recession/depression). In addition, the world system is far too dependent on fossil fuels, which must be given up. Many people argue that it will not be possible to save the planet, unless there are huge economic and political changes. So the serious SF writer has to imagine that as well. Either the writer has to show us a new world being built within the shell of the old, or she has to imagine a nightmare future, where millions or billions of people die. It’s easy to understand why writers (and readers) would want to avoid the near future. As for the far future, it seems overly remote at a time when we are not sure if humanity has any future.

So what do we have instead? Magic instead of technology, which is changing too quickly and is not easy to understand. Zombies and Cthulhu monsters instead of the politicians and bankers who run the world at present. Zombies make a certain sense. During the 2008 financial meltdown, the term “zombie banks” appeared, describing banks that were in reality bankrupt, yet continued to operate, thanks to creative accounting and the good will of the government. The economist John Quiggan wrote a book titled Zombie Economics, about the economic theories that had been disproved by 2008, but continue to be believed by economists and politicians. The European Union is currently destroying itself through the use of living-dead Neoliberal economic theory. Things that are dead but won’t lie down haunt Europe and the US at present. Why not write about zombies?

Cthulhu makes a bit of sense as well. The world is currently run by people who seem both evil and alien. Why the hell is the US government allowing fracking at a time when fossil fuels must be given up? Is the administration crazy or malevolent? The current Australian government flat out denies Global Warming, which is likely to make Australia mostly uninhabitable. Again, are we looking at craziness or evil? Does the Australian government want to destroy Australia?

People who write about H. P. Lovecraft say he was consumed by fear and hatred of The Other, people who were unlike him. Mostly, these were people of color and recent immigrants. I don’t find people of different skin colors or cultural backgrounds especially Other, but people like the Koch Brothers seem as alien as Lovecraft monsters. So maybe that’s one of the things the current vogue for Lovecraft is about: the awareness that there are people in the world that we really don’t understand, with agendas which will harm us and the planet. (I am less convinced of this than of the reason for zombies. The Lovecraft renaissance seems mostly nostalgia. I don’t really believe Cthulhu stands in for the Koch Brothers. I suspect Cthulhu represents the good old days, when all we had to fear was eldritch doom.)

Finally, we have YA dystopias, which are dark, but not nearly as dark as the future may be. This may appeal because people—kids, especially—know the future is going to be hard. The books give them a difficult future that can be lived in. A modest hope, but something.

Fantasies for adults have been pretty bleak of late. We have an entire new genre, grimdark fantasy, which is (apparently) both grim and dark. George R. R. Martin’s hugely successful fantasy series, which is—I am told—high fantasy rather than grimdark, depicts ruling classes engaged in bloody and pointless political infighting, while their world faces a gigantic climate change. (Winter is coming.) I think this can be called dystopic fantasy, though I can’t be sure. I haven’t read the series. It sounds too violent for me. It also sounds like our world, engaged in bloody wars, while the planet warms. 

I wrote another essay more or less on this topic, titled “Hope for the Future.” I am going to end in the same place. Dark fiction may help prepare us for a dark future, but I am not sure it helps us see a way to prevent that future.

Having written the above, I have to admit I have been writing fantasy recently. I am trying to get back to science fiction, even though it’s hard to write. Maybe the present vogue for fantasy is due to a failure of imagination. We cannot see alternatives. If so, this is a very dangerous situation.

We must see alternatives, if we are going to survive, and the alternatives must be—to some degree—realistic. The writers in the 1940s and 1950s imagined space travel and post-nuclear wastelands. We need both visions, the hopeful and the dark. One tells us where we can go, if we have the will. The other is a warning. Both are SF. We need both kinds of fiction.

Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks and over thirty short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Her most recent book, Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens, is available from Aqueduct Press. You can find her blog here.
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