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I check Jonathan McCalmont's blog Ruthless Culture fairly often. He's a fine critic, though he mostly writes about movies and fiction that are not SF. A comment on one of his recent posts led me back to a post on science fiction he wrote back in 2012: "Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future."

That post led me to Paul Kincaid's essay "The Widening Gyre," a review of "Best of" books for 2012. Kincaid argues that science fiction reached some kind of crisis in the 1980s or 1990s, and since then it has been increasingly exhausted, either doing stories that rework old clichés—robot stories in the manner of Asimov—or stories that combine science fiction and fantasy. Old, pure-quill, sense-of-wonder, intellectually rigorous SF is no longer being produced.

McCalmont adds in his essay: "I think science fiction has lost interest in the world and fallen out of step with the times, resulting in the emergence of a narcissistic and inward-looking literature devoid of both relevance and vitality."

In some ways this argument appeals to me. I began to lose interest in SF late in the last century. Before that, I consumed huge amounts of the stuff. Kincaid's argument justifies my loss of interest. But I'm not sure I was right to lose interest.

Kincaid repeats an argument that I have used: science and technology are moving so swiftly that science fiction cannot keep up, so it retreats to the repetition of old tropes and to fantasy. (I haven't said the last part, as far as I can remember, but I have definitely felt that I as a writer cannot keep up with the news in New Scientist.)

McCalmont disagrees with this, and I now think he's right. SF has never been predictive. It's always about the present, as is all art. Science fiction's versions of the future have always been selective. To use Asimov as an example, The Caves of Steel gives us a future where men and women live 1950s gender-stereotyped lives, while in a world of gross overpopulation and sentient robots. Asimov has imagined overpopulation and robotics, but not the social changes we have experienced in the past sixty years.

There is no reason SF writers today cannot produce the kind of visionary, but not predictive, fiction that writers in the 1950s and 1960s produced. If changes in science and technology are overwhelming, pick out the changes you want to write about and accept the fact that your stories are not likely to be true visions of the future. They can still be fun and useful.

We know what the current problems are. We can write about global warming, biotechnology, information technology, and a predatory economic system. These are no more difficult than the problems of the 1950s. (Well, global warming is something special, but so was the all-out nuclear war we could have had.)

So what happened, if not too much change? I think Reagan happened. He came to power in 1980, and the future began to contract. At the time, I called his administration the Counter-revolution of Falling Expectations. It can also be called the Counter-revolution of Contracting Hope. Reagan's ally in Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, famously said, "There Is No Alternative" to capitalism. I keep returning to TINA, because I think it explains a lot of what happened in the past thirty-five years. In a world of great potential and great danger, we are told we cannot change the present: there is no way out of our current world system.

I may be blaming Reagan and Thatcher too much. They were the faces of the counter-revolution, but they were not the only causes. The sources I read tell me that capitalism had a crisis of profitability in the late 1970s, and the way to recover profits was to crush the working class—as Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers and Thatcher crushed the miners. To do this successfully, the people in charge needed a message that said, "We have no money, we have no resources, this decaying world is the best that can be had. Suck it up and suffer."

I think TINA infected science fiction and told us we could no longer dream, not because SF writers listened to Thatcher, but because her message permeated the culture.

There are other explanations for an apparent contraction in vision: changes in publishing especially. But I lean toward the zeitgeist as a major villain.

I suspect cyberpunk was a transitional style. After the feminist tsunami in the 1970s, it produced a vision of the world that was near-future, near-space, and dark. I have to be careful here, because I have friends who have written cyberpunk, and I like their work. But the dominant works of cyberpunk are the movie Blade Runner and William Gibson's amazing first novel. Gibson's famous first line of Neuromancer—"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"—locks the novel into the present. Television, for heaven's sake! What could be more twentieth century? This is not a fiction that dreams of a different far future, but of a depressing near future, similar to the one that Reagan and Thatcher offered. 

While cyberpunk was taking over SF, thanks to genuinely cool writing and Bruce Sterling's gift for promotion, there were a number of women who continued to write large, slow, eco-feminist novels: Le Guin's Always Coming Home, Joan Slonczewski's The Door Into Ocean, Judith Moffitt's Pennterra, and my own A Woman of the Iron People. So the feminist tsunami continued into the 1980s, though in a less obvious form. Rather than being powered by rage at injustice, as was much feminist SF in the 1970s, this fiction attempted to imagine alternatives to a violent and patriarchal society.

I can remember the excitement I felt when I read Paul McAuley's 400 Billion Stars (1988), one of the early examples of the new space opera. The title by itself was expansive. 400 billion stars! We were getting out of the near future and near space! I really wanted the novel to win the Philip K. Dick Award, which it did.

I've liked a number of McAuley's other novels, especially Red Dust (1993), also the work of Iain M. Banks and Ken MacLeod. So I can't see the new space opera as entirely exhausted, though I think that neoliberalism and TINA have infected even progressive writers, and their work is—by and large—too dark and violent. Do we really think the future is more stupid killing among the stars? Shouldn't we try to imagine an alternative?

For me, the women have been more interesting. Melissa Scott and Lyda Morehouse continued to write cyberpunk into the 1990s. Scott also wrote hard SF and the amazing Shadow Man (1996) about gender. Nowadays, Shadow Man, with its five human sexes, looks prophetic. Her work goes right through the 1990s, and the field has not lost its way if it can produce a writer like Scott.

C. J. Cherryh and Lois Bujold have written their own version of space opera from a woman's point of view and are still writing in the second decade of the twenty-first century. If you don't know Cherryh's Foreigner series or Bujold's Vorkosigan epic you might want to check both out. (The heroes of both series are male. They are also small and vulnerable and have to survive by their wits, surrounded by people far larger and more powerful. Believe me, women can relate to this.)

I am currently working my way through the last volume of Ann Leckie's trilogy. A friend of mine felt the use of the pronoun "she" throughout was a gimmick. Yes, but. . . . The protagonist cannot see differences in gender. They have become so unimportant in her culture that they aren't visible. I find this interesting. It may reflect the current attacks on ideas about gender in our culture. It certainly fits right in. Aside from the pronouns, Leckie seems to be writing pure-quill, old-time space opera, but the pronouns are important and probably explain why the Sad Puppies were driven crazy by Leckie. I will have to finish the third volume before I say more.

Like Kincaid, McCalmont feels the field suffers from a combination of worn-out clichés; fantastika, which is the blending of SF and fantasy; and nostalgia, as seen in steampunk.

No way am I going to dis fantastika when I like the Finnish authors that Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have found. They have done good work finding speculative fiction outside the U.S. and GB. We want the field to be international, don't we?

I don't like steampunk, but Nisi Shawl has a steampunk novel coming out. It's set in the Belgian Congo, and I have faith that it will be good. It certainly won't be nostalgia for the good old days of colonialism and the British (or Belgian) empire.

I seem to be talking myself around in a circle. Maybe Reagan and Thatcher have not triumphed completely. Maybe there is SF that questions the prejudices, stereotypes, and limitations of contemporary society and offers us at least some hope for the future. 

There is still work to be done. We need SF that directly challenges the current political and economic system, and SF—like Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain trilogy (2004–2007)—that deals with the political realities of global warming without being utterly depressing.

And we need visions of the future that are hopeful as well as those that are dark.




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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