Has 21st Century Science Fiction gone cowardly? Or worse… nostalgic?

In a bit, I’ll tell you about some way cool interviews and podcasts about science fiction and the future.  But first —

Jonathan McCalmont is a critic of popular culture and science fiction whom I’ll be watching. Not because I especially liked or agreed with his lengthy and rather incoherent screed: “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future.” In fact, I found his arguments dyspeptic and chaotic, cherrypicking examples in order to complain about this or that pet peeve.  

Nevertheless, while constantly aggravated I was also amused or fascinated often enough to keep reading and enjoying a chain of insightful snarks, some of which are extremely on-target. 

“Contemporary science fiction is not interested in science, culture, history, ideas or real human psychology. Not really. To be interested in such things requires engagement not only with the world but also entire bodies of knowledge generated by hundreds of fevered human minds. Incapable of taking anything seriously and unwilling to risk disapproval by writing anything that might be deemed in any way political, genre writers spend their days like performing dolphins; pushing a load of battered toys around the pool while undemanding audiences roar their approval. Occasionally, a particularly well-trained dolphin receives a celebratory bucket of fish heads in the ballroom of a beige mid-Western hotel.”

Hm… dolphins.  Yes, that reminds me.  Any exceptions Mr. McCalmont?  But save that thought.

Disappointing: McCalmont is very poor at creating a clear picture of his complaint. Yes, overall, 21st Century SF is heavily warped and crushed under a burden of nostalgia and anomie toward the future. He says — and I agree — that this dismally destructive and demoralizing trend controls most of the top magazines and most of the Best of the Year anthologies… oh and the awards.  McCalmont illuminates how this is not only manifest in the omphaloskeptic (navel-contemplating) short story community of SF but in sub-genres that proclaim themselves to be bold, like Steam Punk and the surge of Skew Cultural science fictional novels  (many of which I find admirable)  by non-male, non-western or interestingly-origined authors. 

I might have hoped that McCalmont would have cited the work of SF scholar Judith Berman, who published a devastating decryption of Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, showing that its pages almost never portrayed problem-solving, progress, or even very often the future, but instead (sometimes artfully) wallowed in endlessly repeated themes of loss, regret and passive acceptance of limitation. The most frequently repeated lesson?  Ambitious endeavors often have unexpected side effects. (Duh?) Ah, but the lesson is, therefore, banish ambition. 

As you might expect, my biggest disappointment was McCalmont’s reluctance to ponder exceptions — authors who are trying to engage with the future and its myriad possible decision points, ranging from technological and social to political, scientific and transcendent.  No mention of Vinge, Robinson, Bear, Kress, Haldeman… or me. But beyond that, even when he takes on bold and eager authors, it is mostly in order to take jaundiced views of very narrow aspects of Iain Banks, Hannu Rajaniemi, Michael Chabon, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter Hamilton, without at least avowing that they try and try hard, to offer the grand vision he desires. 

Nevetheless, in this review of a review-survey of some reviews, I do recommend McCalmont’s screed. Don’t get all in a twist where you disagree (you will!) He offers a different perspective and an ornery/contrarian one that challenged me! It got me sputtering and grinding my teeth.  That’s the sort of fellow I like. I’d rather argue all night with a fellow like than, than spend an evening being flattered. 

== Br-interviews and podcasts galore! ==

A collection of three videos from UCTV…on the seriousness of Science Fiction as literature, Positive Sum games and more. Very professional and nicely done!

For your commute, one of the more interesting and well-done interview shows is the Roundtable Podcast.  Catch this episode in which a number of top sci fi authors were asked a particular question at the recent World Science Fiction Convention (Chicago 2012): “Describe your ideal protagonist.”  Providing short, pithy and fascinating answers were Elizabeth Bear, Alan Dean Foster, Howard Tayler — and yours truly — along with many more.  Good stuff.

Many of you know that I’ve been somewhat critical of the Star Wars universe (which I started out adoring, after The Empire Strikes Back.)  My indictments of this down-spiraling mess include infamous denunciations in Salon Magazine, which led to my being the “prosecutor” in the wonderfully fun debate volume STAR WARS ON TRIAL. (Defense counsel was one of Lucas’s novelizers, Matthew Stover. We had a terrific time calling witnesses and cross-examining them… one of the most hilarious nonfiction books in years!)  Now see a fresh perspective on the dismal condition of humanity and the Republic, by Ryan Britt, who maintains from evidence in all the movies — and the novels as well — that Most Citizens of the Star Wars Galaxy are Probably Totally Illiterate. Indeed, what likely happens in Episode Seven?  (After Return of the Jedi.) Simple.  The droids get tired of working for morons and do what they should have done from the very beginning.

Another Br(interview) of me on Genre Online by Mark Rivera.

== Sci Fi related miscellany ==   

“Over the last few decades, miners in South Africa have been digging up mysterious metal spheres. Origin unknown, these spheres measure approximately an inch or so in diameter, and some are etched with three parallel grooves running around the equator. Two types of spheres have been found: one is composed of a solid bluish metal with flecks of white; the other is hollowed out and filled with a spongy white substance. The kicker is that the rock in which they where found is Precambrian – and dated to 2.8 billion years old! Who made them and for what purpose is unknown.”  Okayyyy.  (1) probably a hoax. (2) Huh… grooved metal spheres. Drat. In EXISTENCE I portrayed them as holographic crystals. But of course they’d have an outer metal shell for surviving atmospheric entry….

Fascinating lists of politically-redolent science fiction! Fifty Fantasy and Science Fiction Works that Socialists should read — a brief (and very incomplete) survey of authors who write — or wrote — from a leftist or socialist perspective, ranging from oderate (Kim Stanley Robinson) to feminist-liberationist (LeGuin or Butler) to ourtright communist.   

Then browse through the lists of the libertarian Prometheus Awards.

A professor appraises the political liberalism of Captain America 

== …and… == 

Wish I noted the URL. Otters eat the sea urchins that devastate kelp forests… that appear to be the fastest removers of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Otters otter get more appreciation, I guess.  Sorry, I couldn’t kelp it. 



Filed under science fiction

2 responses to “Has 21st Century Science Fiction gone cowardly? Or worse… nostalgic?

  1. Perhaps it was this article: http://news.ucsc.edu/2012/09/sea-otters-kelp.html

    They’re lutra-ly kelping out the whole planet. I wish the little guys algae best. (Sorry, that one was pretty bad.)

  2. Re: Metal spheres in South Africa. I really wouldn’t have expected you to link to a UFO kind of site.

    For an explanation, see

    Geologists are agreed that they are natural phenomena.

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