Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Letter to the Editor and My Thoughts

I recently found in my in-box a letter to the editors of Discover that was courteously passed on to me (and which courteously included a link to this blog). As I've warned that the e-mails sent me are blog-able unless the writers ask for privacy, I reprint it here (with name deleted) and make some comments.


It is too bad that Mr. Bruno Maddox ("Blinded By Science"; Your most recent issue) went to an "old man's" Science Fiction convention rather than where the young people and minds are at, which is GenCon, now held in Indianapolis. Although GenCon is touted as a "gaming" convention, it is as much SF&F as that.

I devoured Astounding Science Fiction (And, its successor, Analog) for many years. I let my subscription lapse as it had become an "old man's" magazine and, although almost 69 years of age, I am NOT an old man.

The present (And immediate future) of SF&F is not in muscle bound, sword swinging, barbarians; But, in such "thought experiments" as represented by alternative histories, the disk world novels, various religion based books (Predicting a return to Faith or an end-battle between the traditional religions and the religion of secularism?) and other, non-technical, themes.

Respectfully submitted,

PS---Please pass a copy of this on to Mr. Maddox. Thank you!



This statement about thought experiments is an interesting one. If I look at science fiction today, I see such things as cyberpunk, transrealism, post-acceleration sf, the New Weird, posthumans, and the aforementioned alternate history, all of which can be characterized as "thought experiments." I also see concerns that sales of science fiction are dropping even as sales of fantasy are not. Different explanations for this have been proposed; Orson Scott Card suggested it has something to do with the state of science, where the greatest discoveries now have to do with such cabala as superstrings and subatomic particles, which in his view don't make for the greatest stories (though authors of the forms of sf mentioned above might disagree).

I fear these "thought experiment" forms of science fiction indicate the air of the genre has become too rarefied, and the esoterica and plain old strangeness might turn away potential new readers. I find myself drifting more to fantasy these days, for Stapledonian sf and its derivatives cause even me to hesitate before picking up a novel. I ask myself, "Do I really want to read 700 pages about posthuman immortal DNA computers living in multiple universal membranes connected through graviton transmitters when I could be reading about loincloth-clad he-men with swords?"

And think of the newbies! The newbies! I don't mean the hyper-evolved aliens in those lousy Doom novels; I mean the people new to the genre. Do you hand a newbie something by Rudy Rucker or do you hand him The Martian Chronicles? The sf genre has only gotten to its current place through years of development. I am reasonably comfortable with the new forms of sf, rather than completely lost, because my reading in the genre has also gone through years of development. I think the thought experiments are simply too weird to compel new readers: a few years ago I had opportunity to introduce someone unfamiliar with the genre to the peculiar joys of sf; after judging her personality and interests, I handed her a copy of Michael Bishop's "The House of Compassionate Sharers," which she enjoyed, but anything much weirder might have simply turned her off.

What I am saying is that the author of this letter may be slightly off-base: science fiction has not moved away from technical themes; if anything, it has perhaps become too technical. If the genre is to grow, there will always be a need for sword-swinging barbarians because it is characters like John Carter of Mars who draw people here in the first place. Only after a man has learned to appreciate Burroughs or Bradbury or McCaffrey can he learn to appreciate Dick or Gibson or Rucker. Ask yourself, when you were a kid, maybe in the '80s as I was, were you reading cyberpunk or were you reading Dragonriders of Pern?

On a slightly different note, his comment about religion-based sf is to me an interesting one, one I'm not sure I understand. He may be referring to the sub-genre of Christian sf, which might explain his link to this blog, which deals intermittently with that branch of literature. He might also simply be reading different books from what I'm reading. I see lots of religious themes in science fiction and I do see elements of the culture wars, but I'm not sure I see a great growth in "religion-based books" outside the Christian sub-genre, though I think we have seen a death of that old-fashioned sf in which religion is simply a non-issue superseded by science.
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