Click here for a fascinating discussion on whether sci-fi is still the “big idea” genre.
Then click here for a typically thoughtful post from James over at Big Dumb Object.
Then click here for my own unworthy thoughts.
Without responding to anyone directly, I think worries such as Neal Stephenson‘s are somewhat overstated. To say “science fiction isn’t doing enough of this” is to define science fiction in a way similar to its detractors — which is to say, to define it as a set of story-types, or even just tropes. Sci-fi has a fairly big tent which can encompass action-adventures, westerns, mysteries, and the like told with trappings of science fiction (Star Wars, Firefly, Asimov’s Baley novels) as easily as it can encompass more rigorous work extrapolating from the outer limits of scientific possibility like the writings of Robert Forward.
What Stephenson seems to be saying (and my apologies if I misinterpret him) is that writers aren’t writing enough of the second type of fiction — or possibly that readers aren’t buying enough, or publisher aren’t publishing enough, or some combination of the three. That’s his opinion, but I’m not sure it’s correct. Certainly there’s less of that type published as a percentage of total output than there used to be. But is that a bad thing?
First, that output is much larger now. And in the age of the Kindle, it seems likely to further increase. So it’s not as though the “big idea” subfield will ever go away. It will just have to share a growing stage. Second, even during the real golden age of sci-fi, it’s not as though there weren’t a lot of spaceship Westerns being published. And third, sci-fi has more competitors for the same market now. Let’s not forget that fifty years ago fantasy was only beginning to evolve into a “real” genre that told stories for adults.
I think what we’re seeing is just the result of the natural expansion of a field. If there isn’t as much “hard SF” being produced anymore, that is because it has become a victim of its own success. It has broadened the types of stories people like to read and see…and, in these days of video games, interact with. Most importantly, I think Stephenson underestimates the capacity of science fiction to produce big ideas in all sorts of fields — psychology, sociology, ethics, even theology. Those big ideas could prove to be just as important as any technical inspiration.
Speaking of big ideas inspired by science fiction…has anyone seen this? I’ll post more about it tomorrow, once I’ve had a chance to browse and digest the ideas.
Two other links for today. Check out this link for an interesting discussion on female heroes, which is to say, traditional heroes who just happen to have two X chromosomes. As an interesting bonus, you’ll get to see me put my clumsy feet down all over noted author Elizabeth Moon in the comments section, by asking as a set of questions points she had already made as a set of answers. Read the comments first, my friends. Always read the comments.
Finally, and as a support for my comments about the expanding sci-fi genre earlier in this thread, check out this post on “The Rise of E-Book Micro-Niche” publishing. It really has become possible to make a decent living by selling only a few thousand copies of a book, if you’re a prolific enough author. What an amazing world we are about to live in.
If you couldn’t read the subtitles to that last comment, they were: “I have got to get me some of that.“