Everything Is Nice

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Where Is The New New Wave?

with 29 comments

My review of Osiris by EJ Swift is up now at Strange Horizons.

There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift’s—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.

I wrote this review not long after Paul Kincaid published a review of several year’s best collections in the LA Review of Books. I imagine it shows. Problems with the state of the genre were on Kincaid’s mind too and his diagnosis was as follows:

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.

Jonathan McCalmont makes the moral and political failing of this crisis of confidence explicit in a follow up article which glories in the typically restrained title ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’:

This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell… Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it.

And yet this is not my problem; Resource SF does not turn its back. In fact, Kincaid expands on his review in a long interview with Nerds Of A Feather where here he draws the distinction between three different forms of crisis facing SF: a crisis of ideas, of identity and of confidence. It is the former – an entirely aesthetic crisis – that I believe Swift succumbs to. On this point, Kincaid says:

Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form… What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.

Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form. What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp.

Kincaid adds that “I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel” but I’m not at all sure of that. If you pick up a science fiction novel I think there is a pretty good chance that it will read exactly like most other science fiction novels. There are exceptions – Kincaid lists M John Harrison and Christopher Priest in his interview; I mention Adam Roberts in my review – but it is, by and large, homogeneous in a way that literary fiction (regardless of quality) is not.

Helpfully Roberts has given his perspective from someone on the other side of the fence. Well, both sides, really. But what it all made me think was, can you imagine any contemporary Nebula-winner writing Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders?

Written by Martin

9 October 2012 at 10:51

Posted in books, criticism, sf

Tagged with , ,

29 Responses

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  1. I only started reading science-fiction again after a lapse of a decade or so. I was surprised how little it had changed, content-wise. There were a few new motifs, most of them clearly inspired by the rise of internet and online gaming but the emotional tenor of these books hadn’t really changed at all. The big difference was that the quality of the writing was generally a lot better – Bacigalupi, Harrison, and Rajaniemi all write beautifully. This could easily be construed in a negative light, however – when a genre relies increasingly on style, there is a real possibility genuine innovation has abandoned. I wonder how much it has to do with reader expectations?

    Aonghus Fallon

    9 October 2012 at 11:23

  2. My case is the same as the one in the previous comment, only that I am still more focused on shorter fiction, maybe because when I “abandoned” the genre years ago I was reading mainly novels, and now I wanted to try different ways of telling a story. My experience with (certain) not-genre short fiction is that it is a format where experimentation and some sort of bravery is more common. For now, I haven´t found the same in (most) scifi short fiction, but I will try not to be pessimistic, although what Kincaid´s and other critics are pointing.

    I´ve been debating in Twitter these two articles, and, when the first seems to be have been better accepted by the Spanish fandom readers I have contact with, the second has been criticized harshly.

    Anyway, I believe is a very complex debate; is it a matter of content, with a genre which mostly does not show interest in what the (actual) future may bring, now that we may have conscience the problems of it won´t be how to fly into the stars, for example, but some others, like economics or politics? Or is it also a matter of form, where the way to express some new concerns is just a vehicle, and characters, plot, language, emotion, beauty are secondary aspects in benefit of a more political involvement of the autor or his/her thesis?

    Fernando Hugo

    9 October 2012 at 14:02

  3. Martin, I’d agree with you on the greater homogeneity of sf at the moment. I also think it’s useful to see both quality and diversity as important dimensions. Right now, there is more space for writers to go their own way in literary fiction – and there are probably more diverse approaches to using speculative tropes (whether successful or not) outside the genre imprints, too.

    David_Heb

    9 October 2012 at 17:56

  4. – and there are probably more diverse approaches to using speculative tropes (whether successful or not) outside the genre imprints, too.

    I was really struck by this point whilst reading My Dirty Little Book Of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen last month. It is a time travel novel told with life, love and a huge amount of wit. Obviously it isn’t on the SF communities radar, instead they give prestigous gongs to time travel novels that are offensive, incompetent and literally four times the size.

    Martin

    10 October 2012 at 10:12

  5. Obviously it isn’t on the SF communities radar

    It is apparently one of the 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010. But I agree it’s not on the radar of the community at large.

    Niall

    11 October 2012 at 08:12

  6. z_boson

    11 October 2012 at 19:30

  7. I’m curious what you think makes the exceptions not homogenous? That they escape Kincaid’s three crises? Or that there’s something beyond what has been discussed so far that delineates them further and is worthy of deeper examination?

    It would seem to me from your review snippet that you and McCalmont essentially see the opposite problem – he finds a lack of political commitment or integrity, while you feel it’s present but not coupled with artistic commitment or integrity. Would you say that’s fair?

    Regardless, I’ll have to read the review. But I was curious about your last line in the quote. Why do you take it that no one’s trying. Or what is it, artistically, not being sought after?

    “Jonathan McCalmont … glories in the typically restrained title”

    LOL

    C. S. Samulski

    12 October 2012 at 17:25

  8. Yeah, I guess McCalmont thinks no one has anything to say whereas I think people don’t have the voice to speak about what they think. We are presumably both products of our differently partial reading of the genre.

    As for the last line of my quote, well, I expand a bit below when I mention Harrison, Priest and Roberts. I don’t really see many people aspiring to that type of writing. If people have other examples of people who are trying, who are giving their all, then I’d love to hear them.

    Martin

    12 October 2012 at 20:53

  9. You two are definitely at opposite views about the problem facing genre, though with what seems like interesting points of intersection to me. As you say, products of different readings, etc.

    I still feel I don’t have the sense of what differentiates those three to you – voice? Or what you imply about their commitment – “giving it their all”? What exactly is “that type of writing” for you? Is it the ironic layer Roberts inlcudes, as he talks about in his post, or something more complex?

    Even after reading the review, I wasn’t sure I quite understood these lines here.

    C. S. Samulski

    14 October 2012 at 05:55

  10. Martin, I can think of a few writers we could add to that list: Chris Beckett; Tricia Sullivan; Ian Macleod; Nina Allan in short fiction; probably Gwyneth Jones, too.

    As far as I’m aware (and I’d love to be proved wrong), only one of these writers currently has a contract with a big UK sf publisher, which is another issue in itself.

    David Hebblethwaite

    14 October 2012 at 14:52

  11. Well I’ve only read one book by Roberts (‘Stone’) and a short story. I read ‘Dream of Wessex’ by Priest, and – I guess, like nearly everybody – I saw ‘The Prestige’. On this basis, I’d classify both as authors whose work explores essentially philosophical issues with the ‘science’ aspect of their work being largely secondary – a means to an end. They are science-fiction writers in the same way that Philip K. Dick is a science-fiction writer. Harrison impressed me principally as a stylist – he’s one of those rare writers who has actually got better with age. ‘Space: A Haunting’ is the first book I read by him in many years and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But the book still had one of the old SF staples (I first remember it in ‘Against a Dark Background’) – the beautiful women warrior.

    Are these writers breaking the mould? I guess that depends on the context. I think all three are pretty solid writers without being genuinely subversive. Earlier I mentioned reader expectations. I meant that SF readers are essentially conservative. And I’m guessing there are probably two schools of writers around at the moment and that their appeal is primarily generational. I’m 48 so I would have grown up with Harrison and Priest. Roberts was a late but welcome find. I think this sort of science fiction (or is the current term speculative fiction??) appeals to readers in my age group. We know these writers and we know what we expect from them – but we also want them to keep improving and we tend to be fussier about how they write than we might have been thirty years ago.

    As for anybody under 25 – who knows?

    Aonghus Fallon

    14 October 2012 at 17:33

  12. In terms of context: look at the Jerry Cornelius quartet. Love or loathe them, these books (‘The Condition of Muzak’) were genuinely nihilistic in their approach to narrative coherence, morality etc. Sure this probably reflected the essentially shallow ethos of the day, but personally I found it pretty refreshing. Who writes books like that now?

    Aonghus Fallon

    14 October 2012 at 17:40

  13. Niall: It is apparently one of the 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010.

    I’d forgotten that. Hmm, will be interested to get my hands on a copy.

    z_boson: You might like this Orhan Parmuk short story

    Thanks for the link, I will add it to the in pile.

    Casey: I still feel I don’t have the sense of what differentiates those three to you – voice? Or what you imply about their commitment – “giving it their all”? What exactly is “that type of writing” for you? Is it the ironic layer Roberts includes, as he talks about in his post, or something more complex?

    With those three writers, I get the impression that they sat down to write an SF novel in the context of the novel as a whole; with most other SF writers, I get the impression they sat down to write a SF novel in the context of the genre novel. Or to attack the idea from a different direction, they are more interested in the journey than the destination. Of course, this is a form of biocrit and I shouldn’t be indulging in it but it is the only explanation that presents itself for the huge variance betweent he sort of work they produce and the sort of work the rest of the genre produces.

    David: I can think of a few writers we could add to that list: Chris Beckett; Tricia Sullivan; Ian Macleod; Nina Allan in short fiction; probably Gwyneth Jones, too.

    They are certainly part of the literary wing of SF but I’m not sure they stand quite as apart as I would like. Beckett, for example, strikes me as of a type with the Resource SF I am criticising (although I haven’t read Black Eden yet). MacLeod’s brand of worthy but dull probably has greater aspirations than are obvious on the page. And I’d say Allan sits to the side in the slipstream tradition.

    As far as I’m aware (and I’d love to be proved wrong), only one of these writers currently has a contract with a big UK sf publisher, which is another issue in itself.

    Yes. There are definitely more than the three I mention but they make up a tiny percentage of what is published and they aren’t very visible. Sullivan and Jones excite me tremedously but they aren’t on contract. Obviously I don’t expect publishers to only print these types of books but it does seem to me that the ratio of fiction that tries to fiction that is complacent is just too skewed.

    As an aside, who is the youngest science fiction writer like this?

    Aonghus: Are these writers breaking the mould? I guess that depends on the context. I think all three are pretty solid writers without being genuinely subversive.

    Given the context, I don’t think there is any other way to describe them than as subversive. But it isn’t actually the subversion that is important to me, it is the fact that (again, within the context) they are stylists. There are plenty of other writers who “explore essentially philosophical issues with the ‘science’ aspect of their work being largely secondary” – you would probably describe Osiris in those terms – they just don’t seem to approach their art in the same way.

    I think this sort of science fiction (or is the current term speculative fiction??) appeals to readers in my age group. We know these writers and we know what we expect from them – but we also want them to keep improving and we tend to be fussier about how they write than we might have been thirty years ago.

    Given the counter-example of the Hugo voters, I’m not sure I can agree. This type of work seems to appeal to a limited number of individuals (within the genre) rather than to specific cohorts. Which partially explains why so little of it is published but not why so few people (within the genre) want to write it.

    Who writes books like that now?

    Richard Morgan?

    Martin

    15 October 2012 at 10:54

  14. Fair enough – but then how would you assess ‘Wind-up Girl’? Sure, it fulfilled all the classic tropes of a certain type of SF (specifically William Gibson) but was also very well written (at least, in my opinion). If style is the sole criteria for distinguishing alternative from mainstream SF, why do you think Bacigalupi failed? And isn’t it interesting that a book that’s chief appeal lay in its style (as opposed to its rather shaky premise) should be so actively promoted?

    I should add that I never finished it.

    Aonghus Fallon

    15 October 2012 at 13:20

  15. If style is the sole criteria for distinguishing alternative from mainstream SF, why do you think Bacigalupi failed?

    Because, as I say in the review, I think that like Swift he has written a novel that at both the sentence level and overall structure is indistinguishable from the majority of science fiction novels, that falls into exactly the same traps.

    And isn’t it interesting that a book that’s chief appeal lay in its style (as opposed to its rather shaky premise) should be so actively promoted?

    Well, I might find that interesting if I didn’t believe the exact opposite!

    Martin

    15 October 2012 at 13:26

  16. So you reckon the style was derivative/generic but that the idea itself was promising? Just curious.

    Aonghus Fallon

    15 October 2012 at 13:44

  17. They are certainly part of the literary wing of SF but I’m not sure they stand quite as apart as I would like.

    Ah, so you’re not just looking for superior prose here; you’re talking about authors whose works are distinctively their own (in a good way!), stylistically and conceptually – is that a fair description?

    More suggestions: how about Rob Shearman or Nick Harkaway?

    As an aside, who is the youngest science fiction writer like this?

    This is an interesting question. I’m not well versed enough in the short fiction scene to be able to make any suggestions from there. Among novelists, it’s too soon to make that call on James Smythe’s work – and after that, it gets tricky to think of names. I can think of younger fantasy writers working at that level, and younger mainstream-published authors who don’t write exclusively sf. Hmm… Charles Yu may be a possibility.

    David H

    15 October 2012 at 18:39

  18. As an aside, who is the youngest science fiction writer like this?

    Me. Hopefully. Soon. We’ll see. ;)

    C. S. Samulski

    16 October 2012 at 08:27

  19. To wrap up a couple of comments at once, I think The Wind-Up Girl has a very promising premise: it posits that our world is unsustainable, that collapse is inevitable but then goes the extra step to imagine what might arise post-collapse. But this is flattened under genre cliche. This is as much about tropes, events and characters as prose style.

    I don’t think all great writers are great stylists. Equally, not all great stylists are great writers – Harkaway is a good example (on evidence to date). But writing can’t be seperated from prose (despite what genre writers often seem to believe) so guess I agree with David’s description that I want writers to be “distinctively their own, stylistically and conceptually”.

    The point about being able to think of younger fantasy writers and mainstream-published authors who don’t write exclusively sf is telling. Yu sits outside genre SF and he is probably better off there. In fact, going back to Roberts, although he it is a good thing that he is so well supported by Gollancz, I can’t help wondering what the reception of a novel like By Light Alone would have been if it was published by, say, Granta (as was the case with Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story).

    But given the increased popularity of non-genre SF amongst both writers and readers, it is odd and a shame that the genre itself (which could teach them all a thing or too) isn’t really keeping pace.

    Martin

    17 October 2012 at 10:56

  20. Of course The Wind-Up Girl is also pretty problematic both in its laughable science (forget wind energy, solar or any other kind of sustainable energy source, let’s pretend there aren’t vast amounts of coal still left, but let’s go for huge springs and dodgy genetical engineering to get super elephants) and its racial and sexual politics (the geisha girl frex). To make it a benchmark for good genre sf therefore, is perhaps not the best course of action.

    Martin Wisse

    19 October 2012 at 12:22

  21. [...] Lewis has been wondering just how many (or how few) contemporary science fiction writers are really stretching with their [...]

  22. [...] Martin Lewis [...]

  23. Sorry, Martin, I’m afraid your comment got caught in the spam trap.

    Its political problems are, I think, clearly an issue that directly results from its reluctance to step outside the genre. The energy question is more confusing and the lack of anything but coal power utterly baffled me when I read the novel. I assumed the absence must have been mentioned in his other work but this doesn’t appear to be the case, rather it is an extended calorie metaphor. Which is a step outside of the genre but, alas, a mistep.

    Martin

    24 October 2012 at 15:48

  24. Steve Aylett is both a conceptual and stylistic innovator within SF today.

    Aylett puts these words in the mouth of his fictional character Jeff Lint: “Genuine creativity will, by definition, result in something new and never seen before. But despite people’s claims that they welcome or crave originality, their dislike of the new and unfamiliar means that any encounter with real creativity will always send them scampering away–perhaps giggling nervously like tarts, at best.” (From AND YOUR POINT IS?: SCORN AND MEANING IN JEFF LINT’S FICTION edited by Steve Aylett, Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2006.)

    Ross

    26 October 2012 at 16:34

  25. Indeed and that is what made Novahead one of my favourite novels of last year.

    Martin

    26 October 2012 at 17:17

  26. […] Woman On The Edge Of Time – One of my rare reviews for the blog: I didn’t like it. 7) Where Is The New New Wave? – Meta-commentary using one of my review elsewhere as a jumping off point to discus the […]

    Five | Everything Is Nice

    28 September 2013 at 12:47

  27. […] publishing asymmetry where both British and American authors (such as EJ Swift’s Osiris and Kameron Hurley’s Kitschie-shortlisted God’s War) cannot find a home in this country. […]

  28. I think about this novel and this review from time to time and wonder about my expectations for the book, for Swift and for the genre. so I was very interested to read Nina Allan’s review of Cataveiro, the sequel to Osiris. Except it isn’t a sequel (as I lamented at the end of my review):

    Cataveiro is cunningly conceived to work as a standalone. Although the action takes place shortly after the events of Osiris, you don’t need to have read Osiris to make sense of it. Defying the laws of trilogy, Swift has created a work that issues naturally from of the events of her first novel and yet dispenses with all but one of that novel’s main characters. There are no tedious recaps, no desperate striving for continuity. Instead there is a whole new story, with Osiris nestled within that story as an integral yet unobtrusive part.

    Allan is coming from a similar place to me:

    In spite of admiring the novel’s ambition and being impressed by the Swift’s evident feel for language and imagery, I could never escape the sense that in terms of its overall concept, Osiris was not original enough to stand out from all the other, similar debuts that had gone before it.

    But she continues:

    Should she choose – and I’m sure she will – to experiment still further with form, to stretch the boundaries of the genre in which she works, to break entirely free of the particular set of reader expectations that trilogy-writing inevitably entails, then I think she could be not just very good but seriously brilliant.

    Which is pretty exciting. So now I am wondering not about the past but about what the future holds for Swift.

    Martin

    19 February 2014 at 14:13

  29. […] don’t have anything to add to these two posts – although I have in the past – but I’m glad that David and Nina are making these […]


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