What’s Happening to Science Fiction?

When it came to science fiction, I grew up reading the old masters—many of whom were considered the Grand Masters—of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov,Robert-A.-Heinlein Frederick Pohl, Jack Williamson, Joe Haldeman, to name a few. I’ve read the modern masters as well: Orson Scott Card, Jack McDevitt, EE Knight, Peter F. Hamilton, David Weber, John Ringo, and others.

They all had something in common: they told a good story, and they did it well. They challenged my thinking in some way, and quite often presented me with new and novel concepts in the way of technology or setting or both. Even some of their lesser works were a pleasure to read.

For me, science fiction is sorta like your old alma mater or a favorite aunt: there’ll always be a soft spot in your heart for it. Just looking at some of those names brings back pleasant memories of hours almost literally discovering new life and new civilizations, letting the author take me where no one had gone before.

And the books! Stranger in a Strange Land. The Foundation Trilogy. The Starchild Trilogy. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Pebble in the Sky. The Forever War. Starship Troopers. The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. The Honor Harrington Series. The Vampire Earth. Ender’s Game. The list goes on and on, hours and hours immersing myself in other worlds, other peoples’ imaginations. Journeying to new planets, or seeing a new version of this one.

strangerEverything must change, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t dip into science fiction as much as I used to. Too busy reading crime fiction, keeping up a steady diet of the kind of thing I’m reading. But every now and then I come across a new one in the field that sounds interesting, and I’ll pick it up.

Unfortunately, these days, I’m often disappointed, and it makes me worry for the future of the genre.

Two books in particular—I know, not exactly what you’d call a large scientific sample, but when you pick up two in a row, it makes you wonder—have me worried. The first I’ve mentioned in a previous post: Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. I picked this one up (and the other one I’ll mention as well) because it seemed to promise a mixture of crime and science fiction, something I’m interested in pursuing.

And, from what I read of it, the book seemed to be good, though I had some quibbles about it. For instance, I’m getting really tired of the psychologically scarred hero who can’t quite seem to get over his past trauma. I know we need our protagonists to have flaws, but do they all need to be in therapy, for crying out loud? But on top of that, the author had a literary degree and had to have his own little signature trick of ending pretty much every line of dialogue with an em dash. Irritating as hell. Kept throwing me out of the story because it made it feel like everyone was interrupting everyone else.

Didn’t finish it.

Then there was The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. Again, interesting premise: a serial killer on a generation ship that contains the last remnant of humanity on a thousand-year voyage to a new planet. Generation ships are nothing new to science fiction, nor is the idea of the ship containing the last remnant of humanity. I’m not foreverwatchaware of a story in which a serial killer was on the ship.

It had lots of possibilities, and after I gave up on the book, I turned to the last page. It looked like they might discover the ship was actually constructed by aliens, or at least had an alien presence on board, and that would account for the serial killings, which were of a particularly nasty, brutal nature: the victims were literally torn to pieces and scattered all over the scene. Add in that the government seemed to be covering these deaths up, season with conspiracy theories about the murders, and you had what could have been a tense, appealing story.

Except David Ramirez is a computer programmer (or at least that was one of his jobs), who apparently really loves programming. Especially the concept of hacking.

Now, I got nothing against hacking (as a plot point, that is) or programming. I’m a web programmer. I know or at least have a familiarity with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JQuery, Visual Basic, PHP, Visual C#, SQL, MySQL, DOM Scripting, Java, Ajax…are your eyes glazing over yet? That’s how I felt reading this book. The protagonist has some talent as a hacker and she devises a program fairly early on to search all the databases on the ship’s network (called the Nth Web for some strange reason) for anything to do with these mysterious murders. Nothing wrong with that. Your character should rely on his strengths to solve his problems.

But when I’d reached something like page 70 or 80, and the protagonist was going on picnics with her ugly love interest (a cop, of course, tall, dark, strong, but not good looking, which was a nice twist) and still refining her searchbots and nothing else is really happening…I don’t have time for that. I’m a programmer. I do this stuff for a living (or I’m trying to), but I don’t want to read about it in my fiction. The reality is—for me, at least—that programming isn’t all that exciting. Sure, I love making a change in my CSS or HTML and seeing the immediate result on the website I’m building. I like writing a program in PHP—a language I’m convinced is the lingua franca of Hell—and getting it to work, even if it’s a simple slide show.

Don’t mean I wanna read about it in my fiction. Not in that much slow, boring detail, anyway.

So I put the book down.

neuromancerWilliam Gibson’s writings about cyberpunks trolling through cyberspace I can read. He makes them exciting (just read his book Neuromancer, the novel pretty much responsible for starting the cyberpunk subgenre, and you’ll see what I mean) by giving us graphic representations of cyber cowboys jacking into a deck and losing themselves inside a not-quite-real-but-still-very-dangerous world. Perhaps Mr. Ramirez could profit from going back and reading some of Mr. Gibson’s work.

I’m hoping these two books are just blips on the radar, that this isn’t the way science fiction is going. There are still books coming out from the likes of Orson Scott Card, David Weber, John Ringo, and EE Knight, so I have hope for it. There are always going to be books in the genre you don’t like, with concepts you just can’t get behind, and science fiction, along with its sister genre fantasy, seems to have that kind pop up more than other genres.

I just hope it’s not going to be the prevailing trend.



3 thoughts on “What’s Happening to Science Fiction?

    1. gilmiller Post author

      I’ve read a lot of Frank Herbert’s work and it’s good too. Most of the stuff his son Brian is doing with the Dune universe is worth reading as well.

  1. Pingback: Contemporary Classical Composer Sabrina Pena Young Official Music Site: Cyberpunk, Dystopia, Science Fiction, and Libertaria | Libertaria: The Virtual Opera

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