Monday, June 15, 2015

The Big Idea, an Evolving Notion

On my last post, I didn’t say much about who I am and what I’m doing here.  I thought it might be interesting to HoF readership to rectify that, as my thought process and experience with the genre might be different enough to interest you. (or not, but then, that’s why we have a comments section!).

My name is Gustavo, and I write a little bit of everything, but mainly science fiction and fantasy.  I don't edit magazines and I don't publish my own work - I write genre work because I enjoy exploring and sharing ideas, and often those ideas are best developed within an unreal or future setting.  Those of you who’ve read my work (or most of my blog posts) will know that I’m fascinated by big ideas and plot much more than I am by characters.

I believe that one of the most interesting things about our genre is how those big ideas have changed over the past couple of decades to reflect the evolving tastes of readers in the genre.  It’s not news to anyone that the SFF world has, thankfully, become more inclusive and diverse in that period.  But it might not be quite as obvious that the demographics have also shifted away from the general readership to a much more educated and cultured audience as well.  We have, in a very real sense, become inclusive elitists - and that shows in the topics we consume.

Since the ramifications of elitism and inclusiveness as a general issue are being discussed endlessly elsewhere (see: Hugo Awards 2015, Tempest in a Teapot Surrounding the for more details), I won’t waste your time with it, but would prefer to look at the big ideas that have come to dominate the critically accepted portion of the genre – and also to give you my take on it.

I think there are basically two major trends within the genre that have emerged within the last couple of decades.  The first has to do with diversity and the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented groups, but particularly the study of the roles of women with the genre.

The stories about women – or simply about women’s role in SFF societies – that have been told over the past four decades are often among the most powerful SF tales.  Sadly, however, only people who read widely within the genre will read the good ones, which I feel is a tragedy.

That situation arises because casual readers and non-genre fans, when researching a good women’s role story to read will be pointed towards the more extreme feminist expressions of the type, such as Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or some of Johanna Russ’ more militant work.  The only effect this can have on a casual reader is to cause them to shake their head and say: “well, the science fiction and fantasy genre is just as preachy and mediocre as I thought”, and move on.

Sad indeed, but partly our own fault for making the preachy, extreme stuff the visible flagships of a current that is artistically and conceptually far beyond the stage where aggressive agendas ruled the world.  There are so many delicate, thought-provoking pieces out there which examine the roles of women in future or fantastic societies that it would be impossible to mention them all (but I would check out many of the other authors on this blog for some examples of brilliance).  But to the larger readership out there, they are often all but invisible.

The second large current is Ecology.  This is a field in which the genre has been much luckier.  The great ecologically-driven SF classic is Dune, and it would be hard to have chosen a better representative.  The fact that modern SFF has been writing ghastly dystopian scenarios in which corporate greed destroys the environment has happily gone completely unnoticed by anyone save the tiny niche of readers who religiously consume Dozois’ Year’s Best collections.

But for such an important topic, it’s a bit sad to see that the major classic is nearly 50 years old as I write this.  That is both an indictment of the sub-par work which has followed and the self-ostracizing course of the genre as a whole (being elitist inclusionists has the effect of limiting the size of the audience even if the internal diversity of the group is improved).

So, all in all, the genre is still waiting for a renewal in these two topics: major novels that will sweep away the cobwebs and the conception of a stale, agenda-driven past.  Novels with poetry, but without preachiness that will break down the walls of the genre ghetto and reach a wider audience in the way that Game of Thrones has done for traditional medieval fantasy, or in the way that magic realism has been managing to do continuously with Garcia Márquez and Murakami. 

It’s not impossible.  Jaded teens have been reading "traditional" SFF in droves since a certain boy wizard first escaped from middle-class grayness in Privet Lane. 

We need to give them something to keep them interested when they grow up.


Anonymous said...

Gustavo, thanks for another great post. I am so unfamiliar with the science fiction genre; I had no idea ecology was one of the great currents. Though Dune is one of my all-time favorite novels. I'd love to see more ecology-driven science fiction stories. Who knows? Maybe I could write one myself someday. :)

Anonymous said...

You definitely should! I would love to read it, and it would resonate with the times so well.

As for the rest of the genre, as I said, there's a ton of post-eco-meltdown work out there, although I wouldn't recommend much, if any. of it!

Terri-Lynne said...

There is new and exciting stuff out there, and it happens to be happening in the small press and self-published realm. I'm not a huge scifi buff, but I recently read a novel written by a friend and was blown away by the "new and different." To me, at least.

It's a straight-up teen adventure set in a futuristic world that is neither on the brink of collapse or outrageously implausible. The tech was cool, the worldbuilding authentic, and the characters really, really REAL. Is it the kind of scifi a die-hard fan would enjoy? Probably not. There isn't enough doom! :) Seriously, though, there are good choices out there, this one especially for teens.

(In case anyone is wondering, the book is Company Daughter by Callan Primer)

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here, what a spot on post! I find myself agreeing with just about every assertion. We are our own best defense, and yet at the same time we have recently done a pretty good job of tearing our genre apart. The Dune reference was interesting, and if I question the claim that it stands alone because of lack of a successor perhaps that is due to Herbert's excellence. Who could hope to follow that?

Anonymous said...

Hi Terry-Lynne: Agreed! There is a lot going on in the small press, but many casual readers (and ever truly deep readers who have little time) are going to miss out. I hope some of these break into the mass consciousness at some point!

Mark, thanks! You may be right - it is a hugely difficult act to follow... but it HAS been nearly 50 years. We know so much more today, and society has advanced so far... surely there must be someone on the cusp of at least competing with it. Possibly not, but I dream of the day!