Sunday, August 26, 2007

Dinosaurs, Space Flight, and Science Fiction

What do the people who put on science fiction conventions really want? This is one of those everyday puzzles that working writers face all the time. When you’re asked for a contribution to a program book, you don’t get any serious guidelines as to what they’re looking for. “I’m sure you’ll do a terrific job,” they say, and you hope to God that they’re right.

So when I was asked to pen a short essay for the program book for the 2007 International SF/Fantasy Conference in Chengdu, the first thing I had to do was to figure out what would make its readers happy. There should be a dollop of praise for the host nation’s scientific and technological accomplishments, I figured, because . . . well, because everybody likes that sort of thing (the United States most definitely not excluded). Then, because I’ve been to overseas conventions before and talked to a lot of fans, I knew that what everybody wanted most to hear about was literary movements. Not Cyberpunk or the New Wave or any of that dusty old historical stuff that happened in grand-dad’s day, but stuff so recent that the news of it hasn’t traveled around the world yet.

Fortunately, I had the inside dope on exactly the sort of literary ferment they were hoping for. So that’s what I wrote about.

I’m quite proud of the essay I wrote. Not because it’s spectactularly well-written or particularly insightful. But because it’s exactly the sort of thing that (I reckon) its readers were hoping for.

You might enjoy it too. In any case, here it is:

Dinosaurs, Space Flight, and Science Fiction

What a wonderful time this is to be a dinosaur scientist! When I was a boy, paleontology was a dusty, sleepy corner of science. Everything important had been discovered a lifetime before, and all that was left to do was to organize and catalog the fossils. Back then, dinosaurs were cold-blooded and slow-moving. They dragged their tails on the ground behind them. Some spent their lives in swamps because it was the only way they could support their enormous bodies. Or so everybody thought.

All those ideas have since been discredited and exciting new discoveries are being made every year. While I was researching Bones of the Earth, Sinosauropteryx and Caudipteryx fossils were discovered in China revealing that some dinosaurs (not all!) had feathers. Confuciusornis fossils proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that birds are directly descended from dinosaurs and thus, cladistically speaking, are themselves dinosaurs – just as human beings are hominids and mammals and vertebrates and notochordates, all at the same time. To say nothing of Gigantoraptor, announced by Dr Xing Xu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing as I was finishing up this essay.

Science fictions writers are a lot like paleontologists in some ways: As a rule, they don’t earn a lot of money. They’re doing what they love. And for those of us working in science fiction, it’s a wonderful time to be alive. Back in 1980 when I published my first story, it would have been easy for me to list the twenty best living science fiction writers. Now I couldn’t even begin to list the twenty best new writers. There has never been so much talent in the field as there is today.

I started to compile a list of significant English-language SF or fantasy writers who may well be unknown in China, beginning almost randomly with Ted Chiang, Greer Gilman, Charles Stross, Jeffrey Ford, Ken MacLeod, Ian M. Banks, Paul Park, Nalo Hopkinson, Andy Duncan, Eileen Gunn, Sean Stewart, Kelly Link, Mary Doria Russell, Paolo Bacigalupi . . . But the list goes on and on and there are already far too many for me to give you any idea of their individual virtues. So instead I’m going to present a short sketch of the three literary movements that are currently the most active in the field. Only a small fraction of the writers who matter belong to these groups. But their concerns are representative. They say something about what’s going on today.

Interstitial Arts was founded by my friend Ellen Kushner, who has a fondness for literary movements. (This is her third, after Mannerpunk, and the Young Trollopes. ) As their official Web page puts it:

What is Interstitial Art? It is art made in the interstices between genres and categories. It is art that flourishes in the borderlands between different disciplines, mediums, and cultures. It is art that crosses borders, made by artists who refuse to be constrained by category labels. . . . Just as in nature the greatest areas of biodiversity occur in the margins of land between ecosystems, it is our belief that some of the most vital, innovative, and challenging art being created today can be found in the margins between categories, genres, and disciplines. Because such works are hard to classify, they are often misunderstood in a culture that has become overly dependent on branding and selling art by category labels. Border-crossing works of literature, for example, which consciously borrow tropes and themes from both genre and mainstream fiction, are classified as one or the other — and then critiqued according to the terms of that classification rather than on the book's own terms, often to the detriment of the work in question.

Of all the groups under consideration, Interstitial Arts is the most ambitious in it that does not limit itself to literature, but includes (or hopes to include) all arts, including painting, theater, and music. While it is unclear how large a readership there is for IA, it is absolutely certain that there’s a great demand for it on the part of writers. In recent years, there have been several anthologies (usually small-press) dedicated to what might be called not-quite-SF-or-fantasy stories, almost every one of which has its own name for the category – slipstream, new wave fabulist, cross-genre – and friends tell me that it was more difficult to sell to them than to, say, Asimov’s, which has far more readers, because so many first-rate writers were trying to get in.

If you’re still a little vague as to exactly what Interstitial Art is . . . Well, welcome to the club. A few years ago, I attended the first-ever Interstitial Arts conference, and though they were persistently questioned by not-unfriendly critics, not one of the organizers could actually define it.

The Interstitial Arts Foundation has just published their first anthology, Interfictions, so it’s too early to say how readers will respond to it. Nevertheless, this desire on the part of genre writers to expand the limits of what they can write, is a major trend in contemporary science fiction. With or without an organizing movement, it looks like it’s here to stay.

The New Weird is the creation of M. John Harrison, whose Viriconium books are ancestral to the movement and is typified by China Miéville, whose novel Perdido Street Station hit science fiction with the same force as William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The novel is set New Crobuzon, a vast shambles of a city inhabited by humans, bird-men, scarab-headed kephri, froglike vodyanoi, cactus-people and I forget what other races. It sounds strange, but the novel (and the books Miéville has written since) is far, far stranger than it sounds.

Miéville’s work is so startlingly original as to seem without precedent or peer. But that’s not how he himself sees it. In a guest editorial in The Third Alternative, he wrote:

Something is happening in the literature of the fantastic. A slippage. A freeing-up. The quality is astounding. Notions are sputtering and bleeding across internal and external boundaries. Particularly in Britain, where we are being reviewed in the papers, of all things, and selling copies, and being read and riffed off by yer actual proper literary writers. We are writing books which cheerfully ignore the boundaries between SF, fantasy and horror. Justina Robson, M John Harrison, Steve Cockayne, Al Reynolds, Steph Swainston and too many others to mention, despite all our differences, share something. And our furniture has invaded their headspace. From outside the field, writers like Toby Litt and David Mitchell use the trappings of SF with a respect and facility that has long been missing in the clodhopping condescension of the literati.

What this has in common with Interstitial Arts is a dissatisfaction with the genres as they currently are, and a disinclination to respect their boundaries. What makes it radically different from IA is that there is no desire to expand beyond fantasy, science fiction, and horror. New Weird simply wishes to break down the walls between genres and reshape the fiction being written within. They have no particular desire to move into the mainstream.

This reflects a strong contemporary desire in the genre to write science fiction and fantasy that is stranger and more intense than what we have now. To write, in short, fiction which is everything we like about genre fiction but more so.
The New Weird anthology – titled, appropriately enough, The New Weird Anthology – is being edited by Jeff Vandermeer, who was an early critic of the movement and has since been won over to it. It comes out in 2008.

Mundane Science Fiction is the newest of the movements and the one with the least to show for itself. Nobody would take it seriously save for two things. The first is that it is the creation of Geoff Ryman, best known for such startlingly original works as The Unconquered Country, The Child Garden, and what is probably my favorite novel of 2004, Air. The second is that it has a strong argument. In extremely abbreviated form (taken from one of several manifestoes), the Mundanes believe:

That interstellar travel remains unlikely. Warp drives, worm holes, and other forms of faster-than-light magic are wish fulfillment fantasies rather than serious speculation about a possible future.

That magic interstellar travel can lead to an illusion of a universe abundant with worlds as hospitable to life as this Earth. This is also unlikely.

That this dream of abundance can encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.

There are several more SF commonplaces the Mundanes reject, including alien civilizations and artificial intelligence. In order, therefore, for science fiction to have a positive influence on the world, they intend to write only stories that take place in the future we are likely to have, rather than the one we wish were possible. It would be nice to sip alien wine beside an ancient canal with a Martian princess, they say. But it’s simply not going to happen.

The interesting thing about the Mundanes is how many writers responded angrily to their rhetoric while agreeing with their premises. One of many commentators on this phenomenon pointed out that what the Mundanes were objecting to was not the free play of imagination per se, but what she called third-hand fiction – stories written by people who, having no real ideas of their own, create imitations of the SF they loved when they were young.

The Mundanes are so new that they haven’t even arranged their own anthology. But a future issue of Interzone will be dedicated to their work. That’s one magazine I intend to pick up.

So we have three movements. One is trying to move science fiction beyond the barriers that traditionally define it – to colonize what we like to call the mainstream. One wants to stay within those boundaries but break down the barriers between science fiction, fantasy, and horror in order to create a more vigorous hybrid form. The third wants to concentrate SF on its traditional core concern, the future as it actually will be. What do they all have in common?


All three movements are made up of writers who are trying their very best to write fiction the likes of which nobody has ever seen before. More literary, more science-fictional, more consequential. With high hopes and glad ambition they are storming the slopes of Parnassus.

Which is what all of us, whether we belong to a movement or not, are trying to do.

At the beginning of this essay, I said that it was an exciting time to be a paleontologist. It is an exciting time to be involved in rocketry as well. It was not long ago that China became the third nation to put a man into space. The significance of this is enormous. So long as there were only two nations, Russia and the United States, capable of manned spaceflight, it was possible to believe it was all politics – flashy and expensive, but not lasting. No more. Now it is clear that humanity is moving into space. If one country falters and loses interest, another will pick up the torch.

There have been three great events in the history of life. The first was when life first arose on Earth. The second was when life first left the oceans and moved onto land. The third was when life first left the planet. We are privileged to be alive in the fleeting eyeblink of time when this third event is taking place. Which is also – and this is not coincidental – the same instant in which the human race could very well put an end to itself. There’s never been a time that offered better material for a serious science fiction writer to work with.

There’s never been a better time to be a science fiction writer.



James Reynolds said...

Thanks for your essay above, and the previous one. I'll be checking out Geoff Ryman's work at my library at my first opportunity. Hope Mirrlees isn't in the London (Ontario) public library, alas. I'll have to look farther afield to find something by her.

Lou Anders said...

And a belated welcome to the blogosphere.

JeffV said...

Very cool you have a blog. Um, New Weird was not created by China Mieville but by M. John Harrison. China didn't come into the discussion until later. I haven't been won over to it entirely, but I think it's a legitimate moment/movement. It also *did* start as attempt to get literary legitimacy in the mainstream world, but I think he main problem with that is how difficult it is to get such legitimacy when NW is mostly secondary-world fantasy.

The main difference between Interstitial and NW is that NW isn't afraid to embrace horror, even pulpy horror, as a major component of what it does--coupled with a very specific tip of the hat to the New Wave movement.



mcp said...

Whoops. My bad. Yes, of course it was Mike Harrison, the author of the seminal and quite wonderful Viriconium books, and a personal hero of mine.

James, Lud-in-the-Mist was reissued in England a couple of years ago in Millennium's Fantasy Masterworks series (as was also, I am vain enough to mention, my own The Iron Dragon's Daughter), and there's a strong possibility that it will also appear from another house in a couple of years. So, worse come to worst, you should be able to find a copy eventually.

Michael Swanwick said...

Oh, bugger. I accidentally used my wife's account. The immediately above was my post.

Richard Mason said...

I assume Ian R. Banks is a typo and not the unluckiest science fiction writer alive.

Michael Swanwick said...

Yep. Typo. Corrected. Thanks. Obviously, I was thinking of Ian R. MacLeod.