Grounds For Optimists

Is Science Fiction really dead? No!

So why do people claim it is?

It's time to take a look at the bookshelves. No, not those at home, but those of your local bookshop. Bookshops vary enormously from place to place; they may be large pleasant places, full of quiet music and people, they may be small, filling a corner on a back street, they may even be a W.H. Smith. But in most cases they will stock Sf and fantasy, some having large areas dedicated to the genres, some just a few shelves. All these shelves, wherever they are, are full of books. However, it often seems that there is nothing on them worth reading...

So how can you, the discerning and literate reader, find the hidden treasures? They are probably on those very shelves, surrounded by copies of Dungeon Barbarian's Interminable Quest Volume VIII and Right-Wing Mercenaries With Big Guns Conquer the Universe...Again. But finding these worthies is no easy job, as the figures that the Sf newspaper Locus provides in its annual market survey show. During 1992, over 1,800 genre works (Sf, Fantasy and Horror) were published in the USA (an 8% decrease compared to the previous year!) and 822 in Britain, including reprints. That's over two a day. Even if the fastest reader managed to keep up with the publishers by reading the 424 new books, they'd at least have trouble paying for them all, with prices of at least a fiver per volume...

Theodore Sturgeon was said to have stated that 90% of everything is crap. In these high production nineties that means there's a large pile of wasted wood pulp. In that long ago time of the 50's and 60's the smaller amount of genre fiction let the gold shine through the mud, as a reader panned through the formulaic space operas for future classics. Word of mouth carried news of the promise of new writers, enabling readers to find what they wanted more effectively. Though purists may attempt to deny the power of the grass roots, the current literary standing of Dick and Ballard was a result of people enjoying their work and telling their friends. The critical prominence of Dick has only really come about through the academic work of dedicated fans, though true appreciation had to wait until after his death.

So where today can we find that vibrant pulse of exciting, relevant speculative fiction. is it hidden in the dying spark of the cyberpunks as they fade away in share-cropped gameboy netspaces? Is it espoused in the gender politics and polemics of feminist Sf? Where can we find that old sense of wonder, or that New Worlds spark of prose adventure? And how do I find it?

It is time to return to the roots of written Sf, taking another look at the short stories in the magazines and original anthologies and collections. It was in such pages that many revolutions in style have occurred, that the New Wave lit its first torches and Bruce Sterling's paper army of cyberpunks raised the banners in their attempt to redefine Sf. For the past six years I've found Gardner Dozois Best Sf collections to be a springboard into the depths of fiction. It was in these pages I found the ever-changing Walter John Williams, the calculated high weirdness of Howard Waldrop and the lyrical prose of Karen Joy Fowler. Going back to 1992's number, I find a collection of stories that in turn amused, moved and enthralled me. Consider two very different stories from this volume...

Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain: At first glance just another dystopian story of genetic engineering, it rapidly becomes a forceful morality tale, contrasting and examining intolerance and acceptance, love and indifference, whilst exploring the relationships of a modified human with her 'normal' sister, her family and her peers.

Ian McDonald, Fragments of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria: A postmodernist scrawl through a psychiatric history, that may or may not be precognition of death camps awaiting the protagonist, an emotional journey into the depths of the twentieth century's darkest nightmare.

So if the roots of written SF are the short story, then what of the fruit of the plant, the novel?

Fresh grown from the pages of Interzone and Asimov's we find Australia's bright new hope, Greg Egan. As Quarantine starts to wander out on that word of mouth trail there are copies being passed from hand-to-hand in pubs, its' mixture of hard boiled detective tropes a la Spillane, altered states of consciousness and far-out quantum physics synthesising something new and brave. Following a similar path is Geoff Ryman's The Child Garden, battered copies taking their places on student bookshelves, telling of the role of art in changing the changeless. Then there is Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, with its catchphrase memes leaving their marks on our fledgling cyberspace, its radical hard Sf coating an examination of how we communicate in our shiny new information age, ultra-intelligent, transcendent powers influencing the actions of individuals and civilisations.

From where I sit, there is still subversion and exploration out there on the shelves, there is relevance, there is literature.

Everywhere I look, the signposts to the future, and the present, of written Sf are clear, printed on the pages of magazines, in the indices of anthologies. They are there in the reference books, in the discussions of Sf groups around the country. Just keep an ear to the ground and you'll find your way through the maze of modern publishing and see that Sf is not dead. who knows, maybe the next book you'll pick up is that classic you've always been looking for...