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April 21, 2005

Who The Hell Cares What's Wrong With American SF?

Charlie Stross speculates, with only the tiniest hint of schadenfreude, as to why all the Hugo nominees for Best Novel this year are all British -- or, more accurately, why none of them are American. After politely offering the olive branch of coincidence, Charlie's off-the-cuff speculation is that American SF writers are depressed:

Here I'm going to shortcircuit the endless debate and bring up my proposition: that the shape of American SF, as with British SF, is determined by the cultural zeitgeist, by the society's own vision of its future. And I propose that the American future is currently uncertain, unpleasant, polarized, regimented, and pessimistic... This is not the place to list all the controversies or uncertainties haunting the American psyche in the wake of 9/11. Nor am I going to leave any hostages to fortune by prophesying either a reinvigoration of American hegemony, or a Soviet-style collapse. I'm agnostic on the matter. What I am willing to assert is that this uncertainty is haunting science fiction and warping the sort of fiction that is being written.

This follows to some extent on a Live Journal entry by Canadian James Nicholl, who asks: "So when exactly did the US stop being fertile soil for real SF?" and also suggests that American SF writers have a case of the doldrums, which shows up in depressing futures with restricted civil liberties.

I don't know. Personally speaking, I must have missed the memo to be depressed, since none of my SF (at least as it applies to earth) is pessimistic about the American future; indeed, on that far-distant day in which The Android's Dream is ever released you will discover that much to the consternation of other nations on the planet, it is a hale and healthy America that is the seat of the federal world government, and that sends representatives to the larger interstellar UN-like organization. I'm not incapable of writing darker-tinged fiction -- I think you'll find that The Ghost Brigades is somewhat darker and more intense than Old Man's War -- but neither do I find doom and gloom inherently interesting. It's a tool from the toolbox, and it has its uses, but it shouldn't necessarily be the first tool out of the box. And while I am not entirely pleased with the current American political/social scene, neither do I believe it portends the coming of the American Jerusalem and/or The Second Great Depression. The life of the US exists on multiple levels; some of the scarier levels are simply more obvious at the moment. We'll see where it goes from here. Suffice to say that in the long run, I am not unoptimistic.

American SF writers may indeed be trapped in a becalmed Saragasso Sea of the soul at the moment thanks to the various political and social shifts in this country. Alternately, it may be that the US writers are sucking up the tail end of a particular SF market trend that is rapidly playing itself out and American SF writers will now have to figure out where the hell to go to next. Or maybe they're all just in really crappy personal relationships. Maybe it's not the authors at all; maybe it's the editors who are buying stuff who are depressed as hell. As a reader, I find it difficult to actually care because I don't read by nationality, I read by author and/or story, and if the story is good, I simply could not give a squat where it is the author sits down to type his or her story.

As an author, I'm not totally disinterested in what other writers are doing -- as I've noted before, I wrote Old Man's War because a trip to the bookstore told me that military fiction was what was selling, and as a first-time author, I wanted to sell -- but I'm wary of making sweeping generalizations about what the lot of them are writing and how, or the contextual underpinnings of the work. The SF writing scene is small enough to have some uniformity in outlook, but people's lives and the ways those lives impact their work are intensely varied.

If American SF writers are uniformly depressed, well, I don't know, let's organize a field trip to someplace sunny for them. Let them frolic in the open air or whatever. Have them meet a nice person of their gender of sexual preference and then rut like stoats for a day or two. Call it charity. But if that doesn't snap them out of their doldrums, oh well. We've done what we can for them.

My theory as to why five Brits are Hugo nominees for best novel is pretty simple: leaving aside electoral noise like "hometown" bias and real or imagined personal relationships with the author, the five books nominated are just really good books. This is of course begging the question as to why they're so good, but just as American authors can have many reasons for slumping at the moment, these British authors can have myriad reasons for being at the top of their game, possibly some relating to nationality but other factors having little or nothing to do with it at all.

It's fun to ascribe an overarching reason for the inclusion of these five particular books, to try to impose some sort of uniform causality. But ultimately these rationales aren't going to pan out. Occam's Razor returns us to the "really good book" theory. It works for me.

Posted by john at April 21, 2005 08:33 AM

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Comments

JeremyT | April 21, 2005 02:27 PM

I agree with you, but tend towards thinking also that the recent events have impacted those in the publishing world, living in NYC, in different ways than those of us who live elsewhere. That makes most of the editors in our business. I think of editors as being lenses. Their "depression" could very well be compounding the depression expressed by writers. It's an interesting theory, but ultimately, I agree with your Occam's razor rationale.

SuperCyber | April 21, 2005 03:06 PM

Sheesh. I mean, why not say something like "All the best writers of science fiction are British . . . this year!!" After all, the Brits have a long history of writing in . . . English. Jolly good for them!! And frankly, their sh** is dang good right now. But when they've won all the Hugos for forever and forever, then maybe, we'll worry that the Hugos are the equivalent of the Americas Cup for the Brits. Although . . . um, just what sort of um, writerly credentials do you need to get invited to "Scalzi's Scribes and Shagging Tour 2005"?

Tripp | April 21, 2005 03:22 PM

f American SF writers are uniformly depressed, well, I don't know, let's organize a field trip to someplace sunny for them. Let them frolic in the open air or whatever. Have them meet a nice person of their gender of sexual preference and then rut like stoats for a day or two.

Wow!

I want you as my therapist!

katre | April 21, 2005 03:30 PM

JeremyT,

I live in NYC, and I don't get any general sense of citywide melancholy. We're here, and most of the time we're too busy scratching away trying to make ends meet to be worried.

Bill Peschel | April 21, 2005 04:05 PM

I figure most of the American SF writers are busy cranking out the Star Wars/Star Trek/Firefly/24 adaptations the marketplace desperately needs.

The rest are all doing LOTR slash fic.

John Scalzi | April 21, 2005 04:15 PM

The world needs more Pippin/Faramir sex scenes!

Chad Orzel | April 21, 2005 04:25 PM

The bigger problem with this whole debate is that I don't think the British SF I've read recently is all that cheerful and optimistic. Granted, I've only read two of the five Hugo nominees (one of which is a historical fantasy, and thus not really relevant), but I don't normally turn to Iain Banks for uplifting fiction, and I gave up on Mieville a hundred-odd pages into Perdido Street Station because of the soul-sucking gloom (life's too short).

I'm deeply skeptical of any attempt to psychoanalyze entire nation-states, and I'm even more skeptical of attempts to do so on the basis of a small slice of genre fiction. (I also think the "home field advantage" effect is probably underrated in this discussion.)

John Scalzi | April 21, 2005 04:31 PM

"The bigger problem with this whole debate is that I don't think the British SF I've read recently is all that cheerful and optimistic."

Yeah, there is that, although I didn't want to go into it in detail in the entry because it was busy enough. I adore Perdido, actually, but it's definitely not cheerful, and neither is Iron Council a staggering bundle of joy.

Mitch Wagner | April 21, 2005 06:20 PM

I think there's some truth in what Charles Stross has to say. He's taking an extreme position, but often an extreme position will result in a thought-provoking and educational essay even if the position itself is unproven, or false.

This ties in with another excellent essay, which was (I think) also his, where he talked about sf being a genre where a lot of the writers are engaging in a single narrative. Many of the writers of the 1940s-1950s were writing about Manifest Destiny, the human race spreading out to the stars. In the 1960s, the story was drugs and decadence. In the 1980s, the story was cyberpunk, and in the 1990s — and continuing on to today — the story is about post-humanism.

Now, of course there are exceptions. Theodore Sturgeon comes to mind as a big one. John Varley anticipated cyberpunk and post-humanism, and Varley was writing in the 1970s. But, still, as generalities go, it's a useful one.

It seems to me that right now we, as a genre are, to some extent, between narratives. And maybe the Brits are somewhat ahead of us in developing what the next shared narrative will be.

But coincidence also plays a hand in the make-up of the Hugo ballot. A lot of really good writers worked hard last year. Many were working on novels that published this year, or that will be published in 2006 or later. (What the heck happened to GRRM, anyway? Been a long time between novels for him.) Some worked on novels that happeneed to be published in 2004. Of them, five were considered the best by the fans at WorldCon who bothered to vote, and all of them happened to be British.

Justine Larbalestier | April 21, 2005 06:28 PM

I agree with Chad: The whole thing's kind of silly--not enough data. I can name you heaps of non-depressing US sf by the liikes of say, Elizabeth Baer and Scott Westerfeld, not to mention our humble host.

And Chad's also right about the hometown advantage being bigger than you'd think. Having WorldCon in your country is a great way for locals to get on the ballot. Witness TorCon a few years ago. From memory I think even a couple of Aussies managed to be on the ballot for the last AussieCon. (Though I can't be arsed googling to find out.)

I'm also with John. There are some very fine books on that ballot. It's one of the best Hugo novel shortlists in years.

I wonder if the current musings on the subject by certain pommy sf writers has more to do with them hoping the US empire is in decline and thus the sun will reverse its setting on their own long faded empire.

Just kidding . . .

Lou Anders | April 21, 2005 11:06 PM

I also think the "home field advantage" effect is probably underrated in this discussion.

Not so. The way the Hugos are structured, nominations come from the pool of attendees from last years convention. Final votes come from the attendees of the forthcoming convention. So the pool of votes for the nomination stage was largely American. The pool of voters in the second round will be largely British, and could explain, say, why a British book won out over American books in the final ballot, but does not factor in to the short list. Next year, when the convention is in LA, the short list will come from Glasgow's attendees and it will be interesting to see what it looks like.

...the five books nominated are just really good books. This is of course begging the question as to why they're so good...

A good question, still unanswered.

Dave Ruddell | April 22, 2005 10:54 AM

This is of course begging the question as to why they're so good

Shame on you John. You should give this site a read:

http://begthequestion.info/

Stop the abuse!

KenL | April 22, 2005 01:24 PM

Thank goodness for sanity and pragmatic optimism.

That (and John's occasional brilliant bloody rants) is one of the main reasons I keep 'fertilizing' this site with daily attention :)

Rich | April 23, 2005 12:41 PM

Comments on OMW:

Old Man's War takes the best elements of slick clean "Juvi Sci Fi" minus the superficiallity with some adult spice. It has a great love story combined with some ausome Military scifi. So you get the best of both worlds. Very progressive in the new "all in one" literature catagory.

I really can't wait for "Android Dreams" as from OMW and his other books John can cover a broad range and I am totally interested. How will it be comperable to John Wright's Golden Age? Haven't read it yet because I thought "The Last Guardian of Everness was too derivitive". Maybe I read it too fast because it had good writing.

Matt McIrvin | April 25, 2005 10:03 PM

The bigger problem with this whole debate is that I don't think the British SF I've read recently is all that cheerful and optimistic.

Ah, but, you see, that actually jibes with the hypothesis. If both British and American writers are depressed, it would be the Brits who benefit, because the British literary SF tradition is inherently much more comfortable with depression. The British tradition has its roots in Frankenstein, "The Battle of Dorking" and H. G. Wells; apocalypse, decay and the ultimate pointlessness of existence are central themes. It's no accident that the most downbeat New Wave writers came from there, and that even Doctor Who had the Earth overrun by Daleks within the first few years.

The American tradition, on the other hand, comes out of the adventure pulps and the mankind-will-prevail futurism of the Campbell Astounding. Faced with the death of a glittering future, we're much more likely to freeze up than to write about people muddling through and making the best of it.

Now watch me tie myself in implausible knots to explain how Asimov's Foundation trilogy fits into this scheme...

Mitch Wagner | April 26, 2005 03:44 PM

No knots necessary, the trilogy is about restoring the empire, bigger and better than it was before. Very optimistic.

Lou Anders | April 26, 2005 10:38 PM

For how Asimov's Foundation fits in, see Thomas Cahill's book How the Irish Saved Civilizatoin.

Scott | August 7, 2006 12:10 PM

Hmmm, I just read Gregory Benford's blog, where he says he is not going to write SF for a while. His reason? Too many fantasy titles getting the awards. (He did leave the hall when a Harry Potter book won the Hugo in ought one). A cursory glance at the local megabookstore's sf/fan section does seem to yield a preponderance of small furry thing/sword wielding titles.Then there is my recent reading in science fiction: Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, Neal Asher, and Karen Traviss,though I did sneak Dennis Danvers' The Watch (Uhmerican, and resides raht heah in Richmond) in,which I enjoyed very much...all (with that notable exception) from the British Isles....

John Scalzi | August 7, 2006 12:14 PM

You know what, the SF I'm writing is selling just fine, regardless of however fantasy sells.

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