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Has 21st Century Science Fiction Gone Cowardly? Or Worse… Nostalgic?

David Brin
By David Brin
Contrary Brin

Posted: Oct 24, 2012

Jonathan McCalmont is a critic of popular culture and science fiction whom I’ll be watching. Not because I especially liked or agreed with his lengthy and rather incoherent screed: “Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future.”

In fact, I found his arguments dyspeptic and chaotic, cherrypicking examples in order to complain about this or that pet peeve.  

Nevertheless, while constantly aggravated I was also amused or fascinated often enough to keep reading and enjoying a chain of insightful snarks, some of which are extremely on-target. 

“Contemporary science fiction is not interested in science, culture, history, ideas or real human psychology. Not really. To be interested in such things requires engagement not only with the world but also entire bodies of knowledge generated by hundreds of fevered human minds. Incapable of taking anything seriously and unwilling to risk disapproval by writing anything that might be deemed in any way political, genre writers spend their days like performing dolphins; pushing a load of battered toys around the pool while undemanding audiences roar their approval. Occasionally, a particularly well-trained dolphin receives a celebratory bucket of fish heads in the ballroom of a beige mid-Western hotel.”

Hm… dolphins.  Yes, that reminds me.  Any exceptions Mr. McCalmont?  But save that thought.

Disappointing: McCalmont is very poor at creating a clear picture of his complaint. Yes, overall, 21st Century SF is heavily warped and crushed under a burden of nostalgia and anomie toward the future. He says—and I agree—that this dismally destructive and demoralizing trend controls most of the top magazines and most of the Best of the Year anthologies… oh and the awards.  McCalmont illuminates how this is not only manifest in the omphaloskeptic (navel-contemplating) short story community of SF but in sub-genres that proclaim themselves to be bold, like Steam Punk and the surge of Skew Cultural science fictional novels  (many of which I find admirable)  by non-male, non-western or interestingly-origined authors. 

I might have hoped that McCalmont would have cited the work of SF scholar Judith Berman, who published a devastating decryption of Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine, showing that its pages almost never portrayed problem-solving, progress, or even very often the future, but instead (sometimes artfully) wallowed in endlessly repeated themes of loss, regret and passive acceptance of limitation. The most frequently repeated lesson?  Ambitious endeavors often have unexpected side effects. (Duh?) Ah, but the lesson is, therefore, banish ambition.

As you might expect, my biggest disappointment was McCalmont’s reluctance to ponder exceptions—authors who are trying to engage with the future and its myriad possible decision points, ranging from technological and social to political, scientific and transcendent.  No mention of Vinge, Robinson, Bear, Kress, Haldeman… or me. But beyond that, even when he takes on bold and eager authors, it is mostly in order to take jaundiced views of very narrow aspects of Iain Banks, Hannu Rajaniemi, Michael Chabon, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter Hamilton, without at least avowing that they try and try hard, to offer the grand vision he desires. 

Nevetheless, in this review of a review-survey of some reviews, I do recommend McCalmont’s screed. Don’t get all in a twist where you disagree (you will!) He offers a different perspective and an ornery/contrarian one that challenged me! It got me sputtering and grinding my teeth.  That’s the sort of fellow I like. I’d rather argue all night with a fellow like than, than spend an evening being flattered. 

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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My own fiction, I will confess, my be judged nostalgic. I purposely attempt to match some of the themes found in the Sci-fi of my youth (i.e., the 1960s). Worse, i employ the techniques of fairy tales to do it.

But is that really such a bad thing? Could not nostalgia for a past which did not actually exist drive us into a future that might?


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