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The Eclipse of a Genre and the Birth of a Nova

by Richard Kunzmann

It doesn’t matter whether I’m sitting in a pub in London nursing a beer at a British Science Fiction Association meet, or whether I’m surfing the net pretending to be a console cowboy, the rumour mill rumbles and it’s not a pleasant sound. The grapevine is rotten with sour news: the short story is seeing its last day; science fiction is on its last legs; and the apocalypse might as well be on its way, they say.

I love short fiction, and have been somewhat amused by the anxiety with which mainstream literary types have been angsting over ‘the death of the short story’. Science fiction, fantasy and horror have always been built on magnificent short fiction, and its tradition I see as vibrant as ever.

– China Miéville

At the risk of sounding like yet another commentator grumbling into his beer over sour grapes, I want to gun down any suggestion that the Eclipses of sf and short fiction are looming on the horizon.

A collection that influenced me greatly was Edward Bryant’s Particle Theory, published in 1981. it showed me how SF could use science as a metaphor to examine human experience.

– Ted Chiang

So what is all the grumbling about? I have read articles that have blamed television and video games for the dwindling readers, I’ve seen theses posted on the net arguing that science fiction is an outdated concern of an aged class of readers and writers, people who have been overwhelmed and surpassed by real technological innovation. ‘They’ say it’s not like it used to be; ‘they’ say ‘we’ don’t have anything of worth left to say these days. There seems to be nothing left in the world to discover, to write about, to dream about. I’ve even come across a posting on the internet that attempts to mathematically show when exactly science fiction will breathe its last breath! Apparently technological innovation will slow dramatically in the next thirty years, and this will somehow be followed by a directly proportional decline in science fiction.

A lot of good stories are being written that simply aren’t going to be novels.

– Peter Hamilton

As if human innovation, creativity, and imagination were ever framed by the technologies we invented. To say that technology leads our impulse to tell original stories is putting the cart before the horse.

Favourite short stories? Here’s a few: “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” by Gene Wolfe. It illustrates how much can be told obliquely in a story. John Varley’s “The Phantom of Kansas” is a story crammed full of invention. Alfred Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” brilliantly combines form and content.

– Ted Chiang

Some claims about the bleak future of science fiction seem far-fetched, but others inspire genuine concern in me because they echo my own reasons for reading less and less science fiction. In an article published in the New York Review of Science Fiction, Judith Berman examined the state of science fiction today and concluded that it has nothing very exciting to offer new and younger readers. Stories by an older elite still dominate the genre. Often their focus is on ideas and preoccupations of eras long gone and which may seem irrelevant to younger generations. Even though I grew up during the end of the Cold War I really have no inkling what it was like for these writers to experience the threat of imminent nuclear war on a day-to-day basis. The writers I’m talking about include the Golden Age clan: Asimov, Bester, Blish, Heinlein, Pohl and Hubbard. But they also include those later authors of the New Wave who, after the era of John W. Campbell, took science fiction to another level once more: Brunner, Ellison, Silverberg, Bloch, Moorcock, Aldiss, Bunch, Zelazny and countless others. Even the creators of cyberpunk, Sterling, Gibson, Bethke and Cadigan may seem oddly out of kilter with the Zeitgeist of a younger generation that embraces the shrinking global village and annex rapidly evolving technology like it’s a cuddly toy. Often I wonder where the generations of hyper-connectivity still find time to read.

In the past I would have plumped for “The Failed People” in Brian Aldiss’s Space, Time and Nathaniel. Much of Stephen King’s short fiction is plain excellent. One story that comes to mind right now is Iain Banks’s “A Gift from the Culture”. The best short stories I’ve recently read were Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others.

– Neal Asher

I am not saying that we should not appreciate the great masters, and I’m not at all saying that we should abandon the young heritage of sf. All the above writers have earned their place in the history of sf and literature ten times over, and we all of us can still appreciate their excellent stories, it doesn’t matter what age we are. But I must point out that science fiction, like all fiction, is alive, and like anything sentient should not be caged, particularly by its own history. New writers are producing new stories and are trying new forms and new techniques. To blot out their efforts with nostalgia for the past, for the works of an aging elite, is a mortal sin. How can we pay homage to the genre’s legacy if we go on looking backwards without looking to the future? I feel we are now in the same place that Harlan Ellison was before he published Dangerous Visions in 1968. Science Fiction is stuck in a rut of its own making, and it needs an extraordinary effort from editors, writers, and readers to heave it out and up to a new level. Pining over some lost golden age is not going to help anyone. Innovation, creativity, love for the genre, will.

In science fiction, I like in particular “Nine Lives” by Ursula Le Guin, because it has such a powerful effect that is purely sf but very human too.

– Kim Stanley Robinson

Innovation? Where will we find new ways of thinking about science fiction, about the future? Where will we find a stick big enough to lever SF out of its muddy rut? In America? In Britain? There are very promising writers out there – some of my favourites include Jeff Noon, Ted Chiang and China Miéville, but even they write within a certain paradigm, a worldview. Certain atmospheres and topics permeate their work, and arise from very much the same experiences as those of the writers mentioned above. I like to think the rest of the world is in a place where it can join the mainstream of science fiction, producing quality work that can be appreciated by the masses. I personally think this endeavour, InterNova, is a good start in the right direction. Why? Simple. Instead of wallowing in the rut of a Western hegemony of science fiction, the editors have wisely decided that its time to see what the rest of the world has to offer English readers. China and Japan have very lively science fiction traditions, the growing popularity of Manga and Anime in the West attests to this. France and Germany have a number of top sf writers, but are their voices ever heard in English? Rarely. What the hell is going on in Argentina, Cuba, Guinea-Bissau?

Short stories are very hard to write. They are like poems. Symbols and patterns are important in them. Short stories have an aesthetic effect unlike any other art form, and so are valuable for that.

– Kim Stanley Robinson

Sure, sf may not have developed to the level that it has in America and Britain in many countries, purely because a fiction of science is coupled to the level of industrialisation and the permeation of technology into everyday life. But the world is catching up. India is industrialising and China is the fastest growing economy in the world – and they all have stories to tell. Where modern technology in the household may be a new thing in many countries, the art of story telling is not. May I remind you that the so-called Golden Age of sf occurred at a time when America and Britain were entering a modern, post-war age of technological and scientific sophistication. I believe we may therefore see an upsurge of new ideas and concepts sweeping through the English language and westernised sf, because for the first time people from very different cultures will be writing science fiction from within their traditions. A younger and more diverse genre, I believe, will assert its importance in the lives of younger readers, who live in a more changeable and multi-cultural world than many of the older generation of sf writers ever did.

Favourite anthologies? Alfred Hitchcock put his name on two short story collections – Ghostly Gallery and Monster Museum. I’d have to choose them, not because they’re the best out there, but because they embedded themselves in me when I was very young and remain hugely, incomparably influential.

– China Miéville

Turning once more to the woes of the younger generations, I would like to contest the assertion that they are forsaking science fiction. I would like to argue that they, more than any of the older readers and writers (and that includes us in our twenties!) are immersed in science fiction. Perhaps they do not enjoy science fiction in print as much as we have, but they are certainly steeped in it. For a minute think about all the stuff that surrounds the average kid these days, the action figures, the computer games, the tv shows, the mind-blowing digital fx movies they can watch, digimon – the list is endless. The list is my eternal envy. How I wish I had half the stuff they are growing up with, and I’m not yet thirty. These are the last days of science fiction? I doubt it very much.

I tend to read cross-genre anthologies like Poliphony, Trampoline, and Conjunctions. The Dedalus anthologies, O. Henry Awards collections and Best American Short Stories are also on my list. I love all of it, the entire spectrum.

– Jeff VandeMeer

What seems to concern the grumbling, mumbling, sour- grapes-kind of people is not the recession in science fiction. Instead, it’s a much wider problem, a fear that plagues our entire society, and that is perhaps a growing impression of illiteracy. I don’t presume to have the statistics on how much kids read these days, but judging from what mothers complained to me about in bookstores it was that kids don’t read as much ‘as they used to’. Does that mean ‘as I used to’? I very much doubt younger readers are forsaking literacy – the Internet, their Playstations and txt-ing is far too important for that. In my opinion, the new generation of readers are only growing more attuned to an increasingly graphical world. Is it thus their sin that they read less, or is it ours for devising technology that is graphical rather than textual? And what is wrong with science fiction leaping off the pages of books and magazines, anyway? I would have been horrified had it not done so, purely because it would not have been true to itself. What would this genre of the future be if it could not adapt to various technologies, ways of perception and ways of consumption? The storyline of the Starcraft computer game a few years back was one of my favourite science fiction concepts in many a year. Indeed, I think some of the most innovative sf storytelling these days is occurring in the realm of computer gaming, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, even if that means we lose readers and writers from our chosen medium.

The basic problem with the short story is that a lot of people don’t read very much, and when they do they want to be able to commit to some characters who are going to be around for a while, not vanish after thirty minutes. The fact is that actually, sometimes it’s better if people do vanish after that long.

– Michael Marshall Smith

So what’s all the tootin’ and a-hootin’ all about? Kids wallow in sf, younger writers are writing it, people are reading it, watching it, playing it, sleeping under blankets imprinted with images of it … what’s the bloody fuss about? The grumbling makes me think of two kinds of fears: the fear of letting go, and the fear of change.

My favourite short story? James Joyce’s “The Dead”, because of the way it opens into the universal at the end–one of the most haunting and yet life-affirming endings in literature. I also love Bruce Sterling’s “Dori Bangs” for its mix of common humanity and metafiction. “The Leonardo” by Vladimir Nabokov is another favourite, “Lizzie Borden” by Angela Carter, M. John Harrison’s work, Carol Bly…

– Jeff VandeMeer

Yes, Asimov was brilliant, yes, Silverberg is great, and “Fondly Fahrenheit” is still one of the best robot stories ever told. Now let’s be open to what new generations of science fiction authors can produce. Sf has always been about the future and the change that accompanies it, but conversely, it often seems that readers and writers of science fiction seem reluctant to accept change. What an irony.

There’s a lot of crap out there, but every so often you find a gem. It’s worth wading through the crap to find that gem.

– Neal Asher

Science Fiction is not dying and neither is the short story. What is dying is the stuff that’s bad or the stuff that’s outdated, because the stuff that’s good and relevant will be reaped and sown time and time again. If the science fiction section in your local bookstore shrinks, so what? Is it quality or quantity we want? People are not reading the bad and the tired anymore – it’s that simple. If sf magazines are born and die as fast as fruit flies then so be it. If they’re not hitting the nail on the head and they’re not rubbing people up the right way then why should we pay for it? People change, the world changes, the demand for entertainment changes, content changes, preoccupations change. What does not change is the discerning reader’s demand for a story of quality, a story that is relevant, touching, interesting and entertaining.

The precision necessary for a short story is only one step removed from the intricacies and condensed form of poetry. Short stories are, at base, extended poems – of mood, of character.

– Jeff VandeMeer

So what stories do we read? Short fiction or novels? What do we spend our hard-earned cash on? Well, variety is the spice of life, as they say, and the two media have different things to offer people. Readers tend to pick up novels these days because, as one person put it to me, he wants a story he can get his teeth into, he wants a story wherein he can build a relationship with the characters. It’s a valid point, but what he fails to notice is that most often it’s the short stories that also have teeth. They have a lot more bite, are a lot more unpredictable and sometimes much more powerful than their 500 page cousins. They can often be more entertaining, too. Ted Chiang is the winner of three Nebulas, a Hugo, a Sturgeon and two Locus awards. Here’s what he has to say about the difference between short fiction and novels:

‘One thing novels are good at is depicting a character’s growth over a period of time; short fiction is well-suited for focusing on a specific event in a character’s life, like moments of epiphany. Short fiction is also the best place to employ unconventional narrative techniques, which might become tiresome at novel length.’

The short story has its unique place in the world of literature because it allows authors to test the boundaries of the language and unique ideas. Short stories function much better as laboratories where experiments in form, plot and content can be tested, and should therefore not be discounted.

Short Stories are the real roots of science fiction.

– Peter Hamilton

There’s something about the short form which enables you to tackle an idea with great purity (sometimes, paradoxically, through coming at it very obliquely) that gives it enormous strength. There’s a directness about them, and also a freedom to experiment, that can lead to some spectacular results.

– Michael Marshall Smith

If a threat to science fiction and the short story form does indeed exist, as the conspiracy theorists seem to believe, then that threat lies within the genre. Always looking back is not the future of science fiction, it’s stagnation. Language and stories are like rivers, and to dam them up, to put boundaries around them of what is acceptable or unacceptable, will prevent fresh water gushing in new directions. Frameworks exist as riverbeds exist, but every now and again we should let the water burst its banks and change its course. Letting SF from all over the world run into one giant delta called InterNova is one way of ensuring interesting years of reading and writing to come.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard Kunzmann

Richard Kunzmann is a South African crime and sf writer and was born in 1976 in Namibia. He studied criminology and sociology, received a masters degree in psychology from Pretoria University and has worked for a while as a bookseller in London, where his contacts with writers, editors, and agents inspired him to become a writer himself. His first, critically acclaimed crime novel Bloody Harvest (recently also translated into German) was published in 2004, followed by two further novels Salamander Cotton (2007) and Dead-End Road (2008). He has recently moved to Europe and has supported InterNova as a proofreader for IN 2.

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