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OPINION | Science Fiction Where Have You Gone?

I began this article after I was trying to pick out my vacation to read pile. I've since changed my stance a little as will be evident from some other forthcoming posts, but many of the same feelings still apply. Plus I thought it would be a waste of a decent diatribe to just delete it. This blog is after all supposed to be an outlet for my thoughts on books. Since I usually read at least 5-7 books on a week long vacation I bring 10 books as I'm a man who likes choice for his reading material even away from home. I started culling the stacks and when I finished I noticed I hadn't picked out a single Science Fiction book. I had to stop and ask myself why? Well, the reason is none of the Sci-fi books I had were jumping out at me saying "You've been looking forward to me for months! I won't let you down on your vacation! I promise I'll be good as you look out at the sand!" 

When I was growing up I always considered myself more of a Science Fiction reader than a Fantasy reader, but over the years I've noticed that has changed drastically as is especially evident since I started this blog. I should also mention I haven't reviewed every book here that I've read, so there are a couple Sci-fi books not mentioned on this site, which I have enjoyed in recent months.

Sure there are still good Sci-Fi authors out there such as Robert Charles Wilson, Robert J. Sawyer, Joe Haldeman, and Richard K. Morgan(on hiatus for Fantasy), however the problem is most new Sci-Fi offerings just don't excite me as much, which saddens me to no end. I have found myself being taken in by the Urban Fantasy behemoth that has been going on the last few years. For me those are pure escapism as is more traditional Fantasy in most senses. Well done and sometimes not so well done Urban Fantasy is my crack of choice, but I could certainly see being burned out on most of it in the next couple of years. There are only so many Vampires in Manhattan stories anyone should be able to stomach in a given amount of time no matter how enjoyable.

One thing I've noticed is the majority of the Science Fiction published lately is either a media tie-in books such as Tobias Buckell's Halo entry, Gears of War, or the proliferation of the Warhammer series all of which do not interest me in the least. However, maybe the problem with Science Fiction is me. Science Fiction was always what I read when I wanted to go to the future and now as I get older I feel like I'm fine just where I am and often look upon the past fondly. Also, I generally find Sci-Fi much more thought provoking and philosophical than most Fantasy and since I have a job where I read a lot of dry material I'm in the mood for some lighter fare than a heavy thought piece.

Another problem could be the majority of Science Fiction seems all too here and now with it permeating everyday life more and more. Now when I want a good infusion of science I'll pick-up Wired or Discover magazine. Technology has been growing by leaps and bounds and having an AI trying to dominate humanity is more of reality than ever and part of the reason to read these type of books is to escape reality and explore all the big what ifs. So is it just me or are the best Science Fiction books behind us? Does anyone have any recommendations to reignite my interest?


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17 comments:

PeterWilliam said...

I have to say that you description of your current position vis-a-vis Sci Fi and Fantasy very much mirrors my own. In years gone by, I preferred Sci Fi, but now I want something that deals with the visceral raw material of existence as I can relate to it (i.e. low tech). Sci Fi was for the time when I was young, dreaming of the future and looking beyond in a quest for an answer/need I still cannot articulate. I've found what answers I needed to and am now fully formed. Thus, Fantasy fiction is a place where I can go, read and be a part of the story in a way I no longer can with Sci Fi.

Ben said...

Interesting piece. Personally, I've always looked at fantasy and sci-fi as different flavors of the same sort of literature, the sort that feeds off of, and contributes to, our imaginative powers. It is this that separates this sort of genre fiction from "mainstream" fiction. Put differently, it's not that readers of genre fiction are intelligent while readers of mainstream fiction are not (or vice versa), rather it's that those who read genre fiction tend to have a greater need to interact with what they're reading imaginatively than do those who typically read other kinds of fiction.

As such, I've never found myself tiring of fantasy, or sci-fi, or horror, per se. I guess I avoid this sort of exhaustion by reading a fantasy book or two, then moving on to sci-fi, then to horror, and back again.

I think one's genre exhaustion can also be affected by trends within these genres, as you mentioned. I, for example, can't stand the current vampire craze. It's silly as hell to me. On the other hand, there's also a lot of post-apocalyptic sci-fi being written right now which I love.

As far as suggestions go, have you never read Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga? It won't lead to any mind blowing epiphanies or anything but it is fantastic, hard sci-fi of the Space Opera variety...

Adam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam said...

I want to love contemporary SF. I buy the books, I sit down, I open them, I close them, I go and pick out an absurd fantasy. That is what I commonly do if I buy a modern SF book. I still love the older ones, though.
I can honestly not think of many good, contemporary SF. I can think of good contemporary Science Fantasies, like Nick Harkaway's "The Gone Away World," which is brilliant, but no SF that has kept my attention the whole way through.
I started reading a few Peter F. Hamilton books, but could not really get into them too much.
John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" is a very fun read. It isn't going to shake-up the genre, but it's good, character-driven escapism with lasers.
You mentioned Robert J. Sawyer, already, so, yeah...
Both Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter's short work has impressed me enough to buy a few of their books, so they're probably a safe bet.
I think a lot more things are being lumped together as "fantasy" nowadays that should probably be classified as "horror" or "SF," which might tip the scales a bit.
In my opinion, all three speculative genres need a good shake-up right now, because it all is starting to look a bit stale.

Almost forgot! Spider Robinson's Robert Heinlein's "Variable Star" is spectacular and should be read by all.

The Mad Hatter said...

Thanks for all the feedback. I'm glad I'm not the only one.

@Ben - I do try to switch up my genres to keep fresh, but it still hasn't helped me to get excited about much. Although I did just read a Space Opera after I started this article that I really enjoyed. Expect a review next week.

@Adam I read all of the Old Man's War stuff last year. I quite liked them. I read a couple Baxter books a few years back including some of his collaborations with Clarke. Baxter's solo work just seemed too stuffy to me. The science was good, but the characters left something to be desired, especially the Manifold series. I couldn't bring myself to even read the 3rd Manifold book, because I just didn't care what Baxter was going to do with the characters.

I've being hearing good thinks about Gone Away World so I may have to check that out. I also haven't given Hamilton a fair shake yet either.

Scott said...

I really don't care for fantasy in terms of swords and dragons that type of thing. A really cool sci fi book that I read recently was called the Automatic Detective. It's pretty cool detective/sci fi story that is kind of like blade runner. It was good stuff.

Ben said...

I'll look forward to your review of the space opera work!

I just read "The Gone Away World" a few months ago and found that the first half was awesome, absolutely fantastic, but it sort of fell apart for me in the second half...

GL said...

I love both Science Fiction and Fantasy, read them sometimes alternating sometimes a couple of books at the same time... Recently the science fiction that has held my attention and cash most have been written by the latest crop of british authors: Alastair Reynolds (Chasm City is the one I would say to try if you have not read him... its less hard scifi then the Revelation Space series although I loved these also), Neal Asher (The Skinner or gridlinked). Sean Williams' Astropolis series has more inventive ideas in it as flavor then many other have as central plot lines.

I have also really liked the series that Tobias Buckell started in Crystal Rain.

And since some fictional variety is good you might want to read Stieg Larsons Girl with the Dragon Tatoo (OK its not sf or fantasy but it is a well written novel...)

Jared said...

I agree as well - I've also gone through a recent shift from SF to Fantasy, and I'm not sure what's going on out there to prompt it...

(Actually, if one were incredibly wanky, they could argue it has to do with the global recession: we've gone from future-facing to escapism! Of course, that'd fall apart, but it'd be a fun drunken argument)

When I do pick up SF, it is actually more likely to be older material - I still like Haldeman (although prefer his older work), Morgan, Banks and a few others, but largely, I'm happier reading older books (not the classics, but 1980s-1990s) than gambling on what's on the shelves right now.

I do think it is fair to note that a lot of the great books coming out right now are fairly unclassifiable. Mieville's The City & The City springs to mind.

Also, a lot of great science fiction seems to be in comics - Warren Ellis, for example, does an excellent job addressing what are typical 'science fiction' themes

Sharon E. Dreyer said...

Have you read a Canticle to Leibowitz? It's one of my favorites. There are so many novels that have a combination of more than one genre. Hard SF, Soft SF, Fantasy, Romantic SF, etc. The cross genre books make it difficult to find a true to the title, science fiction novel. And I'm won't go into how many vampire titles there are out there!

Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting story is a romantic action adventure in space.

S.M.D. said...

Reality: People change. For example, when I was a kid I read nothing but detective mysteries and Goosebumps. I loved the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators and all those sorts of crime novels (I read some more adult ones too). Now? I read pretty much only science fiction and fantasy (and some non-fiction of relevance to my academic interests). Unless a detective story shows up in those genres, I don't read them. I'm sure in another 10 years or so, I'll change again and only read a certain kind of book, or maybe a wider range of books. We can never know these things for sure, because how we change as we age is impossible to predict.

So, the reality is that you're probably just changing. Don't feel bad about it. You might go back to SF again. You might not. You could be going through a phase (I do that; I'll go through a phase where I won't read anything but "literary" SF, or only space opera, or only epic fantasies, or only modern fantasies, or YA, or whatever).

Don't fret.

RobB said...

Does anyone have any recommendations to reignite my interest?

House of Suns or Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds both are superb examples of the genre and are not connected to his Revelation Space series.

Spin or Julian Comstock by Robert Charles Wilson.

Fallen Dragon (a superb standalone) or The Dreaming Void by Peter F. Hamilton

Orphanage and its sequels by Robert Buettner

City of Pearl and its sequels by Karen Traviss

Infoquake by David Louis Edleman

Ben said...

Here's another vote for "A Canticle for Leibowitz" Best book ever!

The Mad Hatter said...

@Scott - I'm definitely down with melding genres. I'll check The Automatic Detective out at some point. I read Martinez's Monster a few months back and liked it quite a bit.

@GL I have Crystal Rain sitting on my shelf. Buckell has been getting a lot of kudos. I'll definitely get to it sooner than later.

@Jared I hear you. There are always plenty of older works to delve into. I really like Haldeman's Forever War, but his recent one The Accidental Time Machine was better than I was expecting. I also agree with you about The City & The City as it could be seen as a sci-fi books in some respects. Further more I like Steampunk and some would consider those sci-fi-ish, but I usually don't.

Warren Ellis is one crazy bastard. Did you read his Crooked Little Vain?

@Sharon / @Ben I promise to read Canticle for Leibowitz before the year is out.

@Rob - thanks for all the recommendations. I read Spin and loved it. The follow-up Axis not so much. I plan on getting Julian Comstock at some point. I think the tact he is taking with that one could help reignite my interest a bit. And I've got Infoquake sitting on myshelf.

@SMD Thanks for the kind words.

Sig said...

I have been having a hard time in recent years finding a sci-fi book that sounds interesting enough to buy. And Sci-fi was about all I read for many years.

It is sad but I do think it is in part because real life technology is so amazing and changes so quickly that fiction can't compete.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

SMD: "Change is bad and therefore we must fear it" and your statement is proof. If change leads to not liking SF anymore...

I've had the stated problem also. Much of the 'newer' work just doesn't do it for me anymore. (I wasn't enamored of Harkaway's tome - grabby opening, followed by confusion).

I am interested in the fact that many who share this 'where's SF gone?' feeling say they like Scalzi's OMW series (me too). That agreement bears investigation. I have no answers, but perhaps one reason is because they are meant to be fun, as opposed to 'serious literary takes on the genre'. You can't avoid message in good SF, but you don't have to be gravely serious in your delivery of the same...

Anonymous said...

I find the descriptions and reputation of Banks' novels very engrossing. I like the "realistic" feel that they seem to have, as Scifi is more interesting to me if it tries to capture the sense of wonder of looking at the real stars and modern astronomy instead of just delivering colorful adventures. But they're not yet in my reach to judge. Also, if you like the style and feel of Scifi but wouldn't bother if it's more acurately set in modern day, then William Gibson seems to be always a good bet. I know his popularity is decreasing as he's turned his back on hard-scifi, but I can imagine that his books are still very entertaining and interesting.
Also Stanislaw Lem is highly imaginative and as intelligent a scifi-writer as they get.