One of the questions we’ve been hedging around in the year’s best discussion is what different writers use SF for. Here are some partial answers I’ve been mulling for a while. This train of thought started when, in 2007, I did a long piece for Locus on Heinlein (see here, also subsequent discussion here.) Backing on to that, I did a panel at Readercon that year on
Heinlein with Charles Brown, John Clute, and Gary Wolfe the “real year” with John Clute, Liz Hand, Barry Malzberg, and David Hartwell. One of the things I remember saying there was that I was really struck—especially compared with today’s SF—how much Heinlein was an advocate. It’s not especially that “The Roads Must Roll” (say) advocated the exact form of rolling roads that he described—though it did take a certain geeky interest in the working-out of the premise. But it was very clear about the sorts of behaviour that would be necessary to bring about a good future (entrepreneurial chutzpah), and what behaviours would stand in its way (truculent union grumpiness). That clarity was, of course, easily readable as political, as it continued to be throughout Heinlein’s career. The crucial point about this kind of SF, though, was that it had to believe individual behaviour mattered and that it could make a material difference to the direction of the world. (It’s therefore similar to, but not the same as, the hard SF outlook, which takes as axiomatic that individuals have a better chance if they try to understand the world fully, but that may not enable them to change things—”The Cold Equations” is the classic case.) A work of advocacy SF, therefore, suggests the future as a reward (or punishment) for certain kinds of behaviour—a very special case would be Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which shows four different kinds of world making the case for themselves.
Someone else on the Readercon panel—I think John, but I couldn’t swear to it—then suggested that the reason some people found Neuromancer almost treasonous when it came out was that it refused that kind of advocacy. Case, its protagonist, could try to survive and maybe make some money; but there was no question that he could actually do anything to alter the course of the world. (Hence, for instance, some responses to it and other cyberpunk works, as “pessimism”.) What Neuromancer offered instead, John argued, was the thrill of recognition, of seeing that our world really could move in that direction. Other recent SF works have also shared this characteristic. You can read David Marusek’s Counting Heads and, despite its speculations being farther off than those of Neuromancer, recognise them as destinations that our current drives will take us to.
So that idea, of two poles in SF, advocacy/recognition, has stuck with me. Some boring caveats apply. First, it’s a distinction that’s useful when applied to some kinds of SF (near-future, utopia/dystopia) and not to others (space opera). It’s not intended as a taxonomy, and I make no claim that a work of SF has to fall into one category or other. No warranty implied or intended; no user-servicable parts inside. It’s just a cognitive tool.
What I’ve found myself thinking since then is a couple of things. Firstly, advocacy SF has become a lot less prominent since the Golden Age but is not dead as a mode. However, it is rarer, and the instances of it stand out more. I think this rarity may account for the the very polarised reaction to Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother plainly an advocacy novel (right down to an afterword giving practical hints on how to behave like the protagonists.) It’s a book that tells you very clearly what opinion you should hold of the issues it describes. Disagreement with those opinions, or with the way they’re put, is going to lead you pretty directly to dislike of the book—and conversely.
Secondly, I’m increasingly coming to the idea that recognition is something that not only futures can be built around. In the magazine, Gary and Charles have talked recently about how a reading of City at the End of Time depends on (or is enriched by) knowledge of how much Bear is riffing on William Hope Hodgson. If you get that reference, it’s like acknowledging a secret that you and the author share. That same idea, about recognition of tropes fuelling our responses to books, is a big factor in understanding Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children, extensively riffing on late Heinlein, or Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel. This sort of thing happens more and more, inevitably, as genres get older: perhaps the first great example in SF was Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun in the early ’80s—a work built around the idea of history as a palimpsest of more layers than it’s possible to understand.
I hope that’s a useful idea for some people. (Edited to add: there was some 2007 discussion of it here.) I’m now off to write my retrospective column for Locus, this time on Frank Herbert’s Dune, which falls into neither of the categories I’ve described…