In Montreal last week we organized two more memorials for Charles Brown—one a private room party for his friends, the other a public panel discussion—and on both occasions people brought up an issue that at first sounded like a little joke, and then sounded less like one the more I talked with people about it.
At the room party, Neil Gaiman mentioned his participation in the Locus Foundation, and wondered if there may be a shadowy Second Foundation, which would secretly steer the future of SF in the direction Charles had wanted. This, of course, led to amusing if slightly creepy visions of Charles-like holograms reappearing at key points over the next few centuries to explain to us all what had gone wrong, and what future crises to expect.
But David Hartwell, recalling their last meeting at Readercon, was quite serious in recounting the ongoing conversation he’d been having with Charles about how to make science fiction better, and how to advocate what is best about it. That decades-long conversation, he later told me, was now ended, though I think both David and Charles could lay fair claim to having measurably influenced the shape and coherence of the field during that time—as could several others I could name. And at the public panel discussion, Jonathan Strahan eloquently argued that, by claiming such an advocacy role, Charles had become one of the best friends science fiction could have had.
But is the conversation really over? In one sense, there are more participants than ever, from bloggers to academic journals to the kind of advocacy-based fiction that Graham Sleight discussed in an earlier post on this roundtable. In another, it’s possible the field has just grown too diffuse and fragmented for anyone to set out to move the agenda in the way Charles and David had wanted to do.
Historically, it’s not hard to list names of those who did single-handedly change the direction of the field—magazine editors like Gernsback or Campbell or Moorcock, publishers from the Ballantines to Tom Doherty, writers from Heinlein to Gibson, maybe even an occasional reviewer or workshop founder like Damon Knight.
Obviously, setting out to shape the course of an entire field requires a fair amount of hubris, a great deal of passion, a broad-based vision, and a strong point of view. You have to be willing to generate enemies and rivals, or you wouldn’t be doing the job an advocate does. You have to expect that your notion of improvement will be someone else’s recipe for disaster, and that you’ll be viewed as arrogant, or hidebound, or just loony. You have to court disagreement.
So my question is, even though we can all do our little bits and pieces in our own corners of this complex and fractal geography, can anyone really hope to influence the direction of SF and fantasy in any meaningful way anymore? Are we solely at the mercy of market forces, bottom lines, popularity contests, and niche subgenres with their own agendas? Are we all just passengers now?