The Conversation

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?

6 thoughts on “The Conversation

  • August 14, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    no, we're not. i'm pretty sure all of them felt the same way back then. i can't think of, say, William Gibson saying "i'll change the field". maybe Heinlein, maybe others… (Moorcock, for instance, wasn't as interested in changing the genre as he was in using it to achieve personal ideological/aesthetic ends). the point being, at the time they just felt it was necessary to do something the field itself was asking for, and they just gave the answer they could give.
    we tend to be too retrospective, but as science fiction writers we feel we are bound to think and talk about the future, and that comes as conflicting. the past is well-defined, the future is not, etc., etc. you don't need me to remind you of this. i think you're also pointing here to the old discussion about the death of science fiction, and to that respect i will only add: every generation thinks of itself as the last one, is inevitable.

  • August 14, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    I was corresponding with William Gibson in the months before NEUROMANCER came out, and not only didn't he think that it would "change the field," he thought that everybody would hate it and that it would disappear without a trace–if they published it in the first place.

  • August 15, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Passengers? Nah. There might be lots of different sub-genres around these days, and some people are bound to complain that some of them are "not science fiction" or the wrong direction or whatever. But hopefully we can all still encourage people to write well, and stand up for the right of speculative literature to be treated seriously.

  • August 16, 2009 at 12:03 am

    All of which suggests to me that many of those who did influence the direction of SF either weren't trying to in the first place, or were unaware that they may be doing it at all. But both Charles and David have stated that this was their deliberate goal, partly by encouraging good writing, partly by promoting the field as a respectable (and even crucial) part of the larger culture. Most of us probably share those goals, and arguably progress has been made, but I still sometimes wonder if we're on soapboxes in Hyde Park or (to use a local Chicago referent) Bughouse Square.

  • August 17, 2009 at 5:15 am

    Changing a genre requires some leverage or amplification. Both Charles and David built bully-pulpit magazines that amplified their voices–and David, as an editor, has actually has had his hands on the dials and levers that determine what gets published. (And he didn't have to mix metaphors to do it.) Those of us with less leverage make do with whatever we have available: a classroom, a review column, a blog, a con panel. If we're very good at what we do, as Gary is, we can develop an audience and thus some clout.

    Charles is gone, but Locus is still in place, and that allows a bunch of us to keep our soapboxes within shouting range of each other, anyway. Even if we don't speak in one voice, at least the noise is concentrated. (Though maybe that just makes us easier to round up.)

  • August 18, 2009 at 4:01 am

    I laughed aloud at: "not only didn't he think that it would "change the field," he thought that everybody would hate it and that it would disappear without a trace–if they published it in the first place."

    –because I thought exactly that finishing TIMESCAPE, after 3 years of writing–and was very surprised to get a call, while on sabbatical in Italy, saying that Dave Hartwell had bought it in a day.

    Nobody knows, really…

    Gregory Benford


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