James Patrick Kelly
I take Nora’s point and certainly have been applying a filter to my own work: Can a literate non-sf fan parse this stuff? (Luckily I am married to one of these and she is my first reader.) Because if we’re ignoring that vast readership, we’re not really participating in the popular culture which we helped to create. So easy on the neologisms, the matter-of-fact warp drives and the so-what digital infrastructure. And stop writing footnotes to “The Cold Equations,” Jim! And having typed that, I do think that thinking about a YA audience’s tolerance for skiffy code words and tropes is a worthwhile exercise for writers who aspire to a wider audience.
But since no one has mentioned it yet, I think that at least part of the sag in popular acceptance of sf and thus its failure to breakout has to do with our perception of the future. It doesn’t look like an adventure anymore, or at least not the shiny adventure that we were hoping for. And much of the “science fiction” that does invoke the spirit of Golden Age sf — that “good old stuff” that we were brought up on — is full of magic technologies and ridiculous economics. Perhaps it was ever thus, but we know better now. For all the scorn that was heaped upon the advocates of mundane sf, they had a point. If one of the purposes of our genre is to run thought experiments about the future, what if space is not an option and global warming means an attenuated standard of living, as seem most likely? If sense of wonder is one of the engines that has driven our success, such as it is, what are we without it? In short, I’m inclined to believe that the zeitgeist has turned much more pessimistic after a long run of post-war optimism, and that a literature that purports to live in the future is bound to have some falling-off because of this.
N. K. Jemisin
Jim: Only if that literature fails to keep pace with the realism that readers seem to want from it. Again, I point to YA — the dystopian subgenre in YA is selling like hotcakes because it’s harsh and depressing, and because it doesn’t pull any punches with respect to workable economics and the un-shinyness of the future if we don’t change things. Something in that grimness speaks to the teenagers and young people who are growing up in the increasingly craptastic society we’re creating for them. Is it surprising that they need some kind of literary catharsis to deal with this mess? They need a space in which to imagine revolutions and solutions and coping mechanisms. They do not need “welp, no biggie, it’ll all get fixed somehow and in five hundred years we’ll be in spaaace!” handwaving. That’s not sensawunda, that’s naivete and denial, and if SF has nothing more to offer its readers than that then it deserves to fail.
But there is still a sense of wonder to be found in these more pessimistic narratives. It’s just that the wonder isn’t technological, because as you say — we know better now that technology is just a tool, not the solution to our problems. We are the solution to our problems. So personally, I get a thrill out of reading/sharing futures in which humanity has grown the hell up, because what a wonder that would be!
Nobody’s better at imagining better worlds than us, so as long as the futures we create aren’t based on Ozzie and Harriet silliness, SF can easily stay relevant.
What is SF that it might “suffer?” Action at the boundaries, adventures in the Marchland, breaking through and ransacking other genres, keeps the center constantly emerging and vital. The word “sophistication” is one way of damning it. It strikes me as writers expressing themselves. Some of its going to be crap and some will be cool as hell. Or were we talking primarily about marketing and readership. If so, forget everything I just wrote.