Roundtable of Farewell

Karen Burnham

I wanted to let you all know that I’m going to be stepping down from managing the Locus Roundtable blog. I’ve got a second little person on the way, and too many commitments and not enough time. Luckily, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, whom many of you know, will be stepping in to take over. I look forward to seeing what he does with the site!

I want to thank Locus and especially Liza for giving me this forum to play with for the last three years (an eternity in internet time!) I’m very proud of some of the pieces we’ve run and the conversations we’ve had. And many thanks to all of you! The Roundtables could sometimes be a pain to put together for the website, but they were also the most fun and rewarding parts of the job. Thanks very much!

As a final Roundtable, I’d like to indulge my shameless preference for promotion and ask you all: taking the long view, what is making you feel optimistic about the future of science fiction these days? What have you read/watched/listened to recently that is awesome, what new writers should be all be watching?

{Let’s take it as read that I received many messages wishing me well, thanking me for three years of service, and expressing “children, especially children who are taught to love reading, are the future” sentiments. Following are some of the less me-centric responses!}

Russell Letson

To answer the question about reasons to be cheerful about the state of SF: After (pauses to count on fingers and toes) 53 years of reading and 30-some of reviewing the genre, it still provides amusement and provokes thought and expands and shapes my picture of our place among the infinities. The longitudinal conversation remains interesting and reasonably coherent–the matter of Wells and Stapledon is still part of it, even among writers who don’t realize who started the discussion. I’m not the one to ask about hot new writers, though–I’m the guy who came to Alastair Reynolds three books along and to Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels 21 years after the first one. But, hey, somebody has to be derrière-garde.

Siobhan Carroll

Personally I’m most excited about the recent infusion of postcolonial storytelling into speculative fiction. Works like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death de-center not only traditional SF settings but also the genre’s boundaries. And thanks to Kickstarter anthologies like We See a Different Frontier and Mothership, we’re hearing more from voices that, a few decades ago, would have had a hard time gaining international visibility. I think this diversifying of SF can only improve the genre.

More immediately, in my SF reading this year I’d say I continue to be very impressed with the work that SF workshop graduates put out. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is amazing! If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that I’d get hooked on the troubled life of a crippled, vengeance-seeking AI , I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. But now I do! And I’m better for it.

Cassandra Rose Clarke’s melancholy The Mad Scientist’s Daughter also caught my interest this year. I wouldn’t say that the entire novel worked for me, but it’s lovely and striking. It also manages to merge the tropes of robot fiction and the coming-of-age story in a way I hadn’t seen before, proving that there’s life in those old Asimovian bones yet.

I’ll also do a shout-out to authors like Ben Winters, who are blurring the boundaries between genres. Winters’ The Last Policeman series, about a rookie detective trying to solve crimes in the days leading up to an asteroid collision, manages to transcend the boundaries of both science fiction and mystery. It’s a great read, and book one in particular is a powerful novel for any genre, I think.

Short version: there’s lots of great stuff out there. And not nearly enough time to read it!

Michael Dirda

People need stories. Science fiction writers tell many of the best stories. Therefore, people will continue to want science fiction stories. So, nothing to worry about.

In a related vein: Science fiction is becoming more and more a part of the curriculum in high school and college. So the greatest works in the field are entering the canon. When kids read a “school classic” such as “The Martian Chronicles” some of them will be enthralled enough to search out other books about Mars and will go on to Burroughs and Bisson and Robinson.

Of course, those books may be e-texts or pixels on a screen–not my idea of reading, but that’s only because of my fetishizing of the book as an artifact or even an objet d’art. But, as I began, people will always need stories . . .

Maureen Kincaid Speller

This is undoubtedly self-serving, but quite apart from the fact that people are still writing sf I like that as well as reading it, people are talking and writing about sf; that so many commentators are adventurous in their reading, seeking out new, interesting writers, are knowledgeable, and are not afraid to offer up robust opinions about their work, as well as revisiting older fiction.

It’s a very necessary counter to things such as the ridiculous decontextualised lists that circulate in the mainstream media (the 25 sf books you must read, one woman author – it will be Le Guin, you can bet it’s The Left Hand of Darkness). There will always be sf readers who have a very distinct preference for a very distinct kind of sf novel, and one that in no way reflects what’s happening in the field nowadays, but I don’t see why they should have the first and last word on the matter.

It disappoints me that we are still having to deal with the ‘women don’t write sf, and if they do, it’s no good’, argument but I’m pleased with the work that people like Ian Sales have been putting in to refute this (Ian founded the SF Mistressworks blog) and the way in people are taking note of their own reading biases.

I absolutely share Siobhan’s enthusiasm for the upsurge in postcolonial issues in sf: We See a Different Frontier and Mothership are two very different collections but both outstanding.

It’s great too to see people thinking about diversity in sf, and what diversity actually means. Also, about sf outwith the Anglo-American axis, in English and in translation. (Lavie Tidhar and Charles A Tan have done great work with the World SF Blog, and I’m sorry it’s gone.)

As to sf itself, as a written genre, I guess it will change, mutate, as it always has done, probably already has (insofar as I suspect those lists are very often an expression of unease at the way it has changed from when the compilers were young). I remain endlessly fascinated by the way people struggle to make sf immutable. My own tastes tend to the sort of work in which genre boundaries blur and collapse altogether. The interpenetration of genre is part of the process but I’m always more interested in what happens after that.

What have you read/watched/listened to recently that is awesome

‘Recently’ is going to mean this year (I’m a Ph.D student, I read in bursts) and it will mean reading. I really enjoyed Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker. Not perfect but huge and inventive, and I’m looking forward to his next novel.

I’ve just finished Patrick Ness’s More Than This, which takes what could be a very conventional sf trope, that of waking up … in a post-apocalyptic afterlife? out of a VR dream? It’s neatly done, whatever it is, but he writes it so damn well.

I have Nicola Griffiths’ Hild on the TBR pile. Not sf in and of itself, but I’m looking forward to seeing how she deals with the subject.

And of course, We See A Different Frontier and Mothership.

Having said which, I listened to Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of War of the Worlds again the other week, and actually, that’s still awesome.

What new writers should all be watching?

I liked Madeleine Ashby’s vN and am looking forward to reading the second in the series. I’m hoping too that Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice lives up to the massive hype it’s been given by people whose views I trust. Also, Tim Maughan is a name to watch out for. He’s a friend but he’s also a talented writer with a handful of memorable short stories available (he’s reportedly working on a novel, too).

And that’s enough for now.

Paul Graham Raven
As for the long view, I take hope from the genre’s evaporation; the rhetorics of sf, the ways it looks at the world, are no longer sf’s exclusive domain (if they ever were). If the epistemology can transcend its pulp ontologies, good work will always be done, whatever sort of art or design may (dis)grace the cover.

(If books still have covers, of course…)

And while my discontent with the generic core shows few signs of waning, releases like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice show that there’s life in the old tropes yet, provided someone’s willing to pick ’em up and give them a thorough shaking… and the young barbarians at the gate seem keen to do just that. Might as well let ’em in; they’ll do fewer public hangings that way.

Interesting times, as the apocryphal Chinese curse puts it. 🙂

Kathleen Ann Goonan

I wanted to write sf (lo these many years ago) because I saw it as the literature in which a writer could say the most radical things, push boundaries, be literarily bold, experimental, weird, unique.

Because sf is all of these things and more–in fact, I think it is one of the most inclusive literatures that exists, a spectrum of possibilities–I think that public interest in it will continue to grow as readers see how powerfully it can connect with the present as well as with various “futures.” SF is a thought-game, but it is not only a thought-game: it can be fun, frightening, emotionally satisfying, and, in fact, does all the things that Story does, teaching it new tricks in the process.

F. Brett Cox

As for optimism about SF, two things. First, the increased diversity, on almost every level, of those who write SF. Second, even while there are still misunderstandings, unreasoning resistance, etc., it seems to me that the heightened awareness of SF within the mechanisms of mainstream literary culture is a good thing. When the New York Times refers to a story in George Saunders’ most recent story collection as “science fiction of the highest order,” and apparently really does mean it as a compliment, that’s a reason to be cheerful.

Cecelia Holland

Since I’m not an sf writer I have not got a real handle on this. Clearly sf has become a major genre in the last 50 years, but this same growth in popularity has fundamentally changed what was a pulp, street, off the wall imaginative frontier. Now that sf has something to lose it’s gotten more conservative, which is a great danger to its continued prosperity. On the other hand, sf preserves a bouyant optimism that other literary forms eschew, especially mainstream literary literature, with its constant groaning.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I’m in the same boat as Cecilia. My science fiction reading has dwindled to a trickle (??? Did I really just write that. Quick–someone alert the metaphor police!) since I have to concentrate on horror fiction. Answers from the rest of you all on what’s exciting about current science fiction and whose books are worth reading could help to change that.

Gary K. Wolfe

I think the reason we’re all hesitant about optimism is that it almost seems counterintuitive in a field where we run endless panel discussions and blog discussions about the impending annihilation of all we hold dear; it’s a bit like asking Ballard to write a novel about automobiles that get safely to their destinations: the carnage is just so much more fun. But I can find myself agreeing both with Cecilia’s point about conservatism with the points made earlier by Kathy, Brett, and Siobhan about SF’s growing diversity and multiculturalism. I suspect the two points are related. As SF does continue to leak outside its familiar retaining pond and get into the groundwater, both in terms of mainstream viability and the infusion of new voices, I think there is indeed a kind of backlash of conservatism, identified by Paul Kincaid and others, among some parts of the old core readership. There are talented SF and fantasy writers emerging who have never read Clarke or Heinlein or Bradbury and probably don’t intend to, while there are increasing numbers of writers published in the mainstream who have read Clarke and Heinlein and Bradbury and aren’t ashamed about it. I think the lesson is that no one owns SF anymore, and for some that’s a sad thing while for others it’s cause for optimism.

Paul Graham Raven

“I think the lesson is that no one owns SF anymore”

Pass the man the largest plush animal; he just broke the bullseye. 🙂

— a brief memo from Camp Optimism

Marie Brennan

“I think the lesson is that no one owns SF anymore”

This pretty much sums it up, for me. I’m more on the fantasy end of things than the SF, which is why I hadn’t spoken up before now, but the mainstreaming and diversifying of the field means that in some respects it isn’t a field anymore — it’s several. Which means that the “rules” are breaking down, and while that’s a good thing where the rules were a problem, it also creates a lot of anxiety for some.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Gary’s observation that “no one owns SF anymore” is interesting, given the intimate relationship between the fiction and fandom for most of the twentieth century. Is it safe to say that science fiction in the twenty-first century is dependent on readers, but much less so on fans than it used to be?

Marie Brennan

If you mean “dependent on audience,” then I might agree with that statement. But readers? They’re only part of the picture. Books, movies, TV, video games, etc. Anything that looks at SF purely from a literary standpoint is missing too much of the whole.

Cecelia Holland

When I think of somebody who owned sf I think of Charles Brown. He was arguably the last person who had read everything.

Russell Letson

Not sure how to expand on my previous post without sounding hopelessly self-centered, but what the hey: I find that SF continues to be not-boring, to behave like a live genre, to work variations on its givens and to import materials from inside and outside the literary space. (And to re-import refurbished materials it originally exported or that fell off the back of a truck in a gaming or comix neighborhood.) It still commands my attention. Which is not to say that there are not routine, ho-hum, write-by-numbers books that seem to be aimed at an audience that welcomes exactly the expected stimuli delivered in exactly the expected manner. But every segment of art and entertainment includes such items, because there are audiences for the equivalent of mac & cheese prepared exactly according to the instructions on the box, none of that fancy furrin cheese, and step. away. from. the. spice. rack. Now.

But enough mixed metaphors. Specific examples of What Gets and Keeps My Attention in SF are contained in every column I write, since I only review what I finish and I only finish what holds my interest or picques my curiosity. And as the teetering stack of books I mean to get to when I’m no longer reviewing (that is, when senility or physical disability set in) testifies, there are more good candidates than there are hours in which to read them.

I don’t generally like to engage in singling out SF as Especially Wonderful, but I do have to say that I find it more lively and engaging than some of the other genres/categories/traditions that I enjoy. The mystery/suspense field keeps generating non-routine treatments of crime and depravity (Martin Cruz Smith, the late Reginald Hill), but I wish that the historical novel had more Patrick O’Brians and Cecilia Hollands and Lindsey Davises. Science fiction has the good fortune to have (a random selection of veteran personal favorites) John Barnes, Paul McAuley, Linda Nagata, Ken MacLeod, C. J. Cherryh, Alastair Reynolds, John Varley, Charles Stross, Greg Egan, Walter Jon Williams, Eleanor Arnason, Karl Schroeder, Nancy Kress, Joe Haldeman–and to be able to kick up a new-to-me Ann Leckie.

John Clute

On the assumption that our owners will be the first to leave a dying Earth, I doubt that owner-friendly sf — ie thought-experiment sf postulating futures you gotta decimate the planet’s population to make democratic — is exactly the road forward. When I think space habitat I think gated-community, sort of thing. Maybe I should stop trying to live in a city.

Maybe taking pleasure out of fiction written about the near future, or the edge of now itself (makes ya shiver), is dodging the bullet; but I can certainly enjoy (just recently) Lavie Tidhar or (for yonks) China Mieville. And I think they write sf, if 21st century sf can be defined as a set of text that contains an sf element… (This is profoundlly unSuvinian, I know, but I think the cookie has crumbled)

Fabio Fernandes

I think everyone is spot on here today. Gary’s observation that nobody owns SF anymore is certainly true, and I can relate to what John just said about space-habitat-as-gated-community. We See a Different Frontier, the anthology I edited this year with Djibril al-Ayad, was mentioned earlier in this roundtable along with Bill Campbell’s Mothership as (correct me if I’m wrong) exactly the opposite of this gated community concept – and I’m very glad for that. I was recently participating in a tweetchat about the importance of language in postcolonial SF, and we practically reached a consensus on the fact that, while English must (for now, at least) be the language for non-English speakers to communicate if we want to express our thoughts in science fiction for a greater, global audience, it’s interesting not only to have translation intiatives (such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Awards) but also for us to add to the melting pot (also known as The Great Conversation) everything we possibly can in terms of mixing languages and cultures. That, I think, is what Yoon Ha Lee, Aliette de Bodard, Ekaterina Sedia, J Y Yang, Sofia Samatar, Lavie Tidhar, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Vandana Singh and many, many others have been doing of late.

Karen Burnham

And that’s a wrap! Thanks to all the people who have participated in the Roundtable over the years, and thanks also to everyone who has read them! Please give a warm welcome to our new Overlord/Locus blog editor, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro!

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