Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

A guest editorial on the state of the field …

Science Fiction:

the Great Divide

Joseph Green

As we plunge headlong into a new century, science fiction has entered a period of change so profound and extensive it seems fair to call it a paradigm shift – most writers taking a new approach to producing the literature, so long despised by the cultural elite, that has nevertheless grown into our largest entertainment genre. Today’s writers are leaving the spacelanes, the far voyages, the distant planets, to focus their jaundiced gaze and speculative minds on trends becoming apparent right here on Earth.

Modern science fiction (henceforth SF) got its start as adventure stories for boys, published in a half-dozen cheap magazines around the beginning of the 20th century. Before that came Wells, with serious and often profound novels; Verne, who tried to follow known scientific principles in his popular adventure stories; and earlier, Mary Shelley, with the novel many consider the first real SF, Frankenstein.

With a few exceptions, Verne’s novels were confined to the wonders of science on Earth. Wells also set most of his stories on the ground, though he did write the first important book featuring an alien invasion.

With the introduction of the first pure SF magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926, SF continued a steady expansion outward, to the moon, the planets, and finally, with Doc Smith’s “Lensmen” series and a few others, to the stars. When Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, van Vogt and many more introduced galactic civilizations in the 30’s and 40’s, the (fictional) pathway opened. By 1950 there were probably more stories set in space or on alien worlds than on Earth.

That no longer seems the case. But let me admit here that I didn’t take three months to do a careful statistical analysis of the current field to support this conclusion. Life is too short. My conviction springs from constant reading in the literature, plus checking out a lot of book reviews each month.

The real space exploration program, in which your humble correspondent spent 37 years (both military and civilian), has reached an interregnum, a long “quiet time.” The world finally has an International Space Station. With a little vision on the part of coming American administrations, new and perhaps highly beneficial discoveries await us. Communications satellites now blanket the inhabited globe, bringing to life one of SF's more accurate speculations, the Internet (and in the process creating a new global community, unplanned, unexpected, and certainly not prepared for). The Global Positioning System, designed and built to serve the American military, also provides the civilian population with the most powerful navigation system ever devised. Weather satellites have lifted forecasting to new levels of accuracy. Earth observers looking down from space greatly shorten the search for new natural resources.

And that’s where we’re going to be for a while. Barring some unexpected (and unlikely) breakthrough in propulsion technology, one that greatly reduces costs, the planned return to the Moon and on to Mars will be a slow and expensive slog. We're lucky that competition from Japan and China (replacing the U.S.S.R. as primary motivating forces) will probably keep the U.S. manned space flight program alive. But the current emphasis is on what space technology can do for the people, right here on Earth, who are paying for it. And that’s primarily unmanned spacecraft.

And SF, which some of us like to believe serves a second purpose as handmaiden to real science (the first purpose is entertainment, of course), is also coming back down to Earth.

The first novel (and we’re only going to cite novels here) to win a Nebula was Dune, by Frank Herbert, in 1965. Dune, plus the long series that followed, featured an imaginary planet with some very unEarth-like inhabitants. In 1966 Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes, returned briefly to Earth, but it was not a clear win; it tied with Samual R. Delany’s Babel 17. After that an occasional winner set the action on the home planet, but the large majority were outward bound -- other planets, other star systems, even other galaxies. But in 1984 William Gibson returned to Earth with Neuromancer, starting a trend toward looking ahead to a planet-bound future.

That trend became more positive in the last decade of the century. In 1991 Michael Swanwick’s Stations Of the Tide explored a distant watery world. But in 1992 Connie Willis went into Earth’s past and won for the time travel story Doomsday Book. In 1993 Kim Stanley Robinson transformed our most likely possibility and won for Red Mars. Greg Bear took on the big jobs by Moving Mars in 1994. Robert Sawyer ran his The Terminal Experiment, biological speculation, on Earth in 1995. In 1996 Nicola Griffith won with Slow River, a stream that flowed only on Earth. The Moon and the Sun, another time travel story (of sorts) also stayed on Earth, to win in 1997. Joe Haldeman roamed the solar system in 1998 with Forever Peace, but Octavia Butler returned to Earth (essentially) in the 1999 winner Parable of the Talents. Greg Bear ended the century in 2000 with Darwin’s Radio, biological SF that never leaves the home planet.

In the new century, the winner in 2001 was The Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro, set on a distant planet. But American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, came back to Earth with a winning fantasy (fantasy novels winning Nebulas and Hugos became another noticeable trend, and the large majority are Earth-bound); Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark won the prize on Earth in 2003; Bujold’s Paladin Of Souls searched for answers in a fantasy set on a far planet in 2004; Camouflage, by Joe Haldeman, stayed on Earth but featured some highly unearthly visitors to win in 2005; and Jack McDevitt’s Seeker, set a few thousand years ahead when space travel is common, won for 2006. Vernor Vinge remained on the home planet to win in 2007 with Rainbow’s End.

Nebula Awards are voted on only by active members of SFWA. But the more broad-based Hugo awards are following the same trend. Looking back only a decade in the last century, Lois McMaster Bujold won in 1991 for The Vor Game, in 1992 for Barrayar, and in 1995 for Mirror Dance (the only triple Hugo winners I can recall in a single series). All are interstellar adventures. A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, won in a tie with Doomsday Book in 1993, and a follow-on in the same universe, A Deepness in the Sky, won in the year 2000. Kim Stanley Robinson took Hugos for Green Mars in 1994 and Blue Mars in 1997. Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace added the Hugo to his Nebula win in 1998. Out of the ten, only Doomsday Book, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, 1996, and another Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog, 1999, place the action on Earth.

In 2001, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire continued the swing toward fantasy novels, with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods winning the Hugo, after already taking the Nebula, in 2002. Robert Sawyer’s Hominids kept us on Earth in 2003. Bujold’s fantasy Paladin Of Souls took the Hugo in 2004, as it had the Nebula. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a fantasy set on Earth by Susanna Clark, won in 2005. Robert Wilson’s Spin, which includes space travel, took the prize in 2006, and Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End stayed on Earth to win in 2007.

What I think this means is that SF writers are pulling back from the vastness and openness of interstellar space to return to Earth. The hot science for speculation and extrapolation is biology, not rocketry.

And that’s a paradigm shift.

This new emphasis is by no means a complete change, and probably never will be. You can still find lots of novels set in the starlanes, or on distant worlds. But it seems to me the trend is there, and it’s strong. Whether consciously or not, more and more serious writers are accepting the fact that, for now, we’re stuck in this solar system. They are turning their speculative attention to the effects of the accelerating pace of scientific discovery on our current lives and future prospects – where biology is key. They look ahead to what comes next on Earth, doing what SF does best: constructing scenarios that explore the social and political consequences of scientific breakthroughs, and how these will affect our world. And for some, worrying about a pace of discovery that seems to be spinning out of control (or at least out of their personal control).

The Audio/Visual media, as usual, are following the trail blazed by print. After Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey demonstrated that SF movies could in fact earn big bucks, the race was on. TV had always had its boys’ adventure SF series, but Star Trek in 1966 was aimed at adults. It only endured for three years, but paved the way for three more series that lasted about seven years each. A fifth show, Enterprise, became the first to fade after just a few seasons, indicating either the show was weak or its public had finally become surfeited. Star Trek became one of the most profitable franchises in TV history. The movies followed (though there was a long wait for the first one), and they too proved immensely popular. In both TV and movies, Earth was an important background element, but seldom a part of the main story.

The three original Star Wars movies carried this trend a step further, into interstellar empires and galaxies far, far way – losing any remaining distinction between SF and fantasy in the process. (The Star Wars movies, and a great deal of the Trek movies and TV series, can be called SF only by wrapping them in the famous Arthur C. Clarke saying (this is not an exact quote) that “Any technology sufficiently beyond the observer’s understanding will appear to be magic.”) * Earth was relegated to history, little more.

There have already been some good SF movies set right here on Earth (and not dealing with that counterpoint to human space travel, aliens coming to invade us). Charly, the movie version of Flowers for Algernon, comes immediately to mind, along with the several incarnations of Island of Dr. Moreau and the many unbelievable but great fun adventure movies made from Verne’s books. But with a new Star Trek movie now in the works (the eighth? ninth?) and the three Star Wars prequels finally out, it seems safe to say the emphasis has not yet strongly shifted back to Earth. Only the more nearly pure fantasies (the Harry Potter planned seven movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) are Earthbound.

(If this seems like selective choosing of titles to reinforce my thesis, I can only plead that there are so very many movies and TV shows, as there were books, that they can’t all be listed. Also, I’m saying we are now IN a paradigm shift – not yet out the other side.)

SF/Fantasy has become the dominant movie genre – something no SF writer predicted, of which I’m aware (just as no one predicted that a half-billion of us would watch that first step on the Moon’s surface “live” while sitting in our living rooms). Among the large number produced over the past two decades, quite a few set the action on Earth. Most dealt with future possibilities, as a good little SF movie should. Bladerunner and the Terminator series come to mind, though there are many more. But the big box office hits were, mostly, the ones set out yonder, among the stars.

All of this has to tie in with the noted general decline in reading for pleasure, throughout the print media; with the huge shift from books to A/V as the preferred at-home entertainment medium; and with the newest and fastest-growing demand on our scarce time, in all its seductive and widely pervasive glory, the Internet.

Put all these ingredients into a big pot and stir, and what emerges is a renewed interest in me me! ME! – what’s going to happen in my lifetime, on this world I live in, where my kids, if they’re lucky, will get to grow up.

And hey! if you disagree with this conclusion, there’s room enough on my planet -- where you will be for the foreseeable future – for both of us.

*In the mid-90’s I escorted Arthur Clarke, a long-time casual friend whose recent passing into the realm of oblivion I deeply mourn, on a tour of Kennedy Space Center that included a press conference. One of the reporters asked if he considered the Star Trek and Star Wars movies SF. He paused, thought carefully, then said, “I think those movies are very enjoyable fantasies.”



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