Thursday, February 26, 2015

Biased Opinion - Inventing a Science Fiction Past to Complain About the Science Fiction Present

Author Brad Torgersen has a problem with the state of modern science fiction. If you want to, you can go and read his rant in all its fact free glory here. I'll wait. To illustrate his argument, he has made an analogy (I'm putting quotes from his post in blockquotes):
Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.

Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.
He goes on with this analogy for several more paragraphs, belaboring his point ad nauseum to the brink of tedium, but the summarized version is simply that he thinks the science fiction and fantasy of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, was comprised of what he deems to be fun adventure fiction unsullied by stories that focused on issues like feminism, race, and sexuality, whereas the science fiction that is recognized and honored by the various genre awards is somehow not representative of the fiction that was published during those decades. Here is what he recalls:
A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
He then bemoans that now, fans can't be sure that what they are getting is what he considers "science fiction", applying his narrow and, as we will see, historically counterfactual definition of the term. He thinks that fans are being misled by the modern science fiction author. That somehow stories that don't fit into the quite limited categories he remembers as the science fiction and fantasy of his youth are some sort of new aberration foisted on to the genre he doesn't recognize any more. And my response is to wonder exactly what Torgersen was reading from the 1960s through the 1990s, because he sure seems to have missed a lot of what was published in that time frame. He's already off in a fantasy version of the history of the genre, and then he tries to give some examples, and well, it becomes clear that he has no idea what he is talking about:
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
Perhaps he missed The Word for World Is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin, winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Alternatively, one could point to Terrafied by Arthur Tofte, a 1973 story with such reach that I recall it appearing in elementary school textbooks on a regular basis, which casts humans as violent invaders who threaten the tranquility of a peaceful alien world.
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
Perhaps he missed Grunts the 1992 novel by Mary Gentle in which the orcs are the heroes and the elves and dwarves are villains? Or even The Mists of Avalon the 1983 novel by Mercedes Lackey, which is a feminist retelling of the Arthurian myth in which Morgaine is the protagonist. One has to wonder if he somehow missed much of Michael Moorcock's career in which the protagonists often find themselves on the wrong side of the conflict, and in some cases are clearly villainous.
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
It seems that Torgersen completely missed Joanna Russ' entire career, as well as most of Alice B. Sheldon's career. And Ursula K. Le Guin's career. And the output of dozens of other science fiction authors who were writing in the years between 1960 and 2000.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
Maybe he's never heard of books like The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin which won the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman which won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1976. That seems difficult to believe, but it is the only real explanation for not being aware that there were prominent science fiction novels that put gay and transgender issues at the heart of their stories in the 1970s.
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
Perhaps Torgersen managed to miss The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, winner of the 1976 Best Novel Hugo Award. And he seems to have never read books like the 1976 novel Triton by Samuel R. Delany, which is set against a backdrop of an interplanetary war. I could go on and list dozens more novels, stories, and even movies that are examples of the things he thinks are "new", but I think the point is clear. Torgersen goes on and on, using vague generalities that simply don't match the actual history of the genre. The kinds of books published now that he rails against as being essentially false advertising merely reflect what has been part of the science fiction landscape for decades now. Being unaware of that history, or ignoring that history doesn't mean it doesn't exist, or that it is somehow misbranding to call books that draw upon that history science fiction. The simple truth is that every thing that Torgersen says in his post is almost completely, and for anyone who knows much about the genre, obviously wrong.

This kind of ignorance coming from Torgersen is simply inexcusable. I'm not suggesting that one has to like any of these stories to be a true science fiction fan. And I am not saying that one has to even be aware of these books to be a true science fiction fan. If someone wants to read nothing by Star Trek or Star Wars licensed fiction because that's what they enjoy, they'll get no argument from me when they say they love science fiction. But, if one wants to hold themselves out as an authority on the genre and talk as he does about how "[o]ur once reliable packaging has too often defrauded our readership", then you at least should be aware of what the packaging has been for the last four or five decades. If you don't like stories produced by Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, and other authors like them, that's your prerogative, but to be entirely unaware of their existence as Torgersen seems to be, that's willful blindness.

But that doesn't stop him from making confident statements concerning what he believes ails the science fiction and fantasy fields. (Although, given the fact that the market for fantasy fiction is growing quite quickly these days, one wonders exactly how Torgersen thinks it is somehow ailing). His assertions are still entirely lacking in a factual basis, but at least he admits that ideas beyond "lantern-jawed heroic explorers conquer distant planets" are a valid subject for science fiction to tackle:
Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?
First, one only has to peruse the recent winners and nominees for the Hugo and Nebula Awards to see that the idea that "the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place" has been neither pushed to the side nor is it absent. Sure, there are feminist ideas in the 2014 Best Novel Hugo winner Ancillary Justice, but it is a huge space opera as well. Sure, Charles Stross tackles banking and economics in Neptune's Brood, but it is also a space opera involving a post-human reality with colonized water planets and churches that are spaceships. Mira Grant's Parasite is a techno-thriller involving symbiotic medical implants that take over their hosts with nary a social issue in sight. Go back a year and the Hugo Award winner was Redshirts, John Scalzi's satirical take on Star Trek. That seems like putting "to boldly go where no one has gone before" front and center to me. And as one goes through the previous years, one finds that, contrary to Torgersen's assertion, there are plenty of novels and stories that have the "gee whiz" factor as their primary element: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman was inspired by Kipling's Jungle Book. Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a brilliant alternate history. Connie Willis' Blackout/All Clear is a story about time traveling back to World War II. Vinge's Rainbow's End is about the possible coming technological singularity. And so on and so forth.

The two common threads among the screeds of those decrying the state of modern written science fiction, such as Togersen's, are a lack of historical perspective and a willingness to ignore context. Torgersen spent his entire post constructing a version of the history of science fiction that doesn't match reality, and then talking about how modern science fiction doesn't match up to it. And the only proper response to that is to say of course modern science fiction doesn't match his made up version of science fiction from the past because he made it up. The history of science fiction is broader than spaceships and ray guns, and has been since at least the 1960s, and I would argue for much longer than that. The kind of stories that discuss feminism, racism, imperialism, and oppression have been a prominent part of the science fiction conversation for more than four decades now. If one wants to talk about filmed science fiction, and Torgersen seems to think that has somehow not been sullied by these sorts of issues, the original Star Trek was filled with stories about these issues, and Star Trek: The Next Generation focused on them even more, and intentionally so. It seems more than a little obtuse to insist that someone would be surprised to find these sorts of issues prominently highlighted in science fiction after almost fifty years of these sorts of issues being regularly highlighted in science fiction.

And while there are stories published now that put issues like feminism, race, and sexuality front and center, they are overwhelmed by the number of stories that put the spaceships, zombies, and galactic empires at the center of their narrative. Even the stories that are nominated for the various science fiction awards. For every story like Rachel Swirsky's If You Were a Dinosaur My Love, there are five or six stories like Allen Steele's The Emperor of Mars or Geoffrey Landis' The Sultan of Mars, or Mary Robinette Kowal's For Want of a Nail. Further, Swirsky's story isn't out of place in the science fiction landscape when one considers such award winning stories as The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin, or Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death by Alice B. Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr. One has to be almost willfully ignorant of history and context to not see how Swirsky's fits into the field.

The hard truth is that the coming generation of science fiction readers are much more likely to enjoy the material Torgersen decries than the material that he remembers from his youth. If one looks to the young adult market, which by all accounts sells an enormous volume of books, dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games and Divergent dominates. Books like these and The Giver are the science fiction books that are made into movies. Even Ender's Game, in which the protagonist finds out in the end that he has been manipulated and has probably been engaged in an unjust war (and spends the next three books trying to atone for), fits into this dystopian motif, which makes it unsurprising that it was also made into a movie recently. One might argue that the problem with adult science fiction isn't stories like Jo Walton's Among Others, but is instead the result of guys like Torgersen pushing a version of gee-whiz-military-space-opera at kids who have grown up reading Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion or James Dashner's The Maze Runner. Trying to get modern young adult readers to transition to adult science fiction by handing them Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, or Doc Smith's Gray Lensman , or even Larry Niven's Ringworld is probably not going to work very well. Those aren't the kinds of stories that the current crop of readers have been raised on, and they aren't the kinds of stories that will keep them reading.

Science fiction doesn't have a branding problem. The science fiction genre is changing, and has always been changing. This isn't a problem for anyone who isn't busy romanticizing the science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s and pretending that this is what readers really need. I'd go so far as to say the problem is in fact those who romanticize the science fiction of the distant past while ignoring vast swaths of it at the same time. If all you want to do is appeal to readers who cut their teeth on works by Larry Niven, Orson Scott Card, and Poul Anderson, then Torgersen's prescription would be fine. But that's a necessarily shrinking market, and it is likely to have almost no appeal to those who have grown up reading Lois Lowry and Suzanne Collins. I'd go so far as to say that the goal of transforming those who currently read books by authors such as Erin Hunter, Rick Riordan, and Veronica Roth into adult science fiction readers is not well-served by anything that qualifies as science fiction in Torgersen's eyes, because those young adult readers won't find much of anything in their reading experience that matches what he is promoting. In fact, the science fiction he rails against is much more like what they have been reading. Teenagers aren't getting excited for warmed over pastiches of Heinlein. They are getting excited for the next book by Marissa Meyer.

In short, Torgersen has invented a version of the history of science fiction that bears no relationship to reality in order to rail against a version of science fiction that doesn't currently exist so he can promote a collection of works he likes to young readers who probably wouldn't find them particularly appealing.

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  1. Huh? Really? I'll admit, I didn't read his entire rant, but you're right that he's mis-remembering (or mis-imagining) the history of the genre. There have always been sci-fi stories that are just fun adventure fiction, and there will always be a place in my heart for them. Sometimes you just want some literary comfort food in the form of a lost world adventure or a blazing space opera.

    Sci-fi in the 60s and 70s especially, however, was largely about bigger, wider, more complex social issues. Some of those books fascinate me, and some were too heavy on ideas and too light on plot for my tastes, but they're important reads. I don't like being preached at, and heavy-handed social commentary solely for the sake of condemnation doesn't interest me, but I'm all for being educated and enlightened as I'm being entertained.

    It's a genre if infinite ideas and possibilities, of utopian and dystopian futures, so why should it be restricted to what's 'safe' and 'vanilla' today?

    1. @Bob R Milne: I think there is something interesting going on here. Torgersen is the current flag-bearer for the "Sad Puppy" cadre, and the posts that group has put up concerning the issue are loaded with grievances based upon essentially false information and baseless assumptions such as those displayed in Torgersen's "nutty nuggets" post. There is something of a pathology here in which the "Sad Puppies" have constructed a narrative that is quite obviously at odds with reality in order to advance a story of their own persecution.

      I doubt that pointing out the falsity of their fictional version of the history and present of the genre is going to change their minds. After all, their entire premise is based on a fantasy of their own making and not upon any kind of studied assessment of the facts, so pointing out the facts is likely to glace right off of their persecution complex. But I think it is important to analyze this somewhat intriguing kind of mass delusion that has taken hold in the "conservative" corner of the science fiction field.