Over the last few years I’ve taken part in more than a dozen panels in science fiction conventions where the question came up “Why is there no sense of wonder in science fiction?” Or “Where have all the young people gone? Why aren’t they reading science fiction?”
The excuses are always the same. The foremost and most favorite is “The age of wonder in SF is between 12 and 14.” The second is “They’re living in a science fiction world. They don’t need to read it.”
On this I’m going to call bullsheep and oh, yeah, bullsheep again.
If the age of wonder is between 12 and 14, then YA SF should be healthy and thriving, right? Instead of non-existent in comparison to YA fantasy. And while there’s something to say for that, psychologically – I remember reading sf as a young kid and being filled with a sense of amazement, but actually my most fervent reading age for SF was between fourteen and about twenty five or so. Partly because at 22 I came to the states, and I found a whole plethora of work that had never been translated.
As for the “they’re living in science fiction.” Oh, PLEASE. This is the part of the blog in which we say “your age is showing,” and also “Get over yourself.” Admittedly the age at which sf/f was most popular was around the forties and fifties. Not respectable, but popular. Well, it could be far more accurate to say that they lived in science fiction, at least by their lights. Most twenty year olds then, probably remembered a world where cars were very few, and where oil lamps and candles still had a place in many houses, but they were living in a world with an interstate system and electrical lighting and indoor plumbing, and the beginnings of computers. Compared to that jump, the one from the seventies to today is nothing. Oh, yeah, the computer is starting to make it different, but it’s not the thing that people DREAM of. In fact, it’s so unromantic, and came on so slowly that most of us have trouble realizing how fundamentally transformational it is.
Recently two more excuses have been brought in. One is “the boys don’t read. They’re watching TV and playing games.” We’ll go into this again later. And one that is almost right (almost) which is “We had all these great things, but we didn’t pay up. There are no flying cars, or moon rockets.”
They’re almost right on that one, but not quite. The people saying this are ten to twenty years older than I, and they’re right that there’s a generation that is disgusted at this – but that’s my generation. And those of us who still read sf tend to read off beat stuff, or older stuff, not the stuff that’s “pushed” or considered “high quality” by most of the houses. (Baen, as usual is its own little world and therefore exempt from these discussions.)
The kids alive today don’t know about those broken promises. Though I’m here to tell you they still get excited about going to space and the future. It’s just that this is no longer what SF is about. And (see what I did here) this means that they go play games, which do have mega fighting robots, and space colonies, and the other things that once made them read SF.
This is not even particularly important, except insofar as there are things you can learn from written stories that are harder to come by in games. I think empathy is one. And good reading skills is another. Both of these are useful in life, and we’re shutting a generation out of them. Beyond that, science fiction has the chance to make kids THINK about the future before it gets here, and also to have them try on new ideas.
So, who killed the sense of wonder?
You’ll forgive me, since I know a lot of my readers belong to this generation, but it was boomers moving into the publishing houses.
I understand WHY it happened. I just don’t have to like it. Boomers came of age at a time when population was supposed to keep expanding indefinitely (note to the brainless bunnies who commented on my war is Hell post, no it’s no longer doing that. It might actually be contracting. We only have highly dubious counts, from countries who get aid per capita to believe it is still expanding. We also thought the USSR was expanding, until it collapsed. There’s lies, damn lies and statistics.) Youth was the way of the future. You only have to re-read the Heinlein of the sixties and seventies to get this feeling. The older people were kowtowing because they expected to be vastly out-numbered. So between that and a bunch of other cultural things, that one generation grew up thinking they were something special and that they should make everything different.
Also for some reason and I honestly can’t think why, unless it is a combination of their parents’ experiences in WWII AND Soviet Agit Prop (yeah, I know. I blame a lot of things on it. But they were GOOD), the boomers thought that they could create a perfect world.
Unfortunately this meant that when they moved into SF, right after Heinlein had exploded out of the ghetto of crudely colored magazines, they decided it was their mission in life to make SF accurate, respectable and, above all RELEVANT.
This is when the problems came in. They came in because every generation’s idea of “relevant” freezes at around the time they come of age. The burning issues of the day get resolved and gotten over, but they’re still the ones that formed them. And some of those issues weren’t even, really, issues by the time they came of age, but they were part of what was being struggled with while they were growing up.
When the boomers swept away the old order of SF and brought their stuff in, suddenly SF became obsessed with gender issues (mostly defined as a rather pat feminism), race issues (the burning issue of their day), and misunderstood economics (that to be honest is still relevant. their kids fail to grasp economics in exactly the same way.) The idea of being “cool” made them worship “literary” only since most of them wouldn’t know literary if it bit them in the fleshy part of the arse, “incoherent” “hallucinatory” and “pointless” had to do the turn.
Then came my generation who, btw, are not boomers, though we often get aggregated onto the end of it. We’re also not gen xers, sorry. Some people call us the lost generation, though we were mostly found – at work, trying to claw a space for ourselves while being told we weren’t cool or “socially conscious.” We’re the band of kids born somewhere between 59 and 68 or so, though these things are fluid, and I’ve met “us” stretching all the way back to 51 and them stretching all the way up to 70. A lot of this had to do with how old your parents were when you were born. Our current president, for instance, despite being only a year older than I is very much fully integrated in boomer culture, being the child of a very young mother and raised mostly by her parents, and therefore more as her little brother than her son. Also, for some of us on the cusp, we CHOSE.
I’m not saying all the boomers did was bad. Largely I’d rather praise them than bury them. But in SF they’ve been an unmitigated disaster.
Not as readers, as such. Readers still wanted the same thing – fun. Not as writers, so much. Some of the still readable writers – Dave Drake, possibly Weber (I don’t know his age) and many others in the Baen stable ARE boomers. Connie Willis is also a boomer. I think so is F. Paul Wilson (though he looks about my age.) – are boomers, but as editors and critics and the people who set the culture. Maybe it has something to do with the liberal arts culture of the time.
I didn’t notice, because my exposure to SF was limited by what was translated into Portuguese, what was going on until about five years after coming to the US – five years spent catching up on favorites’ books that hadn’t been translated.
And then after a while, I started realizing that these books were… odd. The new stuff coming out, in the ever-shrinking SF shelf at the local bookstore in Charlotte NC, was… strange. Not the SF/F I remembered at all. Well, the fantasy was mostly quest, this being the mid eighties. I can take or leave quest. It doesn’t do a thing for me. A lot of the SF was cyber punk which bored me. The more serious works were… uh…
And by “Uh” I mean, I’d get to the end and either not remember the book at all or throw it against the wall.
And please understand that while in Portugal, in despair I had resorted to reading NOT JUST typical seventies SF of the “We all have tons of odd sex and then we die” or French SF (check out Pierre Barbet sometime.) Or even French SF Romance (which was very funny, as it was written by people who’d never read SF. the one thing I remember, for whatever reason, was the woman being showered by a floating ball-robot that sprayed her with water. I’m still trying to figure out WHY. World building was always funnier than heck, as tech made no sense.) I even got hold of a mag called Panspermia which was French SF and I THOUGHT was devoted to the theories of Fred Hoyle. Turns out I was wrong. Who knew? The fact it came in a plain brown wrapper should have given me a clue, but I was innocent.
So, my tolerance for bad is very high.
But these books were POINTLESS. They either had meandering non-plots, or they had an endless repetition, of the hit-over-the-head type with … not even social controversy but social markers of that time and class. You know “Women are better than men.” “Every culture is better than Western” (or what I call Ashram anthropology… or more likely hashram anthropology.) These were soon joined by newer and stranger talking points as boomers realized that the world was more difficult to make perfect than they thought, “The human species is a blight upon the Earth.” and “We should go back to eighteenth century tech and die out.”
Sometimes, rarely, you came across a book that bowled you over all the way to the end when, I guess in an effort to stay relevant or interesting, the author killed every character.
Like Amanda who talks about his over at MGC today, I thought that people simply weren’t writing the good stuff, anymore. And then I wrote it. And I sent it out. Do you know the MOST common rejection for DST, back thirteen years ago, was that I had “illogical world building.” No one could ever explain to me WHY this was so, but mumbled explanations ranged from the fact that “In five hundred years we won’t even be human anymore, and we’ll have all sorts of computer augmentation.” (Rolls eyes. Why if we get better at bio?) And “it’s too cheerful” or “It ends well” or “The state will be far more efficient and everyone will be happy” or… I SWEAR I’m NOT MAKING THIS UP, from my agent at the time, “Perhaps you can make it believable if instead of the Good Men, you have the Catholic Church rule the world.” (WHAT? No, seriously, WHAT? I’d never talked about any religion to this man, so I can only assume that the Catholic Church was his own personal bete noir. Who knows why?) And yes, most of the time my sf was rejected by agent and never sent out because “no one wants to read that” and “you lack a big idea.”
At that point I did what everyone else seemed to have been doing since the seventies, and moved over to fantasy. Only fantasy was even then falling victim to the same nonsense. It seemed, for instance, that having heroic males was out. And you had to have a certain amount of allotted whine per page about the evils of patriarchy or praise of the great goddess.
So I took refuge in the past and wrote historical stuff – fantasy and mystery. I’ll note at this time both time travel and alternate history were getting very popular, I think for the same reasons. But there’s only so much you can do in the past, and most people don’t want to work that hard (Regencies, arguably the most successful historical subgenre – of romance – aren’t really. They have a few historical details, but, by and large, are modern people in costumes and following outdated rules.) Also, well… going into the past might be a sense of wonder of a sort, but not the kind likely to appeal to young people. Particularly since, with few exceptions (Frankowski, S.M. Sterling, Flint) people didn’t do Connecticut Yankee things in the past, making it modern. Instead, they just struggled along there, and more likely than not died in the end. (I’m not casting aspersions on Doomsday Book where the death is natural and makes sense and it’s NOT the main character.)
And Fantasy went the same way, till it became “unbearably long feminist screed on the evils of men.” Look, I’ll take some of this. Mercedes Lackey and a bevy of other fantasy writers of the eighties did a bit of this. The father was always wicked (eh. I have that too Which is weird since I’m very close to my dad.) There were some evil guys. BUT most of the men were still decent, and even if the main character was female (and that wasn’t always) she would find either love or decent male friends. But then that changed. I actually had a book rejected for being “insufficiently female centric” despite the fact the main character is female AND she’s a take charge female (a police woman) AND she rescues her man (Think Athena’s little sister in urban fantasy.) Why? Well the explanation had something to do with her falling in love with a MAN. (The horrors! Shudder.)
And that’s when I started realizing what was wrong – though it took Amanda to solidify the thought into words – the thoughts we were getting for lack of a better word “pushed at us from the over culture.” This was the way they wanted us to think, the way that not only were news stories slanted, and narratives framed, (the Duke Lacrosse case) BUT the stuff they were teaching our kids in school.
Was my biggest problem with it, then, that it was blantantly a-historical and counter-factual. Well, no. I lie for a living. My morals are weak.
My problem with it was IN FACT that it was boring. If I wanted to get these points pounded into me until I got sick, I’d read the newspaper, the advice columns, the fashion mags or watched sitcoms. There was nothing new THERE.
Meanwhile, btw, TV and movie sf continued doing very well by bringing in much of the feel of the pulp era to the screen. For instance, you couldn’t SELL Stargate (though I wrote a short story which even called them stargates back a year before it came out. It’s okay, it’s a very bad story) as a book or a story. Why not? Not plausible. We know humans evolved on Earth. You can’t violate what we know in science.
Between the bands of political correctness, the bands of “relevance” and the bands of “we want to be literary” science fiction was strangled in the crib by people who didn’t care if sales numbers kept falling because, well “kids aren’t reading. They live in science fiction.” And their bosses believed them.
But this is neither a dirge nor a despairing article. And I MIGHT write dystopian societies now and then, but my characters still manage, by and large, to fight through.
This is to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. Ric Locke’s book is full of the sense of wonder. I haven’t read much else recently, because I’m busy trying to finish contracts so I can put some stuff up myself, but I have a feeling if there aren’t other books like his out yet, there will be. I’m looking forward to being delighted, shocked and titillated (get mind out of gutter. You’re leaving me no space) by heretical notions of human history, strange thoughts on human future, and fun rides along the way.
The readers now have control, and I think they want their sense of wonder back. Do you have a space opera you wrote years ago, which got rejected everywhere? Dust it off, look it over, unmuzzle it if you tried to make it acceptable to the establishment.
And then put it up. The future is free.*
(*With the purchase of another future. Said purchase, as all purchases of liberty might entail the pledge or actual payment of your life your fortune and your sacred honor. You will only keep the liberty you’re willing to fight for. The establishment is always the enemy of the future. You have been warned.)