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Spider Robinson And The State Of Science Fiction 854

Posted by simoniker
from the many-legs-and-many-opinions dept.
pcb writes "There is a rather decent rant in today's Globe & Mail from Spider Robinson (of the Callahan series fame) regarding the dismal state of science fiction, in which he laments that the future is not what it used to be. While attending Torcon 3, the 61st World SF Convention, he notes that SF readers today seem to prefer the Tolkienesque fantasies of some forgotten past, rather than the forward-looking works of science and space travel that used to dominate the genre. Are SF stories from authors like Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov irrelevant today, as people look into the past to dream rather than the future? Robinson asks: 'Why are our imaginations retreating from science and space, and into fantasy?'"
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Spider Robinson And The State Of Science Fiction

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  • by RobertB-DC (622190) * on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:30PM (#6900680) Homepage Journal
    Robinson asks: 'Why are our imaginations retreating from science and space, and into fantasy?'

    I was hoping that the article would bring up the obvious answer, but it didn't quite reach it. The essence of fiction is that it is not real, and "science fiction" is supposed to take the idea a step further -- beyond real, if you like. To the unreachable, beyond what we consider possible.

    But in this century, what is beyond possible? Exploring the planets? Been there, done that, got pictures. Exploring other star systems? Totally possible, but the centuries-long timescale makes it simply boring. Time travel? Everybody knows that you'll just end up meeting the Borg before you should, or something.

    In other words, perhaps science fiction is suffering from too much science!

    On the other hand, fantasy worlds like Tolkien's are completely unreachable, unimaginable in reality. Even given billions of dollars, NASA could not create a race of half-orcs in a deep trench (strategically located below a large dam).

    Science is possible... fantasy is impossible. Perhaps that's the problem.
    • >I was hoping that the article would bring up the obvious answer, but it didn't quite reach it. The essence of fiction is that it is not real, and "science fiction" is supposed to take the idea a step further -- beyond real, if you like. To the unreachable, beyond what we consider possible.

      Actually, today's author doesn't want to bother to research what science already understands as background for the story. By going with fantasy (swords and sorcery) they avoid all that work, and still get paid the sa
      • by FileNotFound (85933) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:58PM (#6901036) Homepage Journal
        Science fiction doesn't have to be about science, in fact, IT CANNOT BE ALL SCIENCE. All too often the authors focus on just the scietific aspect and totaly forget about the characters.

        I have read every single Asimov book I could find because he never made that mistake. Science is the setting, the characters are the story.

        I've been trying desperatly to find some good SciFi to read and I've failed. All too often I feel like the author is trying too hard to explain how all this scientific mumbo jumbo works and not why the character is doing act X and act Y.

        So I ended up reading fantasy books, simply because the charcater development is generaly better. I couldn't care less if the fighting takes place with quantum molecular phasing fusion bombs or rusty swords as long as it's justified and I feel like I care about the characters involved.

        I think time has nothing to do with it; I don't care if we'll be in space 40 or 40000 years from now or never. We'll certainly never be in the "Forgotten Realms" or in the world of "Richard Rhal". It doesn't have to be "realistic", or "well researched" it just has to make sense. Am I ok with Sci Fi which says 2+2=5? No, not unless it make sense, and if it can make sense and have good characters, I want it.

        Maybe I've been spoiled by Asimov and Clarke (Rama was great, even though the ending made me want to puke). Certainly, the world of SciFi sucks right now. It's not because the books describe flying though space in the year 2003. George Orwell wrote 1984 knowing that the time was irrelevant, and its' still a great and fairly popular book because of the character development.
        • Believe me, I don't want to be mean, but you read Asimov for the characters?

          Oh, boy!
    • by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda@e t o y o c .com> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:38PM (#6900781) Homepage Journal
      I think you hid the nail on the head. How many Sci-Fi stories end up concluding with the low-tech savages beat out the high-tech conquerors? How often is a supercomputer or a golemesque form of life the primary plot device for a story? How often are SF novel filled with popsicle stick characters that are flat compared to the technology the author is describing.

      It's a reflection of taste that we are moving from the tech driven SF genre into the character driven fantasy world. At least in fantasy, they aren't trying to explain HOW the magic works. They simply use it to get around a peculiar problem, or to leverage the abilities of the protagonist against an otherwise overwhelming foe.

      Damn it. I'm starting to sound like Campbell.

      • by mstorer3772 (526790) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:00PM (#6901049) Homepage
        "From the tech driven SF genre into the character driven fantasy world."

        Which fantasy world are you on?

        Seriously. That horrific overgeneralization is just plain wrong. In both genres, you've got some stories that are character driven, and some that are there to explore how "X" would affect a society... whether "X" is the ability of a select few to conjure fire out of the air, or the technology to travel faster than the speed of light. Whatever.

        And, in both genres, some stories have neither interesting characters, nor an interesting "X". Such stories tend to suck.
        • by Embedded Geek (532893) on Monday September 08, 2003 @04:01PM (#6903299) Homepage
          Apologies if I'm redundant on this (someone just dump a mod point on it - don't bother flaming), but you are demonstrating a very valid application of the 99% Rule of Art. Specifically, 99% of all art in any given media or era is garbage. It doesn't matter if you refer to science fiction or fantasy literature, classical or hip hop music, plays produced on Broadway, Geocities webpages, or Classical Greek and Roman sculpture. The vast majority is crap, some are pleasant and forgetable, but (assuming you have an open mind) there are inevitably a few gems floating about - usually under 1% of the total artwork produced.

          Older works, however (e.g. Golden Age SF or Renisance portraiture) have had the advantage of seeing the worst of the garbage fall away (Heck, did *you* save the crappy poetry you wrote in 7th grade?). As a result, we tend to forget the garbage that came before it and treat the current crop more critically ("Back in *my* day the music was better..."). It's an ongoing process you can see it today if you turn to any oldies station - more Santana and less Partidge Family. The ratio is definately different than the actual play and sales ratios you saw when the songs were new.

          Just something to think about...

          • by Reziac (43301) on Tuesday September 09, 2003 @01:27AM (#6907343) Homepage Journal
            I have a huge collection of Golden Age and slightly later SF, acquired when I was in my teens and 20s. A couple decades later I tried rereading some of it... and was surprised to realise that most of it sucks, including that by Big Names Of The Era. It's not well-written by any standard, and it tends to rehash the same small clutch of ideas endlessly. After I started writing and editing myself, it looked even worse.

            That said... in its day it seemed fresh and new, and we were so hungry for anything that wasn't Here And Now, that if it more or less smelled like SF, we read it, and *liked* it, and hungered for more. Now -- the space program is old hat and no longer exciting, and hardware SF (and the "new worlds to explore" ideas that go along with it) seems equally old hat and unexciting. Worse, the newly-written hard SF that's come along has struck me as ... dull. I've seen it 100 times before, and I just don't want to see it again. Obviously, if a lot of other fen feel the same way (and I doubt I'm alone), this does nothing to encourage the market.

            Over the past few years I've found it's the same with TV as well. Frex, I've already seen every cop show I ever want to, and no matter how "good" a new cop show is, I just can't work up any interest in it. It feels old, tired, and boring, because I've already seen decades worth of it.

            Fantasy is getting well into its own rut, as the proliferation of stuff like the Wheel of Time brickset illustrates. I used to read a LOT of fantasy, yet now, if I never see another witch or elf or dragon, it will be too soon.

            So what do I read, anyway? about all that's left is character driven stuff, which means mainly Bujold- or Cherryh-style space opera, and George R.R. Martin- or Melanie Rawn-style fantasy.

            What's really happened is that I've outgrown event-driven stories, regardless of their venue.

            I know I had a point when I started writing this, but I think I left it in the 1930s. :)

    • by rikrebel (132912) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:39PM (#6900790)

      I take a different opinion.

      Space travel as discussed in science fiction has become something that we no longer hope for in our lifetimes. This was not the case 50 years ago, we thought we would be traveling the stars! Now we know better.

      Perhaps this is people reaction to that. Perhaps if people are to be relegated to remote dreams they like the more romantic notions of elves and wizards.

      2c.

      • Magic Vs. Technology (Score:5, Interesting)

        by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda@e t o y o c .com> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:51PM (#6900947) Homepage Journal
        Indeed, one can't deny that 50 years ago technology and magic were one and the same. Most people couldn't tell you what Newton's 3 laws were, and Einstein's relativity was considered utterly incomprehensible. Most people's understanding of math stopped at arithmetic. A learned man might know algebra. The true wizards of the math world grocked calculis.

        Computer control systems were almost unheard of, and used only on system of fantastic proportions like Nuclear reactors and weapon targeting systems.

        Don't forget that technology was largely credited at the time for winning the war. It also brought an end to many plagues affecting americans: smallpox and polio. 50 years ago was a much different time.

        50 years ago technology WAS magic. Few who used it understood it. Those that made it happen were wizards in labcoats.

        • by Glock27 (446276) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:12PM (#6901180)
          Indeed, one can't deny that 50 years ago technology and magic were one and the same. Most people couldn't tell you what Newton's 3 laws were, and Einstein's relativity was considered utterly incomprehensible. Most people's understanding of math stopped at arithmetic. A learned man might know algebra. The true wizards of the math world grocked calculis.

          Here we are 50 years later, and nothing has changed...except that 50 years ago almost everyone knew how to spell "calculus". :-/

          For most people today, even a toaster is way beyond their comprehension. That problem is getting worse, not better. There is an increasing lack of interest in or respect for learning in general, IMO.

          That is all helped right along by our consumer/pop culture, which is far more interested in the travails of the current hot celebrity rather than the latest advances in science. Sad, really.

          I think if things continue this way for an extended period, the U.S. will lose it's leadership position in technology. It doesn't help that scientists and technologists have been getting screwed economically for years...

          • by PetoskeyGuy (648788) on Monday September 08, 2003 @03:00PM (#6902659)
            I found an article that explained the whole thing. From the Onion...

            VOLUME 31 ISSUE 18 -- 13 MAY 1997

            Study: Uneducated Outbreeding Intelligentsia 2-To-1
            CHICAGO--In a report with dire implications for the intellectual future of America, a University of Chicago study revealed Monday that the nation's uneducated are breeding twice as soon and twice as often as those with university diplomas. "The average member of the American underclass spawns at age 15, compared to age 30 for the average college-educated professional," study leader Kenneth Stalls said. "America's intellectual elite, as a result, is badly losing the genetic marathon, with two generations of dullards born for every one generation of cultured literates." Added Stalls: "At this rate, by the year 2100 there will be five smart people on Earth, swallowed whole by more than 12 billion mouth-breathers incapable of understanding the binary exponentiation that swamped the Earth with their like." High-school dropout Mandi Drucker, 16, said of the findings, "All I know is, we're in love."
        • by harrkev (623093) <kfmsd@NosPam.harrelsonfamily.org> on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:18PM (#6901236) Homepage
          I think that you are close...

          The real answer (possibly) is ... pessimism.

          To me, it would seem that most people reading this know a bit about science and technology. The way that we envision the future is a bunch of megacorporations overly worried about not getting enough money. Everybody has a camera strapped to their heads. When they go to the bank, if they stare at the painting on the wall for more than 5 seconds, some money gets deducted from their account and sent to the artist. In this future, the average person is just a sheep for the fleecing by governments and corporations.

          In short, we have seen the future. And unless something changes, the future will suck.

          Compared to this, a fantasy seems great! If you see a lawyer, cast a fireball spell. And then you go to defeat the great demon of SCO.
          • Go with that. (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Population (687281)
            Suppose that it was possible to deduct money and pay the artist for whatever you were looking at.

            Would art get better or worse?

            Given the lowest common denominator, would we see a lot more porn being presented as "art". It would generate the most payments for the "artist".

            What about advertising? If they could measure how long your looked at an ad, what changes would take place on those ads?

            Would the market eventually slide into porn? If not, why not? What effect would there be on people if every billboar
        • by hey! (33014) on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:31PM (#6902345) Homepage Journal
          While the difficulty in distinguishing magic and advanced technology is a good point, I don't think it is the right point. Consider, for example, that the typical SF enthusiast of the postwar period was MUCH MORE likely to understand some basic physics and chemistry than the average reader. Doc Smith went on and on about the presumed physical reasons for FTL travel, and made working through the implications a major part of his works.

          What exactly is different between the FTL technologies which are presumed for much SF, and magic? For that matter things like teleportation and telepathy appear in both SF and fantasy. These phenomena are equally fantastical in either setting when compared to what we know is possible.

          I think the difference is that there is a presumed sociological framework in which the effects are acheived in SF. We presume that FTL will be possible because of some kind of technological infrastructure and societal processes that will make the required discoveries possible.

          In fantasy, it is psychology that makes the fantastic effect possible. Indeed, I think the big difference between SF and fantasy have to do with their model for how the human mind is enmeshed with the world. In SF, the human mind is effective in the world because of its senses and control of the body's phsyical faculties, combined with the contributions of everyone else. Telekinesis, telepathy etc in an SF world are merely extensions of the mundane senses and facluties. In fantasy, the mind can directly effect the world through the process of magic. It immediately follows that fantasy is about symbolism and SF is about mechanism.

          It's a mistake to make value judgements between the types of literature; they both reflect different preoccupations that occur at different times, and no doubt the pendulum will swing the other way. I think the swing towards fantasy is a shift towards psychological rather than sociological preoccupations. We have adapted to and accept technological change as a given. We are less interested in the consequences of change and how we fit into a changed world. Instead, we are more interested in issues of meaning. Tolkien captured this, in a more judgemental way than I would, when he dismissed SF being about "improved means to diminished ends".

          Looking at Tolkien's work, the reason for its appeal is crystal clear to me. It's not about escapism; it's about issues of death, hope, courage and responsibility to our brethren. Asimov's works are much more about how a world with robots of near human capabilities might work.
      • Space travel as discussed in science fiction has become something that we no longer hope for in our lifetimes. This was not the case 50 years ago, we thought we would be traveling the stars! Now we know better.

        IMHO, Scientists today are missing that little bit of fantasty that makes the impossible come true.

        Stop telling people it can't be done, all you're doing is discouraging the young from even trying to do what you think (or have been told?) is not possible.

    • by cK-Gunslinger (443452) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:43PM (#6900849) Journal
      I think you hit it exactly. The "future" has become mundane. People in the 50s dreamed of robots in our everyday lives. And now we have them, just not *exactly* how they envisioned them. Same with space travel and exploration.

      I believe that we will put a human on Mars and colonize the moon/planets. Not in my lifetime, probably, but eventually. Why imagine it? On the other hand, I doubt if any human will roam the countryside with his elf companion, talking to trees and hunting dragons and wizards. Ever.

      On a different topic, I must admit that I *love* SK's Dark Tower series (check the nick.) It's got an interesting blend of old, modern, and future. There's something intriguing about chasing a wizard with your heroin-addicted friend, while fighting nuclear-powered giant robots with your sandlewood six-shooters. (And that description is sure to scare any non-readers away for good, yet get a chuckle from some fans. =)
    • by smallpaul (65919) <paul@@@prescod...net> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:44PM (#6900864)
      I was going to posit the exact opposite. If you look at most Science Fiction from the 50s or 60s, you see that people believed that technology would improve much more quickly than it did. Interstellar travel was just a few years away. All someone had to do was invent the proton drive or the warp core or whatever. But we are not really much closer to inventing those things than they were in the 50s or 60s. And we've had time for the implications of the theory of relativety to sink in. Unless we find these potentially impossible devices we'll NEVER be able to zip around the universe the way Captain Kirk did. And even boring old slower-than-light space travel is much harder than we expected. At the same time...we've had big problems with robotics and AI. We seemed to be making such great progress in the Alice and Lisp days but how much closer are we to something that could pass the Turing test? And then we invented cyberspace and it turned out to be just another advertisement-infested chat line (and not very spatial at all). And after decades of listening carefully for ET, some are starting to believe that either he isn't out there or he is as stuck on some isolated piece of rock as we are. Maybe he's a million years ahead of us in technology but hasn't found a practical way to visit other planets in a reasonable portio of his lifespan.

      I think people are discouraged from dreaming about futures that seem to never arrive when we expect them to.
      • Unless we find these potentially impossible devices we'll NEVER be able to zip around the universe the way Captain Kirk did. And even boring old slower-than-light space travel is much harder than we expected.

        The Wright Brothers conquered the air. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. But they both had examples to follow, and it was a whole mess of engineering. The Wright Brothers knew that heavier-than-air flight was possible; they only had to watch birds do it. A lot of engineering work built a cont

    • by Remus Shepherd (32833) <remus@panix.com> on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:29PM (#6902311) Homepage
      The essence of fiction is that it is not real, and "science fiction" is supposed to take the idea a step further -- beyond real, if you like. To the unreachable, beyond what we consider possible.

      But in this century, what is beyond possible? Exploring the planets? Been there, done that, got pictures.

      In other words, perhaps science fiction is suffering from too much science!


      Bollocks. Absolute bollocks.

      Is it possible to go to the moon for a holiday? To relocate the family to Mars? Is it possible for our children to take orbital field trips? Not at this time. Some people still have the fire to do such things, but the mass culture has discarded these dreams. Because they're boring dreams, you say, within the outer limit of possibility? Bollocks, I repeat. Mankind has a history of grabbing dreams at the edge of what they can see, if they have the bravery to dream at all.

      The explorers who mapped North America didn't dampen the fire of those who followed them, they inflamed it. Lewis and Clark proved it was possible to hike to the pacific -- did people then say, 'Oh, as long as they've proven that, we don't have to go.'? No. There was a spirit of exploration back then, and an excitement in dealing with the unknown. Those are things we no longer have. Today exploration is neglected, and mankind fears the unknown more than ever before.

      The problem Robinson outlines has a simple explanation, though. As lives become more complicated, people feel nostalgic for simpler times. As the world moves faster, and becomes more dangerous and violent, people are turning to medieval and historical fantasies where life was simple, evil and good were in black-and-white contrast to one another, and the world was more easily understood. People are, in mass, reverting to our cultural childhood, because at the moment our adult culture sucks.

      This is a symptom of Future Shock. Nothing more, nothing less. And it'll get worse before it gets better. Some people will handle it, able to adapt to the future as fast as it comes, but the majority of humanity is going to want to go backward as fast as their cowardly feet will take them.

      Let me be clear. I would kill, with my bare hands, each and every person reading this post if it meant I could have a chance to go into space. For those with the fire for exploration, the drive is *that* strong. And it's a tragedy that the rest of humanity has lost it. I can only hope that someday they'll find it again.
    • by ajs (35943)
      I'm not sure I see where you or Spider are coming from here....

      Let's look at the greats:

      Alfred Bester -- A brilliant author and a man who didn't understand all of the science involved in what he was writing, but a damn sight more than most of his readers. His modern day equivalents are the slightly off-genre authors like Ian Banks who write a mix of SF and standard fiction.

      Harlan Ellison -- I will refrain from calling Ellison his own modern day equivalent, though the man does still write. Today, I'd poin
  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by elmegil (12001) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:30PM (#6900682) Homepage Journal
    Maybe because despite repeated claims to be ending a series, authors continue to go back to mine tired ideas when nothing else is making them money?
    • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by SwiftOne (11497) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:26PM (#6901353)
      I don't think the other responders picked up on your dig against Robinson. Which may be accurate, but not really relevant...Callahan's hasn't introduced new sci-fi concepts since the first book (disclaimer: Haven't read the last few yet) but it does point the reader to the classics.

      The problem is that new classics are fewer between. Sure, the old sci-fi was overly optimistic about a lot of things, but it was also often correct. It raised ethical issues about advances before they happened. Perhaps if more people read/wrote good sci-fi, the cloning debate would be about real issues, and not about fears of "another me".

      There ARE writers doing this. Vinge, Sterling, even Stephenson, for example. Looking at modern technology and thinking about "what next?". But such writers are rare, and not getting the attention they should. It's far easier for authors (and audiences) to accept some warmed-over superscience as a plot device for a familiar story rather than challenge common assumptions.

      Have you considered what daily life will be like in 20 years? Really? Have you thought how it will affect how you interact with other people, how you'll view things like old age, distance, gender, equality, elitism?

      The old sci-fi wasn't WOW just because people thought the science could happen, it was because it brought up concepts that people HADN'T thought about, and they were willing to try.

      The blame is two-fold: Crap produced, Crap accepted. If you aren't the writer, engage your brain and read the good stuff. Think about it. Spread the word. If you are the writer, well, don't use cheezy sci-fi as a plot vehicle, write something that means something.

    • Short Stories (Score:5, Insightful)

      by krysith (648105) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:27PM (#6901369) Journal
      I think you have actually hit on something important here.

      I am a collector and reader of old sci-fi. The ~vast majority~ of golden and silver age sci-fi are short stories (usually reprinted from magazines) and short novels. There are, of course, series and serials, but the majority of the works are stand alone stories.

      When I walk into a Barnes and Noble, I see two kinds of sci-fi. One is the wall of spin-off series. You know, the hundereds of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battletech, etc. series, which are usually written by many different authors, using the same characters and ideas. There is nothing wrong with this: its fun, and occasionally good stuff comes from it. However, when it dominates the market, there is a lack of new ideas being expressed - which is what brought us to sci-fi in the first place.

      On the other side of the aisle, I see the regular sci-fi authors. About a third of the books I see are series. Now, I love a good trilogy, but if you compare a 1000 page trilogy with a thousand pages of short stories, which do you think is going to have more ~ideas~?

      At its core, sci-fi is about ideas. Yes, good characters, good plot, good scenery are all nice, but in the end I want to hear something NEW. And I don't care whether it takes you 1000 pages or 10 to tell me. But authors get paid by the page, and publishers get paid by the book.

      I wonder if it's not that we have less sci-fi ideas, but that they are padded more these days. Is that the price of popularity?
  • Technophobia (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EvilTwinSkippy (112490) <yoda@e t o y o c .com> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:32PM (#6900696) Homepage Journal
    The thing to remember back in Heinlien and Asimov's time was that the sky was the limit. In the following decades we have seen the problems of pure technological solutions: Pollution, social unrest, empty lives filled with useless junk.

    Tolkien had very anti-technology undertones. He constantly refered to the dark clouds of Mordor, the decimation of the forests in Eisengard. That strikes a note with the post-hippie kids of the 70's and 80's.

    • In science fiction there have consistently been consideration of the negative consequences of technology. Arguably we've been better prepared for what we have seen in the way of negative consequences because of science fiction. Personally I find much of science fiction interesting because it shows a future and how it has an effect on people, both good and bad.

      Mostly I think this is a cyclical thing. Culturally we were deeply into a science-fiction rut, and now we are moving into a fantasy rut. The LOTR
  • Jack Vance! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Eric_Cartman_South_P (594330) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:32PM (#6900700)
    Do yourself a favor and read the Demon Princes books (5 in all) and the Planet of Adventure series (4 books in all).

    UNBELIEVABLE! Anyone who has read Vance's works, please feel free to tell me your favs as I look forward to reading many more, as I've just finished the last of the aforementioned books. I'll give you a million SVU and a bag of Purples for your efforts! :)

  • Vernor Vinge (Score:3, Insightful)

    by wa1hco (37574) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:32PM (#6900702)
    A Fire Upon The Deep
    A Deepness in the Sky

    That's all that needs saying.
    • No, there's something else that needs saying. Those books are very nearly, but not quite, completely unlike readable fiction.

      I'm sure there are great, majestic, sweeping ideas in there, but the undefined jargon and lack of anything like sympathetic characters relegates these books to an audience of people that want to read between the lines and see content that isn't actually on the page.

  • There are only so many ways you can fly around in a starship going back and forward in time and mating with green aliens. Technology is no where near as fun as magic and elf chicks
  • by civilengineer (669209) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:33PM (#6900707) Homepage Journal
    'Why are our imaginations retreating from science and space, and into fantasy?'

    Did you watch "the matrix"?
  • by grub (11606) <slashdot@grub.net> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:33PM (#6900715) Homepage Journal

    Compared to the earlier-mid parts of the 20th century, we see science all around us. Medical breakthroughs, technological innovations, etc.

    We used to have to wait decades for great discoveries. Now they theorize and prove within short years. Fantasy brings people into a world that can't exist. Sci-Fi stories may one day be true and aren't as escapist.
  • My favorites (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nnnneedles (216864)
    I love sci-fi fantasy, where you have a completely different universe with some sci-fi and some fantasy aspects (i.e. magic).

    Dune fits into this, as does Star Wars..

    There are other great books as well, although I can't really remember their names.

    Any tips?
    • Re:My favorites (Score:2, Informative)

      by slashBastard (256796)
      Lot's of those books by Ian M Banks are very good new sci-fi. The whole universe he creates is new and well worth a read....'Consider Phlebas', 'Player of Games' and 'Look to Windward' to name but three.
  • He's wrong (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Argyle (25623) * on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:36PM (#6900760) Homepage Journal
    The traditional Sci-Fi of rocket ships, blaster guns, and aliens may be on decline, but there many new sci-fi (not fantasy) books coming out all the time.

    The focus of much of the Sci-Fi these days is on the relationship of the technology to society and the long term effects of the technology on the path of humanity.

    Take a look at Vernor Vinge, John Varley, John Wright, Cory Doctorow, John Barnes, Bruce Sterling, Ken MacLeod, and Dan Simmons if you are interested in some recent sci-fi. No elves or magic swords there.

    Just because it's not 60s style, libertarian - free love stuff of the past doesn't mean it's not sci-fi.
    • Re:He's wrong (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Indomitus (578) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:46PM (#6900881) Homepage Journal
      I think the point is that those authors you list aren't selling very many books, which is a good estimate of the popularity of their writing (yes I know Cory's book is freely downloadable). What's selling is Star Trek and fantasy. Even the big 'space opera' books that are selling well now are arguably more influenced by Fantasy than science fiction. The Big Trends in sci-fi just aren't looking forward the way they used to. And of the ones that are looking forward, most of them are horribly bound up in jargin and technobabble and lose touch with what made science fiction good in the first place, a sense of humanity.
    • Re:He's wrong (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Chris Mattern (191822) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:00PM (#6901054)
      I'm sorry, but your list mostly proves Spider's point.

      Vernor Vinge -- born in 1944
      John Varley -- born in 1947
      John Wright -- unable to Google birthdate, but is a *retired* attorney and newspaper editor
      Cory Doctorow -- born in 1971
      John Barnes -- born in 1957
      Bruce Sterling -- born in 1954
      Ken MacLeod -- born in 1954
      Dan Simmons -- born in 1948

      With the exception of the 32-year-old Doctorow, it appears that all these people will never see forty five again. This is the new wave? Is no one in their twenties writing real SF any more? Note that I don't object to the presence of older people--I'm past forty myself. But the total lack of *younger* people is disturbing...

      Chris Mattern
  • by Duncan3 (10537)
    Well that's not hard to figure out, people want to dream of better happier times.

    To a greater degree, that is a fantasy past when times were simple and there was wonder in the universe.

    Today the future is gloomy, assuming you will even have a job in the future, and space is empty and far away - no you can't go faster then light, so no space for you!. Noone has to wonder about anything at all, the answers to life the universe and everything are a google search away.

    The easter bunny, santa clause, and the
    • by Lemmy Caution (8378) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:44PM (#6900856) Homepage
      Part of it is about economic cycles.

      We're in a recession. During recessionary periods, nostalgic fantasy dominates the cultural landscape. It was true in the 70's, it was true in the early 90's, and it's true now. During boom cycles, "the future is now" optimism (or "the world is changing too fast" pessimism) has a lot more energy.

      Also, the sense of public investment in the future is weaker. The age of space travel as a public-sector funded universal aspiration has been eclipsed by the corporate "if it ain't profitable within 3 years, it's not worth doing" attitude of the present day. There's a growing sense that even if The Future comes, most of us won't be able to afford it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:36PM (#6900770)
    she publishes her Sci-fi at Baen.. books available eltectronically through http://www.webscription.net/ with no DRM!

    a sample available at.. http://www.baen.com/library/1011250002/1011250002. htm

    it's a short story without the space battle-cruisers.. but the rest of her stuff has 'em.. and so much more.

    --iamnotayam
    • Actually, I recomend most of the stuff that's published by Baen as good sci-fi. Though, I am biased, due to the love I have for military sci-fi, as well as the fact Baen treats customers as valued assets (IE, their bonus CD's)

      9FYI, Spider Robinson has had some stuff published by Baen)
    • The interesting aspect of Bujold's SF is not her space battles (read David Weber's Honor Harrington books if you're into that) but her biological technologies (uterine replicators, genetic engineering from chromosomal-level sex changes to producing new species) and how well she describes their impact on society. Her focus is on Barrayar, a planet formerly isolated from the wider human civilization but which is working feverishly to catch up in much the way Japan did after it emerged from its isolation in t
    • This is absolutely correct. With the possible exception to Douglas Adams (whose work is in a completely different genre anyway), McMaster-Bujold is one of the greatest SF writers of all time. She has won 2 Nebula awards and an unprecedented 4 Hugo awards (in contrast, Asimov only got 3, and he's dead now, so he won't be getting any more). As an introduction to her work, I would like to reccomend Cordelia's Honor. It has everything a good book needs - lots of futuristic SF stuff, well developed characters, a
  • Prehaps it mightbe with the success or LOTR people are becoming more interested and with the general level of recent SCI-FI films (which IHMO is a bit below par) they are looking for something decent.

    There are only so many science base scenarios you can have. Either aliens, end of the world or robots. Its a bit of a generalisation but with fanstasy you can create anything your imagination can concieve

    Just my 0.02
    Rus
  • Ideas (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nuggz (69912) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:39PM (#6900792) Homepage
    Funny, I rarely found the science part of science fiction interesting.

    I find the ideas that the author has are the intriguing people.

    Heinlein in "The moon is a Harsh Mistress" exposed me to many ideas I've never thought of before. It also provides a stark contrast to Lord of the Flies and the nature of man.
    The Forever war was a blast, what is this world coming to?
    Enders game, interesting solutions, and some of the hows. Starship troopers had some interesting political ideas.
    Lifeline was yet another interesting expression of a though, and reflection on change.

    FWIW Tolkein is just as much about politics and psychology and history of the day as much as any good sci-fi story.

  • by GoofyBoy (44399) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:39PM (#6900797) Journal

    They were wrong about flying cars by the year 2000. Once bitten, twice shy. :)
  • What was it?

    What was the last real original non-franchise piece of Sci-Fi you took up?

    In an age of nano-technology and an interconnected networked world, I thought that people like Gibson and Stephenson were the real deal answers to men like Asimoz and Bradbury.

    Was I so wrong?

  • space legos (Score:3, Funny)

    by kisrael (134664) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:40PM (#6900804) Homepage
    You know, this reminds me of why I always preferred space Legos to the other series; we KNOW that in the current day, cars and trucks and houses and what not weren't covered with little dots, same with castles and pirates and all of that; but the future...the FUTURE...those little dots might be what keeps it all together!

    Actually, that kind of applies to why I liked scifi over fantasy in general.

    Steampunk is an interesting crossover genre, I jsut discovere Steam Trek [steam-trek.com], a mapping of Star Trek onto the "what if the Victorians got space travel" theme.
  • by pubjames (468013) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:40PM (#6900807)

    If we go back in time say 500 years, things didn't really change all that much from one generation to the next and so there was no concept of "the future" as we have it today. Imaginary images often revolved around religous "places" such as heaven or hell.

    In the golden age of science fiction writing, which for most people I think is the 50's and 60's, in the future amazing things seemed possible and there was am optimism that things like space travel, flying cars, robots etc. might actually happen for ordinary people, perhaps even within the lifetime of the young people that read the fiction.

    I think we're a bit more cynical nowadays, and thus the future doesn't seem so exciting. We've learnt that things don't change as fast as we would like them to, and the actual changes are mostly quite dull.

    Imagine if a 50's science fiction writer had thought of the web. A story about buying a book on Amazon from your cubicle at work (most peoples reality today) somehow doesn't seem as exciting as flying to another planet with a cheeky robot.
  • Ideas... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Cow herd (2036) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:41PM (#6900809) Homepage
    I went to a presentation/speaking appointment by Terry Goodkind a few weeks ago, and he mentioned something on the subject. I won't get into his whole philosophical thing here, but he thought that the reason that sci-fi had taken a rear seat to fantasy was "moral clarity". 99% of fantasy out there deals with good vs evil, on a very basic level, whereas sci-fi tends not to as much. It may make social commentary, or pose interesting problems, but very rarely in sci-fi is there an archetypal hero, and that this is something that people really crave in today's society... a person (even if they're fictional) that a reader can admire, and be inspired by.
    • Re:Ideas... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by 5KVGhost (208137) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:22PM (#6901286)
      It may make social commentary, or pose interesting problems, but very rarely in sci-fi is there an archetypal hero, and that this is something that people really crave in today's society... a person (even if they're fictional) that a reader can admire, and be inspired by.

      Well said, and I think that's a very good point. But I think it's imporant to note that the appeal of heroic figures is hardly something new or unique to today's society. The problem isn't that society changed, it's that many modern writers decided that there was no room in "serious" writing for childish concepts as good and evil. In doing so they lost their core readership, real people who immediately knew that something very important was missing from these stories.

      I began to lose interest in modern SF when the good guys and the bad guys were all replaced by characters who were narcassistic, amoral jerks. And the rest of the world just seemed to be a tedious backdrop constructed purely to justify their nacissitic, amoral jerkiness. Why would I want to read about that?

      I don't mean to say that it all must be black-and-white. SF has always had it's share of antiheroes, after all, or characters who were ultimately misguided. But the characters have to appeal to me on some level or I'm not interested.
  • My wife's family are Portuguese fisherfolk from Provincetown, Mass., where every summer they've held a ceremony called the Blessing of the Fleet, in which the harbour fills with boats and the archbishop blesses their labours. The 50th-ever blessing was the last. There's no fishing fleet left. For the first time in living memory, there is not a single working fishing boat in P-town . . . because there are no cod or haddock left on the Grand Banks. For all its present problems, science fiction as a profession

  • by stratjakt (596332) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:42PM (#6900830) Journal
    You can't write a space story without a friggin PhD today. It was easy 50 years ago to talk about visiting planets and alien races and genetic engineering, artificially intelligent robots, but now we have the science to actually do that stuff, or it's looming on the horizon. If you aren't up on your tech, you're novel will be picked apart and you labelled a hack.

    It's much easier to write about a fantasy world that never has, or will, exist. Plus, people have always been fascinated by the concept of "magic".
  • Most *good* sci-fi I see any more is from amatuer or indy writers. Most of what's published in the last few years has been crap, and what's not crap is usually cautionary rather than expectant.

    Compare 3001 (Clarke) to 2001 or 2010. 3001 was a boring, unexciting book. What parts were interesting were so cautionary, they weren't fun to read.

    Here's a good site with a few amatuer authors. [eastoftheweb.com]
  • One factor I'll bring up is that fantasy has a lot of testing time in the field, so to speak.

    Tolkien's works are very heavily based on Norse mythology, as an example, and the ideas there have survived in a meme sense for thousands of years. Similar to a genetic algorithm to find the best stories running since the time of early civilizations.

    This is a big competitive advantage for a SF writer to overcome, and in fact, many SF stories are really mythological themes overlaid with "space" stuff as a settin
  • by rde (17364) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:43PM (#6900843)
    "My genre has always had its ups and downs, but this is by far its worst, longest downswing. Sales are down, magazines are languishing, our stars are aging and not being replaced. And the reason is depressingly clear: Those few readers who haven't defected to Tolkienesque fantasy cling only to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other Sci Fi franchises."

    There are two different points here; I'll address each separately.

    1. Sales are down. BFD. Just because the slide is a bit longer than average is no reason to panic. Granted, it's a couple of years since I picked up fiction (Lois McMaster Bujold excepted), but Robinson is harping on like there hasn't been a good book in a decade. I'm not the only one who could name six or seven authors who are truly excellent and still writing. Just because sales are down doesn't mean the fiction is there; it just means people are diverting their attention elsewhere. Which brings me to point two...

    There is, I suspect, no relation between the increase in media-driven novels and 'proper' ones. People who read Star Trek novels aren't interested in proper SF; I suspect the same holds true for other franchises. If there is a problem with these books, it's that they're included in SF totals, making the SF book industry look healthier than it is.

    Robinson's point seems to be that there's a feedback loop between space exploration and SF; I personally have my doubts. I've not doubt whatsoever that SF does indeed foster an interest in space, but is the reverse true? I sort of doubt it.

    SF isn't in decline. Quality SF as a percentage of teh total volume of merchandising masquerading as product may be, but so what? Just buy the good stuff, and leave the crap to the trekkies. Or buffyites. Or whatever.
  • by Unknown Kadath (685094) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:43PM (#6900846)
    I really want to see the data--has this trend he's upset about been going on long enough to actually be a trend? And has he picked up anything by Kim Stanley Robinson, Iain Banks, or David Brin lately? Society has taken a different turn than the Golden Age writers predicted, and our speculative fiction is mirroring this. SF isn't dying, Spider, it's just changing form.

    (Flamebait: And I don't know why he's talking about "his" genre. The Callahan books aren't SF; they're Chicken Soup for the Geek's Soul.)

    -Carolyn
    • It's interesting you mention Kim Stanley Robinson, Banks, and Brin. I'm actually exactly the kind of person (young) that Spider Robinson would like to draw to the field, although I'll admit to being weaned on Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. I have to say, with *very* few exceptions, that I can't read the three authors you mention.

      I've tried to read _Red Mars_ twice, and each time I've put it down -- I don't want to read 600 pages worth of Martian politics. If I wanted to read about politics, I'd be taking
  • by Royster (16042) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:44PM (#6900854) Homepage
    The old space operas posited FTL travel. It was assumed that you could get around your own solar system, but needed some FTL to get to the next one. Well, even the assumption of easy access to local space is proving wrong. It's difficult, expensive and risky to move mass from the surface of the Earth into near orbit and prohibitively expensive to move it further than that. A Mars expedition looks more and more infeasable and the old space themes of colonizing the moon or Mars or mining the asteriods are proving to be just so much wishful thinking.
  • by PotatoHead (12771) <doug@Nospam.opengeek.org> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:46PM (#6900878) Homepage Journal
    Think about it a little. We have laws such as the DMCA that basically divide our current tech into little fiefdoms. Innovators are sued, hacking existing tech is quickly becoming a crime, and the existing players encourage passive use of their tech --not understanding.

    Many of the ideals that make SF what it is are being marginalized today. Sort of depressing really.

    Combine this with our present science and we know enough that reaching another star system will not happen in our lifetimes. Though Mars should --if it doesn't its political, not technical.

    Almost smells like a plot to put all the smart ones back underground where they belong so the real business of making money today --right now, can get done...

    Maybe I am just being a little too alarmist this morning. I personally enjoy SF and share the view of the author. Maybe nobody is really exploring SF because fantasy is easier or something...

    BTW, what is the genre of "The Reality Disfunction" by Peter F. Hamilton? Seems to be SF, but does have some other elements. Any ideas?
  • by nebaz (453974) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:46PM (#6900889)
    There may be several reasons that "hard" science-fiction is no longer in vogue, replaced with fantasy or space opera.

    1) It is not as though "hard" science-fiction has always had mass appeal. It has always had a specialized genre feeling. What passes for science fiction movies today are generally no more than shoot-em-up's in space. More like futuristic action. This is what appeals to the movie-going audience. "Hard" science fiction is too "hard" (must think...hurts brain) and is probably not profitable.

    2) Fantasy pops into the human need for myth. Mythology (not necessarily incorrect or unfactual) exists traditionally in historical and religious traditions, Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Christian, etc. creation myths and such, and with the modern push to explain everything scientifically, a major piece of how people function (i.e. mythology in life) disappears, thus a longing for mythos appears, which fantasy seems to fill better than analytical science fiction.

    3) The idea of a "bright, happy, future" seems to be relegated to naivety and a cynical "dystopia" seems to have set in (thus apocalyptic movies, etc), and this view seems to be pushed by many media outlets (i.e. bad news sells). We apparantly will pollute ourselves to death in 50 years, the world will be completely controlled by corporations, etc.

    4) Finally, the largest bastion of future hope for science, at least in the US, NASA, has gone from getting a man on the moon in 10 years, to losing orbiters in Mars, as one magazine article put it, on the 30th anniversary of Apollo (paraphrasing) "We want NASA to be a precursor to Starfleet, but they are more like a bad post office."

    These several things go to explain the loss of interest in "Golden Age" science fiction
  • by linuxisit (660263) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:46PM (#6900890)
    Perhaps the direction technology is taking us scares
    the hell out of us. The future apparently holds
    fewer rights, less privacy, more commercials, etc.

    Who wants to fantasize about that???? Not me!!!
    Tell me how do we get off this world thats heading
    down the toilet?

    At least fantasy still provides hope that good can
    still prevail against evil. With techonology the
    question is which evil state of afairs wins over
    some other evil state of afairs. Mind you the
    heros may be good vs evil but the world in which
    they live still sucks!

    Thats my point....
  • by clickety6 (141178) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:50PM (#6900919)

    If you try and look back over your old SF collection, as I've tried to, you'll find things weren't much better in the "good old" days. The characeristaion was non-existent (try and characterise a single Asimov hero- they were all as bland as STNG characters) - the writing was often childlike and way too simple, or became bogged down in its own cleverness (who has managed to read ther whole Rama series without trying to skip some pages) and the often quoted great classics of SF were often closer to fantasy than hard science - Dune being a good example. There were very few good hard-science SF books, and the problem is not taht there are fewer now, but that they are swamped by the increase in all the other types of books which, let's face it, for a non-scientist as most writers are, aer much easier to churn out!
  • by MxTxL (307166) <mlutter.gmail@com> on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:52PM (#6900953)
    The problem with sci-fi today is that nothing is fresh. Well, ok, very little is fresh. The space fantasy has been done to death. Star Wars, Star Trek, Asimov, AC Clarke... hell, even Buck Rogers and the like. Also, the dragon-slaying, wizards and warriors D&D fantasy genre has been done to death (but has aged well). Sticking your work in either of these genres pretty much guarantees that you will be overlooked in the MILLIONS of other books in the genre.

    The freshest stuff in sci-fi in the last 20 years is the cyberpunk genre. This is, IMHO, the cutting edge of sci-fi. Set in the near-future, incorporating a lot of today's tech, the stories are not out of touch with today's reality and the genre hasn't been over-exploited (yet). They make for fresh sci-fi worlds but can easily touch on themes and stories that we can relate to.

    If you haven't looked into cyberpunk, pick up some books by Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, or William Gibson. Esp. Neuromancer, Diamond Age and Snow Crash. Definately worth your time.

  • by Doktor Memory (237313) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:55PM (#6900987) Journal
    Spider Robinson, the living definition of the hack SF author who survives purely by pandering to his arrested-adolescent fanbase and recycling the same appallingly trite scenario into an endless stream of identical "novels," is complaining about the state of modern SF writing?

    Oh! The! Irony!

    If speculative fiction needs to be saved from anything, it's the Spider Robinsons, Mercedes Lackeys and Piers Anthonys of the world. If they're complaining, that's probably a good sign -- hopefully that people are starting to spend their money on books by authors with actual talent [locusmag.com] rather than the 2,387th entry in the Callahan's Cross-Time Dragonquest for Telepathic Cats series.
  • by kfg (145172) on Monday September 08, 2003 @12:56PM (#6901005)
    is the projection of a fantasy. In the case of science fiction it is the projection of the present into what we percieve as an alternate, and hopefully better, tomorrow.

    For those of us that grew up reading SF in the 50's and 60's that meant a bright future of computing, robots, philosophy, colonies on Mars and all with the ever present possiblility of actually coming into contact with an alien race.

    Now we're living in that future and it didn't work out quite the way we imagined it. Not only is Mars virtually dead but so is the Moon. We've had to come to grips with the fact that universe is so vast we aren't actually likely to meet anyone else, possibly ever. Superstition is on the ascendent among the proles and the visions of the future expressed in 1984 and Brave New World turns out to be the most accurate of the predictions. Robots took our jobs, but we aren't allowed to become philosphers unless we wish to starve. The TV watches us.

    The projection of the current state into a happy future seems to realistically revolve around clone wars that are likely to be resolved by turning us all into computer controled worker bees earning our "living" by tossing rocks over walls just so we can walk to the other side and toss them back.

    Is it any wonder that people would prefer their fantasies to revolve around Liv Tyler's little elf tits?

    In the medieval fantasy a the single strong man with a sword we all imagine ourselves to be can change the world.

    In the future fantasy the same man is declared to be suffering from a pathological syndrome and is locked away with milk, cookies and bottle of Prozac.

    KFG
  • by Animats (122034) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:06PM (#6901120) Homepage
    Air travel hasn't progressed in 30 years. Space travel hasn't progressed in 30 years. Nuclear power hasn't progressed in 30 years. They're stalled. In the past 30 years, there's been more innovation in railroading than in rocketry.

    Soon, computing will stall out too. We're nearing the end of optical lithography on flat silicon and the limits of power dissipation. The SIA roadmap says the end comes before 2013. There's no new technology in the pipe likely to replace these technologies. There's no clamor for it, either - the next things expected in computing are the Pentium N+1, Windows N+1, Palm N+1, and cellphone generation N+1. Yawn. It's like waiting for the 1957 Chevy to come out with bigger tailfins.

    Outside of biotech, it's hard to find any bright spots.

  • by Jack William Bell (84469) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:30PM (#6901432) Homepage Journal
    One of the problems we face today in writing 'real' Science Fiction is our understanding of science itself. In the golden age of SF you could write about rockets to Mars built in their back yards and piloted by guys with slide rules and you weren't far off from what was known to be possible. Nowdays we have the capability to actually do it and we know you can't build it in your backyard. In fact we know that the cost is far more than a jaded populace is willing to support right now.

    Sure fantasy stories dressed up in science fiction clothing still hold peoples attention, but they aren't really the Science Fiction. But they are what die-hard hard-SF fans like myself derisivly refer to 'Sci Fi' (or 'skiffy' in the SF fan parlence). Moreover what was once Science Fiction in every sense of the phrase is now 'Sci Fi'.

    The kind of stories that once filled us with wonder (partly because we could imagine ourselves in them) are now out of reach in reality; whether due to cost or due to the actual science being wrong. Once again, relying on SF Fannish phrasing, the sensawunda is no longer there, so we end up with stories based on implausible or impossible technology where plot points are based around plasma fires in the transporter. No sensawunda, but the special effects are cool.

    The other problem with modern SF was first articulated by Vernor Vinge in his paper The Singularity [caltech.edu]: "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

    Whether Vinge's Singularity comes to pass as envisioned or not, the core point is certainly valid; at the very least the future, even the near future, is probably going to be unimaginable by anyone living today. Why? Because sometime soon, perhaps not within thirty years but certainly within a century, we are going to have the ability to create intelligences orders of magnitude smarter than we are. It doesn't matter if we enhance human intelligence or create machine intelligence, either way the result is the same. Either way something that is to us as we are to mice is going to be calling the shots.

    This scenario is pretty damming to SF; after all most of the familiar tropes of SF go out the window. Rocket ships? Well, they might exist, but we have no idea what they would look like or who would be on them. Alien contact? Hell, the aliens would be right here. Humans colonizing other star systems? Even if humanity survives into this post-human future it will change so as to be unrecognizable to us now anyway. How can you write stories about beings who don't share your basic motivations? (Not that this is impossible, but it certainly demands more from the reader, therefore making the book harder to sell.)

    As of now no-one has successfully answered Vinge's question, other than several attempts to dismiss it out of hand. Vinge himself, because he wanted to write space operas, ended up thrusting the problem of ultra-intelligence aside by creating a magic 'slow zone' in the galaxy that limits intelligence to a maximum inside the zone.

    However a few writers have tried to honestly deal with the problem of the Singularity by writing a new kind of fiction I refer to as 'Transhuman' SF. Cyberpunk was the progenitor of this SF form with stories set right on the edge of the Singularity. Writers like Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Kathleen Goonan, John Varley, Ian M. Bainks, Ken MacCleod, Greg Egan, Cory Doctorow and others have written SF set either just over that edge, or millions of years past it. Although the level to which they are honest in their presentation of transhumanism varies greatly, probably because the more you extrapolate the harder it is to make the story coherent and interesting.

    Transhuman SF does require much from the reader. Unless the writer constantly stops the action for 'As you know Bob.' sequences to explicate things the reader must have a wide ranging knowledge of genetics,
  • by MickLinux (579158) on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:48PM (#6901701) Journal
    There are several things that makes Tolkein strike a chord with a lot of people:

    (1) an Armageddon style battle. Not a Last battle, but a huge, all-out, good-vs-evil battle. I think people are just getting a feeling, though they're looking externally when they should be looking internally.

    (2) Lord of the Rings is a fundamentally Catholic work (sorry if I sound to some like I'm not being humble. I'm quoting Tolkein when I say that.) That is, it goes back to orthodox Christianity.

    (3) Lord of the Rings is about internal moral struggles.

    (4) Lord of the Rings upholds that the right will be victorious.

    (5) Lord of the Rings gave birth to whole genres of fiction, storytelling, games, and so on.

    Now, #5 explains why it was ready as the work of choice to come into film. But those others all relate to something that is lacking in our society, today, and in our lives, today. And since that lack is destroying us both internally and externally in real life, we make up for it in fantasy.

    Contrast that with the 50's, when our major lack was in technology, and our fantasies (for that's what sci-fi really is) played out in that field.

    Of course, better than a fantasy that fulfills your feeling of lack, is a reality that makes it right. Which fact should make a lot of people think if maybe the Catholic Church has something after all...

    • (**Spoiler warning**)

      >1) an Armageddon style battle. Not a Last Bttle, but a huge, all-out, good-vs-evil battle. I think people are just getting a feeling, though they're looking externally when they should be looking internally.
      >
      That is your best observation overall.

      >3) Lord of the Rings is about internal moral struggles.
      >
      Indeed. The focal point of the story is primarily on Fordo and not Aragorn, the externalized hero.

      >(4) Lord of the Rings upholds that the right will be victorious.

      I th
  • by SWestrup (28661) <(sti) (at) (pooq.com)> on Monday September 08, 2003 @01:59PM (#6901862) Homepage Journal

    One of the panels at TorCon3 was "Has Science Fiction Failed as a Fiction of Science?" The various panellists decided that SF hasn't so failed, and then proceeded to give explanation after explanation of why, in fact, it has. Lets face it, to any sophisticated reader, most SF written today is not written about a possible future, but about what we once thought might be a possible future. Scientific and technological progress has passed by most of today's authors and left them in the dust. Reading even well-written 'SF' like that of Czerneda or Bujold IS reading fantasy and has much the same feel as reading 1930's SF where everything is done with massive vacuum tubes. The story may be well told and the characterization is great, but the setting makes no sense. Where are the AIs? Where are the hugely extended lifetimes? Where is the nanotechnology? Where are the body modifications? Whaere are the ubiquitous microscopic computers? Where is the brain uploading? Where are any number of technologies we are working towards today that don't show up in most contemporary SF? Spider laments that readers prefer Fantasy to SF. Maybe they just prefer that their fantasy be overt.

    Now, all is not lost, some authors such as Walter Jon Williams, Charlie Stross, Linda Nagata, Ian M Banks, Greg Egan and others have embraced the new future that is appearing in front of us, but they are the exceptions. Until most SF authors are actually writing about possible futures again, SF will be in an inevitable decline.

  • by IowaFarmer41 (698490) on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:12PM (#6902077)
    Because the populace has been trained to think (or emote?) as post-modernists, where everything is socially-constructed, or the will to power, and the modernist and pre-modernist belief in an objective reality and the right of Man to till the garden has been rejected.
  • by ENOENT (25325) on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:27PM (#6902283) Homepage Journal
    We have seen the future, and it sucks. The future is big corporations staking claims on every facet of your life (with the full support of the political parties funded by these corporations), and you become a mere consumer unit.

    Is it any wonder that people would rather escape into a world in which you could hop on a horse and ride for a day or two to escape from oppressive laws, and where being a corporate drone isn't a viable career option?

  • Why fantasy? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ScrewMaster (602015) on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:31PM (#6902343)
    Because the hard-science-fiction works of great writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, George O. Smith, Robert A. Heinlein and others of their generation can really be best appreciated by someone that actually understands the math and science that they worked so hard to present accurately, or who at least has an intuitive understanding of it. If Arthur C. Clarke said that a spacecraft would spend two weeks in a Hohmann orbit to reach planetfall, you would find that if you worked through the orbital machanics that, gee, it would take two weeks. People that do understand and enjoy the details involved appreciate and require that level of detail to find the imaginary worlds created by these great men believable. This is true whether the author is writing about spacecraft, self-aware computers, advanced medicine, weather control or any other topic. Even if the story is about technologies or sciences that don't yet exist, as long as the foundation is solid the stories will have believability.

    On the other hand, when you look at the sorry state of modern education (here in the United States), at the number of truly innumerate people that don't have a clue what a decimal point means or even understand scientific notation ... well. The truth is that, if you find basic math difficult and simply don't care or know whether the author's work is well grounded, you will probably find fantasy just as acceptable as true science-fiction. You probably won't be able to tell the difference. Certainly the people that run my local bookstores can't ... I have to search through rows and rows of fantasy novels to find a single good sci-fi. Of course, it's not entirely their fault: most publishers don't seem to bother properly labeling their products either.
  • Empowerment (Score:3, Insightful)

    by HiThere (15173) * <charleshixsn&earthlink,net> on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:31PM (#6902347)
    50 years ago technology was seen as a way that an individual could gain power, and make the world be more as he thought it should be. Today very few see the world that way.

    Technology is used by governments and corporations against individuals, and they have no recourse. Why then should they hope for more of it?

    I still have dreams of escape, but I know them to be dreams. I have dreams of creating something new and powerful in the way of software, and I think it possible, if unlikely. But how many can even say that much?

  • Question (Score:3, Interesting)

    by militantbob (666209) <militant@nycap . r r . com> on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:42PM (#6902465) Homepage
    I've noticed that our entire society leans more toward fantasy, mysticism, and mythology, lately. Reality, or possible future realities, is becoming rare in any form of mass media. Even 'Reality TV' is horribly far from reality.

    It has been suggested that we are entering a new 'Dark Ages', of sorts. This is perhaps in response to the fear, rational or not, of what near-future technology may bring - human cloning and a list of other 'scaries'.

    What I find very interesting is this: In ages past, man feared nature, because of what he did not know. In this age, man is beginning to fear science, because of what he can know.

    On a side note, a question that I'd like to ask, which is somewhat related:

    How would you classify works such as OSC's Ender series? Obviously set in the future, but after Ender's Game (and a few pieces here and there in the next 3 books), they are mainly focused on personal, moral, and geopolitical issues, with little or no mention of any technologies or lifestyle changes. Even the 'nets' are simply categorized hub-style Internet groupings. It seems to me that the Ender books set in the near future (as opposed to the 3000-years-ahead future) read more like modern fantasy... almost like what you would get if you took the politics and war-making in the Lord of the Rings, and set them in modern times, while ignoring the rest of the story.

  • by fygment (444210) on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:46PM (#6902517)
    At Torcon 3, I caught up with Michael Lennick, co-producer of a superb Canadian documentary series about manned spaceflight, Rocket Science. His next project examines the growing phenomenon of people who refuse to believe we ever landed on the moon. Not because he sees them as amusing cranks . . . but because they're becoming as common as Elvis-nuts. And it's hard to argue with their logic: It beggars belief, they say, that we could possibly have achieved moon flight . . . and given it up.

    I had never heard that argument but it rings true ... and frightening. It puts into stark relief what kind of a society we have become. There are no big dreams that aren't tied to wealth and its acquisition. We are navel gazing away the new millenium on our tiny planet in an unfashionable part of the galaxy.

  • by HiThere (15173) * <charleshixsn&earthlink,net> on Monday September 08, 2003 @02:51PM (#6902579)
    Spider Robinson has himself provided one reason for the decline in the older forms. It's the title piece in his collection "Melancholy Elephants". And a bitter diatribe against the indefinite extension of copyrights. And, to my mind, quite moving.

    The short form is:
    1) There are only so many ways of telling a story that people find enjoyable.
    2) Copyright extension causes it to be impossible to rework an older form, and, even more corrosively, it becomes difficult to avoid accidental plagerism. (Just consider the effect that SCO is trying to achieve.)
    3) So people progressively move to uncluttered fields. But there are only so many forms that are enjoyable.
    4) Creative activity slows...and slows...and slows

    I don't do the story justice. Find it and read it. It's a sufficient explanation for this, and many other problems.

    (I have given other explanations for this problem, and they are also true.)
  • The Opposite is True (Score:4, Informative)

    by Karl_D_Schroeder (705309) on Monday September 08, 2003 @03:05PM (#6902723) Homepage
    There's two books coming out of Tor this year, The Hard SF Rennaissance and the Space Opera Rennaissance, which show just how wrong Spider is. In fact, there's a whole new crop of SF writers out there who are doing exciting things: Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, Alaister Reynolds, Ken Macleod, Peter Watts, just for instance. My own novel *Permanence* has just won the 2003 Aurora Award, one of Canada's two top honors for SF; and *Permanence* is loaded with new ideas, including an entirely new take on interstellar civilization (around Brown dwarf stars) as well as a new system for interstellar travel, all hard SF based... people seemed to love it, hence the award. There's tons of new areas to explore; I'm using cognitive science, emergent systems (and emergent democracy), General Selection theory and distributed cognition in what I'm writing now. Most of these ideas weren't even on people's radar five years ago, and a lot of them are just gaining ground now. It's a perfect time to be writing SF, there's lots of exciting directions to go in.

    Let me hasten to add that fantasy isn't sitting still either. Just try anything by Jasper Fforde or China Mieville if you want to be jolted totally out of your usually tracks.

    This lament about the death of SF gets repeated every few years. It's less true now than it ever was.

  • by way2slo (151122) on Monday September 08, 2003 @03:25PM (#6902925) Journal
    Pop culture if a fickle beast. It takes a good idea, packages it, slaps a price tag on it, then shoves it down your throat from every direction until you can't stand it anymore. This is what it has done to Sci-Fi.

    It beat Star Trek to death. I know at least 20 sci-fi fans, and none admit to watching 'Enterprise' regularly. Star Wars has been turned into a merchandising machine. "Merchandising! Merchandising! Where the REAL money from the movie is made." - Yogurt.

    My advice is just be patient. Pop culture takes obscure stuff, thows it into the mainstream, then dumps it for something new a year or two later. Now Tolkien is all the rage. Just wait, in time people will become tired of that too and eventually new and fresh ideas will come back to Sci-Fi. Or someone will do a "Foundation" movie series that will make LOTR look like a bedtime story.

  • End of Dream (Score:3, Insightful)

    by kresa (62873) on Monday September 08, 2003 @03:29PM (#6902969) Homepage
    I think most of our planet has stopped dreaming. I the 60s and 70s most of the population was thrilled with the possibility of space exploration and "going where no-one has gone before". Nowdays it is getting more money than anyone has got before. To most people: technology = Bill Gates = big bucks.

    Look just at the way investors think -- if it doesn't pay off in 2 years they are not going to invest. Space exploration takes decades. Let us not kid ourselves -- with the pace of space exploration in the 60s, we could put the man on Mars in a decade and probably start colonizing the Moon in the 2 decades.
    The productivity and the wealth of the world are
    enought to both solve the world hunger, education and space exploration.
    The system encourages people who are best at accumulating capital not to spend it on long term goals. Look just at John Carmack vs. Bill Gates.
    John Carmack is a dreamer, hence the X-Prize project involvement -- Bill Gates is not.
    The unregulated free market system unfortunately prefers the later.

    Most of the very creative people in the world cannot even pursue their creativity because of the economic system.

  • One Step Beyond (Score:4, Insightful)

    by stonewolf (234392) on Monday September 08, 2003 @05:21PM (#6904152) Homepage
    IMHO the best science fiction of the past was always of the one-step-beyond variety. It took what we know, and looked one step farther out. It guessed about the new situations that people would face in that world, and wrote stories that showed what it would be like to live in that world.

    The problem with doing that now, is that one step beyond is beyond what people *can believe*.

    We are faced with the real possibility of physical immortality. People do not believe that.

    We are faced with the complete restructuring of the economy and redefinition of the value of the individual due to the development of robots. This problem was first described and dicussed in R.U.R, the book in which the word "robot" was first used as we use it today. But, now it is just one step beyond. Very few people are even aware that the change is coming or how fast it will happen when it does.

    We are faced with nanotechnology. The first discussion of the topic happened (AFAIK) in the second half of the 20th century and wasn't seriously dicussed until the late '80s. But, nanotech is already showing up. The majority of people have not yet even heard of nanotechnology.

    I could go on and on.

    One step beyond is now so far out that most people, even SF fans, can no longer accept it.

    About 15 years ago I wrote to complain to the editor of my favorite science fiction magazine because one of the stories was not science fiction. It was about everyday things like a guy using email to interact with other people to solve a problem with a robotic assembly cell.

    15 years ago the editor thought my letter was astounding. To him, everything in the story was pure science fiction. Stuff he didn't ecpect to every see.

    Stonewolf

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