Beyond the Horizon: 21st-Century SF

This year completes the initial decade of the twenty-first century—unless, of course, you are a numerical fussbudget, and wish to choose 2009 as the culmination.  But tell me truly: does the year 2009 really resonate with you as an evocative, memorable milestone?

Inany case, the twenty-first century is undeniably the century science fictionbuilt—if not in utter hands-on reality (though even that proposition isdebatable, given the inspiration the genre has provided for influentialscientists and geeks), then in the public imagination. Since the birth of genreSF in 1926, and for almost the next 75 years, simply to set a story in thethird millennium AD was to signify extravagant extrapolation and a futuristic,far-off milieu when flying cars and food pills would reign—or dystopia wouldprevail. The year 2010 is automatically one of yesterday’s tomorrows.

Ofcourse, as we all now realize, the twenty-first century is proving both moreand less science-fictional than the literature imagined, in strange and perhapsessentially unpredictable ways. This condition bedevils SF to some extent, asboth its continuing credibility and utility come under question. Some authorsand critics have recently even gone so far as to pronounce the mode deceased. Suchstatements regarding the death of SF are eternal. In 1960, for instance, afamous seminar was conducted under the heading “Who Killed ScienceFiction?” (You can read the whole historic document here.)

Itseems fitting, then, at this early juncture in the new millennium, to examinesome recent representative SF books of differing types and check their pulsefor signs of health or illness. Does the genre continue to have new and usefulthings to say? Is it still intellectually and narratively interesting? Or isthe genre suffering from a case, as H. G. Wells so direly phrased it, of”mind at the end of its tether…”?

The Original Anthology: If it’s becomecliché to maintain that short stories are the cutting-edge laboratory ofscience fiction, it’s only because, as with most clichés, a nugget of truthgleams at the center of the truism. The short form allows quick, timely andinnovative forays into new speculative territories: a big payoff for minimalauthor and reader investment.

Withthe remaining small band of old-school print magazines in dire financialstraits these days, and online zines stumbling around for a viable businessmodel, much of the best work at these lengths now occurs in the originalanthology, which trades periodical timeliness for a greater shelf life, theoccasional backing of deep-pockets publishers, and an expanded audience.

Oneof the best anthologies of recent vintage is Jetse de Vries’s Shine. Its virtues are easy toenumerate. It offers a clear-eyed theme and unique remit: optimistic,near-future SF. It features a wide range of voices and styles. Its editor isyoung, knowledgeable, energetic, and hip (the anthology was assembled with heavyreliance on social media sites). On all counts, it’s a rousing success, thevery model of a modern project, and points the way toward a healthy future forSF short stories. All that remains is for the book to rack up some deservedlyhealthy sales.

Notevery story in the volume achieves unqualified greatness: a number favorearnestness over entertainment. They work so seriously to illustrate that thereis hope for humanity that they seem to forget that the reader has to want toimagine herself enjoying life in thefuture, even while facing challenges. That was always the secret ofHeinlein-era SF. This joie de vivredeficit becomes apparent only when you come to a contrary story such as GordSellar’s knockout “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report (by Organic).” Itshigh-octane characters and language and devil-may-care attitude cloak seriousissues just as vital as those embedded elsewhere in the book. But it’s also aslavering whirlwind of manic energy, in the mode of the Looney Tunes cartoonTasmanian Devil. Others in this admirable vein include Eva Maria Chapman’s”Russian Roulette 2020″ and Kay Kenyon’s “Castoff World.”

The Hot Trend: So long as sciencefiction can pinwheel off new movements and manifestos, new fads and fashions,it seems to me that it remains alive and vibrant. Bandwagons can getoverloaded, stylized, and mob-minded. But then along comes another freshlypainted barouche full of troublemakers to join the long parade.

Steampunkis hardly a new phenomenon, dating back in its fully codified form sometwenty-five years at least. But as culture watchers know, it’s recentlyexperienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Mark Hodder’s debut novel, TheStrange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, is a remarkably sophisticated and well-executed manifestation ofthe sub-genre, showing us that new talent can excavate gold out of the mostwell-plumbed mines.

Hodderhas arrayed in his book the full panoply of steampunk riffs: weird machinery,Victorian cultural attitudes, class hierarchy, the supernatural, famoushistorical figures, surrealism and absurdity, amusing fictional sidekicks tofamous personages, and a sense of adventure across a relatively unexploredglobe. Layering this cake with a frosting of mystery, suspense, and time-travelshenanigans, he has created a compulsively readable romp that recalls the bestof Tim Powers and James Blaylock.

Hodder’spaired protagonists are the explorer Richard Burton and the poet Swinburne. Inthe year 1861, they inhabit a timestream in which Queen Victoria’sassassination in 1840 unleashed a realm of oddball steam- and bio-tech. Thelegendary boogie-man of the title appears to be a time-traveler intent onrepairing the damaged continuum. Or is he?

Hodder’sprose is stately yet not archaic, and the plot unfolds with a satisfyingcleverness. His descriptions of the era—a crucial point for any novel that aimsfor historical atmosphere—are palpable, rendering a miasma-shrouded London andenvirons. If his book does not precisely build a new wing on the steampunkmansion, it does polish the banisters brightly and garland the halls gaily,showing visitors the best of the old manor.

SF from the Literary World: Despite thelong (and, let’s admit it, fun) tradition of SF writers complaining about”outsiders” from the literary “mainstream” never gettingour beloved genre right, the picture is rapidly changing. As science-fictionalideas permeate the culture more and more deeply and widely, writers from MFAprograms and The New Yorker, from Granta and Yaddo, prove themselves adeptat handling all the riffs of SF in acrobatic and ingenious fashion, oftencontributing new stylistic angles and perspectives to the field. Case in point:Charles Yu’s Howto Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.

Yu’smordantly funny book follows the entertainingly dreary and screwed-up existenceof a time-travel machine repairman named—Charles Yu! Metafictional Yu’s draband anomie-filled existence, dominated by his desultory search for his missingfather and his on-off relations with his mother (Mom’s chosen to live in a”Polchinski 630 Hour-Long Reinforced Time Loop,” Groundhog Day-style) is peppered with chronal paradoxes andbureaucratic annoyances. As a creation, Yu represents all failed ambitions andcompromised dreams, his plight a symbolic statement of a generational quandary.(Yu turned thirty-four years old this year.)

Yuhas obviously ingested the vast body of classic time-travel SF, and he hasformulated a consistent theory and practice of time travel, full of hopped-up jargon,which he uses to illustrate existential themes rather than produceaction-adventure sequences. There are traces of Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegut,Douglas Adams, Barry Malzberg, and Philip K. Dick throughout these pages. Butthe book resembles nothing so much as a fresh approach to the tone of the late,great George Alec Effinger, whose novels WhatEntropy Means to Me  and The Wolves of Memory practicallydefined this voice.

Butperhaps the best description of Yu’s book is the one he applies to hismalfunctioning pocket universe: “the reality portions of [Minor Universe31] are concentrated in an inner core, with science fiction wrapped aroundit.”

Satirical SF: When we are introduced toan exuberantly manic post-scarcity milieu perched paradoxically atop theoppressed crumbling ruins of an indigent planet, with one industry orpreoccupation reigning supreme, we know ourselves to be firmly in thequintessential Galaxy magazine modeof science fiction satire, exemplified most famously by Pohl & Kornbluth’sclassic The Space Merchants. Onceidentified by Kingsley Amis in his critical study New Maps of Hell as practically the whole raison d’être of SF, the mode has lately fallen out of popularity,although talented folks such as the writers of the animated series Futurama, Max Barry (Jennifer Government) and ChristopherMoore (Fluke) continue to plow thepasture profitably.

Nowcomes a bright and witty new practitioner of this honorable mode ofspeculatively savaging humanity’s foibles. Jon Armstrong has archly labeled hisown work “fashionpunk,” since it takes the whole daft scene connectedwith haute couture—media overkill, celebrities, status and wealth—and rakes itover the coals by way of absurdist amplification.

InArmstrong’s debut novel Grey we wereintroduced to a crazed yet consistent future in which clothes literally makethe man—especially our hero, Michael Rivers, a nineteen-year-old airhead inthrall to his corporate image, who eventually learns to rebel. Company mergershere are facilitated by the ritual marriage and public deflowering of scions. Aprivate automated highway literally encircles the midsection of the planet. Pressconferences are vast media orgies. And draped elegantly over everything,beautiful smart fabrics conceal bodily and spiritual ugliness.

Grey smartly followed the time-testedtemplate of many such dystopian tales, using an ignorant member of the elite asfocal point and dragging him down for a visceral education into the muck andmire. In the new book, Yarn, Armstrong decides to tellthe flipside of the story: the rise of a peon to these synthetically upliftedheights.

Wehave already met protagonist Tane Cedar in Grey,where he served as exclusive tailor and fashion designer to the privileged,including Michael Rivers. But now we get his whole life story, as backdrop toan adventure being experienced by the ascended Cedar, which involves thefabric-cum-drug known as Xi. Born as a “slub,” one of the serfs whotoil in the vast corn plantations that support the economy, Cedar mounts thesocial and artistic ladder rung by bloody rung, until he becomes the figure wemet in Grey. Along the way, we getfurther revelations into this Lady Gaga-inspired future, where thesaleswarriors of Seattlehama battle for market share and allegiances are asdisposable as underwear.

Halfthe fun of Armstrong’s books is the lush, ornate, rococco language, worthy of aRussell Hoban or Anthony Burgess. The neologisms are captivating, the dialogueis both sophisticated and rude, and the descriptive passages are boldly visual.In toto, these books do something brilliant which I had always half-believedwas possible, but which I never dreamed of actually seeing. They replicate inprose the logically insane and hyperbolic graphic novels of Jodorowsky andMoebius and their collaborators: TheIncal/The Metabarons/The Technopriests. It’s proof that in the right hands,style is substance.

Hardcore SF: Language maven WilliamSafire was one of the first to recognize the birth of retronyms. This term is applied in cases when a word that was onceperfectly descriptive all by itself needs a retrofit to acknowledge changingcircumstances. For centuries the word “clock” said everything. Butthen with the arrival of digital technology, we had to say “analogclock” when we meant the original kind with hands and static face.

Soit is with “science fiction.” Once upon a time, that unadorned termencompassed the whole smallish field. But with the proliferation of sub-genres,readers and critics have had to use retronyms. “Hardcore SF” refersto the formerly ubiquitous kind of tale that employs the core genre conceits: robotsand rayguns, interstellar empires and starships, gadgets and extrapolations. (Somewhatconfusingly, what has been dubbed “hard SF” is a different beast,admitting only rigorously scientific ideas, and not dodgy apparatus such asteleportation and psi powers that hardcore SF gleefully employs.) Once thedominant mode, hardcore SF is now just another specialty, its practitionersrather like twenty-first-century poets still writing sonnets and sestinas.

Butsuch allegiances to noble old forms often inspire great craft and commensuraterewards. Greg Bear is one contemporary master of the old ways, and in Hull Zero Three he gives thegeneration starship theme—crystallized beautifully by Robert Heinlein in 1941’s”Universe”—a vigorous makeover.

Bear’sprotagonist, an amnesiac who eventually assumes the name Teacher after hisprogrammed function, wakes to find himself in a “sick Ship.” Thisenormous and complex interstellar vessel, intended to crawl at a fraction oflightspeed across the galaxy to plant a new colony, has been mysteriouslydamaged. Embarking on a dangerous odyssey of knowledge gathering, Teacher andhis shifting posse of oddball companions must battle the deadline ofdisintegration to salvage what they can of the mission.

Bearbrilliantly evokes all of the heart-racing thrills typically associated withthe classic hardcore SF trope of exploring a “Big Dumb Object.” Savvyreaders will flash on such past milestones as Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon,Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze, LarryNiven’s Ringworld andArthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. A slyallusion to Heinlein’s benchmark generation-ship tale occurs when a pair ofclones realize that two heads are better than one: Heinlein’s protagonist,Joe-Jim, literally wore two heads on one body. And the traditional riff of”conceptual breakthrough,” in which larger and larger frames ofknowledge keep opening up, is played deftly. In a neat stylistic maneuver,Teacher’s language skills keep pace on the page with his growing understanding.

Buteven grander than all this is the subtle parable of Teacher’s plight: bornnaked and unwitting into a dangerous environment, in which only cooperation andcuriosity ensure survival and success. Isn’t this a simple description of thehuman condition? Teacher’s journey, like Buddha’s, is universal. And even if heexperiences moments of Beckett-like despair and anger, he overcomes them withlogic, hope, and ingenuity. What better formulation for the guiding attitude ofscience fiction, hardcore or otherwise? Writers like Bear prove that SF stillhas some tomorrows left, even as 2010 joins the pile of yesterdays.