Who The Hell Cares What’s Wrong With American SF?
Charlie Stross speculates, with only the tiniest hint of schadenfreude, as to why all the Hugo nominees for Best Novel this year are all British — or, more accurately, why none of them are American. After politely offering the olive branch of coincidence, Charlie’s off-the-cuff speculation is that American SF writers are depressed:
Here I’m going to shortcircuit the endless debate and bring up my proposition: that the shape of American SF, as with British SF, is determined by the cultural zeitgeist, by the society’s own vision of its future. And I propose that the American future is currently uncertain, unpleasant, polarized, regimented, and pessimistic… This is not the place to list all the controversies or uncertainties haunting the American psyche in the wake of 9/11. Nor am I going to leave any hostages to fortune by prophesying either a reinvigoration of American hegemony, or a Soviet-style collapse. I’m agnostic on the matter. What I am willing to assert is that this uncertainty is haunting science fiction and warping the sort of fiction that is being written.
This follows to some extent on a Live Journal entry by Canadian James Nicholl, who asks: “So when exactly did the US stop being fertile soil for real SF?” and also suggests that American SF writers have a case of the doldrums, which shows up in depressing futures with restricted civil liberties.
I don’t know. Personally speaking, I must have missed the memo to be depressed, since none of my SF (at least as it applies to earth) is pessimistic about the American future; indeed, on that far-distant day in which The Android’s Dream is ever released you will discover that much to the consternation of other nations on the planet, it is a hale and healthy America that is the seat of the federal world government, and that sends representatives to the larger interstellar UN-like organization. I’m not incapable of writing darker-tinged fiction — I think you’ll find that The Ghost Brigades is somewhat darker and more intense than Old Man’s War — but neither do I find doom and gloom inherently interesting. It’s a tool from the toolbox, and it has its uses, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the first tool out of the box. And while I am not entirely pleased with the current American political/social scene, neither do I believe it portends the coming of the American Jerusalem and/or The Second Great Depression. The life of the US exists on multiple levels; some of the scarier levels are simply more obvious at the moment. We’ll see where it goes from here. Suffice to say that in the long run, I am not unoptimistic.
American SF writers may indeed be trapped in a becalmed Saragasso Sea of the soul at the moment thanks to the various political and social shifts in this country. Alternately, it may be that the US writers are sucking up the tail end of a particular SF market trend that is rapidly playing itself out and American SF writers will now have to figure out where the hell to go to next. Or maybe they’re all just in really crappy personal relationships. Maybe it’s not the authors at all; maybe it’s the editors who are buying stuff who are depressed as hell. As a reader, I find it difficult to actually care because I don’t read by nationality, I read by author and/or story, and if the story is good, I simply could not give a squat where it is the author sits down to type his or her story.
As an author, I’m not totally disinterested in what other writers are doing — as I’ve noted before, I wrote Old Man’s War because a trip to the bookstore told me that military fiction was what was selling, and as a first-time author, I wanted to sell — but I’m wary of making sweeping generalizations about what the lot of them are writing and how, or the contextual underpinnings of the work. The SF writing scene is small enough to have some uniformity in outlook, but people’s lives and the ways those lives impact their work are intensely varied.
If American SF writers are uniformly depressed, well, I don’t know, let’s organize a field trip to someplace sunny for them. Let them frolic in the open air or whatever. Have them meet a nice person of their gender of sexual preference and then rut like stoats for a day or two. Call it charity. But if that doesn’t snap them out of their doldrums, oh well. We’ve done what we can for them.
My theory as to why five Brits are Hugo nominees for best novel is pretty simple: leaving aside electoral noise like “hometown” bias and real or imagined personal relationships with the author, the five books nominated are just really good books. This is of course begging the question as to why they’re so good, but just as American authors can have many reasons for slumping at the moment, these British authors can have myriad reasons for being at the top of their game, possibly some relating to nationality but other factors having little or nothing to do with it at all.
It’s fun to ascribe an overarching reason for the inclusion of these five particular books, to try to impose some sort of uniform causality. But ultimately these rationales aren’t going to pan out. Occam’s Razor returns us to the “really good book” theory. It works for me.