The Myth of the Science Fiction Monoculture

A number of people have written to alert me to Robert K.J. Killheffer’s review of Old Man’s War (among a number of other books) in the September issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, with the intimation that the review is something of a slam. Well, of course, I love good slam, so I checked it out and was bitterly disappointed to discover it was a perfectly reasonable review; Killheffer gave points for style (“Scalzi’s straightforward, muscular prose and tightly focused pacing yield an undeniable page-turner,” which I imagine would be the money shot quote for Tor’s marketing folks) but deducts points for substance or lack thereof (“but it amounts to little more than a fix for the Heinlein junkie” — not a money quote, although I’m sure an ambitious marketeer could make those last six words work with the judicious use of an exclaimation mark).

That’s fair. The only quibble I have with the review is the last sentence (“If Old Man’s War is today’s answer to The Forever War, it suggests a creeping superficiality in U.S. science fiction—the triumph of nostalgia and pastiche over fresh invention”) and that on a technicality; OMW can’t be an “answer” to The Forever War if for no other reason than I’ve never read that particular book. I keep meaning to — heck, I even bought it recently — but haven’t. It’s on my “to do” list, but I have a novel to bang through first.

In any event, inasmuch as I’ve cheerfully and frequently admitted ransacking Heinlein’s bag of tricks for OMW, I can hardly complain when someone criticizes me for doing so. Live by the Bob, die by the Bob. And if you’re sick of the Heinlein influence on science fiction, as Killheffer appears to be, it’s perfectly reasonable to be underwhelmed by OMW. As for the book suggesting creeping superficiality, well. I would prefer it to be characterized as suggesting confidently sauntering superficiality, as sauntering is more fun than creeping (and easier on the knees). But what can you do.

Where Killheffer and I part company philosophically is in his overarching conceit for the review, in which Killheffer somewhat guiltily admits that US SF writers just aren’t getting the job done for him anymore, so he’s stepping out with the Brits, who seem to him to be as dangerous and exciting and forward-thinking as the US writers are conventional and backward-looking. This has been a topic of conversation here before, so I don’t feel the need to revisit it in any depth, but what got me chewing the inside of my cheek in thoughtful irritation was Killheffer’s summation paragraph, which reads:

SF, even more than other literary workspaces, cannot afford to get mired in nostalgia and ancestor worship. The sf of earlier periods should be treasured, read and re-read for the pleasures and spirit only it provides. But we cannot recreate it, and we should not try, no matter how disappointing the developments of the past few decades might seem. It’s time to let Heinlein rest, and discover our own future. So far it appears that U.K. writers come better prepared to create twenty-first-century sf. But there’s no reason U.S. writers cannot do as much, if only they’ll turn their gazes from the past and look to today—and tomorrow.


For two reasons:

1. Someone who likes the clean and breezy vigor of US-bred contemporary SF but disfavors the pretentious overreaching twaddle of contemporary UK SF need only switch the positions of “U.S.” and “U.K” in that paragraph, and then replace “Heinlein” with “New Wave,” to have achieved the equal and opposite (and, incidentally, equally specious) conclusion.

2. It (quite possibily unintentionally) perpetuates the myth of the science fiction monoculture, in which all science fiction books are read by the same inclusive set of readers, read in the same manner, and all the readers have the same set of evaluative criteria. They’re not, they aren’t, and they don’t.

Now, once it’s put out there in this way, the point seems obvious. But since I see the SF monoculture worldview pop-up over and over and over again, it must not be as obvious as it should be, so let’s go ahead and address it.

For our illustrative purposes, let’s take Old Man’s War and Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, which Killheffer quite rightly gushes over in his review article, because it is, as the kids no longer say, teh r0xx0r. Both of these books are undeniably current and contemporary science fiction, and it’s fair to say that the two books have a fair amount of potential reader overlap. They’re both shakin’ their booties on the science fiction road. That being said, it’s also abundantly clear that while they’re on the same road, they’re also working different sides of the street.

I take a back seat to no one in singing the praises of Accelerando, which I think is just a tremendous science fiction novel, full of the things that make you go hmmm, science fictionally speaking. They might as well just announce Charlie’s Hugo nomination for it so the rest of us can go about our lives. Having said that, if someone came up to me and said, “I don’t read much science fiction — heck, I don’t read any — but I think I ought to check it out. How about this one?” and then held up Accelerando for me to see, I would probably suggest against it, for the same reason I’d suggest against putting a jet engine on a Big Wheel. Accelerando is high-octane geekery, real inner-circle stuff, and you need to work up to it. By the same token, if the guy who’s homebrewed his own flash memory-based multimedia player so he can enjoy his Ogg Vorbis files — you know, the guy whose shirt has the Linux penguin sodomizing Bill Gates — comes over and asks me if Old Man’s War has got the bleeding edge goods he’s looking for, the answer I’ve got to give is, well, no, almost certainly not. Accelerando’s and Old Man’s War’s audiences overlap, but they are not the same.

Nor, I imagine, were the books written with the same audience in mind. As I’ve noted before regarding Old Man’s War:

The book is in fact intentionally written with non-science fiction readers in mind. Why? Well, it’s simple: I want a whole lot of readers, and I don’t want to give potential readers outside the sphere of SF the excuse of thinking the book is going to be inaccessible to them. Look, I’m not a snob. I’m in this for the mass market, and I want to nab readers who don’t typically have science fiction as part of their reading diet.

And as it happens, that’s where (anecdotally) a significant portion of OMW sales have gone — thanks to Instapundit and other non-SF bloggers who were enthusiastic about the book and recommended it, a large number of books got into the hands of people who read science fiction seldom or not at all. A large number of readers of my own sites were also not regular SF readers but bought the book because they were familiar with my writing online. When Tor and I offered up free e-books of OMW to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, people bought the book because I was supporting the troops. I’ve got a few dozen e-mails from people who read the book that say “I don’t usually read science fiction, but I read your book.” Naturally, I encouraged them to start the SF habit.

I’ll leave it to Charlie to note who he imagined his audience would be, but I suspect he would grant that Accelerando was written with already enthusiastic science fiction readers in mind, if for no other reason than much of the book was originally published as short stories in science fiction magazines, which implicitly address an enthusiast audience. This is not to suggest Accelerando’s a cult item or has limited appeal — Charlie’s made Accelerando a free download, after all, which has gotten the book in front of ten of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of eyeballs, and the book’s Amazon ranking is pretty sweet at the moment. Charlie naturally wants readers, and lots of them, and it looks like he’s getting them. But I suspect Charlie knows the majority of those eyeballs are attached to SF geeks.

(NB: I could be wrong on this — Charlie may have in fact been writing for sf newbies and grandmothers. Ask him!)

I submit to you that Accelerando is well-nigh perfect; there’s very little I would change about it (more lobsters. That’s about it). It’s also not for everyone, and not even for everyone who regularly reads science fiction. I think Old Man’s War is fairly decent, too; it’s also not for everyone, and not even for everyone who regularly reads science fiction. What both books do very strongly is engage their audiences, and give them a satisfying reading experience — and that is both healthy for the authors (hello!) and for the genre in general, since people who have been done well by science fiction will seek it out again. There’s clearly room for both our books, since both have been published — in the same year, even! — and both appear to be selling briskly. Charlie’s brand of science fiction isn’t crowding out mine, or vice-versa. We live in harmony and love.

Science fiction emphatically doesn’t need a monoculture, either in the literature or in the approach to that literature. There’s no better way to kill it dead and to assure no one is left to mourn the ashes. What it needs — and what the range of titles noted just in Killheffer’s article alone suggests it already has — is a multiculture that grows the audience for science fiction by giving that audience what it wants… whatever it is that it wants. Science fiction needs the US Heinlein revivalists and it needs the UK fearless futurists and it needs all the authors in the continuum between them, and those orthogonal to them as well. What you ask of all of these authors is simply that they write good books, the sort of books that make the readers go “Thank you! May I have another?” To which the answer is: “Yes! What would you like this time?” And then you give it to them.

That’s how you create science fiction in the twenty-first century, and keep it rolling toward the twenty-second.

(Update: Elizabeth Bear has further thoughts on the subject here.)

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