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.

Crap.

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.)

24 Comments on “The Myth of the Science Fiction Monoculture”

  1. I’m not quite sure where or how Killheffer is arriving at this idea that US SF writers are going all nostalgic. Honestly, Old Man’s War is the only recent US SF I’ve read that deliberately seemed to play the nostalgia card — and you managed to do that while putting some twists on Heinlein in the process, and thus kept it from being simple pastiche. I found myself asking, in particular, if he’s read any Dan Simmons or Cory Doctorow lately. Or Paul Di Filippo. Or Swanwick. Or or or [fill in your favs]…

  2. No genre of any kind has anything resembling a monoculture. If it did, PLOTS WITH GUNS would not have devoted any space to the mention of cat mysteries. (And Neil, if you’re reading this, ANY mention was too much cyberspace devoted to the subject.) Crime is about the most fragmented genre out there, but not the most contentious.

    That would be romance. And the RWA stupidly has tried to institutionalize the monoculture mindset. Hence, you have a lot of writers ready to bolt because the organization’s leadership wants to make “Sex is icky” part of the by-laws. Doesn’t work.

    And science fiction? The Trekkie is not the same person who reads William Gibson or the guy who pines for Jules Verne or the stoner who read Larry Niven one too many times and thinks he’s the new Neil Gaiman. And yet they all exist, and they all overlap.

    Some of them even read cat mysteries.

  3. I haven’t read Accelerando, but I have read Old Man’s War, and have read just about everything by Heinlein. Sometimes even Heinlein’s not Heinlein; your book is, to me, most reminiscent of Starship Troopers and Glory Road, and not some of his more brooding, philosophical works like Time Enough For Love, or Job. You picked the right ones to emulate.

    I am ex-military, and what Old Man’s War gets right is the feeling of comradeship. It sees all the humor and irony of the military, which are the coping mechanisms the institution developed to cope with the horrors of war.

    Plus, your aliens are great.

    I don’t accept the whole “looking backward” criticism, either. It’s like saying that Clint Eastwood can’t do Westerns because John Ford already did them. A good Western is a good Western, and there’s plenty of room for more. There would be more good ones if people aspired to be John Ford.

    I’d love to have more books on my shelf like Starship Troopers, or Old Man’s War.

    I’d really like a few more Glory Roads, too. :-)

  4. I haven’t read Accelerando (or anything by Stross beyond some of his short stories), but I definitely see what you mean when you call his work ‘inner-circle stuff’. I had a similar reaction to a short story by Cory Doctorow (“0wnz0red”, which should still be available from Salon or, now that I think of it, from Cory himself). The story, about computer programmers who start programming their own autonomic function, is peppered with so much jargon that I can’t imagine anyone other than a computer science major would really get it (being a CS major, I adored it). At the time, I assumed this kind of attitude was unintentional (I had similar reactions to William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, which I read around the same time), but you seem to suggesting that these authors are intentionally tailoring their fiction to make it unappealing to certain audiences.

    Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I’ve recently started blogging, and it’s amazing how often I find myself stopping and inserting three paragraphs of introduction and background, and how much those additions can decrease my opinion of a post’s quality (‘Come on! Doesn’t everyone know about the anti-intellectual attitude of the later Myst games?’). It’s a constant struggle between saying what I want to say and making sure that I don’t write simply for myself.

    That would be romance. And the RWA stupidly has tried to institutionalize the monoculture mindset. Hence, you have a lot of writers ready to bolt because the organization’s leadership wants to make “Sex is icky” part of the by-laws. Doesn’t work.

    Seriously? I would have thought sex would be a major selling point of romance novels.

    Also, how would the organization enforce those by-laws?

  5. but it amounts to little more than a fix for the Heinlein junkie

    While this may be factually correct why does he have to phrase it as a put down?

  6. Oops. Yes, I knew Cory was Canadian, if only I had remembered as I typed. Guess that’s the danger of leaving comments on blogs late at night while suffering from insomnia…(yeah, that’s my story. Not that I was dumb. It was a a sleep problem. Yeah, that’s the ticket :-)

  7. Oh boy, are you ever gonna love Forever War. It’s really a fantastic book. You might want to move it up a few notches in the pile, mon! :)

  8. I actually think both Cory and Charlie are reaching significant numbers of non-core-genre readers; indeed, there’s a distinct kind of usually-young, techno-hip person who hasn’t read much SF for years who I think reads both authors, or can be convinced to. But that’s quibbling. I basically agree with your anti-monoculture point.

    What really makes me roll my eyes about Killheffer’s review (or at least the parts you quote; I haven’t yet seen it in its entirety) is the unearned teleology, the argumentive appeal to the myth of Neverending Artistic Progress. SF is about The Future, man, and if you don’t see that Writing That I Like has the Future Nature, you’re all about the Past, man. Indeed, if you’re not about Progress (and I get to define what constitutes “progress”), you’re in danger of “decadence”, a thing to be feared. Repeat, ad libitum, until surrender ensues.

    I’m as neophilic as the next geek, but I also don’t like being bullied, and these endless demands that I get in formation behind someone’s flag because, well, Progress, damn it! — get very old. Progress is arranging for fewer mothers to die in childhood and more people on the planet to have clean water. Art is about play. One wishes the would-be drill sergeants would go find something other than art and storytelling with which to get down with their true selves.

  9. PNH:

    “I actually think both Cory and Charlie are reaching significant numbers of non-core-genre readers; indeed, there’s a distinct kind of usually-young, techno-hip person who hasn’t read much SF for years who I think reads both authors, or can be convinced to.”

    Oh, definitely. I tend to think of technophiles as automatic members of the SF Reader nation, but that’s just an assumption on my part.

  10. I think that Killheffer’s argument is that anyone who wants to read real old-fashioned SF should read the genuine old stuff. There are flaws in that argument (what if you want to read MORE of it? or, what if you want to read it devoid of certain quaint customs no longer practiced in contemporary SF?), but I think that explains part of his thinking that seemed to puzzle you.

  11. The main difference is that ‘The Forever War’ (I didn’t read it-was probably focussing on war where you are focussing on genetic engineering in spite of War, war as a subcontext or background).
    I still didn’t feel OMW was military Sci-Fi.
    I feel like your going to write a 3rd book to the OMW series with no military at all similar to the ‘Enders’ series.

    To say this is some sort of dumb downed novel just isn’t true. In this book are allot of solid theories about ‘living forever-extended life’ and how we are to cope with that. Example: it just isn’t realistic to genetically alter yourself too much or you’re just not human anymore. Can a balance be stuck in the next novel? That is the ‘law of of the consevation of mass’ by the way.
    I don’t know if ‘Forever War’ addresses these issues.

    ‘Altered Carbon’ addresses some of these issues as well. It’s more in the financial political aspect of it.

    About the Monoculture:
    Here is the problem as to why maybe Sci-Fi or art in general hit a standstill in the 90’s. It could be because of the Singularity. Everyone got caught up in the hype of it and thought, “Oh well, what else can we write about?” Well, just becasue you can see it in a video game doesn’t actually mean it’s really there. Fanatsy will always be there because we can’t be in several places at once. It’s always good to tell a story.
    I accept the fact that I’m living in a Singularity or some type of monoculture where everything is served to you in a plastic-platter but that should give us more time to be creative right?

  12. Patrick Nielson Hayden,

    Progress is arranging for fewer mothers to die in childhood and more people on the planet to have clean water. Art is about play.

    Bravo! Why do people try to tell artists what they should do?

    I say this as a non-artist so I’m not just defending myself. The whole idea of “progress” in art is rather strange. What does one use as a criterion?

  13. Well, people try to tell artists what to do for a very good reason: art is potentially powerful.

    I’m not opposed to people trying to tell artists what to do. Indeed, a good description of how I earn my living would be “trying to tell artists what to do.” Rather, I’m opposed to leaving unexamined the notion that there’s some particular artistic path limned in historical inevitability and that it’s self-evidently the path of “progress.”

  14. Similar monoculture proclamations get made in fantasy fields, too; instead of Heinlein and Charlie Stross, just substitute similar rumblings about Tolkien, China Mieville, and “New Weird”.

    There’s probably someone out there, somewhere, whose head would explode if they knew I had read and enjoyed BOTH “Lord of the Rings” and “Perdido Street Station”. The horror! The horror!

  15. PNH,

    I should clarify that by “people telling artists what to do” I did not mean the case of editors or teachers. Clearly editors have a business reason for trying to steer the author towards works that will sell. Teachers can teach certain styles and use those style as criteria.

    I guess I meant critics – whether professional, private citizen, or politician. And it does make sense that each of these may have an agenda or reason for steering the art in a certain direction.

    Okay, then my next question is about “fashion.” I have assumed that the changes in fashion are due to the human need for both familiarity and variety, so certain trends will become popular because they are familiar but then after awhile people crave something new. Thus over time we have new fashions come and go.

    Does that idea seem right to you?

  16. Since I ran across the idea of “The Singularity”, and started running across so much writing on the subject of the future of Science Fiction (or lack of a future), I’ve given this some thought and I wonder others think of my take on this.

    It seems like the biggest problem with SF today is that in the Golden Age, it was much easier to extrapolate the future based on current trends. While Relativity and Nuclear Science are not easy subjects, they can at least be explained to a layman with common metaphores. While Heinlein by no means predicted the future, he was far safer in his guesses than we are today. Of course what makes Heinlein so palatable to most people is his attitude that people are people no matter what technology surrounds them.

    Now, however, much of our speculation on the future involves Computer Science. As I see it, the big problem with CS is that it is not based on rules and is only based in physical reality on the most basic hardware level. In the past, the SF writer could at least count on physical laws to somewhat limit the range of possible or at least plausible futures. Anything in computer science above the hardware level, however, is purely human invention. This opens the future to admit anything that is imaginable to the human mind writing the programming. Just thinking about the range of cultures and values that have existed in human history makes speculation on a highly human-molded future daunting. It also seems to make more difficult to speculate on anything but the near future since the number of possibilities explode beyone what even the Golden Age writers would have imagined.

    Heinlein got away with assuming that in the future the natural trend would be for human culture to evolve to fall in line with his opinions of what makes a good society. Writers can’t get away with that anymore. Readers will no longer accept 1950s Americans in Space as a representative future. In fact it has become a laughable cliche, like when Kirk on Star Trek would order an office to beam down to a planet and, “Bring the Girl”.

    Anyway, I am curious if anyone else has had similar thoughts as to the slipperiness of writing a computer based future as opposed to one dominated by giant spaceships.

  17. I recently received OMW from Amazon after a long and anxious wait for it to ship to Oz. I devoured it over a weekend and enjoyed it immensely. Good on you John!

    I’ve read Heinlein and Haldeman. Both are good but IMHO, Old Man’s War is closer to the former than the latter. It also bears some resemblance to Armor (author’s name escapes me) and Peter Hamilton’s “Fallen Dragon”.

    The aliens are top notch. The Consu really intrigued and dragged me in. So did the idea that a sentient race would cook humans with celebrity chefs. Let’s crank these humans up a notch – BAM! (sorry coudn’t resist)

    The mix of science with character development is well done too. Those are both departments that any scifi junkie or even any plain vanilla novel reader lusts after. Plus there are hints of deeper geopolitics just under the surface…

    I could never cover all the book’s good points in a comment but let me say once again congrats John and please hurry with the sequel (like THAT comment is new).

    The only negative comment I could make (and it’s very trivial) was that many of the dialogues between characters were represented;
    X said, Y said, X said, Y answered, Z said….

    Yes, a very trivial niggle but after a while, all the “saids” made some bits a tad same-ish.

    That said, it’s a kickarse book that can stand proudly on any bookshelf. Can’t wait to get the next one.

  18. Some people consider “The Forever War” dated. I can’t be a judge of that–I read it around 1973-4, soon after it came out and it–to paraphrase a guy named Scalzi–“blew the top of my head off.”

    Joe Haldeman has had a long and excellent career continuing to turn out fine novels every year or two or three. He’s got another one coming out, well, around now actually. I think of him as analogous to Evan Hunter or Elmore Leonard or Donald E. Westlake in the mystery field, he just keeps on turning out good books.

    I think his best book is “1968.” It’s not science fiction, but it’s about a science-fiction fan who goes to war. I’m also quite fond of “Buying Time” and “Tool of the Trade.”

    I read OMW and am reading “Accelerando” and like ’em both just fine.

  19. Now, however, much of our speculation on the future involves Computer Science. As I see it, the big problem with CS is that it is not based on rules and is only based in physical reality on the most basic hardware level. In the past, the SF writer could at least count on physical laws to somewhat limit the range of possible or at least plausible futures. Anything in computer science above the hardware level, however, is purely human invention.

    Hmmm. I feel that I ought to be able to give a reasoned rebuttal of this, but maybe it’s just too early in the morning for me. I’ll just say that although computer science isn’t grounded in physics, it is grounded in mathematics. Furthermore, all computers are still essentially Turing machines – a model that tells us what tasks a computer can and can’t perform, and what tasks can be performed in a reasonable amount of time (an unreasonable amount of time being years or even decades). There are tasks, such as natural language translation, that the Turing model is clearly incapable of.

  20. Abigail,

    I completely understand what you are saying and I agree with you. I am not sure that we are talking about the same thing, though. I am sure that I was not as clear as I could have been. I may in fact have muddied the waters by using the term Computer Science when I am talking about a broader concept.

    While current Computer Science is based on mathematics, using mathematical algorithms and limited in possible tasks by mathematical principles, I was in fact referring to a higher level of organization. For example, there is no mathematical reason for Object-Oriented programming. I apologize if you are already familiar with the concept, but OO programming expresses data and algorithms in the form of Objects with properties and behaviors. This is often not the best way to represent a process to be automated, but it is very often the easiest way for programmers to handle programming problems. The reason the OOP works is that it works with human psychology, not that it matches the real world.

    What I am trying to say is that while the direction of scientific advancement in other fields is often highly influenced by physical laws and restrictions, while the direction of advancement in computer fields is influenced far more by the goals of the humans writing the programming. A wing has to be shaped like a wing or it will not produce lift. That causes airplanes to have a distinctive shape.

    Some have speculated on what an alien society would be like if they discovered radio before fire, but that could only happen if the phisiology of the aliens was very different from that of humans. Humans could not have decided to develop radio first because warm blooded humans needed fire first to meet immediate needs. The physical benefits of radio to a primitive human don’t come close to those of fire.

    On the other hand, there is not physical law the requires the development of Doom3. Ideas like downloading a human brain into a computer and completely driven by decisions on the part of humans.

    I am starting to ramble, but I hope I have made my thoughts clear. I really think that the end goals and the methods used to reach them are much more open-ended when dealing with computers than they are in, say, nuclear physics, where things like critical mass and decay rates are limiting factors.

    If anyone, Abigail or others, has any thoughts on whether computers have made prediction of future trends and hence SF writing more difficult, I would love to hear your opinions.

  21. Not gonna comment on the Killheffer review–everybody’s got an opinion, I’m sure–but some kids still say “teh roxxor”. (Well, at least this kid does, and I still qualify as part of the world’s most hit demographic for six more months. Then I turn 29 and slip over the hill.)

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