Your Reading Assignment For Friday

Charlie Stross has taken up a hammer and genre fiction looks like the nail. Check it out. My favorite line:

For the sad fact is, there seems to be some kind of law about contemporary American horror getting into furry sex by volume three then suffering a fit of remorse and going all god-bothering and Jesus-fondling by volume six.

It’s funny because it’s true.

In his post, Charlie goes back to last year’s Big Question of what’s wrong with American SF these days, (occasioned by the All-Brit Hugo novel slate of 2005), by way of whacking at the “alternative history” craze:

This turning away from the near future is going to be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the post-9/11 decade in American science fiction, as the chill wind of change blows through the hitherto cosy drawing room of the American century. The Brits aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid — well, some of them are serving it up in pint glasses, but most of them have got better things to do with their time — and this is why just about all the reviewers in the field are yammering about a British Invasion or a British New Wave or something: it’s not what the British are doing, but what the American writers aren’t doing that is interesting.

American SF was traditionally an optimistic forward-looking genre, the marching music of the technocrat movement (which, thankfully, withered up and blew away before it got a chance to build any mountains of skulls, thus providing us with the luxury of a modernist movement that we can remember fondly). Now the whole space exploration thing has dead-ended and the great American public have shuddered in their political sleep and realised — crivens! — that not everybody likes the way their lords and masters have been carrying on for the past five decades — the fragile optimism is lacking. So where better to flee than into the nostalgic past, to fight Nazis and communists and slave-trading aristocrats?

This is a provocative point, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think Charlie may be underestimating the banal fact that alternate history simply sells well; Harry Turtledove books and books of that ilk sell not only to SF geeks but to history geeks as well. All those US Civil War recreationists are probably over the moon (so to speak) that they have whole new scenarios to have their heroes play in, some of them involving dragons or aliens or whatever. It’s not necessarily a national neurosis. It could just be publishers riding the train until the wheels fall right off, like they did with the horror boomlet in the 1990s. In other words, never attribute to a zeitgeist what you can equally attribute to heedless commerce. One does need to ask if this alt-history craze is any more egregious than steampunk, many of the primary practicioners of which are British, if memory serves.

Likewise, I don’t think Americans largely care if other people don’t like our political leaders, so I don’t think building a theory on that notion is useful. We knew the rest of the world despised Ronald Reagan, for example; we didn’t give a crap what anyone else thought (well, some did; they were just ignored). Right now, we’re aware the rest of the world despises Dubya, but it’s rather more important to us that we don’t like him; everyone else not liking him really is an afterthought in the American psyche.

Americans aren’t immune to the idea that the rest of the world represents competition and even a threat to us — we feel about China today roughly the way we felt about Japan in the mid-80s — but the fundamental American assumption that we should be running the world hasn’t changed much. The American self-image of comptent leadership in and of the world persists, and that’s one of the reasons why the general US population is down on Dubya at the moment. He’s at odds with our self-image, damn his guts.

I do think Charlie’s contention that American SF is oversaturated with alt-history is well on point, even if I disagree with his theory of the causes for that. I think this is a shame, because I don’t think the appetite for the classically American “competent man takes on the universe” subgenre of SF has much abated, here in the US or elsewhere, and all things considered I think I’m qualified to say that. People like this stuff. I suspect what needs to happen is that those folks who attempt this type of story need to get past the structural crutches of the genre, which happen to be the mechanistic trappings, i.e., all that NASA crap. If one wants to provide the “alt-history” genre a reason for being other than commerce, one could suggest it exists from a lack of imagination; it’s easier to imagine Nazis fighting aliens than to figure out a plausible post-competent-NASA near-future that involves both space travel and Americans in a mission-critical role.

Now, off the top of my head I can think of one person who’s done a book like that recently: Robert Charles Wilson, in Spin. There’s only a little space travel, but enough to qualify, and all the rest of it is surely in line. Of course, he’s Canadian. Oh, the irony.

In any event, if there is a critical lack of near-future SF from the US, I can promise all y’all I’m doing my best to fix that. The Android’s Dream is set in a future that is mere decades away, and other projects I have in the hopper will also take place close to the current timeframe. I’m doing what I can for you. I’ll let the alt-history craze take care of itself. Not to mention all that furry-sex fantasy.