Just in Case You Thought the Hand-Wringing Over Science Fiction Was an English Language Thing

There’s a nice, long piece in El Pais, Spain’s largest newspaper, about the current denatured state of the science fiction genre. Naturally, having a facility in reading Spanish might help (I relied on the good graces of Google Translate, myself). Personally I don’t think things are as apocalyptically bad as the writer of this piece does; nevertheless, it’s nice to get namechecked in a major daily as one of the few bright spots in the current science fiction scene (I can think of a few others, mind you; even so). And in a general sense it’s an interesting article, presuming Google Translate has done its job. It’s a shame few newspapers in the US would devote as much time to the genre, handwringing or not.

19 Comments on “Just in Case You Thought the Hand-Wringing Over Science Fiction Was an English Language Thing”

  1. I read this yesterday, I found it pretty interesting.
    I felt I couldn’t agree more about the authors highlighted toward the end of the article – George R R Martin,
    Andrzej Sapkowski and John here are the only authors whose new stuff I’m permanently looking forward to read…

  2. Hi John,

    That article interviews a veteran editor known here by his personal view of SF. Though he has lots of experience and a great knowledge of the genre, he’s not been really in contact with the fresher reader base.

    I can tell you authors like Ted Chiang, Alastair Reynolds, Charless Stross or Greg Egan, together with the recent slipstream wave, are big in the new scene in Spain.

    But there’s a generational gap here between the SF readers, writers and editors of the 80’s and early 90’s and the newer communities grown around the net, and certainly we hold different points of view about the genre.

  3. That seems to be the case here too — there does seem to be a schism between younger and older SF readers/editors.

  4. It might well be that younger readers who’d potentially enjoy F/SF in the heyday are now able to read some really impressive fantasy novels.

    I don’t think it’s so much that F/SF has gone down in quality so much as fantasy has gone up. Most of the best works I’ve read recently (IMO of course) have been fantasy. A lot of the best sellers from genre imprints have been Fantasy.

    Also, the name driven nature of the bestsellers in the field can’t be discounted. The author of the article in Spanish is right – we’ve lost a lot of giants in the field recently.

  5. Just a quick sidenote: I noticed that John’s book “Old Man’s War” was entitled “The Old Guard” in Spanish. I’ve always been fascinated how titles are changed based on different languages. Speaks a lot towards different cultures’ takes on basic ideas.

    In any case, I grew up reading Heinlein and Harry Harrison (mainly the Stainless Steel Rat series). I’m 25 right now and not sure if that counts me for the younger crowd or not. Heinlein did a pretty good job of writing in a style that remained timeless, so I’ve been able to read his books with the idea that it is still in the future. Many of the older books, however, speculate of a future that is no longer foreseeable in our current time line. They fit the future predictions of their own time, but, beyond a study of historical thoughts on the future, they don’t appeal to me. (It’s easier to read HG Wells, than to read some of the books during the heyday of scifi, as HG Wells comes across as fantastic now).

    With that in mind, I started to wain on my reading of SF. It wasn’t until I was introduced to Scalzi’s (and some of the sci fi works of L.E. Modesitt Jr.) works that I’ve picked up the genre again. Now John writes in a very timed and dated way. He’ll refer to things that matter to us at the very present (he’s named Cheney, Dr. Pepper, etc.). While this might hamper his readership in about 50 years, I’m excited about it. This is the first time (that I can remember) of reading a science fiction book that postulates on a future that I can identify with.

    Fantasy books remove themselves almost completely from our time-arc and create insular universes, which allow for older authors (my thoughts go straight to Tolkien) to still be appealing. SciFi authors can create similar enclosed universes, but much of what good SciFi allows for is speculative fiction. Taking our current society, throwing it into the future, and analyzing what our current society would do with “progress” and new technology. This doesn’t allow for the classics to still be read with the freshness that it was presented in. Because of this, SciFi will have its ebbs and flows. The once great masters will lose their appeal and the readership will turn away until their current generation speaks about the future from a fresh and current standpoint.

    This renewal is happening now, with Scalzi and his compatriots (if I can use that word ;). They’re speaking about things that matter to this generation. SciFi is not experiencing a downfall, the current generation just hasn’t gotten ahold of the new stuff yet :)

  6. Yes, there’s stuff that the Spanish editor missed, and babelfishese is stylistically a challenge. Still, there was some validity to the arguments made, and examples given. A good English translation might be worth submitting to the New York Review of Science Fiction, which has been repectful of the Spanish literary world to the point of championing the notion that the first true Time Machine fiction was in the language of Cervantes and Borges.

  7. These young people today, they don’t have any respect! And the sun isn’t as bright as it used to be. You just don’t get proper sun these days.


    Yes, several important sf writers have died in the past year. And no, the science fiction being written today doesn’t look like the science fiction people were writing forty or fifty years ago. That’s because it’s better. SF up until the seventies was basically set pieces: Look, a giant automated interstellar spaceship! Look, a science that can predict the future! Look, aliens that are JUST LIKE US, even though they’re caterpillars living in a 600-g environment! Characters were mostly Plucky Lad and Independent Streak Girl with name and wig changes, and the plot was generally the Young Man’s Journey To Manhood Via Schenectady And Ganymede.

    These days, if you’re going to do Plucky Lad, you at least have to make him half-crippled, or really old, or something, to keep people from wandering off bored.

    The day I start mumbling about how these young authors just don’t have it the way Connie Willis or Greg Egan did, somebody please just shoot me.

  8. Better or not, fantasy is still more popular, and SF is approaching being stagnant. Worrying about it is a valid conversation.

  9. mjfgates: And sometimes it is appallingly obvious that the authors of some of the classics were very much in the mindset of their time— a lot of them, for example, will have nothing but men in the motive positions, with it being surprising when a woman is in any job other than wife/secretary types. (James Schmitz is notable for noticing that trend and completely ignoring it; his female characters are unremarkedly strong. I didn’t realize for years that he’d written his novels decades before I thought he had.)

    I love H. Beam Piper but it is amusing to 1) see the prevalence of smoking and cocktail hour and 2) see the monstrous, hand-wired computers. Ah, well, nobody’s perfect. (Less amusing is the room full of female secretaries, but hey, sign of the times and all that.)

    And some of them are downright misogynistic. Those ones are hard to read now.

  10. The tortured syntax translation software is impossible for me to pass through. I try to decipher, but end up being both frustrated and fun.

  11. @10 David Moles opined:
    I just want a T-shirt that says El mañana se está comiendo el futuro.

    I used to have such a T-shirt, but a moth-filled future eated it. :-)

  12. aww. Is somebody feeling entertained that his genre is compared to erotica and the likes, whatever this means? =P

  13. @16 Passerby:
    Surely someone ought to be entertained: Am given to understand that quality erotica –> £arge $ale$.

    <song genre="parody" artist="!(The Tubes)" title="WDYWFL">

    How do you know / when your writing’s just right erotica’s tight?
    Does your readership swell / while you scribble at night?
    How can you tell / if your work has appeal
    Does your agent buy lunch / to discuss a six-figure deal?

    What do you want from life?

    Well, you can’t have that, but …

  14. mjfgates –
    yeah, that Cordwainer Smith dude from that pre-70s era was SO typically mid-American.

    And of course, what was his name, Miller? or was it Blish? – so stereotypically concerned with plucky lads and gadgets.

    Sorry – the best simply ranks with the best, and that is part of the problem, much as with sculpture in the 19th century – you have Rodin, you can throw in a few others if you wish, but basically, sculpture as a vital artform was pretty much missing in action for decades during that century.

    In exchange, photography took off.

    SF faces much the same problem – the trough has been there for quite a while, in part since SF no longer offers such unique opportunities to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, because, sadly, SF has pretty much become a cliche. Even some of the more celebrated current authors are deeply ensconced in demonstrating that fact – even the idea of the new whoever, for example, is a sign of stagnation, not vitality.

    The problem is that art of any variety is not a matter of following a formula, though obviously, commercial success may be. Rodin was not the new anyone, and though his influence can be seen over decades, it did not inspire a new wave of memorable sculptors during his creative years.

    Christopher Hawley-
    I’ll take the Monza, as soon as I get enough rope.

    ‘…a new Matador, a new mastodon,
    a Maverick, a Mustang, a Montego,
    a Merc Montclair, a Mark IV, a meteor,
    a Mercedes, an MG, or a Malibu,
    a Mort Moriarty, a Maserati, a Mac truck,
    a Mazda, a new Monza, or a moped…’

  15. I live in Madrid, I read the original in Spanish, and I discussed it last night at the Tertulia Madrileña de la Literatura Fantástica. I also know many of the people mentioned in the articles, and I rarely agree with some of them — the generational gap that Fran (hi!) mentioned is true. I think the author of the article also defined science fiction very narrowly, which meant that a lot of works didn’t “count” although they’ve been successful and are really SF.

    The article also dealt exclusively with the Spanish SF/F/H market, which is small and mostly male. Sales have always been poor and marketing has always been difficult. But I don’t think the article lives up to the cover headline (also not in the link), “The future kills science fiction — Reality leaves forward-looking literature without plots.” Overstatement.

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