The Topical Changes In Science Fiction And Fantasy Has Nothing To Do WIth Sad Or Rabid Puppies

The change in science fiction and fantasy over the last sixty years little to do with politics, and a lot more to do (ironically) with technology.

The current state of sf (science fiction) and f (fantasy) has a small vocal portion of its readership bemoaning the loss of “traditional” science fiction and fantasy. An oft-repeated quote is paraphrased as “Back in the day, when you bought a book with an astronaut on the cover, you knew what you were getting.”

The historical accuracy of this impression, like much nostalgia, is debatable. But more importantly, it is irrelevant.

To understand why, we must look to the Ferris Wheel.

In my lifetime, the Ferris Wheel is a symbol of safety. The “relaxing” ride at the amusement park or fair. It was not always this way.

As The Memory Palace unpacks, the original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World’s Fair was a seen as an achievement to rival the Eiffel Tower. It was a thrill ride, not something safe and relaxing.

The difference, of course, is familiarity. At the time, there was no way for most people to experience being two hundred feet in the air and nearly unsupported. We simply cannot recapture that first amazing experience because that experience is commonplace.

Which brings us to the second bit of technology I want to mention: video capture.

We have cameras everywhere, with people filming – and sharing – nearly every experience. Want to hurtle down a mountain on skis? ParaglideFreefall from space? Those experiences are only a click away.

These images are not the same as being there… but they do activate some sense of being there.

There were reports of early cinemagoers fearful of black and white images of trains hurtling toward the screen – something that seems ludicrous to us today. Likewise, the early 3D attempts seem hilariously primitive…but *were* effective when premiered.  And our technological prowess has only grown.

It is arguable, that we’re almost at (or have reached the point) where we can represent almost any image on screen.

Which brings us back to SF/F literature.

I read Rendevous With Rama only a few years ago. It is a book built entirely upon worldbuilding and exploration. Like this classic of Clarke’s, much of classic SF/F is built on portraying things that we couldn’t otherwise experience. Elves. Non-humanoid aliens. Massive starships. Giant armies.

You know, things that CGI can easily do.

In an unpublished essay, Peter Watts made this compelling argument:

Back then, with very few exceptions, there was only one place to go if you wanted sheer eyeball-kicking sensawunda, and was the written word. Iain Banks bragged that his Culture novels, by virtue of their epic scale, were “unfilmable” and, back then, they were. The human imagination, it seemed, was the ultimate special-effects engine.

That was then.

But the movies achieved verissimilitude in the depiction of space travel forty years ago; since then, only hyperreality will do. We’re not just watching epic space opera on our movie screens; we’re playing them, living them, in our game boxes.

And what did they leave us? What’s the one thing they didn’t think was worth stealing from science fiction?


Specifically, wild ideas. Mindbending ones. Dangerous ideas.

You doubt me? Pick up Star Wars, pick up Independence Day, pick up Mission to Mars or Jumper or Alien vs. Predator or any number of other big-budget sci-fi blockbusters. Turn them upside down and shake them, as hard as you like. Any ideas fall out? Anything more complicated than a bumper-sticker?

He’s right, but I’d extend it even further: that it can examine ideas, people, and relationships.

And that’s what we’re seeing (even in Watt’s own hard SF work). We are seeing authors portray characters that intrigue and interest them. Or as Ferrett Steinmetz put it:

I’d seen a hundred white dude leads before in fiction. When I read a book and go, “Oh, hey, it’s another hard-boiled ex-cop,” I put it aside, because I get little pleasure from repetition. My favorite books are the ones that show me something wildly new that I haven’t seen before.
To me, I hear “Indian trans character” and I go, “Wow, that’s new! I wonder how that would work!”  And I’m excited to read that, and to write that, if I have a home for that person.

And as always, speculative fiction is speculating about things we haven’t seen, or can’t see.

And ironically, what we speculate about, what we have left to imagine about in our literature is largely driven by movies and special effects on film.

Not puppies.

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