Bob Billing, Associate Editor, SF
Issue #1: 01/01/01
Are we going somewhere nice?
Possible directions in Science fiction.
By Bob Billing
This morning I was in a local bookshop in England, browsing the SF shelves. There seemed to be only three categories on display.
1) Film and TV tie-ins.
2) Classic SF first published two or more decades ago.
3) Books by Iain M. Banks.
So what's happened to good, new SF? Obviously real SF sells - the shelves were well stocked with Heinlein and Asimov. But nothing more recent. There was even a whole section devoted to Victor Gollancz's reprints of their classic titles.
Curiously, cyberpunk was almost absent. Personally I think that this is an indicator of the way the market is changing, and it's an entirely healthy direction.
Let's take a look at some of these classics, and try to get a feel for the reason for their enduring appeal. For an example let's look at Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy, a series which I first read in the early 70s. By modern standards the construction of the books is flawed - the first opens with three paragraphs of pure infodump, then addresses the reader directly. Next we have a few comments about a character's early life in the pluperfect tense. This sort of thing would attract an immediate cry of "show, don't tell" on the crit circles. But in Dr. Asimov's hands it makes utterly gripping reading.
The same bookshop sells videos. I had a glance at what was on offer, and found "An Unearthly Child" and its sequel "The Daleks." These are in black and white, and were originally made by the BBC in the early 60s. They were the first episodes of what became the long-running TV series "Dr. Who." Yet they're still on the shelves and selling, complete with wobbly scenery, obvious rubber monsters and spectacular over-acting. It's only fair to confess that I have my own copies.
So what makes a classic? Why do some books and films stay on the shelves, and continue to sell, for years? In my opinion it comes down to two things. Firstly the classics have characters that engage the reader's sympathy. From the first page of "Foundation" Gaal Dornick comes across as a real person with hopes and fears, who has ambitions and makes mistakes. Similarly H Beam Piper's Jack Holloway in the "Fuzzy" novels (now back in print), or Anne McCaffrey's Lessa in the Dragon series instantly grabs the reader by the hand and lead them into the imagined world.
To my mind, it's the imagined world that is the second mark of the classics. Whatever or wherever it is, however terrifying its inhabitants, however dire the situation the protagonist must face, the imagined world of a classic is somewhere you want to go.
Read "Dragonflight" and you will want to leap aboard a dragon and fight threadfall. Read the "Fuzzy" novels and you'll start packing for a trip to Zarathustra to meet the fuzzies. Spend an evening with the "Foundation" trilogy and you'll begin to wonder when the next ship leaves for Trantor.
This is an experience I've never had with cyberpunk. I don't want to get into that world, and if I were there I'd be trying to get out.
This of course begs the question, "What makes an imagined world attractive?" I'd like to offer two suggestions. Firstly, the attractive worlds contain generous emotions. Lessa looks after her dragon, Jack Holloway is fond of, and protective towards, the fuzzies. Dornick cares about his mathematics.
My second suggestion is that the imagined worlds are well built. There is a sense in the books of the world being solid and going on beyond the edges of the page. This is the same quality that I find in good historical novels. Dudley Pope's books have it. Pope was a naval historian, and knew a great deal about sailing ships - so when his Captain Ramage invites you on board there's a smell of salt and tar in the air. Brian Lecomber's flying novels put you in the pilot's seat, Dick Francis can sit you on a racehorse.
However for the last decade or so this sort of thing seems to have been out of favour in SF. I've tried to read cyberpunk, but every time I've come away saying, "Is this sort of thing really necessary?" This is a warning signal to me - I don't understand the sub-genre and shouldn't criticise it. But on the other hand, if I can't enjoy reading it, why should I buy it?
And that's why I think there is hope for the future of SF. Readers have simply become tired of characters fighting like rats in endless rat-infested, decaying cities. They want something to believe in again, they want to go somewhere nice for a change, and to be with people whose hopes and fears they can share. That's why I believe that SL Viehl's "Stardoc" trilogy points to a brighter tomorrow. It has a very sympathetic lead, some delightful subsidiary characters and a well-drawn, attractive world. It's the sort of thing I want to read, and the sort of thing that I hope the publishers will keep putting out.
And, of course, it's the sort of thing that I try to write. But that's another story.
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