When is SF not SF?

16F863FA-C336-4C72-8044-9E24B9F968AE.jpgI could, I suppose, pretend that the labours of the last month have been a hard slog, or that getting a 65,000 word novel out has been difficult. I could, but I won’t. PIRATES OF THE MOON has flooded out of me pretty much as quickly as I could type it, and although there’s a long way still to go before I consider it ready for a bigger audience than you, esteemed, Readership, I think in a lot of ways it’s the best thing that I’ve ever written.

Which is why I’m saddened to learn that according to some people, it will never get anywhere. Because it is utter, unashamed old school science fiction. It’s set on another planet. There are aliens. There are spaceships. There are robots. One of the main reasons I wrote it is because I wanted to write a story that harkened back to the stuff I loved as a kid, and still do now. It’s a very deliberate homage to authors like Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton and most importantly, a forgotten favourite, Brian Earnshaw and his Dragonfall 5 novels. These books were a massive influence on me when I was a kid, and Earnshaw’s idea of a space-faring family running a decrepit spacecraft came instantly to mind when I started hashing out the plot for Pirates.

But apparently no-one reads these kinds of books anymore. I had a Twitter and Livejournal chat yesterday with Adrian Faulkner, who is a thoughtful and perceptive writer of dark fantasy. He put me in the direction of a piece by Mark Charan Newton, who said just that. It’s here, and worth reading in full. And to an extent, I agree with him. Although good ole-fashioned space opera is booming on the big screen, fewer people are reading it. Or at the very least, not admitting to it.

And herein lies the problem. Proper wide-screen unrepentant space opera has a bit of an image problem. It’s viewed by the vast majority of the population as infantile, as a bit silly. It’s OK to watch Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica and enjoy it, but the idea of picking up a Midshipman’s Hope or Honor Harrington, or even perhaps a copy of Joe Haldeman or John Scalzi’s work seems to be beyond the pale. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, especially when you look at the robust health of the fantasy market, and the Harry Potter fans and Twilight Moms who will happily read books that are badged and racked as Young Adult. I’ll admit, I have deliberately pitched PIRATES at this very market. Partially as an attempt to break into a burgeoning market, but also as an attempt to try to write something without any sex or swearing in it. That was a challenge, I can tell you.

I would say, though, that the idea that literary SF is dying out is just plain wrong. One particular, tiny facet of it may by in decline, but on the whole we are living in a time when SF novels have never been in such a strong and accepted position. Let us, for example, consider Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon, whose latest novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is an alternate reality story that won the Hugo and the Nebula this year. Let us consider the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a bleak dystopian vision of a ruined earth. Margaret Atwood has been hilariously tying herself in conceptual knots for years by claiming that her stories of the future featuring clones and bio-engineering are not SF.

Going back to Mark Charon Newton’s piece, we can see that he too agrees that while what he calls “the core genre” is not doing so well, the tropes, imagery and themes of classic SF are alive and well and in the mainstream. He calls it appropriation. I call it assimilation. Let’s face it. We live in the 21st century. We live in a world where space travel is humdrum, where the planet is ringed with satellites. Where we can access more data than we could properly absorb in a lifetime on the bus, while listening to music and telling our mates what we’re up to all at the same time. A lot of what we’re living now was SF thirty years ago. So does this mean the genre is dead? No, of course not. SF has always been more a mirror to the world now than a vision of the future. At the moment, escapism is in, which is why fantasy is doing so well. And there’s another factor to consider.

Horror and fantasy fiction are both enjoying a resurgence off the back of the Young Adult market. Big, broad stroke movies and simple tales of magic and paranormal romance (shudder) have opened the market up in ways that could not have been imagined five years ago. It’s not going to take much for an SF story with the same broad appeal to have midnight openings at bookstores across the planet. My money is on Scott Westerfeld doing the business with the next book in his Uglies universe. And it’s telling that Stephenie Meyer’s latest book The Host is a story of good ole-fashioned alien Body-Snatching. That’s a sure way of getting the tweens and their moms off sparkly vampires and onto something with a little more (ahem) bite.

I’ll just sum up with a quote from Tamzin Outhwaite, star of the BBC show Paradox. This is a programme about an elite police squad that attempts in a Minority Report stylee, to solve crimes before they happen. She said:

Initially I thought it was a sci-fi project … Then I read the script and realised it wasn’t. It’s about police officers trying to work out whether there is a worm hole between two time zones.’

It does the old soul good to hear technobabble like that, it really does…

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Rob

Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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