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Thread: How has SF changed?
August 17th, 2014, 07:28 PM #1
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How has SF changed?
Just finished reading an interview with four influential women in SF, editor Ellen Datlow and authors Ursula K. Le Guin, Pat Cadigan, and Nancy Kress. They were asked How do you think science fiction has changed, either as a genre or as a culture, from when you started in the field?
Among the answers: More women writers and women main characters, though the field still has a strong whiff of being a boy's club. More ethnic diversity and life styles. And better writing.
That last is one that I've especially noticed since I started reading SF/F 60 years ago. Complexity of themes, characterization, plotting, setting description in both vividness and richness: all have improved.
I think this was inevitable. Today's writers have read more diverse fiction, including the so-called classics of mainstream literature. They've soaked up the lessons of writers such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Orwell, and Huxley. This also includes works by women writers such as Pearl Buck, Alice Walker, Virginia Woolf and less recent authors such as Austen and the Brontės.
This shows up in hard sci-fi as much as in the "softer" kinds of SF. Among these writers include Gregory Benford, David Brin, Iain Banks, Elizabeth Bear, and Lois Bujold - and I haven't even got out of the Bs!
This improvement in writing styles is due not only to the non SF/F writers to which we've all been exposed, even if reluctantly. It includes exposure to earlier SF/F writers who quietly evolved from their pulp origins, such as Heinlein. We've also been influenced by other genre writers, such as Robert Parker in detective fiction.
(These are the writers, of course, who have influenced me to be a better writer. So don't argue with me about whether my list is valid. It is for ME! I'm sure others have their own unique lists; I'll be interested in seeing them.)
Last edited by Laer Carroll; August 17th, 2014 at 07:32 PM.
August 24th, 2014, 12:42 PM #2
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One of the changes in the SF/F field which editor Ellen Datlow sees is one I've noticed, too. There is a bit more respect for it in the academic and general fiction fields. There are also more writers of general fiction and other genres who stray into SF/F territory, either using some SFnal or fantastic elements in their writing or outright writing SF/F.
There are likely several reasons why this is so. One is the success of SF/F movies and TV shows. Few media fans become fiction fans, but some do. Too, SF/F elements have become more widely dispersed in the general population, partly from the SF/F movies and TV shows, partly from general fiction which uses those elements. And partly because real versions of them have become daily reality. Spaceships, space weather cams, satellite phones and cell phones are just the most obvious. And every teenager can buy and fly a drone.
Some SF/F fans may lament that we are no longer such a ghetto, huddled behind walls congratulating ourselves on our specialness. I do not.
August 24th, 2014, 06:28 PM #3
As Ursula Le Guin often points out, SFF never was a ghetto. It was entirely a perception issue, largely based on packaging and methods of bookselling, rather than an actual issue, and it was only a perception leveled on SFF paperbacks coming out of the category market, not purely the idea of SFF itself. SFF authors in the category market have been studied by academia fairly extensively since the 1970's. Again, it's a perception issue -- the idea that SFF and academia only recently have anything to do with each other -- rather than reality. It's largely because the media started to notice that professors were using various texts in their classes, mainly those big ones that were movie adapted like Harry Potter and World War Z, which is all the media really cares about.
Likewise, the idea that there are suddenly more writers in general fiction, published outside the category market, doing SFF is a misperception. (Kind of like the idea that women fans only recently showed up to the SFF party when it got hot as genres, rather than the reality that women fans had been there all along and organized most of the conventions.) There has been a ton of SFF published in general fiction or in cross-marketing, by authors considered paperback (commercial,) and acclaimed (hardcover.) It was simply part of the total SFF market. The recent media perception that there are more of them in the general fiction market is due to the following factors:
1) Changes in how books are sold and packaged, including a lot more cross-marketing between general fiction and category markets and an increase in hardcover publication for category markets.
2) Several authors doing SFF becoming huge, and getting adapted for film/t.v. which interests the media and lends the idea that SFFH books (and YA books) are the hot field. Consequently, publishers can market some books as a big deal coming into the field, as if it was unusual, to get media attention. And if the author of the book is well known for books, then there is the potential film/t.v. adaptation, which again attracts the media. But if you look at the history, it's not unusual at all. Few thought it was strange when John Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick, or that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. became a university professor.
3) Having a couple of generations now of writers, readers and media people who did not grow up in the social stratifications of the 1960's and don't really understand the social underpinnings of the Beatles' song "Paperback Writer."
People like to pigeonhole, and the media does especially so that they can declare something one thing or another. When many things are clearly not one thing or another, the media usually chooses from two courses of action: either declare it to be one thing and vehemently defend it against really also being the other thing or things (the origin of not-SF SF and not-fantasy fantasy); or declare it to be multiple things and that this is a rare new phenomena due entirely to the brilliance, talent and daring of its creator(s). The first approach sets certain ground rules about how works can be marketed, and the second is a handy selling tool for publishers to get media attention. It has become increasingly hard for fiction writers to get media attention, especially any kind of television, so getting books positioned as some sort of new sensation of genre-blending is a straw publishers grasp for PR purposes.
But again, for more recent generations, the latter option is more familiar to them in all aspects of pop culture. There is a lot of niche-ifying, but those niche designations seldom have to do with dividing things by the refined aesthetic intellectual rich people versus the crude uneducated plebians who like explosions. You still see it the most in the movie world marketing, and such divisions also continue to perpetuate weird forms of sexism (men writers are the aesthetics who write weighty stuff, women the plebians who write commercial romance,) but it's becoming less common.
So rather than that we have more of something -- more academic study, more literary "regular" authors dipping toes in SFFH, what we have is a media and a populace which react to those things with a different set of perceptions still largely guided by packaging and global marketing, particularly when books cross over to visual media.
August 25th, 2014, 01:46 PM #4
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Good point: that the trends some people point to as real and sudden are really simplifications of more complex and more gradual processes.
As to what Ms. Datlow actually said about those trends, I leave it to readers to consult the round-table interview that was published in Lightspeed Magazine.
Speaking for myself: The process she points to indirectly is that SFnal ideas have been slowly spreading since before the 20th century. Those include general ideas about science and technology and specific ways sci/tech has been handled in SF. Those especially include cautionary memes such as those in The Time Machine: civilization destroying itself in wars and the human race splitting into two species, the Eloi and the Morlocks.
As for the SF/F "ghetto": This is a term that SOME of us have applied to ourselves in the fannish community. We sometimes distinguish ourselves from the "mundanes," those sad ordinary people who only read general fiction and thrillers or (sadder) nothing much at all. Terms like these are part of the process people use to build and maintain what might be called virtual communities.
Many of the historical ghettos were imposed from without and walled off, physically or socially, to protect those outside from contagion. "Vircoms" are created by their inhabitants, and are porous. We may inhabit a dozen, or dozens, of them, shifting from one to the other easily and quickly.
For instance, ever since 1982 when I arrived to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab I've attended the Thursday night meeting of LASFS, the L. A. Science Fantasy Society. When I began dancing the Argentine tango in 1989 I'd leave LASFS, park a half mile away at a Latino restaurant called Norah's, cinch up my tie, put on my suit coat, and dance till midnight to a small tango band.
At each place I knew the shibboleths. At LASFS I could tell everyone what Captain Kirk's middle name was and name the first widely popular movie to use drones as weapons. (Hint: It was much earlier than Terminator.) At the tango dance party I knew that in Argentina such parties are called milongas and that tango composer Astor Piazzolla grew up in New York city.
With the widespread use of the internet the creation and growth of vircoms has become global. Several of mine now include people all over the globe, including places I've only heard about and to which I would fear to travel.
And one of those is the SFFH community.
Last edited by Laer Carroll; August 25th, 2014 at 10:51 PM.
August 25th, 2014, 02:09 PM #5
Perceptions have had very real effects -- the "ghetto" effected people's careers one way or another. But like most identifications of ghettos, it wasn't real but a constructed ideology. In SFFH's case, it was an ideology that a lot of people rejected or ignored. These days, because perceptions have changed, and because of the Internet, that does come across as a more common stance. But again, it's more perceptions of people than actual facts on the ground.