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Thoughts After EuroCon2011

I had a wonderful EuroCon2011, where I tried my utmost to put away my habitually introvert self and talk to as many strangers as I could. That alone was worth the entire trip to Stockholm. Add to that a little exploring of the Swedish capital with my wife, and my visit only got better. And then there were the panels at EuroCon2011, and the interviews, and the speeches, and the readings...

Two guest-of-honor speeches stood in rather sharp contrast, and that started me thinking about the current state of science fiction – both in terms of variety and outlook for the science fiction genre.

John-Henri Holmberg, Swedish critic and editor through 40+ years, took a somewhat bleak outlook at the 'greying' SF fandom. In part, he noted, SF fans at the convention were older. In part the SF genre had very little new to offer today, with plenty of reused material, like John Scalzi's return to Heinlein's Starship Troopers and H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy.

Elizabeth Bear described today's age not as the Golden Age of SF—which she had heard some call it—but as the Rainbow Age: That is, a time of plenty and variety. She called for more acceptance among SF and Fantasy fans, so that we accept that SF and Fantasy fans love as different work as Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series and Ian M. Bank's Culture novels.

In general, I agree much more with Bear's description of the genre than with Holmberg's, and for several reasons.(*)

1) I think there's a very wide variety in the SF genre today, and I think there are many new additions to the genre. This is in part because I don't see Scalzi's return to the past as unoriginal. If you look at fashion, art, music, and even cooking, we live in a culture that mixes old elements and styles in a new way. Why shouldn't we do it in writing? 

But, as one unnamed person from the crowd said, 'Don't the new writers know the classic stories – they haven't even read Heinlein.' And then complained that the short stories he read were rip-offs of golden oldies.

I'll agree with that person inasmuch as ignorance of the genre roots is a bad thing, but I'm reluctant to show blind reverence just because an idea or theme has been explored by one of the genre's great profiles. Heinlein for instance. I've read two of his books (Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land), and I'm not so sure that they've survived the test of time. Stranger, for instance, can pretty much be summed up in haiku form:

Mike, the man from Mars 
Comes to Earth to save mankind 
But first he gets laid (**) 

Reading that story in 2003, I thought the sexual revolution debated in that novel had been outdone by reality. And in my opinion, the preaching tones in Starship Troopers are handled much better in Paul Verhoeven's ironic movie – and mercifully absent in John Scalzi's 'Old Man's War'.

So no, I don't think that today's reuse of the classics are a problem. On the contrary, I feel that if we are to offer something worthwhile to new readers, it's quite all right to offer classic stories in a modern context.

2) The genre IS evolving, and not just because it's riffing off the classics. As Charles Stross pointed out during an interview, near-future science fiction is quite popular at the moment, and there are plenty of stories to tell in the subgenre of mundane science fiction (SF without 'magic' elements such as time travel, faster than light travel, and more). Also, our knowledge of for instance cosmology, life in space, nanotech, ecology, genetics, epigenetics, and quantum physics form a solid background for new stories.

Yes, we are competing with science magazines for the 'sense of wonder' – science is moving faster than ever – but there's a lot of room for writing new novels and stories that the classical authors didn't have the scientific knowledge to write.

(And to that, I'd like to add: I think the mindset of the 40s and 50s was actually full of 'near future' SF – it's just that the near future in the 50s was one of easy travel to nearby planets, some of which (like Venus) were even thought to be inhabitable. We 'know' differently today, but I'm sure that future scientists will look at our fiction and say, "Well, they didn't get THAT right, did they?")

Still, progress in science makes for many new possibilities for science fiction writers, and I think it shows in the current genre works.
Whew, long post. Hopefully it goes to show that EuroCon2011 put a lot of thoughts in my head – which is good – and that I'm confident that SF as a genre is alive and kicking.

Let me know if you have a soap box speech of your own on this subject (link to old posts or write it in the comments), because I'd very much like to hear them.

Next post: Contest! Win, win, win! Just not tonight :-)

(*) This is according to memory. If I misinterpreted any of the speakers... well, that's what they get for not buying me a dictaphone.
(**) Ok, so there's more to it than that. Mike groks stuff too ;-)


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 22nd, 2011 09:13 pm (UTC)
Thank you for summing up a small part of EuroCon. I wish I could've been there.

Jun. 23rd, 2011 03:16 am (UTC)
This is but a small slice of what happened at the convention. I know I missed a lot of other good stuff (there were four rooms in use at all times), so you might say I wish I could have been there more as well :-) Still, I'm happy to share what I saw.
Jun. 23rd, 2011 06:19 am (UTC)
I love cons. I've only ever been to a few, but the bliss of it all! Where else can you wander the halls with a pirate carrying a flask of whiskey, I'd like to know *g*

Did you meet any fun/interesting people?

Styles and tastes change. I think Asimov's held up all right, as has Zenna Henderson, but I've sat down with a book of classic Hugo winners, and some of the stories, well...I'd rather read the modern version, frankly.

I'm glad you had such a good time :)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 01:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks :-)
Lots of interesting people there, with opinions on many things and stories to tell. Great reading too. I Even talked to a few famous ones (who were quite human ;-) Imagine trying to mingle with stars at a rock festival... )

And of course there are classics that hold up to scrutiny still. I recently read C.J.Cherryh's 'Downbelow Station', and apart from a single issue about one of the characters not having access to 'computer time', that novel really hit the nail on the issue of human conditions, making it pretty timeless. And Joe Haldeman's 'Forever War' felt surprisingly fresh, too. And I'm sure there are others. Ah, so much to read :-)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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