Tuesday, February 23, 2016

a year of reading short science fiction

So, I spent 2015 reading all of the short science fiction. Well, "reading all" — I looked at all the stories published in all of the free magazines I was aware of (though I ended up cutting some magazines when it became apparent that there was no chance of anything decent appearing in them, and I didn't look at, e.g., Beneath Ceaseless Skies or Nightmare because it's extremely rare for the things categorized as "fantasy" and "horror" to be of any interest to me), as well as in the subscription-only magazines I subscribed to (Interzone for most of the year, F&SF for some of it, Asimov's for all of it [except that for some reason I never got the December issue, which I'm sure was no great loss]). I didn't actually finish reading the vast majority of them; indeed, I ended up writing about almost every story I managed to get to the end of, because my goal was to write at least something about every story I liked even a little bit.

Why did I do this? God only knows. Because of some sickness I care about science fiction, though the state of the contemporary field works very hard at finding a cure.

What did I find? The field is garbage, almost exclusively. It is also enormous, exhausting, pointless. With some extremely rare exceptions, every word, every paragraph break, every thought, is routine and formulaic. With some extremely rare exceptions, there are no politics other than liberalism and fascism — to the extent that the two can be distinguished. With some extremely rare exceptions, what is unique to science fiction is wholly absent, and what is potentially good about other literatures is as well. With some extremely rare exceptions, the field is white, white, white, white, white; black writers, specifically, are almost wholly absent — and with some extremely rare exceptions, no one non-black seems to notice or care.

I was just on twitter for a regrettable half-second, and — despite my aggressive pruning of my TL to keep it relatively free of sf nonsense — even in that brief time I saw reactions to the recently-released, entirely uninspiring Nebula nominations that suggested it was fundamentally illegitimate to react to the list with a "meh" (admittedly the utterer of the specific "meh" in question was someone already much-loathed, for intermittently reasonable reasons), and that it is — I quote — "weird" to object to bad literature being nominated for a literary award if the writer of the bad literature is from a marginalized population. OK. (Meanwhile the liberals will swear up and down that the "puppies" — because when fascists give themselves a diminishing name, good liberals go along with it — are wrong when they say the liberals only care about identity, not quality. A field in which the literal actual for real fascists are even slightly closer to honest and correct than the closest thing to a "left" alternative is not a healthy field.)

When I started this project, I think I had the vague thought that maybe by highlighting every story I thought had anything decent going on in it, and explaining what I found that decency to be and why while also saying what reservations I had, that maybe people would start to think about what this writing is and does, and what it could be and do. (The liberals, for some reason I haven't been able to figure out, love to call the field — and whatever else they feel like annexing and sticking their imperial flag into — by Heinlein's preferred and frankly terrible term, "speculative fiction", but beyond their ineffectual and damagingly-formulated calls for "diversity" they seem entirely unwilling to speculate on what the field could be other than what it already is.) Whether this thought would be along my own suggested lines or not, I hoped to be able to at least contribute something. Turns out, though, that (with, again, some extremely rare exceptions) there is no interest in thought, only a "praise/attack" binary (and that belovedly meaningless middle ground, "I don't agree with everything but it's interesting," with no follow-on discussion). (Of course, anyone who did start to write with some thought would then have to somehow sneak that work by the horrible editors in this godforsaken wasteland...)

So for the most part, I regret spending a year of my damn life doing this. Yes, I read some things I'm glad to have read, and a few things that will stick with me as important, but looking over what I wrote about....well, many of them are merely "ok" against a background of terrible; many, I regret calling even some little attention to.

But anyway. Here's the tag; as far as I know everything in it between the January/February recommendations post and the post about M. Téllez's (legitimately excellent and not-coincidentally self-published) "About a Kid and a Woman" was originally published in 2015, with two exceptions: Sofia Samatar's "A Brief History of Non-Duality Studies", originally published a few years back in Expanded Horizons, and Ras Mashramani's "A Young Thug Confronts His Own Future", originally published in a Metropolarity zine in, I think, 2014. If you care about the Hugo Awards and haven't submitted your ballot (or whatever it's called) yet, consider that tag (with those exceptions) my recommendations post. (It's a shame about the exceptions, because those two stories are easily among the handful of actually-important stories I read all year.) And if I may be forgiven some link-lists, both in alphabetical order by writer's name:

My favorite stories of 2015, with links to my posts:

And my favorite of my posts about the stories (excluding the ones linked above):


lostgander said...

I've been following your progress here for a few months, and thought I'd drop in to congratulate you on finishing such a project, despite the disheartening nature of your conclusions. Science fiction has long been the only 'genre' that I ever felt drawn toward as a reader, as someone who tends toward reading so-called experimental fiction (for lack of a better brief description). But most of the promise I've discovered in writers like Joanna Russ and Alice B. Sheldon has not been borne out in my digging for other writers I might like. Granted I have not read far and wide in the genre, especially not among contemporary writers, but your assessment here of the state of today's short SF certainly doesn't embolden my hope for finding new favorites. It sounds as if past writers such as Russ and Sheldon still continue to be the (extreme) outliers.

Ethan Robinson said...

! - thank you, both for reading and for commenting.

Almost everything you say here is something I could have said myself. (Though I think my aversion to the word "experimental" is a bit stronger than yours seems to be :p).

I tend to think that I and the field went in irreconcilably different directions sometime in the early 80s. (Coincidentally, right around when I was born - which I mention just to say, when I say "I went in a different direction" I don't mean in real time!) I used to look for reasons for this in the field itself - I once attached a great deal of importance to Sheldon's "outing", thinking it was what precipitated the anti-feminist backlash of 80s sf, which necessitated rebranding 70s sf as "stale" - I wrote a post about it, here http://maroonedoffvesta.blogspot.com/2013/10/on-tiptree-and-backlash.html if you're interested - but I'm no longer so sure. It seems to me now, for one thing, that publishing in general became much more conservative, politically and formally, after the 70s, and that sf just went along with it (though one could say that this in itself is a sign of the field's then-new alignment with the so-called "mainstream).

And for another thing I'm much more suspicious of, well, everything now - for example, I don't think nearly enough importance has been attached to Sheldon's being a CIA agent.

I was about to go off on some big speculative (hah!) lecture, but really there's no need to direct it at you (surely I've already gone on long enough), and it's all stuff I need to work out more. I'm in a phase of major disillusionment, is the upshot.

Thanks again for the kind words - it means a lot.

sean said...

That's an interesting theory about Sheldon's 'outing' and its possible effects on SF. I hadn't considered that, but your post makes some good points (I still need to read the Russ links--hadn't come across those before). I also agree that publishing became more conservative after the 70s and that probably is related. The growing corporatization of publishing also likely had an effect, and the increase in conservatism was probably directly related to the dollar signs now governing so many publishing decisions, not to mention the predilections of the individual corporate overlords (last I checked there were five corporations holding the majority of American trade publishers). But whereas a good amount of the more radical* literature being written outside of clear genre lines found homes in small presses after the larger houses stopped taking so many chances, there doesn't seem to have been a parallel move in the SF field. Unless I am just unaware of it, which is quite possible. In recent decades one has been able to find occasional non-traditional SF stories published in small literary journals, but what about novels? Is there no one willing to publish them or is there just no one writing them? I find the latter hard to believe. And I'm not talking about slipstream, because I think those novels that can be found here and there. I mean the harder SF stuff that Russ and Sheldon wrote.

*please forgive 'radical' like you forgave 'experimental'...

lostgander said...

Oh sorry, posted under a different name that time (the problems of cross-platform commenting!).

Ethan Robinson said...

Hah, no worries, I saw through your clever disguise...

In recent decades one has been able to find occasional non-traditional SF stories published in small literary journals, but what about novels? Is there no one willing to publish them or is there just no one writing them? I find the latter hard to believe.

This is something I wonder about all the time. Where has this writing gone? I think it's impossible that no one is writing it. But literally no one seems to publish it! You do occasionally see something really singular come out of the small sf presses (I'm forever pointing to Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett and Sarah Tolmie's The Stone Boatmen and NoFood - all from Aqueduct, who are putting out another Tolmie book later this year), but even these publishers for the most part seem much more traditional, or mired in a particular style (with some exceptions not much out of Small Beer, say, is likely to interest me, all that vague fabulation).

And then there's "alt lit" or whatever, I had Blake Butler's Sky Saw enthusiastically recommended to me once when I asked a similar question, and I despised the living daylights out of the first 20 or so pages before I gave up. But both cases are extreme rarities, and even then not quite what I think we're both talking about, much as I love the Brissett and Tolmie on their own merits. (Of the two I think Brissett is much closer.)

And of course self-publication - Metropolarity does phenomenal work - but that's so swamped with big-house imitations, good luck finding anything...

So where has this writing gone? What is it doing?

sean said...

I'm glad you mentioned Elysium, as I had been eyeing that recently as a possible read. I will check out the others, too. I'll admit that much of Aqueduct's title list did not look appealing to me on first glance, simply based on reading their descriptions. But personal recommendations go a long way toward convincing me otherwise.

I've had bad experiences reading 'alt lit,' enough to make me averse to even considering reading a title falling somewhere within its vague parameters. I've also read effusive reactions to Butler from some people whose opinions I normally respect, but his books never sound appealing to me.

Perhaps this younger generation of up-and-coming writers doesn't have the patience and/or attention span to accomplish the extensive worldbuilding I like to see. The 'vague fabulation' you speak of is, I believe, arguably easier to pull off than creating an entire universe that operates within its own logical framework.

Agreed, too, about the self-publication conundrum. Could be some jewels hidden in there but they don't tend to rise to the top unless someone sees a possible blockbuster film adaptation.

Ultimately you may need to start your own press. :)

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