Thursday, October 17, 2013

In which I take Charles Stross to be a symbol of a certain very popular kind of contemporary sf in general

Matt Hilliard praises Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood highly in his Strange Horizons review. As a review it's quite good, giving a coherent description of both the book and Hilliard's perspective on it, his reasons for liking it. But Stross--or more specifically his popularity and the critical respect he receives--has been becoming more and more of a symbol in my mind of the extreme tininess of a big swathe of the sfnal imagination, and a bit in the plot-summary section of the review has irked me into writing this post, which isn't really about Stross, and much less about Hilliard, but more about a general climate I find in sf today.

Stross's novel, Hilliard writes,

is set thousands of years from now in an era when the androids who survived humanity's extinction have spread to hundreds of star systems...Krina Alizond-118, a "metahuman" looking for Ana Graulle-90, [and] her "sister"...carry the two encrypted halves of an incomplete Bitcoin-style peer-to-peer financial transfer.
The description of the setting sounds potentially interesting (though honestly I'd like some kind of a moratorium on the "meta-" prefix in sf*); lots to explore there. But my problem--and this is always my problem with Stross, and with writers working in a similar vein (Hannu Rajaniemi comes to mind, and many others as well, though I can so rarely finish their books that I can't recall their names at the moment), so I doubt I'm just overinterpreting one line in a review of a book I haven't read, though if I am, my apologies, but everything that follows is still how I feel about this kind of writing in general--is that, having come up with this intriguing setting, he immediately goes about filling it with, basically, The Latest Internet Trends.

*In the fiction itself, not in writing about it.

I can't help but think that this whole enterprise is just radically wrong. I hate to break it to you, but the internet, both as it is composed today and in itself as an entity, is extraordinarily ephemeral. I'd be startled if any aspect of it were recognizable in ten years, and even more startled if it existed in any form whatsoever in, say, forty. To suggest that the kind of thing that goes on on it today might be going on thousands of years from now when all the humans are extinct...I'd call it goofy if it didn't make me so depressed.

It's not that I think sf futures should be beholden entirely to some "plausible" notion of what the future will really be like, as though such a thing were possible (though I do think there are certain responsibilities one takes on when one chooses to portray a future, but that's a topic for another time), and much less do I think sf should be (shudder) "predictive." It's that I find the smallness of imagination required to posit a society thousands of years from now that is merely rehashing some of the technologico-economic trends of today extraordinarily tiresome.

People often complain, rightly, that the writers of the so-called Golden Age, though writing about galaxies-spanning societies hundreds of thousands of years in our future, couldn't seem to envision any change whatsoever in such institutions as the family, or really mid-century WASP culture in general. And yeah, this is a problem! But I find that I would much rather read this kind of future than the kind Stross writes about, despite the fact that I nominally "agree" with his politics much more*, despite the fact that these future societies are if anything more oppressive towards people like me (and even more so towards people unlike me) than present reality, because it is apparent in them that these failures of imagination, colossal and reprehensible though they certainly are, come about because the imagination is focused elsewhere.** In these contemporary stories of PAYPAL IN SPAAAAAAACE and so forth, the imagination fails most catastrophically precisely at the point where it chooses to focus itself.

*Though I must say his radicalism tends to carry a bit more of a whiff of liberalism than I'm comfortable with.
**Not to mention that a portrait, even a thoughtless one, of an oppressive expansionist empire is much more honest than a one of an expansionist empire that is somehow magically not oppressive (I don't know if Stross specifically is guilty of this, but this post isn't really about Stross specifically and it's a common thing). As Joanna Russ liked to ask, who's taking care of the kids? who's making the food? where does the wealth come from? etc...

My problem is not so much with Stross himself; he is either, to look at it charitably, writing what interests him and what he is capable of writing or, to look at it a bit less charitably, writing what he knows will sell well. And this last is really what troubles me: this immensely impoverished vision is popular, is critically respected, is considered to be vital work--in a field that prides itself on its intellectual and imaginative adventurousness.

[BTW, I'm writing this at work, which, pro!, is why it's a (slightly) shorter post than my usual lumbering beasts, but con!, means I'm not able to devote much attention to cleaning it up. So, apologies for the probably-greater-than-usual awkwardness of the writing. Also, please don't take my comments here on "Golden Age" sf as comprehensive. I'm not proposing we ignore its failings, I just think that assuming a fixed background is a different kind of failing than actively positing a fixed foreground.]

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