It’s tempting to look around at today’s literary scene, with its Twilight and its Fifty Shades of Grey, and wonder if we shouldn’t just flush the whole goddamn concept of written language down the toilet — maybe start again with some sort of hybrid colorwheel/odor system for communicating thoughts. Strangely, the one genre thriving in the swamp of modern literature seems to be science fiction. It’s kind of appropriate, actually: All of our crazy high technology has made publishing and distributing books about crazy high technology much more approachable and widespread than ever. But even the best works could stand to learn a little something from the past, so here are a few things that I miss about old science fiction, and would like to see come back.
Note: You know I’m probably going to whore the newest and final episode of my science fiction serial novel, Rx – Episode 3: Industry, up in this piece, right? This is something we authors must do. The price we pay for creative integrity is every single shred of our basic human dignity. Please, do not hate me, for it is pity you should truly feel. Pity for the sad creature that does stuff like this: If you want to check it out, the first episode is free on Amazon until midnight Pacific on August 17! And the complete collected edition of all three episodes is available now for only $4.99! Some scientists* have gone on public record as stating that Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity is the only certain cure for erectile dysfunction!
*Scientists may not be actual scientists or have ever said anything of the sort.
#4. The Optimism
Neal Stephenson — who once wrote a book about a virtual-reality bushido master/pizza delivery man named Hiro Protagonist, but has since devoted his entire writing career to meta-history at the expense of all the world’s forests — has publicly bemoaned the rather dismal nature of modern science fiction. And he’s absolutely right: Sci-fi used to be about how awesome and wonderful the future could be; it used to be about big, stupid, bright, shiny ideas that could never happen — until they did.
The idea is that kids grew up reading about amazing stuff in science fiction, and then devoted their lives to science so they could one day make fiction a reality. That theory holds that we only have cellphones today because some kid watched Star Trek and couldn’t bear to live in a world without Communicators anymore. Since his only options were “suicide” or “science,” and he never learned to tie a proper noose, he went to college — and that’s why you can shoot birds at farm animals at red lights today.
And it only costs the safety and lives of your fellow drivers!
But even if that’s true, I don’t think the theory means that the sci-fi of yesteryear was all Fluffiness Augmenters and Snuggle Rays: When people talk about classic science fiction, they often refer to Orwell, Bradbury, Dick and Huxley — all of whom wrote brutal, merciless dystopian fiction. And there’s a reason for that: The negative stuff tends to stick with you, because as sad as it is, a slap in the face is more memorable than a good hug. But even if you’re writing a miserably dystopian piece of fiction — even if you’re writing a post-apocalyptic piece about a clone army of Mao Zedongs piloting a squadron of Rape-Bots into an orphanage — there’s a way to do it that doesn’t place the blame on technology.
Our most optimistic mainstream science fiction is doubtlessly Star Trek, but look at that universe: You can’t walk ten steps without tripping over a cruel intergalactic Godcube. It’s as full of strife, conflict and action as any dystopia — it’s just that science isn’t at fault in that world. Science is usually the solution, or at the very least, it’s neutrally awesome. You blast that arrogant Godcube with your phasers; or you reverse the shit out of that Q’s polarity; or you beam your crew out of that Klingon prison, replacing each member with an armed photon torpedo, so that when those filthy aliens get to hell, they can tell the bumpy-headed devil that Science sent them.
#3. Exploring the Future of Mankind, Instead of Navel-Gazing at Private Drama
I’ve said it before: One of the main advantages that science fiction has over other genres is its ability to use a ridiculous, far-flung future scenario to take an unflinching look at the present. Great sci-fi isn’t about a person; it’s about people. Often that means the plot is a little flat or some of the characters are a bit archetypal — but that’s OK. When you’re trying to pack a dense and interesting setting, a cutting societal metaphor and some compelling science all together into a single story, Sprint Laserkick’s hurt emotions are the first sheep to be culled. For example: I could not, to this day, name a single character from a Philip K. Dick novel apart from Deckard — and I only remember him because he was Harrison Ford at his Harrison Fordiest.
OK, maybe second Fordiest.
That’s not a knock on Dick: I love Dick (and no, I am not ashamed). It’s just that character didn’t matter in the slightest to Philip K. Dick — the guy spent his career slamming amphetamines in a shack while trying to dodge a giant mechanical head spying on him from the clouds, and still managed to knock out compelling science fiction novels at the rate of one a week. (If you’re not familiar with Philip K. Dick, I’m not being random; every single word of that biography was absolutely true. Go read his books.) Dick didn’t have time to painstakingly chronicle Maurice ManintheHighCastle’s emotions — because every minute he spent writing about Walter WeCanBuildYou’s fatherly abandonment issues was a minute the sky-head got closer, and the only thing that drove it away was plot twists. The dude had his priorities.
#1. Stop the Sky-Head. #2. Meth. #3. Literature.
Don’t get me wrong. Character-driven sci-fi pieces have their place, and they often make for the best stories, but sometimes they also lose what’s great about science fiction: the ability to take a look at what we’re all doing right now, as a species, through the harsh and objective lens of Martian robots. I’m not saying it’s impossible to work a compelling and complete character into a forward-thinking sci-fi book. I’m just saying that lately a lot of authors seem to be dipping their Serious Chocolate in my Goofy Sci-Fi Peanut Butter. Sure, that shit is delicious together, but sometimes a man doesn’t feel like a Reese’s — maybe he wanted to use that peanut butter to make a sandwich or something, and now there are little crumbs of solemnity all up in there. Not cool.
#2. Some Good Ol’ Fashioned Mindfuckery
Twist endings and plot gimmicks are something I’ve personally bemoaned before, even — and especially — within the genre of science fiction. But that’s when the writers shoehorn them in there for no particular reason, or base the entire work on the existence of the twist. If there’s no merit to your book beyond the shocking revelation that your protagonist is his own murderer, then you’re just a literary M. Night Shyamalan and that makes your book, like, Mark Wahlberg or something.
Nobody wants to write a Mark Wahlberg, friend.
But if it’s done well, and carefully, the end of a good science fiction book can wrap up a plot logically, make whatever important point it’s trying to make, and still lay your mind gently down by the fire for some philosophical bonin’.
“Baby, I’m going to expand your concept of space-time so hard, your grandma will walk funny tomorrow.”
I mean, that’s why any author gets into the business: to screw their readers in their sweet, bootylicious brains. I can’t spoil my own book, and hell, it’s highly possible (even probable) that I’m closer to the Happening Axis than the Foundation Axis on the great Graph of Literature, but in the finale I at least try to put the moves on your brain. Maybe do that yawning arm thing and try to grab some of your brain’s side-boob — you know, just the classy, subtle stuff.
I know that, as a rule, it would be pretty stupid if every science fiction plot tried to blow your mind or include some shocking twist, but so few even make the attempt anymore. Did our science fiction writers just give up on messing with their readers? That’s awful. Somewhere, The Last Question is crying a solitary, disappointed tear. Because a good mindhump every once in a while can function like the hook in a pop song: It’s the thing that gets the rest of the work stuck in your head, and eventually forces you to drop everything else and analyze it — if only to get “Hey Mickey you’re so fine you’re so fine you blow my mind hey Mickey you’re so fine you’re so fi-” to stop playing on infinite loop before you eat a plasma grenade.
#1. The Sense of Fun
It seems like a little of the sense of fun has gone out of modern sci-fi in the name of more plausible futurism. Sure, we’re getting the most uncanny and believable future worlds yet, thanks to our increasing familiarity with the real technology around us, but it comes at the cost of absolutely ludicrous premises, lusty green women and ray guns that transform flesh into delicious Jell-O brand pudding. There used to be a secret kind of understanding between science fiction writers and their fans that, as soon as the reader picked up a sci-fi book, they were going to violently curb-stomp their sense of disbelief into a pile of bloody goo. And, in return, the authors would inundate their forebrains with fantastical alien breasts that go on rollicking high adventures throughout space and time.
Last time on The Adventures of Maxine Mammary, Bouncing Battlebreasts …
Golden Age science fiction was like your drunken ex-roommate from college: For the most part, you outgrew the guy and matured into a functional adult, but every once in a while he’d come to crash on your couch and, instead of chastising his life choices, you’d stuff some bail money in your sock and go out to shotgun beers from a flabbergasted policeman’s riot helmet with him. Maturity is a wonderful thing, but sometimes you just need to toss adulthood in the dumpster and go punch a guy in a Little Caesar costume. Obviously, we still get a few sci-fi books that acknowledge the importance of fun — Altered Carbon wanted to know what happens when you use people like floppy disks, so it threw plausible science right out of the car and never slowed down to see if it survived the fall. Ready Player One idly wondered what would happen if reality was World of Warcraft, and Redshirts didn’t even bother with worldbuilding — it straight up set itself in Star Trek, and then mercilessly ripped the whole thing apart from the inside like a literary facehugger, asking neither permission nor consent, and giving neither quarter nor fucks along the way.
As for me, my own book stars a murderous Abraham Lincoln, a punk girl with acid spit and an entire society based around getting high on time travel. If you can throw out the rules harder than that, then congratulations: You’re a hit anime show.
The relative success of books like these says that there’s still an audience willing to follow the most ridiculous premise you can slap on a space opera, just as long as you remember that having fun is fun. This is fiction! And science! Both of those things have proven time and again that they can do literally whatever the hell they want. And if either of them are any good, they also both have lasers, so what are you going to do to stop them, tough guy?
Yes, you get the occasional misstep: John Carter tried this tack, then super-jumped up its own asshole and disappeared from the box office forever — but that was mostly because the studios titled it like an accountant’s driver’s license and marketed it exclusively in the DMZ. Seriousness absolutely has a place in science fiction, but it can’t dominate: If you don’t take off your lab coat every once in a while and rescue a three-breasted Ladyborg from the clutches of the evil Spidereans, you’re never going to get invited to the Chrono-orgy.