What writers create with the tools of science fiction varies as tremendously what carpenters build with their tools. However, the consumers of science fiction, the editors and readers, tend to prefer specific products often by specific tools. In our short story club on Facebook, one reader noted that The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collected edited by Gardner Dozois which we just finished reading only had one story about spaceships. (I don’t know if it was just a curious observation or lament.)
If you expect science fiction writers to always use their tools to build spaceship stories you’ll be disappointed by how diverse science fiction stories have become. In the old days writers had fewer tools, mainly extrapolation (If this goes on…) and speculation (What if?), so they produced similar products.
Extrapolation was a great tool for creating stories about the near future that dealt with social and political change. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley used that tool to great success. Many SF writers cranked out stories based on the speculation tool: “What if we could travel to the planets?” “What if we could travel to the stars?” “What if we could travel in time?” “What if aliens invade the Earth?” and “What if we could build machines that act like humans?”
Over time, writers invented new tools to craft new kinds of science fiction stories. Take for instance alternate history or time looping or digital reality. If you look at the twenty-four stories collected in the Dozois anthology no two are really that much alike.
I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, so my concept of science fiction was shaped by the tools writers were using then. Even as a kid, I could tell that stories produced in the 1930s were different from those created in the 1940s or the 1950s. Writers in the 1960s were using new tools to create new kinds of science fiction that riled some older readers. Those oldsters claimed New Wave stories weren’t even science fiction, but I was young and loved that stuff. Now I’m old, and new waves are washing over me.
On social media I often see comments from science fiction readers bitterly bitching about contemporary science fiction. Does that mean what N. K. Jemisin produces isn’t science fiction? It’s true, what she’s building with the tools of science fiction in the 2010s doesn’t look like what Lois McMaster Bujold built in the 1990s, or Ursula K. Le Guin crafted in the 1970s, or Robert A. Heinlein hammered together in the 1950s. But isn’t all that work crafted with the same tools out of the SF toolbox?
The opening story in the Dozois anthology was “The Jaguar Hunter” by Lucius Shepard. It’s about a central American guy escaping into an Aztec reality. That doesn’t sound very science fictional. But is it any different from Harold Shea escaping into various western mythologies by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Platt? Sure, we can claim both stories were built with fantasy writing tools, but isn’t that missing the point?
The next story was “Dogfight” by William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, a What If story. What if we had technology that allowed people to mentally projects images into the air and make games out of them? This was a product of adding cyberpunk tools to the science fiction toolbox. I’ll assume most of our short story club members felt it was science fiction. “Snow” by John Crowley uses a slight variation of this tool. What if we had a tiny machine that followed us around like a wasp and filmed our life?
“Dinner in Audoghast” by Bruce Sterling imagines a dinner party hundreds of years ago in the Arab world when Europe was in decline. This story feels like it was completely constructed by tools for writing historical fiction. It wasn’t the only such story that Dozois picked for his anthology of the best science fiction short fiction of 1985. Many in the group rebelled at his decision, claiming those stories weren’t science fiction. And to be honest, even though I liked these historical stories I thought it odd they were in an anthology labeled the best science fiction. In other words, even when I try to be broadminded there are walls of the box that I can’t think outside of.
The group is about to start reading The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. There are already grumbles that their view of science fiction isn’t science fiction. Not only do readers prefer science fiction built with specific tools, so do editors, and unfortunately, there’s also generational preferences.
This has interesting implications for our group. We vote for the anthologies we read. We’ve learned that Judith Merril saw the genre much differently than Donald Wollheim or Gardner Dozois or Terry Carr. I’m expecting the VanderMeers to have a very unique view too. I still say the various stories are constructed with the same tools, but what writers make with them varies, and that’s reflected in editor choices, or fan’s personal preferences. I can easily see our group balkanize into Facebook groups devoted to Dozois SF or Carr SF or 1950s SF, or Military SF. John W. Campbell, Jr. really did define a certain kind of science fiction, and I think we’re learning anthology editors have distinct views too.
There is no requirement or pressure in our group for people to read the stories. We expect members to read whatever they want. But there is a certain pressure to find anthologies that people will like. It is somewhat disappointing to hear too many complaints about disappointing stories. Although I don’t want people to stop criticizing stories. I believe we all like learning about each other’s tastes, and some stories are actually better than others. Maybe what I want is for people who love collies to not judge pugs by collie standards.
One reason we only have about a dozen members who regular read most of the stories out of over five hundred members, is the lurkers probably choose to read only what they like. It’s probably why most SF fans prefer novels over short stories, and books over magazines. There are very few readers who have eclectic tastes suited for enjoying the diversity of short stories.
We’re a short story club, and like book clubs it’s very hard to find consensus, even more so because of the nature of anthologies. I’m looking forward to the VanderMeer anthology and I’m trying to be open to what they present, however I fear a backlash. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve complained myself about reading stories I didn’t like. On the other hand, I’m getting tired of younger generations complaining about older works and writers, and older generations complaining about newer works and writers. That’s driving me to expand my reading consciousness. It doesn’t mean I don’t prefer living in the past with 1950s and 1960s science fiction, but I’m trying not to be my dad who always screamed “Turn off that goddamn noise” when I played The Beatles.
I believe our Facebook group offers an interesting chance to try out a lot of different kinds of science fiction built with many different tools over many generations. It’s both rewarding and enlightening.
James Wallace Harris, 8/17/21
2 thoughts on “The Tools of Science Fiction”
I wanted to address two parts of your post. One is the idea of remaining open as you age. I often hear you become more conservative as you age. In many ways I am becoming less conservative in many areas. It my mid 60’s I am realizing unless someone asks they don’t want my opinion and will not listen anyway. It is just as well because I find out I am often wrong over the long term. I am not in charge, I realize now I barely know how to manage my own life so why should I decide how someone chooses to look, identify themselves or conduct their affairs. There are of course limits but mostly if it’s not criminal it is probably not something to get worked up about.
This extends to my science fiction I read new old and in between, I just started reading Aldiss short stories and wow. I purchased the Dozois anthologies as soon as I could I did not like everything or read everything but I found lots to like. There was no obvious fantasy and a nice range of authors. In the 11th I read Jack Cady’s The Night We Buried Road Dog which appeared in the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1993. In my mind it was not SF, it was not fantasy, not urban fantasy. There was mention of ghosts but it was not horror maybe a dash of the weird tale probably not. It did remind me of a favourite author Jonathan Carroll. But what it really reminded me of was being a young man it my late teens when you had your drivers licence and you and your friends hung around rattletrap cars patching rust spots, bull s## and listening to the radio. Was it SF who cares, I remember I am not in charge of definitions. But it was a story that stuck with me and Cady and Dozois gave me that. Your post reminded me of how important that story and the value of being open was for me.
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I recently got into Brian Aldiss too.
I especially love his story, “Appearance of Life.”
Like you, I’m not in charge, and I can barely manage my own life.
Another way to look at the Dozois anthologies is to consider every story as another analogy for reality. Each author has an insight about something they want to express but can only put it into a parable of SF or fantasy.
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