Reading The Big Book of Science Fiction is causing me to reevaluate my relationship with science fiction. For most of my life I wanted science fiction to be serious speculation about the future. I considered ideas the pinnacle of science fiction’s virtues. But after reading a couple thousand science fiction short stories over the last decade, I realize storytelling is the primary consideration. Insights and ideas are secondary. Anyone can have a cool idea, it’s how they’re presented that determines the success of a story.
“The Doom of Principal City” by Yefim Zozulya reeks of Western Union. It might be an interesting example of an early dystopia, but that’s all it has, academic appeal. The reason why Nineteen Eighty-Four is still read and why its still so damn readable, is because we care about Winston Smith. The next reason we read Nineteen Eighty-Four is the marvelously crafted world building. We don’t have a character to care about in “The Doom of Principal City” and the setting only feels didactic. I’ve come to really dislike satire. Too often satire is buckshot broadsides, whereas beautiful storytelling uses precisely placed bullets. Of course, when I was young, satire was easy to love because it made us feel grown up and superior, but now that I’m old satire feels childish and snooty. “The Doom of Principal City” came across as vague cleverness, but then the writer might have feared political reprisals.
I should give Zozulya credit for the context in which was written, but I can’t. There was a certain level of cleverness in having the city conquered by peaceful means that turn oppressive, but the solution is the same old violence and destruction. I should give Zozulya credit because the story is still topical. Principal City could be Kabul. Think about it. Reread the story. But like I said, real art is about specifics. Its easy to be vaguely clever, but much harder to be vividly detailed.
Which gets me back to my new realization of what I love about science fiction. Storytelling is becoming everything. Science fiction only grabs me now with how the story is told. It can be simplistic or sophisticated, but its got to suck me in. Philosophical fiction, satire, social protest, experimental fiction just doesn’t dance anymore. I can admire writers for what they’re trying to do intellectually, but not as science fiction that moves me emotionally.
And I think this is due to aging. When I was young, I was easily amused, and easily impressed. “The Doom of Principal City” might have struct me as clever, or meaningful. Now, not so much. And partly that’s due to its narrative style. It feels like a parable, or allegory, rather than modern fiction. It’s setup reminds me of “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” by Daryl Gregory about a small country under attack by a powerful country with a superhero military force. I’m not fond of superhero stories, but Gregory’s storytelling was vivid and rich. That’s what’s missing from “The Doom of Principal City.” I have to wonder if writers back in 1910s didn’t have such abilities, or we’re just getting the weak examples of what they could do. I don’t think its the translation. “The Dead” by James Joyce was from that decade, so we do know what’s possible, although it might be fairer to use Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs to compare, since they were genre writers.
I worry that the poor storytelling examples we’ve had at the beginning of The Big Book of Science Fiction is because the genre lacked for better ones. Or, are the VanderMeers more impressed with ideas?
“Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker is a recent example of what I consider captivating storytelling. It does have plenty of sparkly ideas, but what really sparkles is how they’re presented.
James Wallace Harris, 9/1/21