I’ve recently turned 71 and beginning to realize, once again, that my taste in science fiction is changing due to aging. I’m in a Facebook group where we read and discuss one science fiction short story a day. That exposes me to many different kinds of science fiction, both old and new, covering the endless possible themes that science fiction explores.
I push myself to read every story, even when I’m not enjoying them. I try to give each story the best possible chance but things are starting to change. That could be for several reasons. After reading a couple thousand SF short stories over the last five years, I might be burning out on certain kinds of science fiction. And I’ve been having health problems, and I only have half the vitality I did just a few years ago. Meaning, I might not have the psychic energy to consume as much science fiction. Ultimately, I believe it’s because getting older is making me more down to Earth, changing what I want from science fiction. Then again, I might be getting old and just losing my patience.
For some of my Facebook comments, I’m starting to use the excuse that I didn’t like the story because it’s science fiction is too far away for me. By that I mean, the setting is too far away in space or time. I’ve never been much of a fan of fantasy, and science fiction that’s far away in space or time feels like fantasy fiction. Some of these stories are beautifully written, with fantastic world-building, and wonderful character development. I should like them just for the storytelling, but I don’t. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I just don’t care about characters that live in unbelievable settings.
I’m not sure this attitude is entirely consistent. I’ve been meaning to reread Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, which is set in the far future and is very fantasy-like. I’ve read it twice in the last half-century, and it’s a beautiful tale. Would I still like a book I loved before if its setting is too far away? I don’t know, but I’ll report if I ever reread it again. Right now, I tend to be forgiving of old science fiction. I’m harder on new science fiction.
I keep trying to read the New Space Opera writers, and I just can’t get into them. I want to read the Culture novels by Ian M. Banks. Theoretically, they’re something I think I’d love, but I just can’t get into them. They are too far away.
This week I started listening to The Mountain in the Sea, Ray Nayler’s first novel I believe. I’m loving it, but then its setting is very near, on Earth, in the foreseeable future. The basic plot is about discovering a species of octopus that are social, tool-making, and developing a language. Since I’ve recently read The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery and watched My Octopus Teacher on Netflix, Nayler’s speculation is very realistic. And that makes his science fiction very near.
A second major theme of The Mountain in the Sea is artificial intelligence, and Nayler handles it in a very realistic way too, again making his science fiction very near. I’ve been admiring Nayler’s short stories for a while now, but sometimes they are about AI and downloading human minds into machines or people, and I find that science fiction too far away for me. In fact, I dislike the whole theme of brain downloading and uploading.
One thing Nayler does in his novel is quote two future nonfiction books: How Oceans Think by Dr. Ha Nguyen and Building Minds by Dr. Arnkatla Mínervudóttir-Chan in chapter headings. These two authors are also characters in the book. This gives Nayler a clever way to infodump in his story and injects his story with philosophy and science.
There are several other themes in the novel that are valid to us today, slavery, over-fishing, exploiting the environment, loneliness, self-destruction on a personal and species level, and so on. This is a heavy book. I have a few hours left, so I can’t give away the ending, but I’m most anxious to find out what happens.
The Mountain in the Sea reminds me of other great near science fiction novels, such as Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Timescape by Gregory Benford, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. It also reminds me of the popular science books by Dr. John C. Lilly, who was a famous dolphin researcher back in the 1960s, and who went on to explore states of inner space. I’m especially reminded of The Mind of the Dolphin: A Nonhuman Intelligence and Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments. Books I read when I was young that has made me think about some of the things which Ray Nayler is making me think about again now that I’m old. It’s interesting that in the 1960s we thought dolphins were the closest intelligent species to us, but now we’re thinking it might be octopuses.
James Wallace Harris, 11/27/22
15 thoughts on “Near vs. Far Science Fiction”
Many thanks for all your discussion, as always, Jim! The Mountain in the Sea sounds fascinating. (Last night I heard about it for the first time through a Facebook discussion on the topic.)
Maybe this is a form of escapism on my part (at 58), but, although I like some near-future SF, my preference is for “cosmic” SF–time travel, space travel, stories involving the far future, time dilation, etc. I’ve loved this sort of thing since I discovered Planet of the Apes and 2001 at the age of eleven or twelve, but now I love it more than ever. I also like fantasy (broadly defined), and enjoy science fiction that straddles the boundaries between SF and fantasy, such as Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which I’m reading right now.
In any case, whatever our preferences, I don’t think there’s any reason why any of us “should” like any particular form of writing.
There have been times when I loved far science fiction, like Dying Earth stories, Olaf Stapledon epics about evolution, or novels like Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – books that are very far away.
Understood–I still love this kind of thing, although I had problems with both Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, and Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men. I disliked the protagonist in Tau Zero–a macho alpha male who beats everyone else into line. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed other stories by Poul Anderson, especially his novella “Flight to Forever,” involving time travel into the far future.
I found Last and First Men a slog, since it’s so abstract, with virtually no characters, not even the one-dimensional characters of much genre SF. It seems to be told entirely in the third person plural. I could absorb this level of abstraction in a short story, but not at novel length. I finally abandoned it fourth-fifths of the way through. Borges reviewed Star Maker (which I haven’t read) and commented that Stapledon gave the impression of having read a great deal of philosophy and very little fiction or poetry, and I see what he means after reading most of Last and First Men.
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I found it easier to listen to Stapledon. Stapledon was a philosopher but his ideas were so far out that science fiction embraced him.
Have you read The Dying Earth by Jack Vance or The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson? Two more very distant SF novels I like. Both are hard to get into but are epics of imagination. They are the kind of fantasy I do like. I also like comic fantasies about ghosts.
I haven’t yet read The Dying Earth or The Night Land, but I’d like to read them both, especially The Night Land. (I have it on my shelf.)
((Spelling: “Nayler”)) [then you can delete my comment 🙂 Cheers James!
No, I won’t erase your message. It shall remind me of my shame. For some reason, long ago I memorized Nayler’s name with an “o” telling myself that it’s spelled that way. I should have double-checked. I’m sure I spelled it wrong in many places on my blog, and elsewhere.
I just can’t trust my memory anymore. I need to double-check everything!!!
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Well-earned, self-reflective reply — right on Jim. I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of the book (his first ever) from Ray many months ago. It is FANTASTIC.
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There is a lot in The Mountain in the Sea. It’s quite philosophical. I’m telling on my friends about it.
And Ken, thanks for the correction, I can use all the help I can get!!!
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I am about half your age, but I feel a similar shift in my taste for science fiction. Good science fiction, or fantasy, is always struggling with the balance of something that is strange and fascinating enough for the reader – because we mostly want to read about other worlds and different beings than our own – while still keeping at least a small portion of relatability. And of course, if the story is set several hundred or thousands of years in the future, it also become untrustworthy if the people are still behaving mostly like humans today. I do think Iain M. Banks is one author that somehow manages to pull that off though.
I also just finished the audiobook “The Mountain in the Sea” and it was a delight to listen. It really shows that Nayler already is an experienced short story writer. He packs a lot of atmosphere, character and world building into a story that has just the right amount of plot to make things come together.
As Gary K. Wolfe writes in his review in Locus – it is a novel about people actually speculating – adding a whole new meaning to the term speculative fiction. The novel seems to have gained a lot of traction and I really hope it has enough of it to be considered for the Hugo next year.
I think in the past, science fiction writers did more real speculation than they do now. Although there are many writers who still do extrapolation and speculation like we’re talking about.
I like it when a writer takes a cutting-edge idea from here and now and then tries to guess what future discoveries it might lead to. A lot of current science fiction takes old speculations and makes elaborate confections out of them. I call that baroque SF.
Jim, I like your phrase “baroque SF,” and I must admit like the phenomenon itself–“taking old speculations and making elaborate confections out of them.” Maybe it’s because I’ve always had a vintage/retro streak.
I just finished The Mountain in the Sea this morning and thought it would be fun to do a search to see what others had thought of it. Like you I loved it. The way that science fiction and science fact entwine, the themes and social commentaries on them.. it was all so cleverly written. You will have read the ending by now – what did you think? I thought it was very clever how the three threads came together.