Falling Expectations

Is it just me, or is mainstream science fiction starting to look a little tired?

I’ve been working my way through some of the big novels of the day, and I find it to be a rather wearying experience. Blurbs for the books always tout their inventiveness, but the building blocks of science fiction are looking pretty shopworn. It’s as if every SF book comes with a kind of unwritten rubric, a series of questions or boxes that an experienced reader ticks off while reading:

  • Faster than light travel–possible or no?
  • Artificial gravity–possible or no?
  • Hard AI–possible or no?
  • Uploaded consciousness–common or unheard of?
  • Intelligent aliens–real or no?
  • Time travel–paradoxical or possible?
  • Parallel universes–real or ridiculous?

There are certain concepts that can simply be assumed–a ranking of lifeforms and civilizations as more or less advanced, a Cartesian notion that the mind can be extracted from the body and transferred to some other medium, the tendency to conceptualize space exploration as a recapitulation of naval history, the old idea that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And there areĀ gee-whiz elements that reliably reappear, like genetic engineering and a fascination with Einsteinian thought experiments. If a book deals with economics, chances are it will focus on theories of value grounded in scarcity. Religion is always treated as an exotic affectation, like using candles instead of electric lights. Aliens typically take the form of wondrous animals or exaggerated elements of the human psyche.

It’s remarkable how many old topics and themes have passed out of favor. Works of the golden age were heavily focused on psychology, political theory, allegory, sociology, religion, and history. What’s the best way to structure a society? What constitutes legitimate authority? How do civilizations and religions rise and fall? It’s rare nowadays to see a story about psionics. The fashionable topics of the New Wave–sex, drugs, family structure, altered states of consciousness–have also faded into the background, appearing now as forms of local color.

And then there are ideas that have never figured very prominently in SF. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a science fiction novel that really digs into statistics or probability. Meteorology is still an unpopular field, except as it applies to global warming. Few authors show any interest in economic models concentrated on labor. Chemistry still gets surprisingly little attention. (Aren’t chemists ever tempted to write science fiction novels? Have astrophysicists and computer scientists formed a secret, protective cabal?) The cyberpunk authors put a spotlight on fashion trends and marketing, but few subsequent authors have followed their lead.

What’s left? A lot of stories about cyborgs fighting wars and solving crimes in vast galactic empires. Sometimes the cyborgs are AIs who resemble humans. Sometimes the cyborgs are humans enhanced by AIs. But the basic formula–a superhuman hero, zipping world to world, fighting baddies–is all over the bestseller lists. A few subgenres–action-packed space opera, post-apocalyptic mythopoeia–and a few thought experiments (AI, enhanced humanity) have come to dominate the field.

The result? Something like this:

Ariadne embodied in Parsivel’s upper orbit at twenty degrees past meridian, local time. The transfer beam that had shot her from Epsilon-Tau 7 twinkled on the deuterium plates of the cytofactor as she lounged in her bath of xenon gas, waiting for the macroassembler’s botfleet to finish constructing her toes. When her neuro-net finished synching with her limbic simulation matrix, Ariadne realized she was impatient. Extremely impatient. Frantic.

Damn it. Scrambling at the emergency release, Ariadne waited for the gas to vent and pushed up the lid of the arrival pod. Hell with the finishing touches–hair, eyebrows–she would have to finish this job bald. Jumping to the expansion grate on toes bereft of toenails, she reached for the multi-beam rifle deposited by the port’s homonculi outside her pod. Ariadne checked the cells and set the gun’s autotargeting for local spin and grav. At times of high stress–when overdue, say, for an assassination attempt–she resorted to the archaic curses of her ancient flesh-based ancestors. Damn it all to hell and below.

She had less than fifteen thousand standard seconds to punch a beam through the solid-state psycho-chip of the Primus Orator. And unless her mnemonic implants had deceived her, she had two flocks of time-shifted space-skimmers on her tail.

What happened? Have all the innovative writers switched to fantasy? Have they gone to television? Are craven, conservative publishers putting constraints on what gets published? Are all the experimental SF novels now repackaged as literary fiction?

Am I just the reading the wrong books? The thing is, I’m reading books that have been consistently recommended to me as the day’s best SF. And it seems to me that what was considered the day’s best SF used to be more various.

What gives?



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