This summer’s fiction issue is the first I can recall dedicated to one genre of fiction. Exciting for me – I grew up on science fiction, but I’ve lost touch with the genre. I was eager to see how it had developed. But I finished the issue still wondering.
First, the tone of the whole issue was unaccountably defensive. The cover art, “Crashing the Gate,” was kind of cute and clever, but the attitude seeped into the entire issue in a way that was just distracting. A dear friend who is a professor of contemporary American fiction said it this way:
I admit I was a little disappointed to see this attitude still hanging around; it gets in the way of actually doing cool things in SF when you have to keep backtracking to explain why it’s okay to do anything at all.
Speaking of backtracking, that’s my second complaint. The whole issue felt trapped in the past. Ray Bradbury. Ursula K. LeGuin. Margaret Atwood. Even William Gibson. Trailblazers of the genre to be sure, but…not the life of it today, I hope. The reminiscing by these familiar voices just reminded me why I had grown away from science fiction.
But mostly, I missed the insight I had been seeking most — what does the genre have to offer today?
In writing about science fiction while I was in college, I concluded that it’s a powerful way to take trends that are top-of-mind and extrapolate them into the distant future. The best science fiction not only tells a great tale, it explores the question, “What kind of world are we building?” Whether we actually get to that world isn’t the point. It’s a powerful thought experiment, and a channel for criticism.
For example, in the 1960s, Isaac Asimov was imagining life on far-away planets, each with a different form of government. He also explored the growing complexity around the intelligence and human-like function of machines. (Hmmm. I suppose you could say the same of Star Trek…)
In the 1990s, Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson’s characters confronted a world where corporations and international governing bodies rendered national governments insignificant. Plots might take us as far as the moon, but distant planets no longer figured in. Stephenson and Gibson also imagined lives lived “jacked in” — online — as much as in the physical world.
So what does tomorrow look like to today’s writers? From the short fiction pieces, I have no idea. And sadly, I’m not particularly inspired to find out. Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box” was the most arresting of the bunch, but I didn’t find out until just this minute that it was meant to be tweeted. Clever, especially since it fits with the form of the story (but a little less so because the writer doesn’t actually use Twitter). But that plus combating terrorism or strange diseases isn’t really enough to make me run out and buy books.
The only material that stuck with me after closing the magazine was the amazing collection of illustrations by Brendan Monroe that accompanied Egan’s story. I’ll end with one of them, since they seem to me much richer than the words.