Heat Death of the Universe Warmed Over

When people get to a certain age they can be seduced into believing that the world (or some symbolic part of it) is coming to an end right along with them. And for some reason that’s a comforting thought.

Paul Kincaid, for example, says in a review of three year’s-best anthologies for the Los Angeles Review of Books that, judging by what the editors presented as the field’s best work, science fiction looks played out:

The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.

In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them. For example, “Dolly” by Elizabeth Bear (in the Gardner Dozois collection), is a story of police investigating a murder that may have been committed by a robot. It is not a bad story, in the sense that it is efficiently told, with enough detail of character and setting to reward the reader, but the story itself deliberately harks back to the robot stories that Isaac Asimov was writing in the 1940s. Bear has brought the trope up to date, but she has not extended the idea or found anything radically new in it. Asimov’s stories can still entertain, and Bear’s story is much the same, but to find that one of what we are told are the best stories of 2011 is ploughing a furrow that is more than seventy years old is somehow dispiriting.

Kincaid’s negative prognosis about the genre’s health is getting a wide audience. The main reason is his established track record as someone with exceptional ability to analyze the genre on a grand scale. However, it’s also true that no one can resist seeing science fiction depicted as a slow-motion car wreck.

Is this the end of science fiction or is there a more accurate way of assessing the genre’s condition?

Camille Paglia once said, “I believe in cycles the way Yeats does. Civilizations have a growth cycle and they get to a peak and they decline and there is a destruction, and out of that comes a new one. Everything comes back, everything returns. It’s like this total loss and then recovery and restoration and a new efflorescence and then the whole thing declines again.”

Kincaid himself now says the genre’s exhaustion need not be a permanent or fatal condition. He unpacked his thoughts more fully for interviewer from nerds of a feather, flock together:

Well okay, I feel that science fiction is approaching such a state and needs to find some new purpose or energy in its turn if it is to continue to have any relevance. My essay was also intended as a polemical call to arms, though without trying to espouse any particular form of salvation.

If such exhaustion is not unusual to science fiction, nor is it original. We’ve gone through such states before. Science fiction, particularly in Britain, was moribund in the late-50s, early-60s, and the New Wave that Michael Moorcock propounded through his editorials in New Worlds was one form of revitalization. Similarly, both cyberpunk (particularly as articulated through Bruce Sterling’s polemical writings) and the British Renaissance were revitalizing movements in a genre that was largely running on the spot.

Kincaid’s LA Review of Books essay also complains:

Many years ago, Arthur C. Clarke proclaimed that “any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.” It is a notion that has clearly taken root with today’s writers since they consistently appropriate the attire of fantasy for what is ostensibly far-future sf, even to the extent of referring unironically to wizards and spells and the like.

When I read that I thought of Gregory Benford who often criticizes writers who fail to observe the boundaries between sf and fantasy. Indeed, Benford analyzed Clarke’s quote on his blog just the other day and what distinguishes sf from fantasy generally:

Science fiction is a form of writing but it’s also a way of looking at things – a mode of thought. It requires mental landscapes more demanding and inventive than modernism.

Benford says much more, but I found that line particularly helpful in articulating my response to the latest pronunciation about the heat death of the sf universe. SF is a way of looking at things – and from time to time another generation of writers comes along with their own ideas about what things they will use this form to look at. While many of us having this discussion have stayed through one or more change already, it’s also conceivable that the transition causes a turnover in readership. The genre moves on, but the players do not remain the same. In which case we might represent the last generation, but only for a certain flavor of sf.

[Thanks to Andrew Porter for the story.]

5 thoughts on “Heat Death of the Universe Warmed Over

  1. Yes, and there were an infinite number of Greek plays to be written when the ancients abandoned them, too. Maybe it’s not the genre that gets tired, but the people who create and consume it?

  2. Robert Anton Wilson wrote in the aftermatter to Illuminatus! that societies pass through five divisions, from creative anarchy to the overbureaucratized superstate (the portion in which we appear to be now), which eventually collapses of its own weight into creative anarchy with the cycle beginning anew. That literary genres could do something parallel makes sense to me.

  3. I bet if we look in Warner’s history we’ll find a fan who said SF was dying in the early Forties.

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