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INTERVIEW: Paul Kincaid--Is SF "Exhausted?

" (Part 1)

Paul Kincaid is one of the most well respected critical voices in science fiction
and fantasy. The author of such books as the Hugo-nominated What It Is We Do When
We Read Science Fiction, Kincaids writing has also appeared in such outlets as the
Times Literary Supplement, New Scientist, New York Review of Science Fiction,
Strange Horizons and SFSite. The G was lucky enough to be able to sit down with
Paul to discuss his recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here's Part 1
of their talk...

Let me begin by saying were thrilled to have you with us today, and to get the
chance to talk in a bit more depth about your recent LA Review article [The
Widening Gyre, 9/3/2012], in which you look at three yearly anthologies of short
fiction: Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual
Collection, Richard Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy: 2012
Edition and Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. I was really blown away by the article, as
were most people who read it. Could you just walk us through the genesis of this
project? How did you decide to take this up?

Its really quite simple: I was commissioned to write it. Not the polemical aspect
of it, but the LA Review of Books approached me to do a review of five years best
anthologies. As it happened, two of them didnt show up, so I ended up reviewing
those three.

At one point, I came within an ace of turning the commission down. Ive reviewed
best of the year anthologies several times over the last few years, and I felt I
was beginning to repeat myself. But almost from the moment I started reading the
Dozois I found my argument, and the more I read the more clear and urgent it became
to me. It took a long time to write, actually, almost two months, and there were
several false starts along the way, but I always knew the shape of my argument.

The central argument of the piece is that science fiction and fantasy have, to use
your own words, reached a state of exhaustion, where authors appear to have lost
any real conviction about what they are doing. You seem to view this as the
culmination of three distinct but interrelated crises: a crisis of ideas, in the
sense that short fiction in SF/F isnt pushing boundaries like it used to; a crisis
of identity, in which the features that set science fiction and fantasy apart from
mainstream literary fiction are growing indistinct; and a crisis of conviction,
where writers appear to be more going through the motions than producing work of
passion. Is this an adequate way of framing the issues at hand?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that youve summed up, rather neatly, three of the
strands in my argument. No in the sense that I think I was arguing something subtly
different underneath these three things.

Overall, I am not suggesting that any of these is necessarily a bad thing. I view
my essay as more descriptive than prescriptive. What I was trying to do was set out
two different but interrelated things: how the genre presents itself, and how those
of us within the genre choose to regard it.

So, with that in mind, lets take that first crisis: the crisis of ideas. Within
any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries
in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can
be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with
dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are
generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage
in the history of the form. In music, think of Stravinsky; in art think of the
post-Impressionists, or, later, Picasso. What they do may be good or bad (and in
science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s
were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of
the form.

Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are
the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of
these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no
effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form.

What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware
of in previous best of the year volumes Ive read, was that practically everything
belonged in the second camp. Some of it was extremely good, but I wasnt finding
short fiction that was in any way engaged with exploring the possibilities of the
genre. (Incidentally, I dont think this perception holds when it comes to the
novel. It may not even hold for the short fiction field as a whole, just for what
is being presented as the best, or at least the most representative examples of
the form.)

Now it may be that we, by which I lump together the authors, editors and consumers
of such volumes, are all quite happy to see an essentially conservative
presentation of the genre. But I wanted to note that that was what I had observed.

You are right, the second crisis, the crisis of identity, is intimately connected
with this. Here I must hold up my hand: ever since I began writing about science
fiction in the 1970s I have argued for an end to the ghetto. I firmly believe that
we should be able to traverse the entire spectrum of literature from the most
naturalistic to the most fantastic without any change of gear. I certainly read at
least as widely in the mainstream as I do in the genre, I read non-fiction as
readily as I read fiction. I happen to believe that the more you read, the more
widely you read, the better a reader you become. So in essence I am quite happy if
the pigeonholes that box off certain forms of literature are broken up.

But what I was finding here was not the collapse of genre boundaries in this sense.
Rather there were two things I noticed. One was the writing of science fiction as
though it were fantasy, primarily as a way of escaping the rigor of the former. The
other was the avoidance of genre markers; writing stories as though they were
fantasy yet which have no element of the fantastic about them. Or perhaps they have
something vaguely fantastical in the background, but that is not what the story is
about. There is a famous line attributed to Chekov to the effect that if you have a
gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it has to be fired in the third act. What
he means is that within the construction of a play or a story everything has a
purpose. If you are writing a science fiction story, then the science fictional
elements need to be intimately connected with what the story is about. If it isnt,
if you write a fantasy story that could as easily be set in a historically definite
time and place without any change to the sequence of events, the characterization,
the motivation, the consequences or what have you, then it really isnt a fantasy,
its actually some sort of failed historical romance.

Now that is not a judgement about how good or bad the story might be. I was
specifically referring to the story by K.J. Parker, which I happen to think, as a
work of fiction, was a fine piece of work. But it did not read as fantasy to me, I
could not see why it had been written as fantasy, and I could not see why it had
been published as fantasy.

As to the third crisis, the crisis of confidence, this, too, is intimately

connected with the others. By a lack of confidence I meant that very few of the
writers seemed to be intellectually exploring the world of their creation as though
it were fresh. All too often they felt like off-the-shelf futures, reoccupations of
scenarios, settings, perspectives that long-time readers of science fiction are
already familiar with. Now when I say this I do not, I cannot, ascribe motive to
the authors in question, all I am talking about is the effect upon me as a reader.
But it certainly felt like a retreat into safe territory.

All of these three crises are aspects of the same thing, a sense that the SF and
fantasy short fiction that we see represented in these volumes is no longer a place
for daring, or even, really, for novelty. Now that may be a fault (if you want to
see it as a fault) of the authors, it may be a fault of the selection criteria of
the particular editors (or the SFWA voters in the case of the Nebulas), or it may
be a consequence of my great age and long history of reading in the genre.
Whatever, I felt myself unsurprised and therefore unsatisfied by the vast majority
of the stories I read. (It is not the same case within the novel, which is
something we may come back to later in the interview.)

The inevitable consequence of that lack of surprise, the fact that the stories do
not upset our worldview, make us rethink and reconsider our perceptions of the
world, is that you question why supposedly knowledgeable members of the SFWA and
vastly experienced editors with a matchless knowledge of the field, should choose
these works as representative of the very best that the genre has achieved in the
last year. What does that mean for our perceptions of and expectations of the
genre? Science fiction is a genre that makes a fetish of novelty, the new, the
novum, is actually a fundamental part of one of the most famous definitions of
the genre. Yet here it is the conservative that is being raised up. Is that a good

Some authorsNeal Stephenson in science fiction, Elizabeth Bear in fantasyhave

been publicly lamenting science fiction and fantasys pessimistic turn
(pejoratively referred to in fantasy as grimdark). You wrote a blog piece in 2009
where you noted much the same thing. Do you, like Stephenson, feel that science
fiction needs a new positivism or new progressivism? Or are golden age
nostalgic movements and reinventions of the wheel part of the problem?

Before I get around to answering this question, I have noticed a number of people
who have misinterpreted what I said. When I spoke about confidence in the future, I
was talking about confidence in the creation and understanding of that future. I
was, emphatically, not calling for a return to optimism. When writers like George
R. Stewart or Carolyn See or the young Stephen Baxter destroyed the world in their
fictions, they did so with absolute confidence. They believed in the world they
were describing, and therefore we the readers did too.

To be perfectly honest, given the state of the world today, I would think there is
a far greater likelihood that contemporary science fiction will be pessimistic
rather than optimistic. And since I hold, with J.G. Ballard, that science fiction
is primarily a way of writing about the present, then I think that has to be a good
thing. One of the trends I have noticed in American science fiction recently has
been the emergence of the catastrophe story, by which I mean not the abrupt
discontinuity of nuclear annihilation that you used to find in so much American SF
of the 1950s and 60s, but the slow, steady running down of the sort of comfortable
existence weve become used to. That is very much what British writers of the 50s
and 60s wrote, but American SF never went that way. Until now. Now we get things
like Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh (a woefully under-appreciated novel) or the
best of the stories in Maureen McHughs After the Apocalypse. In many ways, this is
a recapitulation of something very old in genre terms, but its application to the
contemporary American experience is very new. I think it might be saying something
very interesting about declining American confidence. But they are examples of
writing positively, convincingly, with total self belief, about the negative.

One of McHughs stories was in one of the collections, but it stuck out from the
rest. That sort of conviction about the world of ones creation does seem to be
lacking in so much short fiction. In McHughs story, I could see what was
happening; Im not even sure that some of the authors of the other stories could
see what was going on in their own work. Anyway, that is by way of a diversion, but
it maybe explains how I was using the word confidence.

By which you can probably guess that I see no need for a new positivism or new
progressivism (actually, those are two very different things. By positivism may
we be thinking of the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, a philosophy of
science that proved inadequate as an account of what science actually does? By
progressivism may we be thinking of what I suppose we might consider the old
fashioned communist left? Im all for science fiction espousing the ideas of the
political left, Im just not sure thats what Stephenson intended.)

The final sentence of your question, however, is very interesting. The so-called
radical hard SF that emerged in the 1990s, the reinventions of the new hard SF
and the new space opera, were exciting movements, at least for a while. They found
life in the most jaded of SF traditions, and they were instrumental in creating
what became known as the British Renaissance. So it is perhaps dangerous to dismiss
such movements out of hand. In fact, I suspect that every so often it is necessary
to reinvent the wheel.

The problem may lie, however, with how often the wheel is reinvented, how slavishly
the old forms are recreated. The iPhone was a radical reinvention of the whole idea
of the mobile phone; the latest generation of the iPhone is a few cosmetic tweaks.
The New Wave was a reinvention of science fiction that made Britain the centre of
some of the most exciting work in the genre; by the 1970s British science fiction
was in the doldrums. So reinventions of the genre, returns to our roots, are
movements that can bring innovation into the genre, but within a very short time
they become a new conservatism. I think that may well be where the genre is right
now. These things are never clear except in retrospect, and there are always
individual radical voices who go their own way regardless of the general trend, but
thats how it feels to me at the moment.

I'd also like to explore the crisis of identity argument you make in your LA
Review piece. First off, I felt that a running concern through the piece that the
internal boundaries between science fiction and fantasy growing indistinct, and
that this was, in some respects, problematic. At other points, you criticize
specific stories in these anthologies for being science fiction or fantasy in a
superficial sense only. Let's go back to K.J. Parkers novella A Small Price to
Pay for Birdsong for a minute--a piece you criticize for barely being science
fiction at all. Why does it matter to have a strong and distinct sense of what
science fiction is and where its boundaries lie?

In part I answered this question earlier, but theres actually something else going
on here. It is a very subtle point, and Im not sure how clear I can make it
because Im not sure how clear it is in my own mind. The whole of the LARB review
has to be read as work in progress, and Im still working through the consequences
and implications of the ideas I expressed there. I probably will be for some time
to come.

Okay, let me begin by taking a step back to an essay I wrote that appeared in
Extrapolation in 2003, called On the Origins of Genre. In that essay I argued
that there is no one thing that defines science fiction, in fact I suspect it
cannot be defined. What we have, rather, is a set of tropes, reflexes, tones,
approaches that we commonly recognize as science fiction. By analogy with
Wittgensteins notion of family resemblances, as each new work comes along we
identify it as science fiction or not depending on how closely it conforms to the
set of characteristics we have already labeled science fiction. Of course, each new
work then in its own way adds new characteristics to the inventory, so our notion
of what constitutes science fiction is in a constant state of flux.

One consequence of this, that I dont think I fully realized at the time I wrote
that essay, is that the heartland of the genre is very clear, but the further you
move towards the edges the fuzzier it becomes. To be honest, I dont give a damn
about where the boundaries lie, because they will always be in motion. Theres
something Heisenbergian about them: the moment you identify a boundary, it will be
in a different place. It is precisely because of this uncertainty that I actually
find the boundaries the most interesting places to explore. Something that aims to
occupy the very heart of science fiction or fantasy is going to tick a whole series
of very familiar boxes, but it isnt going to say anything interesting or
unexpected about the genre. Which is not to say that I do not derive a great deal
of pleasure from reading, or re-reading, a piece of straight-down-the-line old-
fashioned SF; I do that a lot, and I enjoy doing it. But it isnt telling me
anything about where the genre is now, where it might be going, what its
possibilities are; and it isnt going to surprise or delight me in a novel way.

There is also an issue with this approach to genre that I havent fully resolved.
The film Apollo 13 won a Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation, yet it is not
science fiction. It is an historical drama, it recounts (with dramatic licence)
real events involving real people from the past. At the same time, it involves many
of the tropes we associate with science fiction: it is set in a rocket ship going
to the moon, practically the entire cast is made up of archetypal Campbellian
competent men. So it is possible to see why so many Hugo voters saw enough family
resemblances between the film and their understanding of science fiction to give it
the award. In a sense, this example actually supports my argument, but it leaves me
feeling a little uncomfortable.

This may hark back to Chekovs gun. The hardware of the film is science fictional,
but it is not being used to make a science fictional point or tell a science
fictional story. The hardware is essential to make the historical point, it is not
essential to any science fictional point. As I say, this is something I have not
fully resolved in my own mind. But a story like A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong
does not use its fantasy. There is no reason within the story for it to be fantasy,
other than that is the setting the author has chosen for it. Which makes it feel to
me as though the fantasy is redundant, a gun that is never taken off the wall and
fired. It is, I repeat, a lovely story, but take away the Ruritanian setting and
the story is not affected one jot.

The other crossover element that I criticized, and it is a different aspect of the
same issue, is the number of stories that use the affect of fantasy in what is
ostensibly a science fiction story. If you look back at science fiction criticism
over the years you will find authors and stories consistently being criticized for
hand-waving. That is, for setting up a rigorous situation and then resolving it in
some less than rigorous way. Fantasy, now, is another and even more blatant way of
doing that. True fantasy is as rigorous as science fiction: you play fair with the
readers. If anything can happen, then nothing matters. Using the tropes of fantasy
to resolve a science fiction story is just a way of waving your hand and saying it
doesnt matter, because anything can happen, all it takes is the whim of the
author. I cannot read a story that takes that form without my confidence in both
the writer and their creation instantly plummeting.
Delving a little deeper into this question, what about the introduction of science
fiction into mainstream literary fiction? In novel form, I tend to view that as a
mixed bag, ranging from David Mitchells Cloud Atlas, which to me is a very clever
and affecting homage to genre fiction, to the largely indulgent mess that is 1Q84.
But a lot of the best short fiction Ive read in recent years has fallen into this
veinfrom Alice Sola Kims 2010 story The Other Graces (which appeared in the
2011 Horton anthology) to Jennifer Egans Black Box in the science fiction issue
of the New Yorker earlier this year. And, of course, going back to J.G. Ballard,
one of my favorite writers of short fiction in any genre. I guess what Im trying
to say is that, on the flipside to firm understandings of what genres are and
arent, there is a real risk of rigidity and even balkanization. You can see this
in fandom, the notion that well, I only read steampunk or epic fantasy or hard
SF. Or the norm that writers can only write about one kind of thing (which
certainly wasnt always the case). I sometimes worry that the generalist in the
genre, both in terms of writers and readers, is a dying breed, and that this too
has a corrosive effect on the creativity and freedom with which writers approach
their craft. How do we collectivelyas science fiction writers, publishers, critics
and fansbalance these opposing forces?

I once overheard someone say they only read SF by women. Well, that would have
meant missing James Tiptree, wouldnt it?

The rigidity, the balkanization, is stupid, because there is absolutely no way that
you can appreciate anything if all you know is that thing. Its also stupid because
you dont know until you read it whether something really falls into your neat
little categories or not.

When we get anything that tends to break down categories, that pleases me. Which is
not to say that they are all good. Paul Therouxs attempt to write science fiction,
O-Zone, was one of the worst books Ive read because he had no understanding or
appreciation of the tropes he was trying to use. David Mitchell, on the other hand,
does have that understanding and appreciation, though of course he is a former
member of the British Science Fiction Association and he knows the genre. Then
there is Margaret Atwood; I have doubts about some of her writing about science
fiction, but I have no doubt about the importance within the genre of The
Handmaids Tale. On the other hand, I have similar appreciation for genre writers
who write mainstream fiction. M. John Harrisons Climbers is an excellent example,
because it is clearly one with the aesthetic of his genre work, and yet is so very
far outside the genre.

What I mean by all this is that there are qualities that come naturally within the
genre that can be profitably employed by non-genre writers; and there are qualities
in mainstream fiction that are sorely missing in all too much genre work. Cross-
fertilisation does not mean dilution of either, it should mean that both benefit.
There are writers like Don DeLillo, Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon on one (apparent)
side of the fence and like Mike Harrison, Christopher Priest on the other who know
this and incorporate it seamlessly into their work. I dont suppose it is a
coincidence that these tend to be among the writers I think are producing the most
interesting work these days.

Those, writers and readers, who try to restrict themselves to a very narrow
compass, are denying themselves the possibility of growth, or at the very least
ensuring that their growth will be limited, distorted. In other words, they are
crippling themselves. The problem is that this narrow compass can look increasingly
attractive. If it is impossible to keep up with everything even in a very narrow
specialization, as it seems to be these days, then what is the point of
generalization? I am not a very fast reader, 70-80 books a year is my average.
There are more than 80 science fiction books published in any year; there are more
than 80 SF books that attract serious attention, the sorts of books you feel you
should read to keep up with the genre. Since I am also reading outside SF, I cannot
keep up with everything that the genre is doing. But nor can anyone else. When it
comes to short fiction, look at those lists of also-rans at the back of the Dozois
and Horton collections. There are several hundred stories there. If we assume a
basic level of winnowing, say one story in every ten makes it on to one of these
lists, were looking at a universe of several thousand stories every year.
Seriously, no-one can read that, no-one can possibly keep up with every piece of
science fiction published in a year (and I include Dozois and Horton and their
confreres in that). When you look at it like that, reading only within the genre
doesnt look like specialization. For a critic like me, it might even be looked on
as being responsible.

If the genre is now so big that you cannot see the edges, then you might read only
one part of it, steampunk or weird fiction or hard SF, and still not keep up, and
still not feel like youre specializing. But then, what do they know of SF, who
only SF know, to borrow a phrase.

Is it corrosive? Probably. What do we do about it? We can point out that it is

happening. We can hope that some people might listen. I have said before that I
expected my essay to sink without trace, because I and other people have made
similar points before and that has been the usual response. This time, rather
surprisingly, a lot more people have noticed. Not everyone has agreed with me, but
I dont want everyone to agree: you dont have a debate if everyone agrees. As
Jonathan Strahan said: maybe it arrived at just the right time when were ready to
have the debate. But other than raising consciousness on the issue, Im not sure
theres much we can do, or indeed should do. I have no desire to remake science
fiction in my image, or anything foolish like that; I just want a genre in which
the challenging, innovative works I value can continue to emerge. So we praise the
things that work for us, and hope that enough other people will notice to encourage
more work in that direction.


INTERVIEW: Paul Kincaid--Is SF "Exhausted?" (Part 2)

Today we present part 2 of The G's discussion with SF/F super-critic Paul Kincaid.
If you haven't read Part 1 yet, you can access it here.

With regards the crisis of passion, I want to refer to some things you said in a
recent interview you conducted with Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe.
Specifically, that writers dont appear convinced by what theyre doingworking on
a treadmill, to use your words; that theyve lost the conviction that the future
is understandable; and that many writers are, essentially, producing stories that
look like science fiction, rather than stories that are science fiction.

In that podcast, Gary made a point that it is still easier to get a science fiction
or fantasy story published than it is any other form of short fiction. Im not sure
I fully agree with Gary, but I do think that the market is part of the picture. In
his version there are all these writers out there who are, in effect, performing
science fiction as a way into print. They are investing in a set of second-hand
tropes and pulling on the gaudy disguise of science fiction in order to act out the
part of being a genre writer.

In truth, its certainly much more complicated and subtle than that, it always is.
But I still get a sense of an awful lot of writers acting out science fiction
rather than being fully committed to engaging with the genre.

Now as Ive said a number of times already, I am not taking a judgmental stance on
this, the performance of SF may not always or necessarily be a bad thing. We always
used to say that science fiction was a conversation, that writer B would pick up on
an effect or an idea from the work of writer A, then watch as writer C took it
another stage further. In a sense, this is a performance of science fiction, and it
is part of how the genre (any genre) has always worked. Or you might have a writer
who wants to pay homage to, or possibly recreate, works of science fiction that
inspired her. These are ways of performing SF that are perhaps good, at least

But there are other stories in which the SF devices are painted on to a paper-thin
screen with nothing behind them. Weve got a rocket ship. What is the rocket ship
doing? What is it like to live in a world that has such a rocket ship? I dont know
and I dont care, but, hey, weve got a rocket ship so it must be SF. That is
obviously exaggerated for effect, but that is what I mean when I talk about stories
that look like SF rather than being SF. And there are a lot of them about.

Most commonly, such stories just feel flimsy, they feel as though there is no
genuine intellectual substance behind them. Or you get the stories in which every
genre trope in the book is shoveled in, as if the more bits of SF business you
squeeze into the story the more science fictional it is. There were some stories I
read, in those collections and in others, where I just felt blitzed by an
incoherent flood of SF images that could never actually be worked through in a way
that made sense. Everything is in the imagery, on the surface of the story, with
nothing underneath. The example I picked on in the review was The Copenhagen
Interpretation by Paul Cornell, though it was far from being the only example.

One of the reasons I picked on the Cornell was that it had already won the BSFA
Short Fiction Award, and I wonder whether this knowingness in the use of familiar
SF imagery isnt flattering to the SF reader. I know you recognize all these clever
quirks and games, because were all friends together here in our little world.
There is, certainly, a growing tendency to write SF stories about SF, and they are
clearly appreciated by the fans. Among Others by Jo Walton, which won the Hugo
Award, is only the most recent example. Now I dont dislike Among Others, it is
well written and there are some aspects of it that I rate very highly indeed
(though it is one of those novels that has tended to diminish in retrospect). I was
particularly struck by her ideas about magic, which are a development of the ideas
explored in her much better novel, Lifelode. But what has earned most attention,
and what probably tipped the balance in the Hugo voting, was what I found the most
tedious aspect of the book, all that stuff about reading science fiction at an
early age. There were, in fact, remarkably few life lessons learned from those SF
novels she so carefully enumerates, they do not shape the novel; what they do do is
wink broadly at the SF fan reader, weve been there, read that, it makes us special
together, fans are slans. That is SF as performance, SF as protective colouration;
it is not SF as an engagement with or exploration of the world, in the way that the
magic in Among Others attempts to be.

You pose an interesting question to Strahan and Wolfe: is there any other genre
that finds so many ways to pat itself on the back? Why do you think that is, and
how does it affect both the products and audience for science fiction and fantasy?
How do these best of anthologies play into this?

To be honest, I dont know the answer to the question I posed. I know there are a
handful of awards in the crime fiction genre, though I am not aware of any best of
the year anthologies. Similarly, there are a few awards for romance fiction, though
again I dont know of any best of the year anthologies. There are more awards in
mainstream fiction, possibly as many awards as there are in SF, but years best
anthologies are sporadic and I think the one regular series that I followed died a
good few years ago.
If we take the three central forms of the fantastic, science fiction, fantasy and
horror, there are god knows how many awards, and a few years ago I tried to count
up how many years best anthologies there were and lost count. Why that might be, I
really dont know, though I can hazard a few guesses.
Possibly, given the size of a genre where we can no longer keep track of the edges,
as I proposed a little earlier, it may be that the awards and best of the year
collections are a way of keeping track of the genre. But the size issue must affect
other genres as well, so that couldnt be anything more than a partial answer.

Of course, going back to what Gary Wolfe was saying, the fantastic seems to produce
many more short stories than any other genre. That may be part of it.

The nature of fandom probably plays a large part in this, also. After all, most of
the awards, at least, have emerged out of fandom and many are still primarily
popular vote awards. And whatever else we might imagine, I suspect that the best of
the year anthologies are also aimed far more at fans than they are at a more
general audience.

The reason is probably a mixture of all of these, and several other reasons I
havent thought of. Though I do strongly suspect that one underlying reason is
ghetto mentality, inferiority complex, whatever it is that makes SF fans so
susceptible to fans are slans-type flattery. I realized, when we were talking
about it on the podcast, that the explosion in best of the year anthologies, both
in terms of their size and their number, came at a time when we might popularly
suppose that the ghetto walls had been broken down. From one direction there came
the mass popularity of Star Wars, from the other the fact that Thomas Pynchon was
shortlisted for a Nebula Award. It was a period when youd expect SF to be feeling
pretty good about itself, but maybe a security blanket had been removed and there
was, in a sense, even more reason for us to tell ourselves that we were not only
good but distinctive. I dont know, but I have a feeling that the timing cannot be
entirely coincidental.

Whats the effect of all this? Almost certainly there has been a slow but steady
homogenization. There are certain writers (Lois McMaster Bujold) who are seen as
archetypal Hugo winners, though they dont exactly sweep the other awards. There
are writers who are seen as naturals for the Clarke Award. One of the reasons for
the controversy over this years Clarke Award was that so many of the books that
might be seen as a natural fit for that award had been omitted from the shortlist.
There are writers who keep cropping up in best of the year anthologies. I remember
noting, in one review, how many times the author of each story had appeared in that
particular editors previous annual collections, and it was surprising how much
regularity there was.

And yet, as I said before, the field is now far too big for us to see the edges. It
is a problem, especially when you have critics like me pontificating about the
state of SF even though none of us can see the whole of SF. (I console myself that
those who attack my views cannot know the whole of SF either.) What we do, all that
we can do, is look out for things that catch the eye, that emerge out of the
morass. Thats where awards and best of the year volumes come in. These are,
through whatever arcane processes, things that have caught the eye, and though they
may not be best they are at least representative. They tell us about how different
constituencies view the genre at that moment. They demand state-of-the-nation
responses, because thats exactly what they are.

They offer, at best, very partial glimpses of the state of the nation, but it is
all we have. So if half a dozen steampunk stories make it into best of the year
anthologies, then we see steampunk as the coming thing. If a space opera wins one
of the big awards, then we see space opera as the current trend. And authors are
only human, they follow trends like the rest of us. So it can be hard to tell if we
are seeing a genuine trend or a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So you get the impression that awards and best of the year anthologies are our
searchlight into the depths of the genre, while at the same time they are muddying
the waters. And yet all that they are really saying is: arent we good, arent we
special, weve got so much that is award-worthy, so much that is best, so much to
congratulate ourselves for.

Isnt this crisis of passion, in some ways, a typical problem faced by the arts
when expectations become institutionalized, and when institutions themselves
publishers, magazines, awards, even anthologiesbecometo paraphrase some
sociologist or anotherregular, periodic, predictable and self-replicating? Reading
your article, it occurred to me that perhaps the surprising thing is that science
fiction and fantasy only just reached this kind of institutional malaise in the
last 10-15 years. Ive seen it happen much more quickly with certain forms of
popular music, for example.

One of the responses to my essay that Ive seen in several places is: just another
prediction of the imminent death of science fiction. Actually, I anticipated that
more people would respond that way. Its a rather simplistic reading of what I was
saying, but in fact talking about the exhaustion of the genre is nothing to do with
predicting its death.

I think you are right, this crisis of passion, as you put it, is by no means
unusual to science fiction. I suspect most if not all art forms go through it on a
fairly regular basis. I picked up the notion of exhaustion from a famous essay that
John Barth wrote about American mainstream fiction in the 1960s. Barth wasnt
talking about the death of fiction, and indeed American mainstream fiction has
quite obviously not died. What he was saying, however, was that it was entering a
moribund state and needed to reinvent itself, to find a new purpose, a new mode of
expression, a new energy, if it was to continue to have any relevance. It was a
polemical call to arms, primarily intended to advance postmodern fiction as the
savior of literature.

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. Weve

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 Sterlings
polemical writings) and the British Renaissance were revitalizing movements in a
genre that was largely running on the spot.

You also state that these problems are rather more pronounced in short fiction, as
opposed to with novels. Why do you think this is? Whats specifically the matter
with short fiction?

From time to time, as Ive been answering your questions, Ive found myself tempted
to offer an evolutionary model of science fiction. Ive tried to resist it, partly
because it is too easy an analogy, and partly because it works in broad terms but
rarely in specifics. But here, perhaps, such an analogy might work.
There is less competition within short fiction, stories dont really have to fight
for their place in the food chain. In other words, short genre stories are mostly
going to appear in genre venues aimed almost exclusively at a genre audience. If
you are writing for an audience (and which author trying to make a living in this
business is going to ignore the audience?) then it is going to pay to meet genre
expectations rather than challenge them.

That wasnt always the case. Up until probably the 1970s, short fiction was
generally the engine of innovation within the genre. New writers announced
themselves, acquired a following, through writing short stories, and they tended to
do this, to catch attention, by offering something different. Since few genre
writers began their careers by writing novels, the distinctive and innovative work
developed in the short fiction would then be carried through into the long fiction.

Now it is the other way round. More writers begin their careers with novels than
with short stories, so it is the novel that carries the weight of offering eye-
catching innovation. Short fiction comes later, and often seems to be more about
establishing or consolidating genre credentials. And if that is the prime concern,
then a conservative approach to genre would be more rewarding than a challenging or
innovative approach.

By conservative here I do not mean to suggest that all SF stories are the same,
that all are as uncontentious and unambitious as an average piece from Analog. The
avant garde can be conservative if all the stories contending to get into the
leading avant garde publication are expected to be put together from the same
narrow catalogue of tropes and tricks. By conservative I simply mean that stories
are more likely to get into a particular venue if they are like the stories that
have already appeared in that venue. And as long as the genre short fiction
marketplace is so vast that there is liable to be some venue for the great majority
of the stories written, and yet all of this marketplace is contending for the
attention and the money of a shrinking audience, then there is unlikely to be much
of a premium on going against the norm.

If you were to assume the mantle of science fiction doctor for a minute, one who
has made his diagnosis of exhaustion, what if any sort of therapy would you
prescribe? Whats fixable in science fiction and fantasy, and specifically in the
realm of short fiction? What needs to change and what can change?

Good grief, thats a job Id hate to have. As Ive said, I see my job as
descriptive rather than prescriptive. I dont want to remake science fiction in my
image, just as I dont want science fiction to be remade in anybody elses image. I
like it being variable, hard to pin down.

No, Ive said that I find science fiction is going through one of its phases of
being inward looking, repeating itself rather than reinventing itself. I find that
to be unchallenging, uninvolving, and ultimately uninteresting. That is my
diagnosis. But I dont want people to take my word for it, I want them to go out
and get a second, third, fourth opinion. More importantly, I want them to form an
opinion of their own. If enough people find they agree, then I expect the genre
will change naturally. It will probably change anyway, it always does. How it
changes, what direction it goes in, whether it finds a new life or slithers away to
some sort of beach at the end of time, like in The Time Machine well, that is the

There are some things Id like to see, of course. Id like to see a best of the
year anthology that genuinely did what the title claims, that was short and sharp
and contained only stories that one guiding and informed taste thought truly were
the best. Id like to see us collectively praising the different rather than the
familiar. But whether that would make any difference, I dont know. And whether
anyone else would agree, that I dont know either.

Going in a positive direction for a minute, what writers and trends in the genre
give you hope for the future? Have you read anything recently that you feel our
readers should know about?

In short fiction, Im currently reading Angels and You Dogs by Kathleen Ann Goonan,
which is as interesting and challenging in its way as Maureen McHughs After the
Apocalypse was last year. I also have Kij Johnsons collection, At the Mouth of the
River of Bees, and at her best she can be very good indeed. And it is very rare for
me to read anything by Karen Joy Fowler or Kit Reed that I dont enjoy. So there
are quite a number of interesting short story writers out there who are well worth
looking out for.

At novel length, Empty Space by M. John Harrison is simply the best novel of the
year so far; last year, The Islanders by Christopher Priest was supreme, and Ive
had a sneak preview of his next novel, The Adjacent, due next year, which is
astonishing. Adam Roberts has been writing novels that I dont always get along
with, but his most recent one, Jack Glass, is, I think, excellent. Actually, given
what I said earlier, I think there is more challenging and impressive work being
done at novel length than in short fiction these days.

One of the things Im finding most interesting, however, is that we are starting to
see work that doesnt come from a straight Anglophone tradition. Whether the
writers are working in English, like Aliette de Bodard or Lavie Tidhar, or whether
we are seeing translations, like Johanna Sinisalo, it is refreshing. (I should note
that the Tiptree Award, among the many other good things it does, has a fine record
of picking non-Anglophone winners.) Whether it might shake up the genre, I dont
know; but Id like to see more of it.

Thanks for coming and speaking to me about these things. I hope its been a good
experience! Final question: do you have any projects that youd like our readers to
know about?

Well, I saw the essay for the LA Review of Books as a work in progress, so I am
hoping to get the opportunity to write more in that vein.

Also, I have a second collection of reviews, Call and Response, which should be
coming out, I hope, in 2013.