Promising weeds among the cowpies of science fiction and fantasy

The Tyee has published my article A Better Force Awakens, in which I criticize Star Wars, Star Trek, and the general quality of industrial SF and fantasy over the last quarter-century or so. But all is not lost:

By the 1990s, I understood the new market far less than I’d understood the old one in the 1970s. And I pretty well packed it in after I’d spent four years writing a novel for an agent who returned it saying only, “No one here can think ‘blockbuster’ about it.”

By then I could go into the science fiction and fantasy section of a bookstore, search the shelves for an hour, and leave empty-handed. The sharecroppers’ Star Wars and Star Trek novels filled up too many of those shelves, and the rest were clogged with umpteen boring sequels to some groundbreaker like Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.

I felt like some Amazonian forest dweller whose land has been cleared to graze cattle for the American hamburger market. A vast genre of popular literature had become mere franchises, like competing pizza chains.

In the process, the franchisers had taught a generation of readers and viewers — and writers! — to prefer predictable sameness, not surprising variety. If it appeared at all, variety was just ever-bigger special effects, rendered by ever-bigger computers.

If I have any consolation, it’s that the artisans are beginning to flourish again in the shadow of the franchises. God knows how they’re finding publishers, but some astonishing writers are springing up like weeds among the cowpies.

Many are British: Charles Stross writes about interstellar travel as a pyramid scheme, and Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe novels look all too plausibly like the near future. China Miéville has gone beyond mere genre into a strange new realm of his own. Ian R. MacLeod’s novels about the British industrial revolution (fuelled by magic, not coal) are powerfully vivid. Liu Cixin has single-handedly made China a science-fiction producer to reckon with.

Ursula’s daughters

Even more encouragingly, many new writers are women. Aliette de Bodard, Franco-Vietnamese, writes beautifully about fallen angels ruling Paris and interstellar empires ruled by Vietnamese. Finnish writers Leena Krohn and Emmi Itäranta offer very different visions of very strange worlds.

Here in Canada we have Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed climate-fiction novel Station Eleven, and Vancouver’s Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whose Signal to Noise evokes a 1980s Mexico City where teenagers cast magic spells on one another.

All are worthy daughters and grand-daughters of Ursula K. Le Guin, who’s still writing superbly in her 80s, and I don’t see a blockbuster in any of them, much less a franchise. They are too distinctive, too individual, and far too unpredictable.

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