What’s wrong with modern sci-fi?

Actually, that’s a loaded question, but it caught your attention, eh? I suppose that technically nothing is “wrong” with modern sci-fi. On average, SF writers today are much better writers than ever before. Their sentences flow. Their characters are round and fully realized. Action crackles off the page. And yet it’s hard for me to get into today’s works. Something is missing. For the longest time, I couldn’t quite place it…

And then I read Robert Moore’s Amazon review of The Philip K. Dick Collection, and realization slowly dawned on me. I’m going to quote his first paragraph because I feel that it succinctly captures the essence the “problem,” for lack of a better term.

“SF is today gaining more and more respectability among serious readers and academic literary critics. Although there are a handful of stories from the pulp era of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, there were few stories that would stand up to any kind of literary analysis and virtually no novels that would. The so-called Big Three of the forties and fifties – Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke – shock serious readers today coming to them for the first time. They were not only not good writers by mainstream criteria, they were actively bad writers. This is not to say that there weren’t some good ideas here and there (Asimov’s Foundation series or Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END or Rama novels are often interesting), but that the prose is almost always atrocious, the characters stock and uninteresting, and the stories and novels completely lacking in literary excellence. This was intentional. Let me repeat that: the books and stories were intentionally strove to not be good literature. Why? Because many key figures in the early days of SF, like the enormously influential editor John W. Campbell Jr., explicitly stated that SF was not going to be about character and well-honed prose; it was supposed to be about “neat ideas.” The goal was to explore scientific ideas through their depiction of plausible scenarios of the future. Campbell felt that good writing would actually detract from exploring these ideas. This conception of SF has not completely disappeared among fans, though the vast majority of today’s writers strive to achieve a degree of excellence unheard of in the days of the pulps.”

After reading this review, I took a good look around me. I see a bajillion zombie/vampire/post-apocalyptic books, movies, and games (After Earth, Oblivion, The Last of Us, World War Z, etc, etc). I see acclaimed literary writers branching into SF (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). I flip through the Hugo and Nebula winners from the last twenty years listlessly. And then it hit me. Where is the originality? The daring speculation? The vision? Some have argued that Big Idea SF is not dead, which I think is true, but these works now feel few and far between when once they seemed commonplace.

Modern SF fans might not be aware, but in the early days, science fiction was also known as “speculative fiction.” As “bad” as the early SF writers were, they fired the imagination of countless scientists and inventors. Where would we be today without Robert Goddard? Carl Sagan? Would we have touchscreens? Cell phones?

I accept that as a genre matures and as readers become more knowledgeable, it becomes increasingly difficult to break the mold and to challenge readers. Maybe so, but that’s the burden you bear as a SF writer. You gotta at least try! Science fiction is uniquely suited for speculation, and arguably, speculation is what defines the genre. Without a “neat idea,” sci-fi simply becomes literary fiction in space or an alternate universe.

So modern sci-fi writers, wow me with your literary prowess, if you wish, but what I really crave is for you to tickle my mind. If you forced me to choose, I’d pick Big Idea over “well written” any day, but must it be either/or? Some writers, like this one quoted on GeekDad, seem to have found a balance. “I feel I’ve managed to hit a sweet spot between the visionary science fiction that fired my imagination as a kid, and the character-driven storytelling that makes sense to me now,” he says. I hope that this is true and that more modern sci-fi writers follow suit!

6 thoughts on “What’s wrong with modern sci-fi?

  1. This actually makes sense. I’ve noticed nothing recent in Science Fiction was that interesting, and I often asked myself why I love Isaac Asimov’s writing so much, if it really wasn’t that good. Its because he proposed big ideas, not literary genius. Literature by itself never interested me much, that’s why I study Physics and not English.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love SF movies from the 50s till the late 70s. Most current SF leaves me cold. I tried to watch Jupiter Ascending,but I left the cinema, it was too bad. Its hard to pinpoint why I think older SF is better. Modern visual technics are awesome.

    I think what makes good SF is that the science directs the story. Bad SF is when the science obeys to the story. Bad SF is everyday human life projected in space, like different intelligent species battle one another, with kings and queens (OMG). Good SF is when all too familiar human behavior is left behind to explore something completely new.

    That is why in my opinion 2001, A Space Odessey, is still one of the best SF movies ever. Its a huge mystery, a clash between mankinds greatest forces, like emotions, desires, rationality, maths and destiny.

  3. I agree, Raven Black. What makes SF unique is its ability to make us think differently about ourselves now and speculate on the future. If SF does neither of these two things, what is the point? Telling an ordinary story with SF tropes is often worse than just setting the story on Earth with plain ol’ humans. This is basically the problem with “Jupiter Ascending.” Remove the flashy graphics, and there’s not much left.

  4. Asimov and Clarke “were not only not good writers by mainstream criteria, they were actively bad writers”? I guess you wither haven’t read them or don’t know what elegant writing is. They were extremely gifted.

  5. I have read both, probably at least 30 of Asimov’s works. I’m a fan of both. What I was trying to point out though was that their works probably would not be considered “good writing” by today’s standards. For example, you wouldn’t find many of their works as “required reading” in English/language arts class. This is partially because many of their characters are pretty straightforward with not much back story. They exist mostly to make a point or advance the story.

    I agree with you that both authors are gifted because they are able to weave complex scientific concepts into an interesting story. We need more of this today. I think modern sci-fi has many “good writers”, but they don’t always present compelling ideas. Without these ideas, sci-fi loses a lot of its uniqueness and just becomes literary fiction in space.

Comments welcome!