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Bewildering Stories

The Spark of Why

with David Redd

Paul Kincaid, writing about the 2012 Best of the Year anthologies, commented, “the overwhelming sense one gets ... is ... as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion ... [becoming] a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.”

I cannot help recalling an old interview with the late Douglas Adams, being asked how he had thought of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and responding, “I’ve now told the story so often, I can only remember the story and I can’t remember the event any more.” Perhaps modern writers of speculative fiction only remember the stories and not the magic sparks which used to make stories special.

Does this mean that the future and the fantastic are too familiar now? Kincaid saw a wider issue: “The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.” He wrote of the stories in these “Best” collections, “In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing.”

I would ask, what — today — are science fiction stories for? Generally, science fiction has always had a wide range of purposes — potential if not always actual — among which I would include entertainment, enlightenment, thought-experiments about progress, conveying a vision and reiterating inner truth. Kincaid went on at length about a loss of urgency and importance in science fiction, and about the way science fiction and fantasy have been merging. Bewildering Stories carried some discussion of this circa 2006, I recall, and the boundaries have become more blurred since.

I think I’d better look at a couple of examples which interested me recently.

Lavie Tidhar’s “Strigoi” in Interzone is a vampire fantasy, colourful and effective, told with science fiction materials seemingly intended to make the story distinctive. I have a problem with several of the science fiction parts: a mention of “tar” for example, alerts me to consider the role of fossil hydrocarbons in his future; but the subject is not taken further, and eventually I concluded that he intended to build a lush sensory environment rather than a consistent future world. But I cannot surrender wholly to the feelings he is creating as long as I am still wondering if his fictional environment is supposed to make sense.

Indrapramit Das’s “Weep for Day” in Asimov’s describes humans colonising the day side of a tidally locked planet. I liked the story, but its characters are so obviously 19th-century Western in technology and psychology — in perpetual day they must simulate night in order to sleep — that I started to need an explanation: how had this lost colony regressed?

What I actually got was a creation myth: “We crawled out of the hot lakes at the edge of fiery Day, and wrapped the steaming bloody skins of slaughtered animals around us to walk upright...” Vivid and compelling, but how did memories and/or relics of the presumably sunken starship get lost so completely? I recall that the Ainu, beaten back across Japan by later arrivals over millennia in a scenario similar to the one in this story, had no difficulty with believing themselves to have fallen from the sky.

The question of why these colonists of the planet Day are so fully human does not stop the story being good and worthwhile, but the indecision between science fiction and fantasy again detracts from the impact.

Is the fault with me, not the stories? Am I too old-fashioned a reader? Further quotation from the Douglas Adams interview may clarify the new-fashioned methods:

“Let’s start out with a world that has certain rules and just see where that goes in the long run. Something that starts out as a silly idea actually has to have consequences in the real [story] world.” And: “Ever since Newton we’ve done science by taking things apart to see how they work. What the computer enables us to do is to put things together to see how they work, we’re now synthesised rather than analysed.”

Was Adams right? Is fiction now synthesis more than analysis? This would explain why so many stories offer pleasing collages but not the full comprehension sighed for in Paul Kincaid’s reviews. He would have preferred, I gather, “Best” stories with fully developed ideas, set in understandable worlds, told with appropriate techniques and skill.

Well, you have always had the majority of stories reflecting their times. I think Kincaid underestimates how poorly imagined and told were the bulk of Golden Age stories — only the standouts have survived — and he forgets that “We’ve been here before” has been a frequent complaint from science fiction readers for over fifty years to my knowledge.

For example, Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage was criticised by reference to 1930’s pulp forerunners. But I think Mr. Kincaid has a point: a story that seems to be science fiction can cause confusion in readers who expect the synthesis to come together more fully than it does. Humans are pattern-seekers; or at least they were, if computer-age info-surfing generations have altered human nature.

The above is part of my ongoing dialogue with myself, where I try to talk myself back into writing fiction. Why should I bother, and how should I do it? I am less sure about my admittedly very minor doubts about “Weep for Day” when I recall that my own first story in a U.S. magazine mingled science fiction and fantasy in a way that, in hindsight, tipped my aliens too far towards Earth-mythological beings.

Perhaps one should just explore and see if it works; if experiments are rarely successful, they can still be interesting. But what route to take? Mr. Kincaid expresses frustration at following well-worn paths, while Douglas Adams aims further, to pick up the material and go for the long run.


[Author’s note] Paul Kincaid’s article can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Adams’ quotations are excerpted from Science Fiction Writers (BBC/British Library), which also includes interviews with Asimov, Aldiss, Ballard, Lessing, Bradbury, Clarke, Le Guin and Vonnegut.

Copyright © 2013 by David Redd

Thank you, David; it’s always good to hear from you, and as always you give us food for thought.

I believe you may be referring to an article in issue 197 (May 15, 2006): “Between Science Fiction and Fantasy.” The gist is that science fiction tells us what a futuristic technology both can and can’t do; fantasy assumes that some fantastical “technology” — or superpowers — can do anything.

And “anything” may include forgetting one’s origins, as in Indrapramit Das’s story. In that regard I’m reminded of another “lost colony” story: Joe Haldeman’s “Summer’s Lease” (in Infinite Dreams). The story is “hard” science fiction and yet all the more ironic and sad because there seems to be little point in the marooned settlers’ recalling their origins; nothing and no one can save them from periodic destruction on a planet orbiting a variable star.

Science fiction thrives on limitations; fantasy, on the lack of them. As I see it, then, Mr. Kincaid implies that some authors leave readers wondering which they’re reading: science fiction or fantasy.

Asimov was sparing, even cautious, in creating future technologies, but he got a lot of mileage out of showing what might go wrong with them. In contrast, Cyrano de Bergerac wrote both science fiction and fantasy in The Other World, but he carefully separates the two. His fantastical conversations with Elijah are satirical comedy; his further adventures elsewhere on the Moon show what might go right with technology and early modern science.

In a recent conversation with a Review Editor about a short-story submission that had no ending, it occurred to me to observe that stories resemble complete sentences: they have a subject, a verb and an object; they tell the readers who does what. Of course they also add modifiers: how, where, when and why; and of those “why” is the most important and most difficult.

“Why” involves not only the characters’ motivations but the author’s as well. For example, Asimov and Cyrano differ vastly — of course — in their choice of who, what, how, where, and when; but “why” is never in doubt. Mr. Kincaid might find there the spark he sees missing today.

Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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