A couple of days ago I pointed to Lev Grossman’s discussion of genre fiction vs. literary fiction, which was written for his weekly book column in Time. Among the things Grossman takes issue with is the charge that genre fiction is escapist. Since I’ve been known to take issue with this claim as well, I note with some bemusement that Charles Stross, one of my favorite SF authors, has suggested in a recent blog post that most science fiction is escapist. It’s not the focus of Stross’ piece, however, so I’ll set the issue aside for another day.

Stross’ blog post “SF, big ideas, ideology: what is to be done?” is a slightly revised version of an essay he wrote in response to a SF Signal Mind-meld question of whether or not SF is still the genre of big ideas. Specifically, they asked, “Are SF writers “slacking off” or is science fiction still the genre of “big ideas”? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?” As is clear from SF Signal page, the question has its origins in Neal Stephenson World Policy Journal article “Innovation Starvation,” in which Stephenson argues that SF is in a dystopian rut and is, therefore, no longer serving to inspire future scientists and engineers as SF did during the Golden Age.1 As with all SF Signal Mild Meld forums, multiple SF authors respond to the question, so Stross’ essay is but one of many responses, which means you really should visit both SF Signal discussion as well as Stross’ blog.

In the essay, Stross argues that SF has not really been the genre of big ideas although there have been big ideas within SF from time to time, and that SF has been “spinning its wheels” for some time now with only cyberpunk and the singularity being its only innovative subjects in the past 30 years. Furthermore, he argues that the really big ideas authors in SF are largely ignored. (I’ll leave you to read the piece to see who they are.)

Ultimately, Stross argues that the big problem SF faces today is that the sense of wonder it is so good at evoking is becoming harder and harder to engage. He explains:

We’re living in the frickin’ 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We’re carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn’t a 1980s cyberpunk vision that’s imploded into the present, warts and all, I don’t know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it.

Stross ends his essay asking a different question: “If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?”Both his essay and the responses from readers which follow are well worth reading.

  1. The Hieroglyph Project was started, in part, in response to Stephenson’s critique of current SF. []