Thursday, June 1, 2017

When Science Fiction Died

I rarely meet people I knew when I was a teenager, but when I do, they usually ask me, "Are you still reading science fiction?" When they knew me, I was usually engrossed in a novel by Asimov or van Vogt, or reading the latest issue of F&SF or Galaxy. I was also the kid who took off from school (with the principal's permission) to attend such events as a lecture by Rod Serling and a writing workshop with Ray Bradbury. I think they thought I was defined by what I read...and they were not far wrong.

Prior to the turn of the century, my answer was a forceful affirmative, which they found amazing. In their own lives, they had moved on from youthful pursuits, strayed from the paths that defined them. The musician became a dental assistant, the marine biologist a financial manager, and the math whiz a cashier at the local big-box store. Any hobbies they had as teens had also fallen by the wayside. And yet there I was, nearly four decades on, still reading science fiction, still being defined by cosmic literature.

Nowadays, however, my answer to the question is, "No, not much anymore." As the Twentieth Century began to unwind to the Year 2000, there came a sea change in my reading. The first rumblings of it took the form of a novel called Darwinia.

I read this book a year or two before the world moved into a new century. It came to me via the Science Fiction Book Club and was the last "new" science fiction book I read. In any fictional account, a "suspension of disbelief" is necessary, but it is absolutely vital in the science fiction genre. About three-quarters of the way through the book, during a particularly epic description of the galactic archive, I thought: This is just ridiculous. My disbelief in the book's universe was no longer suspended. In fact, it came crashing down.

I really can't entirely blame the book, and the writer not at all -- Robert Charles Wilson is a talented and imaginative author. No, the fault was, as Shakespeare might have said, not in the book but in myself. When I set aside the book (I did finish it) I thought about the SFBC bulletin from which I had ordered the book -- it had been the only book even remotely intriguing to me in amongst the graphic novels, fantasy trilogies, "message" books, and authors I'd never heard of. That set me to thinking about how all the science fiction writers I liked were either dead, had stopped writing, or were trying to write for a new, younger, more callow demographic. So, I stopped reading science fiction.

Not entirely, of course, for I do find novels in the sub-genres of Alternate History and Steampunk that interest me. But the names are unknown to me. Sometimes, I'll pick up a magazine from back then and compare it with a current issue of Asimov's or Analog (the market has gone from dozens of magazines to three) -- in the older magazine, I'll recognize 90+% of the names, maybe one name in the new magazine. Same with anthologies. When I go to a bookstore, a trip through the science fiction section is an exercise in frustration and confusion, and an urge for nostalgia.

Nowadays, my usual reading fare in fiction are mysteries. I especially like novels from the Golden Age, but there are many current novelists who entertain me -- Michael Connelly, Christopher Fowler, and Stephen Puleston. Occasionally, I revisit science fiction, but the author is usually long dead or forgotten by the brash young savages of today. Even science fiction fandom has outpaced me, becoming mired in activism, political agendas, revisionism and literary tyranny of all kinds.

The world changes and the people in it. Even the Pole Star changes every 26,000 years as the Earth orbits the Milky Way Galaxy. But not me, I think.