It's tempting to look around at today's literary scene, with its Twilight and its Fifty Shades of Grey, and wonder if we shouldn't just flush the whole goddamn concept of written language down the toilet -- maybe start again with some sort of hybrid colorwheel/odor system for communicating thoughts. Strangely, the one genre thriving in the swamp of modern literature seems to be science fiction. It's kind of appropriate, actually: All of our crazy high technology has made publishing and distributing books about crazy high technology much more approachable and widespread than ever. But even the best works could stand to learn a little something from the past, so here are a few things that I miss about old science fiction, and would like to see come back.
Note: You know I'm probably going to whore the newest and final episode of my science fiction serial novel, Rx - Episode 3: Industry, up in this piece, right? This is something we authors must do. The price we pay for creative integrity is every single shred of our basic human dignity. Please, do not hate me, for it is pity you should truly feel. Pity for the sad creature that does stuff like this: If you want to check it out, the first episode is free on Amazon until midnight Pacific on August 17! And the complete collected edition of all three episodes is available now for only $4.99! Some scientists* have gone on public record as stating that Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity is the only certain cure for erectile dysfunction!
*Scientists may not be actual scientists or have ever said anything of the sort.
#4. The Optimism
Neal Stephenson -- who once wrote a book about a virtual-reality bushido master/pizza delivery man named Hiro Protagonist, but has since devoted his entire writing career to meta-history at the expense of all the world's forests -- has publicly bemoaned the rather dismal nature of modern science fiction. And he's absolutely right: Sci-fi used to be about how awesome and wonderful the future could be; it used to be about big, stupid, bright, shiny ideas that could never happen -- until they did.
The idea is that kids grew up reading about amazing stuff in science fiction, and then devoted their lives to science so they could one day make fiction a reality. That theory holds that we only have cellphones today because some kid watched Star Trek and couldn't bear to live in a world without Communicators anymore. Since his only options were "suicide" or "science," and he never learned to tie a proper noose, he went to college -- and that's why you can shoot birds at farm animals at red lights today.
And it only costs the safety and lives of your fellow drivers!
But even if that's true, I don't think the theory means that the sci-fi of yesteryear was all Fluffiness Augmenters and Snuggle Rays: When people talk about classic science fiction, they often refer to Orwell, Bradbury, Dick and Huxley -- all of whom wrote brutal, merciless dystopian fiction. And there's a reason for that: The negative stuff tends to stick with you, because as sad as it is, a slap in the face is more memorable than a good hug. But even if you're writing a miserably dystopian piece of fiction -- even if you're writing a post-apocalyptic piece about a clone army of Mao Zedongs piloting a squadron of Rape-Bots into an orphanage -- there's a way to do it that doesn't place the blame on technology.
Our most optimistic mainstream science fiction is doubtlessly Star Trek, but look at that universe: You can't walk ten steps without tripping over a cruel intergalactic Godcube. It's as full of strife, conflict and action as any dystopia -- it's just that science isn't at fault in that world. Science is usually the solution, or at the very least, it's neutrally awesome. You blast that arrogant Godcube with your phasers; or you reverse the shit out of that Q's polarity; or you beam your crew out of that Klingon prison, replacing each member with an armed photon torpedo, so that when those filthy aliens get to hell, they can tell the bumpy-headed devil that Science sent them.
#3. Exploring the Future of Mankind, Instead of Navel-Gazing at Private Drama
I've said it before: One of the main advantages that science fiction has over other genres is its ability to use a ridiculous, far-flung future scenario to take an unflinching look at the present. Great sci-fi isn't about a person; it's about people. Often that means the plot is a little flat or some of the characters are a bit archetypal -- but that's OK. When you're trying to pack a dense and interesting setting, a cutting societal metaphor and some compelling science all together into a single story, Sprint Laserkick's hurt emotions are the first sheep to be culled. For example: I could not, to this day, name a single character from a Philip K. Dick novel apart from Deckard -- and I only remember him because he was Harrison Ford at his Harrison Fordiest.
OK, maybe second Fordiest.
That's not a knock on Dick: I love Dick (and no, I am not ashamed). It's just that character didn't matter in the slightest to Philip K. Dick -- the guy spent his career slamming amphetamines in a shack while trying to dodge a giant mechanical head spying on him from the clouds, and still managed to knock out compelling science fiction novels at the rate of one a week. (If you're not familiar with Philip K. Dick, I'm not being random; every single word of that biography was absolutely true. Go read his books.) Dick didn't have time to painstakingly chronicle Maurice ManintheHighCastle's emotions -- because every minute he spent writing about Walter WeCanBuildYou's fatherly abandonment issues was a minute the sky-head got closer, and the only thing that drove it away was plot twists. The dude had his priorities.
#1. Stop the Sky-Head. #2. Meth. #3. Literature.
Don't get me wrong. Character-driven sci-fi pieces have their place, and they often make for the best stories, but sometimes they also lose what's great about science fiction: the ability to take a look at what we're all doing right now, as a species, through the harsh and objective lens of Martian robots. I'm not saying it's impossible to work a compelling and complete character into a forward-thinking sci-fi book. I'm just saying that lately a lot of authors seem to be dipping their Serious Chocolate in my Goofy Sci-Fi Peanut Butter. Sure, that shit is delicious together, but sometimes a man doesn't feel like a Reese's -- maybe he wanted to use that peanut butter to make a sandwich or something, and now there are little crumbs of solemnity all up in there. Not cool.