So I’m a geek. I admit it.
I actually embraced my geekhood a few years ago, about the same time I finally admitted I’m a cat person, not a dog person.
Part of that geek-dom is a love of science fiction and fantasy.
I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid, watching the Apollo-Soyuz meet up with my parents. I was all of three years old, and yet it captured my imagination and never let go.
But how to explain the allure of science fiction?
Well, at least once upon a time, it was the optimism, the grand vision. The Big Idea.
SF was the fiction of what could be. It was the literature of a limitless future when man (usually American man) would take to the stars, simply because we could, and a new Manifest Destiny would spread us across the galaxy. There were no limits. Problems would be solved, obstacles surmounted.
Heady stuff to a young boy — even still, to a middle aged man.
Of course that was the stuff mostly written in the 1960s and some into the 70s. But by the 60s a new type of writer was taking over. Epitomized by Phillip K. Dick it was called the “New Wave” and new wave was characterized by grittier, more realistic writing — and this was not wholly bad. Character was not always a strong suit of some of the Golden Age writers and some of the stories could be rather pastel.
But with the gritter settings came gritter endings. And with the New Wave came a batch of writers who wanted to be Taken Seriously. They wanted to be Literary. And so we began to have books where the characters were of rather ambiguous morality. Where the endings were not always happy (that, in and of itself is not bad, Hamlet does not have a happy ending after all, nor does King Lear) where too often the book began to resemble Tolstoy. (Tolstoy has often been described as “People with unpronounceable names do nothing for 800 pages and then someone’s aunt dies.”)
Soon enough, in an attempt to be taken seriously by the literary dahhlings in New York we had writers like Margaret “I’m not really an SF writer” Atwood who wrote paens to communism with characters no one liked in books no one enjoyed — and then they won lots of awards, patted each other on the back and congratulated themselves on How Intelligent and Enlightened they were, and then they went out and gave each other more awards, meanwhile readership and publishing contracts were declining and no one could figure out why since all the big houses were releasing Important Books.
The fans called these books, and the ones still being released, “Grey Goo.” Most of the big houses continue to commit grey-gooism and wonder why their profits suck.
Some of this was the result of the malaise of the 1970s and early 80s when everyone thought either we were going to be taken over by the Soviets or there was going to be a nuclear war and we were all going to die anyway.
In the middle of all this comes a young editor named Jim Baen. Jim didn’t give two small craps about your political orientation (conservative authors simply don’t get published by, say, Penguin) your sexual orientation or anything else about the author except for one thing — can you write a good story? He founded a house, Baen Books, which is built on that premise.
Character? Piffle. World building? Secondary. Plot, plot, plot uber alles. Jim wanted books that told a story and told a good story that people would buy.
And it worked. Baen makes money when most of the other houses are hemorrhaging cash and leveraged to the eyeballs. Baen gets denigrated as a “pulp house” and it, frankly, is. Who cares? Other than the literary dahhhlings of course.
Most of the greats of SF were pulp writers. Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein (pause for genuflection), Ray Bradbury, all these men were pulp writers for most of their careers, and they are now venerated as the big four of the Golden Age (I’d put H. Beam Piper in there and kick that commie schmuck Asimov off the list if it were me, but I digress.)
What these writers shared, what Jim Baen saw and realized in their writing, was the primacy of plot. Asimov’s writing was … awkward at best. I found Clarke to be often stilted in his dialogue. Bradbury’s world building was often iffy. But they told whacking good stories. (As another aside for most of his career J.R.R. Tolkien was dismissed as a mere fantasist.)
There’s an emerging movement in SF these days, Human Wave. It’s centered on Baen authors and independent authors who are often in the Baen community. It’s trying to bring back the hopeful stories, the grand vision.
Real scientists have often enough been inspired by SF but SF has done precious little inspiring of late.
It’s time that changed.