Ian Sales - Has Hard SF Grown Regressive?

Discussion in 'General Book Discussion' started by Nerds_feather, Jun 8, 2014.

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    Nerds_feather

    Nerds_feather Purveyor of Nerdliness

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    Not the only thing going on in this piece, but a major theme that ties into other discussions we've had lately. Curious what people think.
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    svalbard

    svalbard New Member

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    Good article, although I must admit that I do not read sci-fi in any form, Iain does write a good blog. Some of the comments were distasteful, especially the remarks about the reading public(not Iain's comments I hasten to add). Sounded very bitter.
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    Vladd67

    Vladd67 Stake Holder

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    Yes reading the comments it would seem that Cliff Burns cannot sell and therefore the buying public are too stupid to appreciate him.
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    Brian Turner

    Brian Turner Brian G. Turner Staff Member

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    I'm minded of a few points immediately:

    1. It reminds me of a discussion a while ago, where another writer posted about their dissatisfaction with the genre. If I remember right, they were seen to condemn it as boring. Commentators pointed out that was because that person had read and experienced so much of it there was little new for them.

    2. Is Ian Sales actually saying that "hard sf tends to bad writing - and has done so for decades"? :)

    3. I wonder if it's relevant that space sciences have barely moved on for a few decades? The 1950's to early 1980's were a period of untold discovery and wealth of opportunity. However, astrophysics has been at a boundary of sorts since at least the 1990's. Scientists are still struggling with concepts such as "dark matter" and "dark energy" to the point where these are ascriptions that may as well be divine, because there are no working scientific models for them. Additionally, we're no closer to connecting quantum physics with gravity, or a big M theory of everything. In fact, if you read the first edition of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, published in 1988, you are probably almost up to date on all major theories of space, time, and being. Everything else is just engineering...

    4. Blaming publishers is old hat and fatuous. The only big SF we've got from self-publishing is Wool. In the meantime, publishers seemed happy enough with a literary science fiction story such as Cloud Atlas.
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    Bick

    Bick Member

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    It's quite an interesting topic for discussion, and while I usually find myself disagreeing with Ian in a knee jerk reflex, I see some truth in his hypothesis here. Except... that a genre cannot regress or progress per se. Genres have no ability to mutate or change (unless we redefine them), they are what they are. Authors either offer up more or less literary/progressive work to populate the genre that's all. So the suggestion really is that authors (or publishers) are providing less literary/progressive work within this specific sub-genre. It may be true that the literary quality of hard SF has gone downhill, but I suspect it's always been the case that the more literary writers tend toward softer SF. Nothing wrong with that, its their choice what to write of course. I don't believe this informs us particularly regarding the state of hard SF as a genre. And as one poster pointed out - there is hard SF of the kind that Ian bemoans the lack of - its perhaps just hard to find among the mass of material publishers do put out.
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    tinkerdan

    tinkerdan candycane shrimp

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    This article is an interesting piece and there were some things that I could agree with and some that seemed a bit arguable.

    One of the strongest points he made that I can agree with is he kept wandering off of his point and into other areas that were distracting from my figuring out the point.

    The best I could come back with is that he's lamenting any sign of evidence that writers today even attempt to deconstruct the genre tropes and examine each of the those and then apply that to their new worlds they are creating to put a new spin on the trope as it fits within that new framework.

    What is interesting here is that there might be an issue to raise about whether he means to have the reconstruction be one that's out far out into the speculation or if he could live with one that reflects the times.

    Even when we look back the norm has always been for the breakdown and rebuilt of old tropes and have somehow more often reflected the time in which the writer writes than to gather too much momentum and travel into some speculative fiction. Especially when considering the psychology and sociology of man. But there are always some attempts such as Brave new world and 1984 though if there were to be noted any deficiencies in perceived predictions in those pieces, it might be easily ascribed to the fact that those projections come out of the present time rather than opening a lens into the future.

    I don't necessarily think its just the publishing industry greed and that the writers need to put food on the table that ends up being the problem here. But I also am unsure that it's a real problem. When I look at fiction of any sort I see that over time we have come up with a number of tropes that build the narrative from which the writer tries to reach the reader. This alone is not bad. I think it's unfair to suggest that we don't try to deconstruct those tropes; because that's what I see every writer trying to do with that inclination for something different, unique and interesting.

    In the long run I find it difficult to see where the author of this article is going with this. Is he saying that we should not have our characters thoughts feelings and actions reflect what we think of as normal; because the environment of that far off time will change all of that.

    While I can live with switching up some of the tropes wherever one can find something in that future universe that might throw them upon their ears, I find it difficult to consider deconstructing man too far without creating some believable reason that won't leave the reader wondering what kind of protagonist would think to even act that way.

    On the other hand I always thought one goal in science fiction was to create all the grand science in a scene that is utterly strange to man and put the average man into it and watch how his action and interaction create new conflicts; how the normal tropes create something different in the brave new world.

    I'm not saying that I see a lot of this out there right now but I am saying that this article has me confused as to what the author's point was in deconstruction and reexamination. Is he asking for strange people in a strange new world acting strange and perhaps dark and unreal? Or is he asking for normal people trying to react to strange new worlds and science in the usual normal way?
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    psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

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    Maybe the writers of hard SF and the readers who prefer it do not care about the quality of the writing so much.

    I admit I do not really focus on the writing at all. It is necessary to tell the story. I notice if it is exceptionally bad. But most of the time when readers talk about how great the writing is I am usually not that enthusiastic about the stories.

    Lois Bujold is one of the few writers I like a lot who gets tons of complements about her writing. Her stuff is mostly not hard SF, though Falling Free might qualify. But I have not encountered any bad or dumb science in her stories either. She doesn't write as though science is irrelevant.

    psik
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    Bick

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    Not sure about that. I, for one, really like hard SF but I'm a stickler for good writing. I find badly written books very difficult to get on with and they jar with me badly. I think ACC probably counts as a very good writer of hard SF. Books like The Fountains of Paradise resound on an emotional level, and are well constructed - quite literary to my mind. I regard KSR to be a writer of quality too. His Mars trilogy is actually a decent shout to refute some of what Ian has proposed in his essay. I think Robinson manages to explore the idea of how the new environment might affect human society and desires very well. It is quite successful on this front.

    This is an interesting example, as I don't regard Bujold as being a very good writer. I'm astonished she has won so many awards. I read Falling Free and found parts of it to be so badly written I had to pause for breath and turn to something else for a while. I will read some more Bujold in time, but it wont be for her stellar literary skills.
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    psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

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    Falling Free was an early book, 1988.

    I didn't get hooked on her stuff until Barrayar, 1991.

    But Falling Free is her only story that I might call hard SF.

    psik
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    Bick

    Bick Member

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    Fair point psik and I think she deserves another chance or two for sure, given the awards she's picked up. Of course, Falling Free did win the Nebula, so I find that a bit worrying... (but this is rather of topic).
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    wam

    wam Member

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    There are some things in Hard SF that have gotten very jaded over the years. Does anyone really think of space opera as real science anymore? There was a time when New Scientist/Scientific American articles would show up the following year as a novel from someone like Greg Bear or Stephen Baxter. The problem with them was that there would be chapters of data dump and characters or plot would suffer. Then there were trends. You would get three or four books with the same gimmick at the same time and, apart from later volumes of a trilogy, never hear of it again.
    Now we seem to have run down many of the options. Hard SF seems to like big science now. Either you get space opera, inter-dimensional travel, world ending catastrophe or something on that scale. I'm not even sure they could manage the solo scientist and the small invention. They're not really pushing boundaries that often either. No completely invented science. Variations in story structure are rare and even then seem to come from the literary end and rarely touch on anything we haven't seen before.
    All kinds of literature need something new every so often to keep people interested. At the moment SF publishers are putting out more of the same rather than take a risk. It could be that no-one is writing anything else. So much of what I've heard seems to say that unpublished writers are trying to conform to existing markets and styles. Maybe things will improve from another self-publisher. Maybe an established publisher will take a risk. I don't really expect either of these to happen soon. We're more likely to see something succeed from outside the genre from an established writer.
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    nightdreamer

    nightdreamer Elf in Space

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    "So let’s add these things together – from David, the lack of experimentation in form; from Nina, the lack of contemporary commentary; and from myself, the failure to examine what science fiction actually does and why it does it… Surely there’s something in among that lot worth exploring?"

    I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. However, it assumes that the purposes of science fiction, in some way, are experimentation, contemporary commentary, and deconstruction of SF tropes. All of these are valid goals, but one has to ask to what degree they are any kind of purpose. For the vast majority of readers, I imagine, the purpose is entertainment, and I imagine further that entertainment is satisfied without any deeper analysis of social evolution or SF introspection than we see in Star Wars.

    Of course, this relates to the literary/commercial dichotomy. I have not read any of Ian Sales' books (I really should) but I've read some of his blog posts and it seems that he is very much into the literary sub-genre. That is fine. I have a great respect for literary fiction and for the people who choose to write it, but I tend to have more fun with works that are just ... fun. That is fine, too. In retrospect, a fine literary work might impress me when I read it, but in the long run, it is the fun novel that sticks with me.

    That said, I have to agree in general with the complaints. I have tweeted a few times a sentiment along the lines of, "Whatever you write should challenge someone's boundaries, especially your own." There is nothing wrong with commercial science fiction striving for more "literary" content and asking some of those questions. You can do that and still be fun. I try to, but I'm not sure how successful I am. It seems that a lot of times, writers try to pick one angle or the other: literary OR commercial, without realizing that "analytical" and "fun" can work together.
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    Bick

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    Yes, this is a good point. And a related thought: The bloggers do seem to be criticising a lack of experimentation, contemporary commentary, and deconstruction of SF tropes (as indicated in the post above) - but wasn't this the goal of the British new wave? So, while the essay looks for a more progressive style of SF going forwards, perhaps it does so by seeking more of the same from a 1960's movement. Maybe SF will evolve but we shouldn't necessarily expect it to do so in a way that its already done before (and which many authors and critics were not necessarily huge fans of). So is what the blog seeks really progress or is it nostalgia?
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    psikeyhackr

    psikeyhackr Live Long & Suffer

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    But what do the "Literary People" regard as Hard science fiction.

    What about Spin by Robert Charles Wilson?

    Going through the Spin Cycle: Spin by Robert Charles Wilson | Tor.com

    I started this but didn't get very far. How much faster is time running on Earth? Is the planet spinning faster. If it is then what is Lunar gravity doing to the tides? If it is not then what happened to inertia. Don't atoms have mass and bounce off each other? How could normal chemical reactions keep functioning without inertia.

    The physics made my brain itch too much, I just could not buy it.

    Is it HARD SF?

    psik
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    Nerds_feather

    Nerds_feather Purveyor of Nerdliness

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    I think it's probably best to see "hardness" as a continuous rather than dichotomous (or even categorical) variable. So it's not hard/soft but "how hard" and "hard in what ways."

    At one end of that continuum you have stuff like Star Wars. To the degree that it is science fictional (and it is), it extrapolates a futuristic society made possible by scientific and technological advancements. But it involves very little science, and the technology is often fantastic and generally untheorized.

    Moving further from the soft extreme you have the Culture novels, which embody the whole "at some point technological advances in science fiction begin to resemble magic in fantasy." But the technology is at least theorized.

    Mieville's The City and the City is a bit harder, based as it is on theoretical physics. But string, superstring, m-theory, etc. may be mathematically sound and provide elegant lenses through which one might potentially understand the universe, they are unfalsifiable by current means.

    At the hard end you have stuff like Greg Bear, ACC and others whose science is (relatively) rigorous, more grounded than theoretical and where the science and technology are the centerpiece.

    I'm not making value judgements here--I enjoy SF from all points on this continuum.
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    Ursa major

    Ursa major Bearly Believable Staff Member

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    As an aside....
    That's one way of looking at the book, but the setting can also be seen as being based on how humans have been taught to (even bullied into) seeing their city/cities as separate.

    The advantage of the physics-driven explanation is that it helps the reader stop asking the question, "How has this persisted for so long, and in a sometimes volatile part of the world?" The advantage of the psychological/political explanation is that it allows us to see the way humans can be selectively blind, but in a way that seems to bypass obvious real-world examples (ethnicity, class, gender) and so lets everyone feel how odd it is through new eyes. All in all, it's rather clever, and not just in story terms. (And, of course, it's very far from being regressive. :))

    It's an excellent and thought-provoking book, and I would recommend it to anyone.
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    Fishbowl Helmet

    Fishbowl Helmet Ask the next question...

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    This also reminds me of the most recent iteration of the never-ending grimdark debate. Specifically the point about the tension for a writer between drama and realism. Go too far toward drama and the story falls into melodrama, go too far toward realism and the story becomes a boring slice of life.

    Hard SF fans and writers self-admittedly put getting the physics right above all other things. Tipping the scales of drama vs realism vastly in favor of realism, at least in regards to the portrayal of physics, but that's also necessarily at the expense of drama and or writing a good story (dramatically engaging), that's well told (well crafted, well written).

    Well, no, not really. Maybe in the realm of theoretical physics, yes, things haven't changed that much, but the rest of science is certainly not "just engineering". Hawking recently admitted that A Brief History of Time is wrong on several points, not the least of which is black holes. Astronomers are discovering exoplanets by the dozen. Yeah, short list, but it's quite early here. I haven't had my coffee.

    Not entirely true. Another recent splash is The Martian by Andy Weir.

    And in answer to this question:

    I'd say that's a big yes. I can understand (though not want to read) fiction that places such an emphasis on getting the science right that the story is boring (lacks drama), but to read a boring story that the author can't be bothered to care about the craft of it, that's a bridge too far.

    But to Ian's blog post, it's a basically silly complaint to make on its face. Hard SF is the single most stringent subgenre of the field, the subgenre that says if it's not real world, present day physics, you're doing hard SF wrong. The subgenre that says if it's not a story about a piece of technology and its effects, you're doing it wrong.

    Then he complains that it's not experimental in form, setting, or narrative? Really? If you don't write a story about a bit of tech, then the hardcore hard SF fans will say it's simply not hard SF. Or worse, that it's not SF at all, because don't you know, the only real SF is hard SF according to some of these people. Yeah, this particular subgenre doesn't strike me as the "experimental" type.

    I think I've read one hard SF book that didn't bore me to tears or make me wince at the writing, Rendezvous with Rama. Maybe I read it so long ago that I've glossed over the writing.

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