Richard Chwedyk sold his first story in 1990, won a Nebula in 2002, and has been active in the field for the past thirty-two years.
THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF SCIENCE FICTION
This is a true story.
I visited the nearby B&N to see what they were featuring in new SF releases. I like to check out the booksellers. Publishers’ marketing departments tell you what they want to sell you. Booksellers let you know what readers want to buy.
Funny thing. When I walked over to the part of the store where the shelves were once labeled “Science Fiction/Fantasy,” the signs had all been changed to “Fantasy.”
A momentary panic. I looked at the other shelves. Horror. Mystery. Romance. Three different kinds of YA. Graphic novels and manga. Gaming. Where was science fiction?
A more careful inspection of fantasy revealed a scattering of SF titles between the big names of Tolkien, Sanderson, Martin, etc. SF was, apparently, a subset of fantasy, barely worth mentioning. Or so it seemed.
Up in the front of the store, where the new releases were shelved, a couple of handmade signs made on index cards indicated the fantasy novels, and one sign with a rocket drawn with marker, and lettering next to it read “Sci-Fi.”
That was it.
I wondered what this meant in the greater scheme of things. I wasn’t ready to jump to conclusions. I’m still not. But a few days later I came upon a notice in the latest issue of David Langford’s Ansible fanzine, quoting from a piece in the Children’s Bookshelf column in the 29 April Publishers Weekly. In summarizing a survey on children’s library checkouts, “…librarians and teachers said that they recommend science fiction to individual readers but rarely use it in group storytimes or lessons. They feel that the genre is too hard and polarizing; it’s either very popular or very unpopular among children. Several even avoid the term ‘science fiction’ when recommending the books, for fear that it might deter a potential reader!”
When I posted this info on my Facebook page, the researcher responsible for the survey, Emily Midkiff, got in touch with me and confirmed the findings, adding that she went on and wrote an entire book on the subject, Equipping Space Cadets: Primary Science Fiction for Young Children (University Press of Mississippi, 2022).
As mentioned, I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but someone in my position can’t help feeling a little like the ground beneath my feet is shifting. At the college where I teach, courses on fantasy topics fill up the very instant they’re posted. At the same time, for two years I tried to find sufficient students to schedule a science fiction writing class and failed miserably.
Is this a temporary bump or a growing trend? Is the world no longer safe for SF (as if it ever was)?
The funny thing: I did find several SF books in B&N worth reviewing, but found them in the general “Fiction” section.
What may be happening is this: a greater number of authors are exploring the field of science fiction—using our tools, or toys, however one wishes to describe them. It may only be the label that has fallen, again, into disrepute—the label, not the stuff itself. In the long run, this may be a good thing, though I still can’t figure out why we can’t simply call the thing what it is. Namely, science fiction.
The Candy House
by Jennifer Egan
Sea of Tranquility
by Emily St. John Mandel
Alfred A. Knopf
by Dan Chaon
Henry Holt and Company
These three novels were allowed healthy promotions by their publishers. Their authors were interviewed widely in the media, especially on public radio. What I found interesting, when listening to the radio interviews: neither author nor interviewer in each case ever used the term “science fiction” in discussing the novels. Not once. And yet…
For ages, when authors considered to be more of the “literary” or “realistic” (whatever that is) tribe have snuck into our playground, some in our community have been outraged by the incursions. I welcomed the newcomers, even when the results were somewhat disastrous. Science fiction is (or should be) free to all—no walls, no gates, no admission prices or special permits.
Years ago, though, there seemed to be a clear demarcation, thematically and stylistically, between what the “literary” mainstream did and what we do. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.
It may be the times in which we live or the influence, recognized or not, that our authors have had on literature in general.
Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House is science fiction. When at the heart of your book is a thing called Own Your Unconscious which allows you to externally store your memories and sense impressions, we are not dealing with our contemporary milieu. And yet…so much of what’s here is familiar, as if pulled right from our newsfeeds. It manages to convey how much our everyday reality is at once familiar and strange. We have wandered into the future and completely missed it (even though, I’m relieved to discover, we’ve managed to retain rock and roll).
Accentuating this feeling is the episodic, almost disjointed progression of the novel. Every chapter switches focus to another character. In some ways it reminds me of J.G. Ballard’s approach in books like The Atrocity Exhibition. It also reminds me of the science-fictional innovation of the “fixup” novel by folks like Simak, Sturgeon and van Vogt. Egan’s previous book (and her Pulitzer Prize winner) A Visit from the Goon Squad, was even more a fixup, but in this book Egan has refined the process even further. Rather than present a single point of view, she goes for a plethora. In that way, it also harkens back to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and Thomas M. Disch’s 334.
All of this might be a mere exercise were it not that Egan creates such vivid people to occupy her strangely familiar universe, not least of them being the brilliant entrepreneur Bix Boulton. He didn’t invent Own Your Unconscious, but he sure knows how to exploit it. Nevertheless, Boulton isn’t so much the heart of the story as the catalyst that has an influence on and shapes every chapter of this novel.
Is it a novel? As episodic and even disjointed as it seems, yes, it’s a novel, though in some ways you have to engage in a kind of DIY narrative progression, which fits in perfectly with a story about the commodification of memory. Not every novel should be written this way from here on, but this one works the way it does—and it does work, very well.
Will Bear, the protagonist at the heart of Dan Chaon’s latest novel, Sleepwalk, is someone who might be in the market for Bix Boulton’s Own Your Unconscious. He has assumed so many aliases and engaged in so many scams he hardly knows who he is anymore. He often calls himself Barely Blur. For all he says, in relating his story he demonstrates an uncanny sense of detail and expresses it in a most compelling way. Perhaps that’s required for someone who lives on the fringes of a near-future America, speeding along the interstates with a handful of burner phones as he makes his way from shady contact to shady contact, unplugged, rootless and unencumbered.
We cross the border into Louisiana and I huff a little something to take the edge off, but I don’t want to overdo it. Being too awake is just as bad as being too sleepy. You want to try and find a zone that’s a little bit outside of your body, kind of like you’re following yourself and keeping an eye on things from a short distance away.
And this is pretty much how Will gets through his edgy, haphazard life until he receives a call on one of his burner phones from a young woman named Cammie who thinks he might be her biological father. At twenty, Will was a sperm donor for fifty bucks, but how would Cammie know? He had assumed so many identities and left no forwarding addresses, so to speak, how could she track him down? Is she another scammer? A cop? A delusional kid? Will begins to think she may be an AI, and he may not be that far off.
A lot of SF writers have recently steered clear of near-future tales, maybe because they’re afraid being caught way off, or if they’re spot on, being accused of being “mainstream literary.” The perils are obvious. Chaon, in his own way, maneuvers through these dangerous straits with remarkable facility. The fringes Will and his colleagues (or accomplices) occupy are as plausible as they are at times outrageous, so that you’re rarely sure where you’ve crossed over from our “real” world into proto-apocalyptic speculation. At times I found myself reminded of both Roger Zelazny and Nelson Algren. And, like a perp under interrogation, Chaon sticks to his story with masterful skill and agility. For all we see, there are few tangents, few diversions.
Sleepwalk gives us a way to look at the near-future that not only illuminates the slim safety zone called “the present” we currently occupy, but the past that brought us here.
If that’s not science fiction I’ll turn in my raygun and beanie cap now.
When your novel contains not one but two Moon colonies, you’re in science fiction territory. And even if Emily St. John Mandel included nothing about space and colonies on the Moon in her latest novel, Sea of Tranquility, it would still be science fiction. And even if it had nothing science-fictional, it would still be an impressive novel.
I’ve been assured that this novel contains a number of clever references to her earlier novels, Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. Since I haven’t read those novels, I’ll have to take their word for it. But not having read them did not impair my appreciation of this one.
In 1912, Edward St. Andrew, son of a wealthy English aristocrat, arrives in Canada to, perhaps, make his fortune, but instead experiences a strange, almost visionary moment in the wilderness. In 2020, a young woman named Mirella is saved from a potential murder by a person who seems to have known about the threat ahead of time. In 2203, the novelist Olive Llewellyn, who lives in the Moon’s second colony, visits Earth on a book tour during another great pandemic. Connecting these storylines is Gaspery Roberts, a hotel detective who is also an agent of the Time Institute. And at the heart of these apparently disparate threads is a violinist busking in an airship terminal in Oklahoma City, and the melody—or something—he’s playing. It’s a passage from Llewellyn’s novel Marienbad (the only reference I actually got—the film by Alain Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad, which is itself a meditation on time) but it may be the key behind the temporal convergence.
The prose is spare, but precise, and elegantly so. Some of the chapters are no more than a sentence or two. Brief novels, I’m afraid, have become a passion of mine recently. It’s a matter of making every word count:
If we were living in a simulation, how would we know it was a simulation? I took the trolley home from the university at three in the morning. In the warm light of the moving car, I closed my eyes and marveled at the detail. The gentle vibration of the trolley on its cushion of air. The sounds—the barely perceptible whisper of movement, the soft conversations here and there in the car, the tinny notes of a game escaping from a device somewhere. We are living in a simulation, I told myself, testing the idea, but it still seemed improbable to me, because I could smell the bouquet of yellow roses that the woman sitting beside me held carefully in both hands. We are living in a simulation, but I’m hungry and am I supposed to believe that that’s a simulation too?
As you can see, we have wandered into Philip K. Dick territory here. Maybe the temporal anomalies are the product of some corrupted data in the program that is reality? Not that such musings are the sole territory of Philip K. Dick. He once wrote that “What is reality?” is one of the two great questions science fiction seeks to answer. And it seeks to answer the question by engaging in one of the most successful reality simulations ever devised: the novel.
There is much more to Sea of Tranquility than this important question, but it does demonstrate that Emily St. John Mandel is at home here. And by “home” I mean, as you have already figured out, science fiction.
by S.A. Barnes
Until the Last of Me
by Sylvain Neuvel
I’ve been trying to squeeze in these two novels for a few months.
Dead Silence is a neat combination of science fiction and horror. We have salvage ships and missing luxury spaceliners carrying dreadful things. It feels like a tale we’ve read before, because we have, but rarely with such skill and necessary intensity. Very often in these works the balance favors the horror side, but Barnes (pen name of the author better known as Stacey Kade), recognizes that science fiction readers want a little more than space being the place no one can hear you scream. It’s a solid story that moves along effectively to its conclusion.
Until the Last of Me intrigued me as the first book I’ve encountered (so far) with its own playlist. Every chapter title is the name of song popular at the time the story events are occurring. Not that you will recognize much of the history. This novel is more “secret history” than “alternative history,” as the most recent representatives of the Kibsu strive to get humans into space and toward the stars while evading the villainous Trackers, whose job it is to stop them and destroy them. It is, however, the middle book of a trilogy, and it may not be a bad idea to pick up the first volume, A History of What Comes Next, to get through this one. The pace is antic, if not crazed, which made me feel a little like the geezer riding on the back of his grandson’s motorcycle as they race along the freeway. The grandson, fortunately, is reliable and trustworthy, if a little hellbent, making this excursion something more than a cover song.
“THE BOOK FOLLOWED ME HOME, MOM. HONEST!”
Tea with the Black Dragon
by R. A. MacAvoy
This novel almost literally fell into my hands while searching my stacks for another novel from the past I wanted to bring to your attention and, I hoped, your rediscovery. It’s the kind of fortuitous circumstance that one thinks only happens in novels, but in truth happens to me every day.
Tea with the Black Dragon came out at a time when literary fantasy seemed to be going through a transition, if not a redefinition. Authors like John Crowley and Mark Helprin were making splashes. The expected separations between “primary” and “secondary” worlds were being shifted around. In comparison to works like Little, Big and Winter’s Tale, Roberta Ann MacAvoy’s first novel may have seemed modest, even slight. But it made a substantial splash of its own, garnering Hugo and Nebula nominations. It may have done more to advance literary fantasy than any of the formidable works by the big boys in the field. When I read it back in 1983, I couldn’t put it down.
It takes place in contemporary San Francisco. Barbara Macnamara, a concert violinist, has arrived to find her daughter, a computer programmer who has hinted to her mom that she has stumbled into some criminal activities by her employer. In her search, Barbara is befriended by Mayland Long, a distinguished Asian gentleman with considerable abilities and talents. He also happens to be a dragon. Not only do this pair solve the mystery of the missing daughter and uncover a massive criminal conspiracy in the computer business (who’d have thought?), they fall in love.
Does it still “deliver”? It was a drop in the ocean of fantasy fiction when first released, and since then the ocean has only grown, and grown wilder.
According to my brief research in Wikipedia (if my students can get away with it, why can’t I?), James Nicoll and Jo Walton say no. I say hogwash.
It is, as one now often hears the phrase, a novel of its time. For its time, however, its depiction of Asian culture and mythology were comparatively enlightened. Were it written now, it would be held to higher standards of cultural diversity, and rightly so.
What really survives our twenty-first century scrutiny is the aspect most taken for granted by other recent readers: the love story between two “older” (even for now) characters. Barbara is a mature (if naïve in some ways) mother of an adult. Mr. Long is considerably (by a couple of thousand years) older. That this becomes the focus, and in many ways the heart, of this story is what makes reading this novel, even in these days, refreshing and even thrilling. That the story came from a young writer, in a first novel, is all the more miraculous.
I keep saying this, so I’ll say it again: all great stories are love stories. And this one is well worth discovering, or rediscovering, especially if you’ve reached the age of its protagonist.
A POSITIVE POSTSCRIPT
No sooner had I pondered the fate of the “literary form that dares not speak its name” (i.e., science fiction), I received a notice from the college where I teach, inquiring if I might be interested in altering my teaching assignments a little and drop one of my classes to teach a science fiction literature course for which they already had filled up to the limit with students. I replied, of course, “In a heartbeat.”
It may not mean much in the greater scheme of things, but I’ve rarely been one to shy away from fortuitous circumstances.
There may be a future for the future after all.
Copyright © 2022 by Richard Chwedyk.