Things Fall Apart

Yesterday I read three articles worth considering for anyone serious about writing fiction. The first was The Widening Gyre: 2012 Best of the Year Anthologies by Paul Kincaid, written for the LA Review of Books. This piece looked at Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction : Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection, Richard Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy : 2012 Edition and the Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012, edited by Richard Horton

Kincaid begins his lengthy and extremely well-argued article thus:

‘The overwhelming sense one gets, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion. Not so much physical exhaustion (though it is more tiring than reading a bunch of short stories really has any right to be); it is more as though the genres of the fantastic themselves have reached a state of exhaustion.

In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.’

Kincaid considers the crisis of identity and confidence within SF, a genre now so uncertain of itself that it willingly expands to encompass without seeming contradiction the now much more commercially popular Fantasy genre. He compares a 40 year old story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by James Tiptree, Jr. – included in the Nebula anthology as a tribute to the late author – and finds it to have a ‘life and vitality way beyond anything else in these three anthologies.’ Kincaid concludes that there is now a ‘sense that the future is something to be approached wearily because we have already imagined it and rubbed away anything that was bright and new.’ Has science fiction become old, introspective and complacent? And if so, what can we do about it? And does Kincaid’s argument extend to other genres, to mainstream literary fiction? I would suggest that it does. That much fiction has become a tired, ironic game, devoid of conviction.

Immediately after the Kincaid I read an article on Twitch Film by Jim Tudor called After The Boys of Summer Have Gone: A Look Back at the Summer Movie Season and found essentially the same view as Kincaid’s being expressed, this time regarding the year’s big summer movies. Tudor employs an inspired device of heading sections of his article with lyrics from the 1984 Don Henley hit ‘The Boys of Summer’. This evokes a nostalgic sense of better days now irrevocably lost, while simultaneously pointing back to an era when genre films – Blade Runner, The Thing, Videodrome, The Fly, The Terminator – were more frequently crafted with the idea that what was on screen meant something beyond box office dollars. The current bland, forgettable, hollow remake of Total Recall, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, stands for the whole malaise.


Tudor concludes, ‘Indeed, the summer movie season has come to represent something … A certain something, a flair, that’s time may’ve passed. Or at least we like to think it’s passed. Innocence … Wonder … Unapologetic fun … These are things that Hollywood seems to have all but forgotten, and we may not even realize that we need.’

Finally, written in response to Kincaid’s piece, and relevant to Tudor’s, is a superb blog entry by UK critic Jonathan McCalmont on his Ruthless Culture site titled Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future. McCalmont goes deeper, citing the domination of neo-liberal capitalism and post-modern modes of thought as explanations for SF losing its direction, purpose and engagement with what may actually be our future in favour of retreats into sanitised fantasies devoid of moral or political relevance to the real world. It is the longest and best of the three articles and is an important piece for anyone who is serious about their writing, regardless of genre.

In the end, if you don’t believe in anything, how can you write a story or novel that means something?

1 Response

  1. October 23, 2012

    […] Nina Allan, who wonders whether my idea of exhaustion might not also apply to sf cinema, a view that is echoed by Gary Dalkin […]

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