Lesson 12: Looking Backward and Forward

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define two modern movements in science fiction: the “New Weird” and the resurgence of “space opera.”
  • Speculate on possible future paths of the science-fiction genre.

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville


Fantasy and science fiction have cohabited uneasily since the creation of the pulp magazines. Publishers of science-fiction magazines sometimes added a fantasy magazine to their list of publications, as John W. Campbell did (in 1939, adding Unknown to Astounding Science-Fiction) and Horace Gold did (in 1953, adding Beyond to Galaxy and in 1968, Worlds of Fantasy). But fantasy publishers seldom added science-fiction magazines to their list. Weird Tales, though perhaps as much a magazine of horror as of fantasy, stood alone.

The feeling among most publishers and editors was that fantasy readers didn’t like science fiction and that science-fiction readers didn’t cross over to fantasy; the perception was also that fantasy did not sell as well. Some of this was confirmed by comparing sales of fantasy novels to sales of science fiction novels, and by the limited success of fantasy magazines. Most fantasy magazines (with the notable exception of Weird Tales) survived for only a few issues (Unknown lasted four years and was killed by the wartime paper shortage), while the science-fiction magazines soldiered on.

One contrary indication was, beginning in 1939, the reprinting of the old Munsey fiction in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, mixing fantasy and early science-fiction in the same magazine. Another was the creation of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1939 (the first issue was called The Magazine of Fantasy) that combined fantasy and science fiction in the same literary mix. The logic of the magazine’s founders, Tony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, was that literary science fiction had the same readership as literary fantasy, and that fantasy, with a longer and richer literary history, would add tone to a magazine that aimed at a more elite readership.

Fantasy goes back to the earliest traditions of story-telling in myth, fairy tale, satire, and imagination. Science fiction depended, for its creation, on the development of technology and scientific explanations for natural phenomena, and the subsequent realization that technology and science were changing the way people lived and behaved and that the future was going to be different.

In the 1960s the relative positions of science fiction and fantasy began to shift, as influential works such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Rings, Ursula Le Guin’s Eathsea Trilogy, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby demonstrated that fantasy could be not only popular but more successful in the marketplace than science fiction. In the past couple of decades, fantasy has replaced science fiction in numbers of titles and in numbers of books sold, although it still remains a smaller part of the magazine field—a field in which fiction magazines themselves have become an endangered species.

In the past two decades, as well, authors have begun mingling science fiction and fantasy in ways that once would have been difficult to imagine. Robert Silverberg’s 1992 Kingdoms of the Wall, for instance, seems like a fantasy quest story until the end where it turns into science fiction, as if to challenge the reader’s expectations. And Michael Swanwick’s 1991 Stations of the Tide, a novel that is ostensibly science fiction, transforms into fantasy at the end. To be sure, Silverberg’s 1980 Lord Valentine’s Castle and its sequels were a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, in the science-fantasy mode that characterized much science fiction in the early pulp era—the stories and novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, some of Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, and the early C. L. Moore—and Michael Swanwick’s 1993 The Iron Dragon’s Daughter seems fantasy until a modest nod toward the real world comes toward the end.

A new kind of fantasy/science fiction literature began to be published just after the turn of the millennium. It has been called “the New Weird” and was defined by Jeff VanderMeer and Ann VanderMeer in their The New Weird anthology as “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for the creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.” They expand upon this to ally it to the horror genre as “a transgressive horror, a type of fiction repurposed to focus on the monsters and grotesquery but not the scare itself.” Gary K. Wolfe refers to the VanderMeer’s New Weird definition as involving “the shifting urban landscape, the particularity of character and place, the precise use of language, the dreamlike grotesquerie, and sharp political undertones, the subverting of expectation.” New Weird authors have been variously listed as Steve Cockayne, Storm Constantine, M. John Harrison (who hosted a message board about the New Weird), Mary Gentle, Ian R. MacLeod, K. J. Bishop, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Clive Barker, Richard Calder, Jeffrey Ford, Kathe Koja, Hal Duncan, Justina Robson, Steph Swainston, Jeff VanderMeer, and, pre-eminently, China Miéville.

The New Weird’s roots have been traced to H. P. Lovecraft’s Weird Tales stories, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, Mervyn Peake, and in Miéville’s case, Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borrible Trilogy and, perhaps, to Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga.

In spite of the trend, illustrated in the New Weird, toward new directions for science fiction and toward a lessening of genre boundaries, a strong central current of traditional science fiction continues to run through the heart of science fiction. Mainstream writers have pilfered science fiction tropes such as alien visitations, future social and political transformations, post-catastrophe, and alternate history. Science fiction writers have been accepted into the mainstream. Meanwhile, what is recognizably and inarguably science fiction continues to be published and read, sometimes in best-seller quantities. This is particularly true of what was the hard core of science-fiction publishing from its origins in the science fiction magazines of the 1920s: the space opera pioneered by Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith, Edmond Hamilton, Jack Williamson, Leigh Bracket, Catherine L. Moore; later, by Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Jack Vance, Cordwainer Smith, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle; and, more recently, by Frank Herbert, David Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear, John Varley, Mike Resnick, and Catherine Asaro.

David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer, in their 2006 anthology The Space Opera Renaissance, recount how the term “space opera” evolved from a term invented by fan and author Wilson Tucker as a description of “bad SF hackwork” into a “contemporary term of praise.” They attribute the transformation to Lester del Rey and Judy Lynn Benjamin del Rey, who deliberately set out to take science fiction back to its roots in the books they published for Del Rey Books (a Ballantine Books subsidiary), and as a rejection of “the incursions of Modernism” into science fiction after the pretension and excesses and failed experiments of the New Wave—which had, in its heyday, “declared space fiction over with and the fiction of the near future, inner space, and the human mind the only true contemporary SF.” Their efforts were reinforced by the popularity of space opera in television—Star Trek in its various incarnations—and in film, most notably the Star Wars series.

Nevertheless, Hartwell and Cramer point out that for “the past twenty years (1982–2002), the Hugo Award for best novel has generally been given to space opera—from David Brin, C. J. Cherryh, and Orson Scott Card to Lois Bujold, Dan Simmons, and Vernor Vinge.” Then, in Great Britain, the breeding ground of the New Wave, the new space opera began to develop, partly nourished by the British magazine Interzone. Great Britain had always contributed great space adventure fiction, from the thoughtful, ironic novels of H. G. Wells through the literary treatments of John Brunner and Brian W. Aldiss (particularly his Helliconia trilogy) and a substantial body of hackwork. Then Iain M. Banks published Consider Phlebas in 1987, and post-modern space opera got a model from its success.

Banks was preceded by a few authors, such as M. John Harrison, and followed by many, including Neal Asher, Stephen Baxter, Paul McAuley, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds, and Charles Stross in Great Britain and by Vernor Vinge, Walter Jon Williams, and John C. Wright in the United States. But Banks’s ability to make a best seller out of space-opera ingredients made the greatest impact. The British scholar Paul Kincaid, in The New Optimism, called Banks the most influential writer in Britain today: “His huge commercial success (bigger than any genre writer except for Terry Pratchett) has spawned a host of successors, from those opportunistically likened to him in publishing blurbs to those who have genuinely been inspired by his approach, his vigorous literary style or his view of the future.”

What are the distinguishing characteristics of the new space opera? The Wikipedia entry says that it “evolved around the same time cyberpunk emerged and was influenced by it, is darker, moves away from the ‘triumph of mankind’ template of space opera, involves newer technologies, and has stronger characterization than did the space opera of old. While it does retain the interstellar scale and scope of traditional space opera, it can also be scientifically rigorous.”

Banks is a Scottish writer who studied English literature, philosophy, and psychology at the University of Sterling. He made his mark first as an author of mainstream novels, beginning with The Wasp Factory in 1984, and he published two more mainstream novels in succeeding years (as Iain Banks) before his publishers agreed to publish Consider Phlebas. Since then, he has published six novels in what has been called “the Culture” series (Matter was published in 2008) and three more non-related novels, while continuing to publish mainstream novels—a dozen by 2007.

One of the characteristics of Consider Phlebas and the other “Culture” novels—and, by extension, of post-modern space opera—is a matter-of-fact acceptance of scope, size, distance, human transformation, and alien lifeforms that earlier space opera often made the focus of their stories. Where early space opera marveled at the discovery of space flight, means of crossing the great depths of interstellar space, or encounters with rapacious aliens, the new space opera accepts those as givens and furnishes its galaxy with the artifacts of previous novels.

To consider one example, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels raise the question of the fall of empires (the fall of the Roman Empire on a galactic scale) and the possibilities of science (psychohistory) shortening the Dark Ages to follow. The Culture novels may kill off billions of rational beings and destroy solar systems and vast artifacts, but survival of the human species is not an issue, and other species become extinct as part of the natural order of events.

Larry Niven focuses on the size of his Ringworld and the way in which its habitable space makes thousands of civilizations possible, as well as the marvels of its construction and engineering. Banks uses his “orbital” as a stage setting for human (and alien) drama. And if it gets destroyed through a failure of warring competitors to declare it a neutral site, there are uncounted other orbitals around, built perhaps by long-forgotten galactic civilizations, and the issue is not the loss of a priceless artifact but how to get everybody notified and evacuated. The sense of wonder celebrated in earlier science fiction gets subsumed by a matter-of-factness that has its own appeal.

Similarly, in Bank’s 2008 novel Matter, he uses another Dyson sphere (Ringworld and Banks’s “orbitals” are slices of a Dyson sphere) to consider different levels of civilization existing one above another, where Bob used his Orbitsville to illustrate the incredible potential of living space produced by converting all the matter in a solar system into a sphere surrounding its sun. (Scientist Freeman Dyson suggested that truly advanced civilizations would be able to use all the energy of its star and this fashion, and that we could detect alien civilizations by detecting infrared radiation where no visible light was perceptible.) And, in Shaw’s novel these “orbitsvilles” had been left in the path of expanding stellar civilizations so as to consume their energies, gobble up their excess populations, and slow their progress into the galaxy.

In this sense, at least, the new space opera tends to put into action John W. Campbell’s dictum: “Grant your gadgets and get on with your story.” At the same time, the new space opera shifts its focus to character rather than species. David Brin’s Uplift series of novels, for instance, puts its major emphasis on the upstart human species emerging into a galaxy already controlled by uplifted alien species who have done things their way for millions of years. Humanity, which not only uplifted itself but uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees along with them, must struggle for respect and a place at the council table.

In Banks’s Consider Phlebas, on the other hand, humanity is dominant, and the “virtues” of western civilization—freedom, tolerance, personal fulfillment—must coexist with alien values, which seem to resemble the values of more traditional human cultures, particularly Islamic cultures, even though the protagonist of the novel, Bora Horza Gobuchul, is a shapeshifter working for the Idiran religious fanatics.

Writing Assignment 12
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • What kind of reading protocols do you apply to the reading of Perdido Street Station? The novel, for instance, refers to its monetary system as including “shekels, stivers, and guineas.” In a science-fiction novel, these disparate units of coin might be clues to the world-building that the science fiction author engages in; what do they mean here? The novel spells “elyctricity” and “chymical” with a “y.” What does this mean?
  • The world of Perdido Street Station offers a variety of intelligent species (some human, others include vodyanoi, cacti, garuda, khepri. . . . )—in fact, the variety is part of its special character. What does this suggest about its background? As science fiction? As fantasy?
  • Michael Cisco, in a column on “Jungle Mind” on The Modern Word, says that “The serendipitous constellation of contemporary fantasy writers that belong to or generate ‘the new weird’ seem generally and in varying proportions to blend the influences of genre writing and literary fantasy, and to weave in non-fantastic signals as well.” What non-fantastic signals does Perdido Street Station provide?
  • What elements of the horror genre can you identify in the novel?
  • Miéville has described his novel as “basically a secondary world fantasy with Victorian era technology. So rather than being a feudal world, it’s an early industrial capitalist world of a fairly grubby, police statey kind!” What does secondary world fantasy suggest about reading the novel? What does Miéville mean when he calls it “anti-Tolkien”?
  • Does the acceptance of a stage already set by earlier writers allow (or compel) authors such as Banks to deal with contemporary issues written large, as in the Le Guin formulation that science fiction is about here and now, not there and then?
  • What do the appendices do for the events of the story? How do they shape the reader’s reaction to the closely imagined events through which Horza has gone? What does it mean (to the novel and to our own response to current crises) that Consider Phlebas takes the long view, that it took 10,000 years for the Idirans to settle down and realize they were wrong?
  • Banks adopts some contemporary terminology but renames most: he uses Star Trek’s “warp drive,” for instance, but calls ring worlds “orbitals,” robots “drones,” and artificial intelligences (A.I.s) “minds.” Can you think of any reasons for Banks’s choices?
  • On page. 499 (of the 2008 Orbit edition), the novel provides a counter-argument to Star Trek’s “prime directive” of non-interference in the development of less sophisticated cultures. Which philosophy seems more persuasive? How does this argument explain the Culture-Idiran war?
  • On page 295, the novel offers the Culture’s philosophy: “They sought to take the unfairness out of existence, to removed the mistakes in the transmitted message of life which gave it any point or advancement…. But theirs was the ultimate mistake, the final error, and it would be their undoing.” Can you justify the Culture’s approach to existence? Or Horza’s defense of the Idirans?
  • Considering the current trends of science fiction, can you speculate about the ways in which it may evolve in the next decade? The next quarter-century?

After you have submitted all the writing assignments in the course, you may apply to take the final examination. Go to examinations at the Independent Study website for instructions.

Be sure to review the Preparation for the Final Exam.