Thursday, April 01, 2004

reading sci fi

Force-feeding myself short sci fi (Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction 2003), I find myself predictably bored to tears by hard sci fi, amazed at the dismal and plodding pace of the plotless stories, and rendered inert by the ones that are mostly technobabble.

However, the stories that focus on people, that have strong human characters, engaged my mind and swept away much of my hardcore bias. Stories like:

Paul McAuley's "The Passenger"
Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Officer"
Maureen McHugh's "Presence" (my favorite)
John Kessel's "Stories for Men"
Geoff Ryman's "V.A.O"
Michael Swanwick's "Slow Life"

What struck me in particular were the deft and observant characterization in "Presence" and "V.A.O", the pacing of "The Passenger", the sophistication, structure and honesty of "Stories for Men", the tension of "The Passenger", and the sheer beauty of the "Slow Life".

These were stories that worked despite the sci fi trappings - in other words, they worked as stories first, rather than works that promote the sci fi "agenda".
I am comfortable with these stories because the tech is not screaming in my face - in fact, if these are representative of the manner of stories told in this mode (and I suppose they are, having been gathered from publications such as Asimov's and Analog), then I think I can write in this mode if I switch certain gears in my head, thanks to the interstitial or slipstream mode cthat accomodates a startling variety of writing styles and genres.

What is sci fi today, anyway? Why are vast tracks of the books available so seemingly moribund? And these are questions asked not only by outsiders like me, but by the very people who write in this mode. As far back as 1999, Bruce Sterling wrote concerning then-emergent slipstream "I wish it was an acknowledged genre and a workable category, because then it could offer some helpful, brisk competition to SF, and force "Science Fiction" to redefine and revitalize its own principles."


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