The Boneyard: The State of Science Fiction

From "The Twilight Zone"

From "The Twilight Zone"

The Boneyard features the best of the Writer’s Bone crew's daily email chain. Yes, we broadened the definition of “best” to make this happen.

Daniel Ford: Sean and I talked about some of our favorite reads for an upcoming podcast and included:

  • Starship Troopers (just kidding, Sean hates that book, I want to get him foaming)
  • Heir to the Empire (First book in the Star Wars extended universe).
  • Dune (just kidding, I hate that book)
  • The Martian (great techie read)

So what's better? Sci-fi books or movies? What makes a good sci-fi read/film? What makes a bad one?

Oh, and maybe you've seen the new "Star Wars" trailer...

Dave Pezza: First off, "sci-fi" as a genre has really degraded to series specific mini-universes, which I find rather boring and way too repetitive.  So I don't have much for you. Star Wars extended universe novels aren't very good. I'm sorry that's not the answer you want, but they are only cool for the novelty of reading about “Star Wars” characters outside of the confines of Lucas' movies. It's the truth, and it's coming from a huge “Star Wars” nerd!

Then you have stuff like Ender's Game or The Hunger Games series, which classify more under Young Adult. And Young Adult novels should be read by young adults...

So what's left: One offs that don't get much attention. I was recently given a copy of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but I haven't read it yet. Sooooo can't really talk about that one. I would argue that 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are sci-fi (really the whole old school dystopian novel is really sci-fi), but I have only read the former. Good sci-fi is dying; blame lack of imagination and science's shitty way of explaining everything and nothing at the same time. All we have now are shitty pseudo fantasy books like Game of Thrones that fail at emulating a genre that has already been and always will be dominated by Tolkien lore, an author who all but invented that genre. No, I take that back, he did invent the genre. 

Matt DiVenere: I think Dave forgot to say something at the end: "Boom, roasted."

Ernie Smith (founder of the awesome newsletter Tedium and website Short Form Blog): I live for horrible sci-fi on "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Daniel: I actually agree with you on a lot of these points. Sean actually asked me what those Star Wars books were about and I stammered for a bit and then said, "Oh yeah, they aren't good."

The other thing is that all of these sci-fi series are a time investment. How many Star Wars EU books are there? A billion. The Dune series is long. The Hunger Games is a trilogy, but I'm not wasting my time with three books while I'm rooting for all the kids to be murdered in book one.

That's why Sean and I liked The Martian so much. It was one book, the science wasn't outlandish, and it was explained in a way that didn't make you feel like you were back in an eighth grade biology class. And it was one of the funniest books I've read in a long time.

So, why the intense passion when it comes to sci-fi? Is the millennial generation stuck in a perpetual childhood? Or do people just latch on to these series to escape their otherwise bleak and pointless realities? 

Dave: Well, Daniel, let's be honest about this generation; they are lazy. Now before you all give me the "our parent’s generation had it so much easier," argument, which certainly has its merits and roots in reality, it doesn't change the fact that our generation is lazy and media saturated. We don't read newspapers; we read news tweets or news feeds. We tend to ignore context and gulp text. We don't pine for childhood; we digest and consider our books and stories at the level of a child. We need plot up front, characters who we can recognize as good or bad a chapter in. We don't want to understand the science behind something, just what it results in. The old school allure of science fiction were the questions how? And why?  How does warp drive work and why is it important to travel through space to seek out new life and new civilizations. Now we ask questions of so what? Okay, so what's the plot of “Star Trek,” what happens?  “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and most sci-fi has never, ever been plot driven. Because plot is hard to get right, because plot is largely synthetic. Real events rarely ever follow and interesting or climatic story arch. And when you are writing a synthetic story in a synthetic time with synthetic science, something needs to feel real.

Sci-fi now faces its toughest obstacle: an audience that already thinks it has all the answers to the questions sci-fi would try to ask. Look at my favorite sci-fi media of all time (and really the gold standard): "The Twilight Zone." This series had zero plot. Zero! Each episode was unconnected and was presented as a vignette. It challenged the watcher to consider if things incredibly were different, making us consider how we would react, forcing us to think about how our morals and assumptions could or would exist if there really was a gremlin tearing apart the outside of the plane, if an atomic bomb really did destroy the whole world and left just you and your books... and your broken pair of glasses.

We don't think like this anymore. And that might be why we don't have a space program or that the biggest achievements in science are in web based consumerism.

Food for thought. All I know is that I'm picking up The Martian, because it sounds cool as shit!

Daniel: Slow clap.

You're right. Characters are what drive any fiction worth reading, and even more so in sci-fi. There has to be a huge helping of humanity in all of these crazy world for any readers to give a damn. But since our generation tends to be more superficial, action takes the place of true narrative. In books/movies like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” you're not invested in it because you like the plot (I mean, “A New Hope” is essentially a spaghetti western). It's because the characters reveal something about you and humanity in general that makes you keep watching and rooting for/against them. It's still a broken world, just like ours, but with lightsabers and Force choke holds.

Which leads me to ask another question:  Do you think the pendulum swings back to where there's more literary-based, honest, character-driven fiction that's not serialized, or does the fact that these turds make boatloads of money mean that we're stuck in this trend for some time to come?

Dave: Well, I think the answer to your final question is yes; I do think this turn could happen in the near future, but I don't think it will be because of any clear distinction between good literature, sci-fi or not, or serial pop bullshit. The industrial will change because big publishers cannot compete with the sheer volume and inexpensiveness of the self- and pseudo-self-publishing trends. Amazon and other helpers of self-publishing are turning out books, serial or not, whatever they can get their hands on. Yea this gives you a lot of shit, but just as much shit that big-time publishers used to take chances on, and Amazon is doing it for a fraction of the cost and thrice the profit.

So that leaves us with publishers doing their homework again and putting out untested authors with untested fiction. It's not the best, but it's better than the last few years. Yea, we'll still get a Stephen King novel a year, James Patterson's NYPD 1-8, and dog feces like Fifty Shades of Gray, but at least we can sift through and find The Martian, Green on Blue, or Redeployment. Simply because publishers can't afford to not publish these books.  If one hits they make their money, but if they don't and Amazon hits with it, publishers will lose more than they would having it flop.

Maybe The Martian will inspire a second coming for sci-fi. Maybe we'll finally grow out of vampires and zombies and poorly written fantasy. We'll just have to keep searching and finding the good ones.

Here’s what some of our social media followers had to say about what makes a good sci-fi read:

John D. Moore: For me, I like one that is believable to some degree. I like good science and some history. Stories set underneath the oceans, near the ice caps, or in the rain forest generally get me.

Rick Vincent: It’s about imagination and reading something unique, yet, as John says doesn't take too far a leap with believability. Science fiction that doesn't stretch science too far (or is well explained how) is more interesting to me. I would love it if someone post the five must-read sci-fi books. I've read Asimov, Bradbury, Vonnegut (if you call Slaughterhouse V sci-fi), and am now reading Le Guin.

Deborah Wall McGraw: Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series and his 40 Days Of Rain series are wonderful. The science holds up over the years and yet there is the future to imagine. I am kind of tired of the stories where the future is horrible, though I still think 1984 is amazing.

To add to the discussion, comment below, weigh in on our Facebook page, or tweet us @WritersBone.

For posts from The Boneyard, check out our full archive.