TT: Modern SF — Lacking Sense of Wonder?

JANE: Last time you commented that all the works we’d been discussing were “older.”  My immediate response was that Varley wasn’t “older.”  Then I realized we were discussing books from late-1979 and the early 1980’s.  Time has slipped by…

Wonder Is Where You Find It

Wonder Is Where You Find It

I was going to mention Larry Niven, but the titles I’d mention would be from his older work…

So, we definitely DO need to look at more current SF…  You write a review column, so you probably keep more on top of new releases than I do.  What’s your reaction?

ALAN: I’ve almost given up reading SF. I find many modern writers to be mostly concerned with the surface of their story, and often there is very little depth. More time is spent on spectacle than it is on ideas, and much of it appears shallow to me.

Of course, you could say I am just jaded, a crusty old curmudgeon who claims that “They don’t write ’em like that anymore,” and probably there’s a certain amount of truth in that.

But the Panshins spend several hundred pages of their book (The World Beyond the Hill ) exploring the thesis that the best science fiction is a lot more than just spectacle and they give many so many concrete examples from the SF of the past, that I think my position is not entirely untenable.

JANE: Oh!  I agree.  I’ll also admit that I dropped out of reading much SF for quite a while.

Are there any modern authors that you think do manage to turn on your sense of wonder?

ALAN: Yes – there are some. Stephen Baxter is a very good writer indeed. Sometimes his enthusiasms run away with him and he lapses into incoherence. But when he’s firing on all cylinders there’s nobody to touch him.

I’m particularly fond of The Time Ships which is an authorised sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

He’s also not afraid to paint on a large canvas. His Xeelee sequence begins in the present day and ends when the Milky Way galaxy collides with Andromeda five billion years later.  During this timeline, humanity evolves to become the second most powerful race in the universe, next to the Xeelee themselves. The stories concentrate far more on big ideas than they do on character development, so they do tend to be rather cold and distant.

But he can do people well when he wants to. The four novels that make up the Time’s Tapestry series concern themselves with interventions into our past from a (possibly) alternate-history future. As well as concerning themselves with the grand scope of the theme, the stories also pay a lot of attention to the impact of this meddling on the very real lives of some very real people. As a result, I think these novels are my favourites of his work – though I retain a soft spot for the stand alone novel Evolution which follows the evolution of humanity from the distant past to the far future. In this book Baxter does for people what James Michener did for places. It’s a clever conceit and I loved it!

JANE:  Sounds impressive – and a bit intimidating, I’ll admit!

I’ll put in a vote for Vernor Vinge, especially Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky, although I have a fancy for the Earth-based Rainbow’s End as well.

Although Vernor (I use his first name not only because I know him, but because his ex-wife Joan also writes SF as “Vinge.”) has become something of a demi-god among the computer geek set, it wasn’t his use of the Singularity that caught me, it was his aliens.

Both the canine group-mind Tines (Fire Upon the Deep) and the “Spiders” in A Deepness in the Sky are far more than humans in costume.  They are well-realized and complex, from their biology on up.  (This is something that I feel is done too rarely with aliens.  Larry Niven did it well with the Kzinti, Trinocs, Puppeteers, and other inhabitants of “Known Space.)

Vernor’s  aliens are different on many levels (physical, social, cultural) from the humans they encounter, which leads to some very natural misunderstandings and – as in the best “sense of wonder” writing – left me “wondering” about the assumptions we tend to make about the ways intelligence will develop.

But even if it was the aliens who grabbed hold of me, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Vernor’s future humans have – for me – just the right mix of familiarity and difference to make them “futuristic” in the best sense, not twentieth (or twenty-first) century humans with cooler tech.

Your turn!

ALAN: I’m very fond of Kage Baker as well – her time travel/cyborg novels about the Company are inspired and inspirational. Tragically, she died far too young, but the novels that she left behind are wonderful.

An organization called Dr. Zeus operates from the 24th century, using technologies of time travel and immortality to exploit the past for commercial gain. The immortality technology works by turning young children recruited in the deep past into cyborgs who, once they reach maturity, will never die. Time travel itself is very limited. It only allows journeys into the past, and a return to the present. But the employees of Dr. Zeus, who were recruited in the past, live through the ages, travelling slowly into the future at the rate of one second per second. They are instructed, as time and opportunity present themselves to retrieve and hide valuable artefacts that have been lost to mainstream history in accidents and catastrophes, and then to “rediscover” them in the future. And so Dr. Zeus itself becomes obscenely rich and influential.

But as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the Dr. Zeus story is itself a fiction and the Company’s ostensible purpose is mere window-dressing. Something much deeper, much more fundamental, is taking place. The final revelation is quite jaw dropping – and along the way we get a lot of brilliantly conceived and complex books.

JANE: I’ve been meaning to read her stuff since you first mentioned it to me some years ago.  I’m going to need to make a more serious effort.

ALAN: And Jack McDevitt’s books are always worth reading as well, of course – after all it was a discussion of his books that led us into this subject in the first place!

You are pretty good at it too. Your Artemis novels gave me an authentic spine-tingle.

JANE: Thanks!  I was hoping to achieve “wonder,” not just cool FX.  Would it be presumptuous of me to ask what made the “Artemis Awakening” books work for you on the “wonder” level?

ALAN: Actually that’s quite a large topic. Perhaps we could talk about it next time?

JANE: Okay…  But I have stage fright!


3 Responses to “TT: Modern SF — Lacking Sense of Wonder?”

  1. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Maybe I’m jaded, too, but lots of the newer SF doesn’t grab me as some of the “golden age” stuff did. (When I read an older one that I somehow missed, I often find that sense of wonder rekindled, so I dunno…). Based on what was said about the Panshin book, I’ve obtained a copy but haven’t read it yet. Looking forward to it.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Yes, it’s kind of like authors wandered into grandpa’s workshop, found all this stuff there and used it, rather than buying their own tools and making new things.

    That’s kind of sad, because the new tools are the equivalent of 3-D printers. Much as I like old-fashioned crafters, there are things that you can write now that you couldn’t write before.

  3. James M. Says:

    There’s an interesting article by Kristine Kathryn Rusch at Grantville Gazette, which mentions rediscovering the sense of wonder:

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