It’s been an epic SciFiMonth, and Lisa and I are capping it off with a big, free-wheeling conversation about what makes the genre special. We invited some friends and favourites along to talk to us about what they love best about science fiction.
Here at There’s Always Room For One More, I’m settling in with authors Aliette de Bodard, Gareth L Powell, Dave Hutchinson, Anne Corlett; and SF bloggers, reviewers and all-round good eggs Paul Weimer, Sol from The Middle Shelf, Matt the Runalong Womble, and Hammard of Cloaked Creators.
What first drew you into reading and/or writing scifi?
Dave Hutchinson: It was really the only thing that really interested me as a boy, I’m not sure why. My family were not big readers, but my mother was determined that my brother and I would be interested in books, so she bought us the usual ‘children’s classics’ – Black Beauty, Robinson Crusoe, and so on, stuff I was maybe too young to appreciate properly – and they were fine, but one day at junior school I picked up a copy of First Men On The Moon (or it may have been The War Of The Worlds, my memory is hazy, but it was definitely Wells) and it kind of struck a chord; it was more interesting than the other stuff. So I searched out more stuff like that, and I wound up devouring Asimov and Heinlein and Niven, and by then it was too late. I was doomed. And some years later I wanted to do it myself, so I started writing science fiction. I guess it’s just the way I’m wired; if I’d really got into westerns when I was young I might be writing westerns now, and I’d be even more broke than I am.
Sol: When I was 13, I found boxes of books in the attic. It was scifi novels my dad had read in the 60s and 70s. I was hooked. I think it was the ideas of first contact, of exploration, of new technologies that drew me in the most. (Unsurprisingly, I also became a Trekkie!) It asked questions I had never read or thought about before and it gave answers I never expected.
Paul Weimer: I started off reading and writing and talking about SFF as escapism, a way to escape the ordinary, relatively mundane world around me. I had the luck and fortune to have an older brother who already read SFF, so at the age of ten books like The Martian Chronicles and I, Robot were pressed into my hands. First and foremost, I saw these books
as a way to go elsewhere. Tolkien followed not long thereafter, giving me a hook into fantasy. This was, after all, 1980, and a lot of the fantasy that younger readers may have grown up on really didn’t exist just yet. My fantasy reading went from Tolkien to Zelazny, and the idea of a multiverse of endless worlds enchanted and enthralled me. It’s influenced both my fantasy writing and reading ever since.
While I have come to appreciate other book aspects – theme, plotting, characterisation – it is world-building and the ability to fall into another world that got me into SFF, and has kept me there.
Aliette de Bodard: I guess I’ve always been reading sci fi? I was 16 or 17 when I realised all my reading was in the same genre section of the bookshop, which made it super easy to pick further books. I grew up with Barjavel and Asimov and Andre Norton, and Star Wars and Sailor Moon and Blade Runner. To me, it was an opportunity to discover worlds that were different from this one, where the rules I knew no longer applied.
What do you love most about science fiction as a genre?
Anne Corlett: I love science fiction for the way it takes the familiar and transplants it into an unfamiliar setting, making us look at it afresh. Science fiction is, when all is said and done, about what it means to be human. Even if it’s ostensibly about alien races or sentient gas balls, we can only write – and read – from a position of knowing how it feels to be human. And, for me, that’s the point. When we read about an AI trying to understand emotions, we’re forced to examine our own understanding of those same emotions. When we read about the way in which those sentient gas balls experience the physical world, we’re made to think about our own sensory interactions with the world around us. Science fiction is the ultimate what if. What if humans discover faster-than-light travel? What if the earth is attacked by carnivorous space marshmallows? What if the experience of being human changed in some fundamental way?
Gareth Powell: Science fiction is a great tool, not for predicting the future but for modelling an array of possible futures. We can use it to provide fictional answers to questions about the long term effects on society of technological and political change. And by doing so, we’re also commenting on our present circumstances. But more than all that, science fiction gives us a vast playground – the entirety of time and space – in which to imagine all sorts of wild and exciting tales. Through it, we can examine everything we want to be, and everything we fear we might become, and thereby come to appreciate our relationship with an infinite cosmos.
Runalongwomble: I love the potential of SF – how it explores what could possibly happen for good or for ill. That might be the consequences of technology – such as AI and space travel – or the cultural impact of humanity meeting other races and learning it’s not alone. All of these stories, while focused on the future, tell us a lot about where we are now.
Dave Hutchinson: One of the things I really like about science fiction is the way it’s constantly questioning itself, constantly asking ‘What am I?’ ‘What am I for?’ ‘What do I do next?’. I don’t think that kind of conversation goes on in other genres. For as long as I can remember – and that’s quite a while – people have been pronouncing science fiction dead, but it doesn’t die. It’s by no means perfect, and on occasion the conversation spills over into quite startling anger and you want to knock people’s heads together, but I like that constant testing of itself. From one point of view I guess you could say it’s a sign of insecurity, but I like to think of it as a strength, a refusal to just churn out the same stuff over and over again. Keeps us on our toes.
Where do you draw the boundaries between scifi vs fantasy?
Gareth Powell: For me, science fiction covers stories that plausibly could happen. However far in the future they might be set, there is some pathway by which we could get there from today. Fantasy is that group of tales which will never take place. But the borders between the two are indistinct and permeable. What was once fantasy can become science fiction, and vice versa. Look at Edgar Rice Burroughs’s tales of a dying Martian civilisation. When they were written, there were science fiction, based on the impression Mars held artificial canals on its surface. But as soon as our telescopes improved and the canals were revealed as illusions, the adventures of John Carter slipped into fantasy.
Sol: It’s a very arbitrary boundary. I even go as far as not agreeing with myself when it comes to it! But basically, if there is a ‘scientific’ explanation (however soft or subtle) for something that doesn’t exist in our current world, I consider it scifi; if there isn’t a ‘scientific’ explanation, I call that fantasy. Nonetheless, I think that more and more this distinction has little sense. I think distinction by sub-genres (epic fantasy, portal fantasy, space opera, etc.) is more significant these days, because there’s a lot of cross-genre stories and you can happily pile one sub-genre upon another to define a story and give a more accurate idea of what it is.
Aliette de Bodard: Oof, that’s a tricky one. I’d say that for me, Sci-Fi should be about science–either as a background detail, a part of a different future or alternate past, or as the main thrust of a narration. I try to be very broad with my boundaries, because while it’s super handy to be able to categorise things, it’s also tricky in the sense that boundaries are very often used to exclude, and I’m very aware that this used against marginalised people (like women who don’t really write hard sf, or slightly different things from outside the Anglophone world not being considered SF).
Hammard: I am very much in favour of the expansive definition of science fiction, that it is merely the logic of the world. So anything which represents that which is not our own BUT makes at least a passing effort to root it in something resembling science.
Anne Corlett: I think there can be overlap between the two genres, but in general terms, I’d describe science fiction as dealing with something we can imagine happening in our own reality, while fantasy involves a significant shift of that reality, such as the existence of magic. It’s far from being that simple, but that’s the rough division inside my head! I tend to use the term speculative fiction, which I think covers a much wider range of fiction, including hard-to-define novels such as The Time-Traveller’s Wife or some of Clare North’s work, as well as genres such as magical realism or alternate history.
Dave Hutchinson: I’m not sure I would draw any boundaries between science fiction and fantasy; boundaries are so limiting, don’t you think?
Runalongwomble: I think that’s become a much harder line to set. One of my recent all-time faves is N K Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, which is set on a hi-tech secondary world but includes people with the ability to control the tectonic energy of a planet. I think Fantasy too is starting to move away from pure mediaeval towards how magic and technology work (see Discworld for example). For me, I like this blurring of boundaries as readers tend to read both now, and the stories are influencing each other.
What trends or tropes are you intrigued by in modern SF?
Hammard: What I find most interesting is that the more literary and more traditional branches of science fiction appear to be becoming more reconciled. Often combining the most interesting elements of the two.
Dave Hutchinson: I’m enormously happy that, at long long last, non-anglophone science fiction is beginning to get some traction. When I was young it was, almost without exception, all white (mostly male) English speakers; even if science fiction was being written elsewhere, you couldn’t get hold of it. At least not in Sheffield in the 70s. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a hopeful sign.
Paul Weimer: Several trends hearten me about the future of modern SFF. First and foremost, the push for a wider range of voices. The story of SFF as a genre has been one for a long time where white men have written the majority of books, gotten the majority of awards, and even when women have broken through, much of their work gets elided, forgotten or put in a corner. I can’t tell you how many “best of” lists I’ve read over the years that have one or two women in a sea of men. Now, such a list gets very negative and very justified criticism. People are going back and discovering and trying to highlight diverse voices from the past, and that is heartening too.
In keeping with that, the expansion of settings has been something I have really enjoyed and appreciated. Some years ago, I wrote an essay where I clamoured for and called for fantasy works that took place beyond “The Great Wall of Europe”. For too long, I contended, most fantasy novels were content with extruded fantasy product with European based settings, themes, world-building and characters. Some of that could be very good indeed (c.f. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, a personal favourite), but I felt that save for mostly problematic exoticism motifs, fantasy inspired and infused and inculcated by cultures beyond were relatively rare. In the last few years, my call has been answered with books ranging from Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts to Fonda Lee’s Jade City to Tasha Suri’s Empire of Sand.
Finally, we are getting a wider variety of characters, across all sorts of diversity spectrums. The days where you could get away with a cast of vaguely heterosexual white young men with maybe a single female character are pretty much dead. No-one today, bless Tolkien’s heart, would compose a fellowship like that anymore. Books where women readers have to chisel out role models and characters to sympathise and see themselves in are passing and gone. Now we have characters of all types stepping to the fore as protagonists and characters with their own stories, backgrounds, needs and wants. We need to do even better with this, and I hope that we do so.
What was the best SF book you read (that was published) this year? (or that you read this year, if you’ve read no 2018 releases)
Paul Weimer: A tough question, as it always is. I will pick one out of several strong contenders: Catherynne Valente, Space Opera. Space Opera is a novel that is exuberantly fun, in a time and moment where such fun may seem frivolous and frothy and not serious. Space Opera is the best combination of Eurovision and Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy that you could possibly ever imagine, and it succeeds on all levels. What could have been a joke premise instead is a book with heart and depth beneath its deceptively shallow surface. Excellent characters, full of pop references, and writing that is immersively interesting. I was carried along and through the themes and plot and characters of the novel by the sheer audacious flow of Valente’s writing. This is the novel I had the most fun reading all year.
Dave Hutchinson: I think of all the science fiction I’ve read this year, Tade Thompson’s Rosewater stands head and shoulders above the rest; I think it’s a magnificent book. Although not science fiction, RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – which wrapped this year – is a remarkable thing. I’m in awe of these books, I really am. They make me feel ever so old.
Anne Corlett: I tend to watch SF, rather than read it, but I did recently enjoy C Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust. The main character is Brittle, an AI trying to escape assimilation into one of the warring mainframes who have taken over the world after the annihilation of humanity. This book is a classic example of a writer throwing light on human experiences by giving those experiences to a non-human protagonist.
Runalongwomble: Well I’ve got three: I Still Dream by James Smythe – an AI looking back through its early history in the 90’s and towards mid-21st century. Very apt for the current discussion on debates such as Facebook! Then The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a human landing in a world where gender is not fixed – just go and read it for some gorgeous mind expanding. Last but not least, Rosewater by Tade Thompson – an SF thriller explaining the impact of an alien presence on Nigeria over the 21st century. Great narrative and also a new idea on telepathy at last!
Hammard: There are so many 2018 releases I’m yet to read, but my favourite at the moment is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. Beautifully written, imaginative and puts the reader completely through the ringer.
Sol: Prime Meridian by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, which takes place in the near future but considers the characters that would be left behind by the future. We are very far from space battles, from planet exploration. Nonetheless, it’s scifi and it’s beautiful. It’s just told from the point of view of the characters you too rarely hear about in scifi.
Gareth Powell: The best book I read that was published this this year was Peter F Hamilton’s Salvation. A taut thriller set around a central mystery with dire consequences for the whole of humanity. I’d also give an honorary mention to Becky Chambers’s Record of a Spaceborn Few.
What SF books or films are you looking forward to in 2019?
Aliette de Bodard: I don’t know if it’ll be a 2019 release, but Kate Elliott’s gender-swapped space opera version of Alexander the Great is just awesome (I was lucky enough to beta read an early version). Strong and rich world building, a vast and diverse cast, and characters to die for. In early 2019, there’s Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire, which is a book about political intrigue, memory, and the various ways in which people relate to their own polities. It’s very immersive and I found it hard to put down. And Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Insurrection, which continues the Rosewater trilogy – I loved coming back to this Nigeria overrun by a fungal alien invasion, and meeting characters old and new.
Dave Hutchinson: I think the follow-up to Rosewater comes out next year, and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m currently reading an advance copy of Zero Bomb by MT Hill, and I urge everyone to go out and buy it when it comes out in March. It’s a genuinely dark and dislocating book and I’m enjoying it very much.
Release notes: The Rosewater Insurrection and Zero Bomb will be released in mid March (US/UK). A Memory Called Empire will be released late March (US) / early April (UK). The Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott does not yet have a release date.
Many thanks to all my guests for taking the time: it was an absolute pleasure. May the stars shine brightly on all your endeavours.
Don’t forget to visit Dear Geek Place to enjoy the other half of this round-table, where Lisa has K C Alexander, A Merc Rustad, Alexandra Wolfe, Carol Goodwin, Lauren of Always Me and Deanna of Deanna Reads sharing their thoughts.
And you know my motto: there is always room for one more – so please feel free to tag yourself in the comments and borrow the questions for a final SciFiMonth blog prompt if you wish!