Science Fiction Brewed Fresh Daily


(Or– why North American fans need to read more SF from the U.K.)

For some time Chip has been asking me for opinion pieces for the blog. Since, according to the equitable distribution laws of our state, intellectual property is shared equally within a marriage, please feel free to harangue her mercilessly over the views expressed in the following article. In grand sfeditorial tradition I will be making arrogant, unsupportable generalizations, expressing value judgments based on woefully incomplete data, and will ramble off-topic repeatedly.

Why should North American fans pay more attention to recent SF from the U.K.? Because, on average, over the last 15 years, it’s been better than its New World cousin. (See? Fearless leap into arrogant generalization, based on subjective criteria.) By the mid-nineties North American SF was becoming moribund, recursive, and complacent. There were a few pretty, shiny objects in the landslide of cloned mediocrity, but modern marketing techniques and the rise of the book superstores were pushing North American SF into a safely predictable niche. (I feel vaguely guilty including Canadian SF here, since it might be arguable that Canadian SF has steadily improved over the last fifteen years, but — whatthefuck — Canadians are North Americans, and they’re used to being unjustly whacked for the indiscretions of their southern neighbors and, besides, if you toss Mexican SF on the pile, it all averages out to support my point.) While publishing science fiction in the U.S. was marginally profitable, the market for serial high fantasy in North America was bottomless, and the Empress of Hogwarts (who is, admittedly, a U.K. writer) was about to unleash the full, explosive hegemony of YA fiction and its corollary full-cycle algernonification of genre fiction, ironically confirming one of the more controversial genre statements of the late Tom Disch. (Actually, I admire the stated role of YA fiction as a gateway drug that should lead to serious heavy book use. I just think that the purchase of YA fiction by readers over twenty-one years of age should be criminalized, and suitable, meaningful penalties applied to booksellers who don’t card their clientele.) At about this time in the U.K. the concatenation of innovative, established specific writers (notice the homage to Britain’s last genre literary movement), fledgling, hit-or-miss authors who suddenly started smacking home runs (substitute the equivalent cricket metaphor), newer, unknown but talented writers, and a publishing industry and reading public less inclined to marginalize adult SF (when I visited the U.K. in 2005, I noticed promotional posters for Iain M. Banks’ THE ALGEBRAIST at every tube station I passed through in London. Orbit [an imprint of Times Warner U.K.] had spent actual money promoting a SF title in traditional mainstream fashion to real people!) created the conditions necessary for a kind of critical mass that has produced an ongoing SF renaissance in the U.K. (Hyperbole is our friend).

North American SF writers tend to initiate genre literary movements ending in ” -punk.” (The exception being the very narrow, but high tonnage, movement we like to call “Neal Stephenson.”) Their counterparts in the U.K. seem to prefer the prefix “new-.” The New Wave that erupted from the U.K. in the 1960s had, and continues to have, some impact on the larger genre. (If you don’t know what the New Wave was — stop — back slowly away from this blog, go immediately to Amazon and purchase a copy of Judith Merrill’s fine 1968 New Wave sampler anthology ENGLAND SWINGS SF [as of this writing there are 23 copies available, starting at $1.00]. Read this book from cover to cover, scratch your head perplexedly, mumble a pithy critical analysis in stream-of-consciousness format, and then return to finish reading this post). The current SF renaissance in the U.K. includes, but is certainly not limited to, the New Space Opera movement and the self-proclaimed New Weird. If you’re not familiar with New Space Opera and the New Weird, then you probably weren’t familiar with the New Wave, and you probably didn’t do your reading assignment as outlined above, so, as an example of editorial largesse, brief synopses follow. (Everybody else can skip forward to the author recommendations.)

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Posted in Books & Authors September 8th, 2008 by Shadow