The Absence of 9/11 from Science Fiction

Thanks to Saladin Ahmed for pointing this out on Facebook.

Science fiction writer Andrew Fox reflects on the puzzling scarcity of science fiction and fantasy which engages with the events of 9/11/01 and the War on Terror in an article he wrote on his website.

Here's a teaser:

Have the events of 9-11-2001 and the sociopolitical changes they spawned been mostly absent from science fiction? Or have they been present, even prevalent, but disguised?

Earlier national traumas and social upheavals of the 20th century have been widely reflected, either directly or through metaphor, in works of science fiction published not long after the precipitating events. Ten years have passed since September 11, 2001, and yet the destruction of the Twin Towers is referenced in only a handful of SF and fantasy stories and novels, and the resulting Global War on Terror in but a handful more. The issues and themes brought to the forefront by these events had been eagerly explored by science fiction writers in earlier decades — the threat posed by totalitarian religious sects (Gather, Darkness, Fritz Leiber, 1943; The Eleventh Commandment, Lester del Rey, 1962); the enormous powers of destruction new technologies might place in the hands of aggrieved individuals (The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester, 1956; The Weapons Shops of Isher, A. E. van Vogt, 1951); and the power of a properly motivated individual or small cell of individuals to cause hugely disproportionate damage to a large society (Wasp, Eric Frank Russell, 1957). What is it about 9-11 and the following events which have proven different from earlier events of similar magnitude, such as the introduction of atomic warfare, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or the Vietnam War?


Prior to the 9-11 attacks, American science fiction writers responded in their work to the earlier traumas and upheavals in a relatively expeditious and prolific fashion, on the whole. Although concurrent fictional responses to the events of World War Two were somewhat curtailed by the fact that so many members of the professional SF writing fraternity found themselves drafted for the duration, the dramatic and world-changing end of the war by atomic bombings spurred the creation of large numbers of works. Stories and novels examining the possibilities of widespread atomic warfare and its aftermath began appearing as early as 1946.


The science fiction community found itself split over the issue of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, with many of the field’s older, venerated professionals (such as Robert Heinlein and John W. Campbell) supporting U.S. policy, and most younger writers (including Kate Wilheim and Robert Silverberg), joined by a few of their elders (Judith Merril), opposing that policy. The Vietnam War, of somewhat shorter duration than the current war in Afghanistan, inspired a number of notable novels written during its span, including Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road (1963), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (compiled in 1976, but serialized during 1972-1975), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest (1973), the former book offering a favorable view of the U.S. intervention, the latter two vociferously opposed.


Five stories and seven novels, of which only three stories and one novel deal directly with the events of 9-11-2001. This seems like a vanishingly small number, particularly given the enormous volume of fiction published from 2002 on. Locus Magazine calculates in their February, 2011 issue that, in the nine years from 2002 to 2010, 9,420 new (non-reprint) speculative fiction novels (encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror, and paranormal romance but excluding media-related works of fiction) were published in the United States; of these, 2,242 were science fiction novels. Far fewer speculative fiction novels were published during the decades following the invention of atomic weapons, the beginning of the Cold War, the assassination of President Kennedy, the social changes of the late 1960s, or America’s military involvement in Vietnam.


Why the discrepancy? Have the themes of 9-11 and its aftermath simply resonated more strongly with mainstream and literary novelists than they have with science fiction and fantasy novelists? Yet considering all the author’s tools that sit within the toolboxes of speculative fiction writers — “what if?” “if this goes on…” and alternate history and alternative realities — it would seem the science fiction and fantasy writers would likely have more to say regarding the attacks of 9-11-2001 and the events of the Global War on Terror than mainstream fiction writers would. Most of the mainstream novels described in D. G. Myers’ list focus on psychological accounts of the aftermath of the attacks or the moral ambiguities raised by the War on Terror. Science fiction authors can do this as well, of course, but they can potentially do so much more: focus on the Clash of Civilizations between reactionary Islamicism and Western modernity, perhaps on ways this clash can be elided or lessened; perform thought experiments regarding potential future evolutions of the Islamic world; and extrapolate potential future tools of combat and civil defense particularly appropriate to asymmetrical warfare.

Yet science fiction has often been a surprisingly timid and commercially conservative field of publishing. In his essay from The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties entitled “Tell Me Doctor If You Can That It’s Not All Happening Again,” SF author and critic Barry N. Malzberg lists seven plots, varieties of extrapolation, or stylistic devices which would render a story or novel essentially non-marketable to professional editors in the science fiction and fantasy fields. He calls these “the taboos of science fiction.”


Are science fiction novels extrapolating the rise of radical Islamicism not being written, or are they being written but not being published by traditional publishing houses and imprints? In the not too distant past, answering this question would have been virtually impossible, outside of a major effort to interview a large sample of working science fiction writers regarding projects they had been unable to successfully market. However, the recent surge in e-publishing provides a sample of books which have not been published by the major houses.

Follow this link to read the whole piece. . .

10 commentaires:

Adam Whitehead said...

It's actually an interesting question, though one which I think is easily answered: any SF work which someone wrote about the situation could be outdated very quickly by events on the ground. Certainly no-one could predict what has happened with the Arab Spring and how fast it has happened.

There's also the problem that writers seem to have this tendency to massively exaggerate what could happen or employ hyperbole about it. For example, a number of SF works which do address 9/11 and the War on Terror usually have a unified Islamic Caliphate rising up to become a superpower in the very near future (most notably in Dan Simmons' recent FLASHBACK). To anyone with even a passing familiarity with history, this is a ludicrous assertion: if Islam hasn't gotten itself together to do this in 1,400 years, it's not likely to happen in the next 20 at a time when Islamic countries seem riven by internal divisions and divisions with one another as well as divisions with the West. Anyone writing about events in Asia in the 21st Century will probably do better to focus on China or India, to be honest.

That said, John Birmingham's AXIS OF TIME (aka WORLD WAR 2.1) trilogy does do an effective job of showing an alt-timeline version of the War on Terror which has dragged on for decades. Also, David Wingrove's rewritten version of CHUNG KUO features a very minor subplotin the second novel about Islamic terrorists waging war on the expanding new Chinese empire.

Saladin Ahmed said...

Pat, you'll be unsurprised to hear that i think it's a horseshit piece.

The guy claims "Almost no SF/F has been written about 9/11" - when even the most cursory research reveals that this is totally wrong. Fans and eidtors alike write in to say "Uhh, well, actually, there's this story and that story and this story and that story and this novel and that novel" and then he weasels out of is original argument by claiming he's essentially crowdsourcing for a bibliography.


But by the end of his post and the comments thread his real point becomes clear: He really wants more fiction about how we're all headed for a big scary Muslim takeover. And the fact that tons of novels of this sort aren't being published are somehow evidence that there's a conspiracy in publishing.

Never mind that feasibility is a crucial criteria in SF and that the 'European Caliphate' meme is, given demographics and the geopolitical power structure, essentially preposterous. Never mind that hilariously bad novels like this Might actually represent the HIGHER end of the quality spectrum for SF novels that agree with his ideology...

Pretty weak stuff all around.

Anonymous said...

Try "Osama" by Lavie Tidhar for a start...

Cecrow said...

Dan Simmons' "Ilium"/"Olympus" duology comes to mind. It isn't obvious at first, but as future Earth's history is revealed a certain Caliphate turns out to have played a very significant role. Consequently the author has been lambasted for being an islamaphobe, as a cursory check of "Olympus" reviews on Amazon will tell you - exactly as predicted in this article.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, um, what about this article, for example?

Sure, maybe those things don't deal with 9/11 directly, but it's a bit of a stretch to say that 9/11 is "absent" from the new sci-fi.

Adam Whitehead said...

It wasn't OLYMPOS that got Simmons labelled as an Islamophobe, it was a ridiculous short story he posted on his website about a guy who time travels into the future and discovers it to be ruled by Teh Evil Muslims. It was preposterous strawmanning that was not rooted in any realistic scientific or historical process, and was solely the sound of someone with an axe to grind. In Simmons' case it was rather bizarre as he is a writer who normally explores other cultures in more interesting ways in his books (the use of Inuit mythology in THE TERROR, for example), but any time his work intersects with Islam, he seems to resort to a kneejerk, naive and Fox News-friendly reaction. To be honest, I do wonder if his apparently Islamaphobic attitudes are an attempt to curry attention from right-wing book buyers, as they seem out of keeping with his work elsewhere.

Grack21 said...

I think whoever wrote this needs to take a closer look at Wolfe's The Wizard Knight again.

Also, Simmons is labeled an islamaphobe because he IS one.

Anonymous said...

Is Simmons an Islamaphobe? I haven't read Flashback, but I read, what he wrote about the book:

It seems that the Islam factor is just background and the book's main focus is USA's totally fucked up economy. Islamic Caliphate is a possibility as much as is a Chine divaded to small states.

Anonymous said...

Funny. Christianity has been extensively attacked, criticized, demonized and lampooned in Sci-Fi and Fantasy (and every other genre), in TV, film, and print for decades. Yet I've never once heard anyone labeled a "Christophobe." What makes radical Islam so special as to be above criticism, to the point of labeling the ones who do critize it as "Islamophobes?" No debate is necessary - just call your opponent names and that's supposed to shut down the discussion.

Christianity can be criticized without fear of reprisal. Christians won't take to the streets and blow stuff up. The fact that liberals have a kneejerk reaction to stifle all criticism of Islam and call the critics names speaks volumes. It is an indictment of the religion.

Adam Whitehead said...

"What makes radical Islam so special as to be above criticism, to the point of labeling the ones who do critize it as "Islamophobes?" No debate is necessary - just call your opponent names and that's supposed to shut down the discussion."

You're trying to conflate two separate things there. Concern with radical Islamic terrorists is a specific issue. People in New York being concerned on the 9/11 anniversary when there was a specific and apparently credible threat from extremists was understandable and logical, and the security services presumably took precautions against it.

However, the problem is that too many people conflate the radical extremists with all Muslims everywhere, which is an extremely lazy generalisation. The greatest threat to extreme Islamic fundamentalism isn't the West or the US Army, but the forces of moderate or mainstream Islam, those Muslims to want to integrate in Western countries, deal with them on a fair footing etc. The apparent victory of these forces (so far, though they could well be hijacked by the extremists in the future) in the Arab Spring has put the extremists on the back foot. For them, anything that starts to turn moderate Muslim opinion against the West is a victory, and Islamaphobia - the unthinking, uncritical fear of all Muslims of all stripes, everywhere - is a huge propaganda coup for them.

"Christianity can be criticized without fear of reprisal. Christians won't take to the streets and blow stuff up."

Except they do. From the Crusades to Northern Ireland, Christians have carried out tremendous amounts of violence, warfare, bombings and killings, much of it justified on religious grounds. The difference is that when a Christian blows something up or shoots someone, even if they trot out the "I was told by God to do it", line, their religion is pretty much completely ignored by the media. When a Muslim does it, it's cause for hysteria and pronouncements of impending religious warfare and doom.