Patrickon Wednesday, September 14, 2011
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.