There is much more to say about extrasolar planets, especially given the Kepler findings that are now rolling in. And I intend to say some of it in due course. For now, however, this blog's attention has been distracted by a remark in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion.Yes, a book review based in Tinseltown is an invitation to snark, however unfair. And the author of the review quoted, Paul Kincaid, is pretty grumpy even by the standards of critics, for whom grumpiness is arguably part of the job.
The review deals with several 'Year's Best' anthologies, and as the quoted line suggests, officially it deals with fantasy as well as SF. But the line that most got my attention is specific to SF:
The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future.
Which brings us to the question of a decelerando. But before proceeding, go read Kincaid's article. This blog post will still be here when you get back.
Okay, then. Also a confession before proceeding: I have read almost no SF written in this millennium. But that should be no bar to this discussion - after all, I'm not purporting to analyze works of science fiction, only a discussion about science fiction.
(Meta is sooo handy!)
Science fiction as we know it came into being in the decades bracketing the turn of the last century - roughly speaking, from Jules Verne to John W. Campbell. Not by coincidence, this period - as I have suggested here before - was the real Accelerando.
There is a natural tendency to suppose that if the great accelerando brought SF into being, the (relative) decelerando of the current era is killing it. Take the particular example of space travel, simply because it is so awesomely cool. At midcentury, in the rocketpunk era, it was easy to project the technologies of aviation and high-performance rocketry forward, and suppose that in a few more decades we could fly to orbit and beyond as easily and economically as we were then beginning to fly across oceans.
It turned out to be not so easy and not at all economical. Which makes interplanetary travel more problematic as a story element. The reader doesn't need to be convinced that it is possible, as it certainly is, but that it can be cheap, which at a minimum can't be demonstrated with high school physics. (Or else the story has to accept expensive space travel.)
Kincaid, as it happens, does not blame the exhaustion of SF on a decelerando, but nearly the opposite: SF, he argues, "has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended." And, to be sure, that is one of the big arguments that swirls around Singularitanism. A post-Singularity world of super-genius computers (or hybrid cyborgs, or whatever) would be incomprehensible to us unevolved apes.
But not all SF is Singularitan, and Kincaid makes another argument that strikes me as more to the point. SF has become less interested in 'the future' than in its own tropes.
Space fighters, anyone?
As much as I have beaten up on space fighters here, in the broader picture I don't think there is anything so dreadful about classic SF tropes. And this blog, like the Atomic Rockets website, is largely devoted to one such trope, Realism [TM]. Which by no means implies that all SF need adhere to that particular trope.
To climb up on one of this blog's oldest soapboxes, SF, fantasy, and their kindred genres are all subgenres of Romance, which cheerfully admits to its ranks everything from whimsy to hardboiled detective stories.
Which, by the way, answers another of Kincaid's grumps, about stories that in his view didn't 'need' to be science fiction or fantasy. Romance lends itself readily to genre-bending, which is why efforts to pin down what SF is all about are so inconclusive. Subgenres of Romance that are plot-centric are rather easier, such as mysteries or for that matter romance in the usual sense. SF and fantasy, whose identities are more setting-centric, lend themselves to ambiguity.
Whatever happens to SF as such, Romance - including Romance with space settings - will probably continue to do just fine.
In fact, a cheerier essay on SF, in Britain's Grauniad, suggests on the one hand that SF is going mainstream, and on the other hand that space-oriented SF could be due for a comeback. Points which need not be mutually contradictory.
The image of the Hugo award is from Flickr, apparently Cory Doctorow's pages.