Next Year’s Words: Science Fiction, Innovation, and Continuity

Reading Naomi Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please” which just won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, I was reminded of both John Varley’s 1984 “Press Enter” and Isaac Asimov’s 1956 “The Last Question”, as well as its direct call out to Bruce Sterling’s 1998 “Maneki Neko”. The narrator of “Cat Pictures Please” is consciously aware of its predecessors and engaging directly with them. That’s not to say it isn’t saying anything original. It could have been written at no other time and place and by no other person: it’s an original story by a terrific writer. But it’s adding another voice to an existing dialog, laying another story on the tower of work that precedes it, and in a way that shows how aware Kritzer is of all that preceding work. We’ve had a lot of stories about secretly emergent AI, all written with the technology and expectations of their times. This is one written now, with our technology, a new angle, a wider perspective, and a definite consciousness of what it’s adding to.

There’s a tremendous continuity within science fiction, where the genre constantly feeds on itself, reinvents itself, and revisits old issues in new ways as times and tech change. It’s fascinating to consider how today’s new stories are all things that could never have been written at any earlier time and simultaneously deeply influenced by everything that has come before. The old work of the genre is the mulch out of which the new work grows. A great deal of science fiction is about the future—a future fleshed out in the present, and built on the bones of the past. Every present moment has a different imagination of the way the future might play out, and that gives us constant novelty. But because many of the issues and tropes of science fiction remain relevant, there is also a constant process of reexamination, a replacement of old answers with new answers to the same questions.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s intriguing 2015 Aurora (nominated for this year’s Campbell Memorial award and Locus SF Award) is a book that turns many of the conventions of SF upside down, but yet is also deeply engaged with SF—it’s a voice in the conversation about generation ships that began with Heinlein’s 1941 Orphans of the Sky, and continued through Brian Aldiss’s 1962 Hothouse, Molly Gloss’s 1998 Dazzle of Day and Le Guin’s 2002 Paradises Lost. But it has just as much to say in the conversation about artificial consciousness and what it is to be a person that runs through so much of our genre, from Asimov’s robots to Heinlein’s 1967 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Amy Thomson’s 1993 Virtual Girl and Susan Palwick’s 2007 Shelter, and indeed Kritzer’s “Cat Pictures Please”. One of the most interesting things about Aurora is the way it questions many of the axioms of science fiction—it made me realize and articulate some of my unconscious expectations of what SF is. But it is connecting even there with earlier works that do the same thing, like John Brunner’s 1972 The Sheep Look Up and Thomas Disch’s 1965 The Genocides. In reexamining the assumption that Earth is a cradle we want to grow up and leave for space, Robinson may be anti-space and even anti-technology, but even in opposition, he couldn’t have written the book without it’s predecessors. It’s also possible to see Aurora as what has been called “mundane SF” by Geoff Ryman, and it’s interesting to read it with George R.R. Martin’s story “FTA”.

Neal Stephenson’s 2015 Seveneves, which was Hugo, Campbell Memorial and Locus nominated, and won the Prometheus Award, is also interestingly embedded in this kind of constructive conversation. You can see the influence of David Brin’s 1990 Earth and Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1977 Lucifer’s Hammer and most especially Greg Bear’s 1987 Forge of God. There’s a solid continuity running like an evolutionary line of descent between all these books, where Seveneves is a new addition to an existing tradition, a new ring on the tree. It’s doing new things with the same kind of disaster scenario. And while it is in many ways the inverse of Robinson’s anti-space message, with its gung ho view of space as humanity’s only hope of survival, the two books seen together create a very interesting view of what the field is doing.

Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem (2007, 2014 in English, the first volume won the Hugo and was Nebula nominated in 2015) is clearly deeply influenced by a great deal of golden age Campbellian SF and especially by the work of Arthur C. Clarke—and it’s an especially interesting example because it was written in Chinese by an author who had read anglophone science fiction in translation and been influenced by it, as well as by the culture and history and narrative expectations of China. Two traditions come together to create the Three Body trilogy, and reading it made me feel very hopeful that the world may be full of books like this, which will soon be translated and influence anglophone SF in their turn. Similarly, I’ve recently been reading Yoshiki Tanaka’s Legend of the Galactic Heroes, (1981, 2016 in English) which is uniquely itself and very Japanese but also solidly in the tradition of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951-3) and E.E. Doc Smith’s Lensmen books.

Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy (2013-2015, the first volume won both the Hugo and Nebula in 2014) are again very much books that could only have been written now. Nevertheless they engage with questions posed by Cherryh and Delany and Heinlein. James S.A. Corey’s Expanse books (2012-2016, first one Hugo nominated in 2012, also now a TV series) are in dialog with Niven and Cherryh and other earlier writers—look, asteroid miners, but zipping around in today’s solar system as revealed by our exploration robots.

You can even look at a novel as exciting and inventive as Ada Palmer’s 2016 Too Like the Lightning, a book that’s about as original as it’s possible for anything to be, but still central to the plot and the worldbuilding are that golden age staple of the field, flying cars. Too Like the Lightning is productively in dialog with many many things, both in and outside of genre, it’s set in a future that extrapolates from today’s technology and social trends, and yet, it couldn’t possibly exist as it is without Bester’s 1956 The Stars My Destination, and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (1980-83). (It also contains a shoutout to Heinlein’s 1958 Have Space Suit, Will Travel.) It’s using some of the tropes of golden age SF for its own purposes, to examine a very interestingly different set of questions about the universe. It’s deeply rooted in the mulch that is the field, and sending out its own shoots that will in turn provoke other responses, other reimaginations.

So it’s good news right now for anyone who likes the traditional science fiction. The work is being written and published and getting award recognition. It’s being written in new ways by a wide range of people who bring their own perspectives to the genre, and that’s excellent—nobody wants to stagnate or get caught up circling in endless repetitive doldrums. Today’s science fiction is exciting, innovative, and thought-provoking just the way it always has been, and it’s also and building on what has come before, just as it always has.

Top image: cover of Too Like the Lightning; art by Victor Mosquera.

necessity-thumbnailJo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and thirteen novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is Necessity. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here from time to time. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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