As Society Falters, Science Fiction Rises

Wednesday , 12, November 2014 8 Comments

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

~Hermann Hesse

The concept of a grand, almost utopian game is a real-world fantasy that often crystalizes during dark and oppressive times. The most elegant and radical opening of a game of Go in the 20th Century is widely believed to have occurred in 1933 between Go Seigen (a native of China) and Honinbo Shusai (of Japan.)

The Inverse Square Law of Gravity…and Love?

The epic game lasted 3 months and was a national–and nationalist–sensation in the press. Go Seigen (now 100 years old) was a true master of the game, and the product of tumultuous times.

On the inverse square law of gravity: “It sounds like a rule for simple physical facts, does it not? Yet it is nothing of the sort; it was the poetical way the old ones had of expressing the rule of propinquity which governs the emotion of love. The bodies referred to are human bodies, mass is their capacity for love.”
~Robert Heinlein, Orphans of the Sky

So, as we slip free of the chains of Science Fiction’s recent downfall, I think it is worth noting: the Golden and Silver Ages of the genre were bootlegger days, and the stuff was powerful, if sometimes a bit rough. The dark ages of ca. 1995-2015 were instead an opium den, marked by lethargy and a communion of burnt out, puddled candles.

But times are becoming oppressive again, and the stills are heating up.

The game is most certainly afoot.

8 Comments
  • Mike Mike says:

    Indeed! Great post… caused me to look a few things up on the game of Go. Very interesting.

  • Sensei says:

    Go is an amazing game.

    1995 – 2015, whether it was a dark age depends on what you call sci-fi. We have Gibson and Stephenson throughout the period, plus Larry Correia starting in 2008. (Not to mention John C Wright from 2002… But most of us hadn’t heard of him then)

    I’d argue rather that as we had the Golden Age of sci-fi from 30’s-40’s, then Silver from 60’s to early 70’s, we then had the Dystopian age from 80’s to 90’s. (The Silver Age was followed by Star Wars, the Dystopian Age by the Matrix)

    I think the revival we’re seeing now is the beginning of something that will be a new age of sci-fi (the nano age?), for which postcyberpunk was a sort of transitionary gap-filler that lost the dystopia of the previous age but described a wired world as having already arrived, a world in which the new age of Sci-fi will be written.

  • Daniel says:

    I see Stephenson and to a lesser degree Gibson to be brilliant monks of a dark age, and even the heretical Mieville to be among them. It wasn’t like a reader couldn’t find good-to-great SF during this time…just that the novel genre overall seemed to thin out general reader interest, even as SF in other media (movies and video games) seemed to become more robust.

  • Big Mike says:

    Excited to see where this leads and how many people may be drawn back to SF literature when it demonstrates higher values than it has in the last 15 years

  • Sensei says:

    Daniel-

    I think there’s a feedback loop where brilliant authors reflect the barely-arriving zeitgeist a few years early, and the media follows in due course.

    Fair enough, but I don’t think one can dismiss the entire dystopian period of sci-fi, from Do Androids Dream to Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, as merely a dark age. Call it a ‘soft peak’ if you will, not as clearly defined as the Golden or Silver ages, but I strongly suspect we’re never going to have clearly defined ages like that again, because the nature and presence of media has drastically changed since those days. You might be able to point to a trend here or there, but in terms of an ‘age,’ I think it’s instead going to be all happening in parallel, because with the internet now it’s just as easy to ‘discover’ early Gibson or Dick or even Burroughs. One doesn’t have to burrow into used book stores to find their yellowed pages, they’re on Amazon with exactly the same kind of listing as yesterday’s Mieville. In a way it’s a little sad (it was more fun to happen upon the physical book, like the glimmer of gold in a bank of rough quartz), but that’s where we are now.

  • Daniel says:

    To be specific: I consider it to be a dark age for the market. The fact that, yes, you could, over the course of about 20 years, visit the SF section and find Stephenson and Gibson and Stross and even Stross, intermingled in a growing band of poorly-selling paranormals and star romances and “Green” science fiction like Bear’s Venus and so on, that’s the darkness I’m talking about.

    So yeah, you had a few “bright lights” during that 20 year decline, but sales were in decline overall (after all, it wasn’t technology or the internet – other genres grew during this same period), but I don’t think it is a coincidence that those illuminated exceptions tended to be generally darker in tone than its preceding ages.

    To put it another way, the beloved Salems of Zelazny gave way to the infamous and hamhanded “deathsticks” of Attack of the Clones, and the movie novelization simply crushed any original fiction in competition.

    Here are the numbers: from 1995-2000 (Before PW was seriously affected by its methodology change to keep Harry Potter books off the list) – Publishers Weekly top 10 bestsellers averaged less than one book a year that could be considered speculative at all, and that was mostly horror books, and none of them were #1.

    From 1982-1987? The top 10 bestsellers averaged more than two speculative books per year, and the #1 selling book was some form of mass market science fiction or fantasy every single year. Again, including horror (but if I didn’t do that, the period from 1995-2000 would have nothing at all.)

    There is really brilliant SF that carried water in the market – in fact, a number of my favorite books were written during these times – but the decline in quantity is what is so stark.

    • Sensei says:

      Hmm, Ok, I’m following you. I wasn’t thinking about it in market terms, but that makes sense.

      And real world events more or less agree, come to think of it. The last time we went to the moon (or left low-earth orbit, even) was 1972, in the Silver age of Sci-fi.

      But until this past week it’s been years since we’ve done anything “cool” space-wise. (And of course feminists pop up to ruin the moment) We even let the shuttle program lapse and it doesn’t seem to matter all that much.

      But I’m willing to bet that a resurgence in sci-fi will lead to a new generation heading into space. Life seems to imitate art when the art is sci-fi.

  • John S. Bell says:

    No comment, just wanted to be added to the mailing list

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