REVIEW: 21st Century Science Fiction

Thursday , 7, May 2015 3 Comments

21st Century Science Fiction: so cutting edge that it jettisons science.

“With 21st Century Science Fiction, David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden give us a vivid snapshot of the fast-changing world of SF. Long recognised as trusted arbiters of the genre, these multiple award-winning editors showcase recent stories by science fiction’s brightest up-and-coming talents…”

Back in the 20th century, Hartwell and Hayden were interviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, and both identified (in 1991) a somewhat unprofitable frontier in science fiction, and they described it this way:

“I’m sometimes a little reluctant to let on that a given writer has ‘considerable literary quality,’” [Nielsen Hayden] explains. “The sales apparatus knows what that means: it means it doesn’t sell very many copies.”

Hartwell extended the sentiment: “It’s not where the sales are, not at all, but it is where the evolution of the field is taking place.”

20 years later these two recognized and trusted arbiters of science fiction came up with 21st Century Science Fiction, highlighting many of the brightest science fiction stories to pass through traditional publishing. I read the first 10 stories in the anthology for these mini-reviews: hoping that they might fairly represent the breadth of all 33 tales.

  • Infinities, by Vandan Singh – a literary tale of a mathematician who discovers an infinite, alternate universe that challenges and eventually solidifies his faith in Allah.
  • Rogue Farm, by Charles Stross – Off-beat, near future farm technology crossed with artificial technology and rural stereotypes.
  • The Gambler, by Paolo Bacigalupi – A dystopic portrait of a click-baiting media and a professor who places wagers on the news and his son who wants a press junket to visit Thoreau’s Walden pond.
  • Strood, by Neal Asher – A story with heavy religious symbolism, aliens invade Earth, apparently to improve it.
  • Eros, Philia, Agape, by Rachel Swirsky – A story oddly introduced as “hard science fiction, psychological realism and romance,” that is not hard science fiction. It primarily consists of scenes from a disintegrating relationship between a robotic mail-order husband and the woman who bought and married him, and is about how transhumanism is about the rejection of humanity.
  • The Tale of the Wicked, by John Scalzi – A satiric riff on Golden Age Science Fiction.
  • Bread and Bombs – A story about domestic child terrorists who make the world safe from white guilt and Islamophobia. [Note: In case it sounds like it, this is not snark or sarcasm. This is an objective and accurate description.]
  • The Waters of Meribah – Described as an “everything SF readers passionately believe is wrong” story, and also as “radical hard SF”. The former is true, the latter is not. It is sort of a lesser Childhood’s End with a child rapist as the protagonist and just an iota more nihilism.
  • Tk’Tk’Tk – A Hugo-award-winning “human/alien social relations” take on the spiritual erosion of software sales as a profession.
  • The Nearest Thing – Described as “a future in which emotional entanglement in the workplace is even more complicated than we know it to be now.” Its setting is the events surrounding a corporate stockholder meeting.

Of the ten selected here, Strood, despite some clear lapses in logic (religious terrorists continue to attack the beloved and welcomed aliens, despite the fact that their attacks are 100% thwarted by superior alien technology, and the terrorists themselves are insta-killed – rendering the entire motivation for terrorism moot), is probably the strongest of the ten in regards to SF content.

Infinities, despite being miscategorized as SF, is very solid literary fiction about the relationship between mystical Islam, infidel religions and reason. Stross’ contribution is SF, but is disappointing, as it pales in humor and ideas in comparison to his other work. Most of the others are either set in the present day, a near future nearly identical to the present day, or, like Tk’Tk’Tk’ use an alien society as a direct proxy for commentary on some modern occupation.

The only one with a space ship is an extended joke about over-technologized cubicle work. When science or scientific ideas appear in these stories, it is either as a critique of science, or as a metaphor for relationships.

Based on the first third of the anthology, the book is grossly miscategorized. That would not be a crime, necessarily, were it not for the fact that, in combination with declining sales and existing reader confusion, portraying this book as among the best adjudicated Science Fiction anthologies is a disservice to the market. Any SF fan coming from a visual space, for example, is unlikely to hit a single story of resonance: nothing remotely resembling or inspired by Mass Effect, Interstellar, Gravity, Guardians of the Galaxy, Looper or even Divergent or Big Hero 6 or any other form of popular Science Fiction can be found among this literature.

Worse, going by this sample, the “literature of ideas” is plum out of them. For an industry whose highest award symbol is a golden age rocket, there is a decided dearth of analysis of current or speculated engineering, AI, DNA research, or any of the science headlines of the day.

There has been a clear commercial push for products that few are interested in. It isn’t that Pink SF and non-SF doesn’t sell at all, it is that it doesn’t sell enough to stand on its own in the SF market.

Overall, if this is the freshest new science fiction of the 21st Century, it is remarkably stale and uniform. Don’t get me wrong: there are flashes of good literature, and at least one – maybe even two – sparks of good science fiction in this sampling (not one fully realized and complete SF story that I would recommend, however), but they never overlap, and aside from the exception, never develop. But the simple fact is that this beefy anthology gathers a decade’s perceived best, is of more recent publication and still gets destroyed in sales by the roughly similar Science Fiction Hall of Fame through 1964. While Hall collects the best candidates from 30+ years, the lion’s share of selections are from between the years 1954 and 1964. The old stories are, on balance, significantly more fun…and more deep!…than the new crop.

  • Current Sales Rank of Science Fiction Hall of Fame through 1964 (published in 2005, available in print only) – #42,889 (trade paperback)
  • Current Sales Rank of 21st Century Science Fiction (published in 2014, best rank is ebook) – #318,256 (ebook)

Tk’Tk’Tk is informative at the metafictional level. It is hard not to imagine Hartwell and Hayden’s despairing words (above) on the state of sales, in the mouth of the protagonist, a salesman who ultimately becomes disillusioned by his forefathers’ legacy in sales and by the corporate pressure to expand his market to a thriving customer base, and chooses to go begging instead.


21st Century Science Fiction is available at Amazon for $24.95 in hardcover, or $9.99 as an e-book.

  • Jeffro says:

    Posts like these save me from unnecessary disappointment. Thank you.

  • Daniel says:

    I do think it is important to identify specifically why mispackaging books like this is a contributing factor to the SF Depression. Forty years ago, it would have been called “The Best New Wave SF of the Decade” or something like that. The genre fade would have been quarantined.

    Of course, New Wave was just an incubator for this anti-genre movement in the first place. Still, you rarely got tricked in the old days: typical SF had technology or human action on the cover. New Wave books usually had a provocative lone woman in pink on the cover or a pop-art cross section of the brain, symbolizing psychology. Sometimes they had both.

    And if the cover had a modified photograph of a bunch of modern faces in a crowd, symbolizing overpopulation or something, you knew it wasn’t anything fun.

  • Morgan says:

    This is sort of the science fiction version of what has happened to fantasy. I reviewed THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF WARRIORS AND WIZARDRY which has the same problems that you talk about with this book.

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