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"Bear with me as I unpack my indignation": Scientific American publishes an impassioned defense of science fiction

Cory Doctorow at the Nebulas

From the Scientific American blog: Science fiction is not obsolete--do you read me Bruno Maddox? by J.R.Mikel:

I strongly suspect that many of you who scan this web site regularly are fans of science fiction. Personally, I was a Heinlein kind of guy, though I made extensive forays into the worlds of Herbert, Niven and Bear, and sampled the ABCs: Asimov, Bester, Clarke. (Yes, I'm aware of Bradbury's work.)

I don't read the genre much anymore. Still, if you're anything like me, you screamed and stomped and pleaded with your girlfriend to understand the error of the August installment of Blinded by Science, an otherwise fine column in Discover magazine. The author, Bruno Maddox, was nominated for a national magazine award this year, and I have well enjoyed some of his writings. His riff on twins was singular. (Individuality is a construction--it's funny because it's true!)

Unfortunately for me . . . I must now heap punditocratic brickbats upon Maddox. For he has either let the zeitgeist slip through his fingers, or he has gone quite mad with power. Bear with me as I unpack my indignation.

Bruno Maddox attended the Nebula Awards weekend and was not impressed. Minkel gives a few examples of current sf writers whose work is highly responsive to and influential on science and technology. And I could do it to, in much more detail. I refer Mr. Maddox to our anthology The Hard SF Renaissance or to my chapter on hard sf in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.

Maddox spends a lot of wordage demolishing the importance of Michael Crichton as a writer. (Please see Nature editor Oliver Morton's essay on Michael Crichton published in The New Yorker in which Morton carefully and clearly points out how Crichton is distinctly and essentially not science fiction.)

But Maddox's piece, despite its stated thesis, isn't really about the relationship between science and science fiction. It's about a man finding himself at the wrong party and feeling uncomfortable. Apparently, he was bored. Maddox says.

Then again, it could also be the other thing--the thing that nobody's quite bringing up over the plastic cups of Yellowtail Merlot. Which is that science fiction, the genre that lit the way for a nervous mankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter.

Maddox did notice Charlie Brown's shirt, but if failed to convince him that we sf folk are prophets:

Other than this, however—the design on the back of the Hawaiian-cut shirt of a very old man investigating the bean dip over at the buffet table—this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement. We’re on the 38th floor of a Marriott hotel in Lower Manhattan, in a poky beige suite filled with the same cheap, gestural furniture you find in those fake rooms that get set fire to in fire-safety videos. And with the exception, obviously, of this correspondent, we’re a fairly drab and subdued sort of bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old. The median shirt type is sweat-. And there are several grown men apparently untroubled by the fact that they’re wearing backpacks to a social event, yet troubled to the point of madness and eczema by pretty much everything else.

(If Maddox had attended the LOCUS Awards instead, he would have seen a whole lot more Hawiian shirts.)

Maddox seemed to desire a confession of our own obsolescence in the form of arguments about whether sf was old and boring. If that's Maddox was after, he went to the wrong place. Never mind that there have been innumerable sf convention panels since at least the 1960s on the possible death of sf. The right place to have found this discussion would have been the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts held in March.

John Clute finishes Pam Zoline's dinner; people kissing in the background at Readercon
John Clute at Readercon

SF critic John Clute has been arguing for a few years that it  is basically over. My husband David Hartwell and others argue that it's not (though David edited an anthology, The Science Fiction Century, devoted to the proposition that science fiction was the characteristic literature of the 20th century). There is a certain amount of muttering that the reason Clute made this claim is that he finished the Science Fiction Encyclopedia in the mid-1990s and it would have to be revised and done again if sf wasn't dead, or become old and obsolete.

T'ffany: Valley Girl Klingon
Pink Klingon at Marcon

But I suspect a chat with Clute -- who despises SFWA and the Nebulas as much as Maddox apparently does -- wasn't  really what Maddox was after. Maddox was hoping for people dresses as Klingons. Again, he was in the wrong place. He should attend Marcon  in Columbus, Ohio where -- if you go to the right party -- you can even find people undressed as Klingons.

John Cramer at Apollocon

I didn't go to the Nebulas this year. We stayed home and frantically cleaned house. If I want vigorous, intelligent conversation  about sf and its relationship  to science, I go to, say, Readercon, or the ICFA, or Boskone, or smaller conventions like Confluence in Pittsburgh or Apollocon in Houston.

Maddox asks, "Why are they not holding their annual meetings in some sort of gilded purpose-built pyramid while humanity waits breathlessly outside to receive their inklings into our future?" That's Hollywood, dear. We're book people, and not rich book people like the techno-thriller writers.

Kathryn, Greg and Elizabeth Brown Benford

In the Sky Church

But if you want that sort of venue, try the Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductions held in the Sky Church of the Experience Music Project, which was built with Paul Allen's money. I'm not sure this would satisfy, though: Charlie Brown, a former nuclear engineer, would still be around in a Hawaiian shirt picking over the hors d’œuvres.

Minkel concludes that Maddox, not the sf folk he encountered, is the one stuck in the past:

I expect better from my lauded commentators. You see, the world has not outpaced science fiction. Rather, science fiction has outpaced Bruno Maddox. In the spirit of grand prognostications, I hope at least it was a planned obsolescence.

Nonetheless, despite Maddox's unwarranted conclusions about the health of the genre, his description of a SFWA party is wickedly accurate. SFWA is a trade organization. The event is a business cocktail party. For the most part, people attend the Nebula weekend because they think it's a good business decision, not for the intellectual challenge and inspiration. I usually skip it.

Vernor Vinge in a Hawaiin shirt
SF writer and techno-prophet Vernor Vinge