Close Encounters of the Third Kind from Columbia Pictures

Sales figures for books show that sales of science fiction and fantasy novels have been on the decline, and especially science fiction. It’s possible that the numbers are misleading because, in fact, genre novels like SFF do well in e-book form and e-book sales aren’t always tracked well. But why any decline at all? Aren’t we living in an age when science fiction is coming true?

Maybe that’s the problem. Could it be that some of the wonder has been lost?

I’m not pointing any fingers. Scientific knowledge has made great advances since the early days of SF. The effect of all that discovery on the fiction we love is mixed. Good stories sometimes get bogged down in scientific explanation. I suspect the SF readership has become more divided than ever between those who revel in details gleaned from articles in the latest Nature or Annals of Botany or Journal of Neuroscience, and the fans who start yawning when they run into a dense paragraph of technical terminology or math. Then too, there’s no question that the more we know about the universe, the more our imagination must be constrained by the facts. We do call it science fiction, after all. Good luck selling a new story that features beautiful Martian princesses who ride flying yachts (although if you change it to a fictional place and call it fantasy, you’ll have better odds). If your characters get around in a faster-than-light spacecraft, you’ll need a good explanation for why you’re right and Einstein was wrong. I suspect it’s easier to let magic explain everything (and less of a strain on readers who don’t have a PhD in physics).

Or maybe it’s that we see so many technological marvels everywhere we turn, we’re getting hard to impress. Our cell phones may not have the range of Captain Kirk’s communicator, but they can do a lot more. Prototype test cars can drive themselves—heck, yours might park itself already. Our fridges will soon be able to keep themselves stocked as nanotechnology and computer networking transform our household products. The space industry is populated by private companies instead of just governments, and almost ready for tourists.

Our sources of entertainment are advancing all the time, too. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s Arthur C. Clarke could take us to a lunar city in Earthlight or the moons of Jupiter in 2001: A Space Odyssey and we’d be filled with awe. Ray Bradbury could describe a tourist expedition to the distant past and we would hear the “Sound of Thunder” from dinosaur feet. But now computer graphics have shown us hundreds of movie space scenes in perfect, eye-grabbing detail. There have been four Jurassic Parkmovies and even dinosaur-era time-travel series on TV (remember Terra Nova?) Film-making has changed a lot, too, from the long, slow pan across the mind-boggling starship of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the quick cuts and frenetic action of the Battlestar Galactica and Star Trekremakes. I was totally captivated when I first explored Rama with Clarke and the Ringworld with Larry Niven. But now you can experience some pretty amazing stuff at Disney World.

Does that mean that written SF is in a slump because it’s not possible to wow people anymore? I don’t think so.

It should be more fruitful than ever to feature stories on alien planets now that we actually know they exist, and have data on some really strange ones. Space flight will be more accessible to everyone in the not-too-distant future now that private industry is involved. Computer technology is advancing in ways almost no one foresaw, along with miniaturization and robotics. Not to mention genetic engineering and its stunning potential for good and for bad. All of these fields and more should provide fodder for incredible stories with a recognizable basis in current reality. The “wow” factor must be in making the reader immerse themselves in the world of the story, experiencing what the characters do and enjoying the thrill of potent new technology, bizarre worlds, exotic social structures and more without having to go back to university first.

After all, even every day life has moments of wonder and awe. How many more await us in the extraordinary realm that lies just beyond our view?


When I buy books I like to support real book stores because I don’t want them to disappear, but I have to say that when I visit the Science Fiction section of our local Chapters store (Chapters-Indigo is the big book chain in Canada) I’m pleased to see many of the classics of the genre and also disappointed to see how many of the newer books are novelizations from the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, or other media. Here are some that aren’t.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym) is the oldest of my recent reads, published in June of 2011. It’s a really well done space opera. If you like stories of adventure in space with high stakes on the line, memorable characters in tough scrapes, and believable settings without a lot of hard science, there's nothing wrong with that and this book will satisfy. It's well written, and you'll probably want to know what else is in store for these characters, which is just as well because it's the first of a series called The Expanse that now includes three sequels and two other novels set in that universe.

I’ve always been a Larry Niven fan, and Ringworld is one of my all-time favourites, so when I saw Niven back in the giant-artefact-building game in collaboration with another great writer, Gregory Benford, I figured it would be a must-read. Bowl Of Heaven came out in 2012 and it’s second half Shipstar a few months ago. They are two halves of one book—you can’t read one without the other. This time the mega-world is a giant bowl cupping a sun and using plasma sprayed from the sun for propulsion. There’s a gargantuan landscape, vivid and imaginative aliens, lots of hard science, and yet, as some have commented, it feels as if Bedford and Niven are inventing ever-more-strange aliens by the end just because they didn't know how to otherwise resolve the plot's main questions. I originally gave the books three stars, but I think I’d bump that to 3 ½ just to recognize their prodigious imaginations.

I’d probably give that same rating to another Larry Niven collaboration, this time with Matthew Joseph Harrington. The Goliath Stone is about another big thing: an asteroid being brought to Earth by newly-aware nanobot entities following their original programming with a twist of their own. A lot of the story is also about how nanotechnology could transform our own bodies. And the science is detailed, but never bogs down the plot, which is lightweight anyway. What makes The Goliath Stone a great choice for a quick read is that it's that rare animal: a science fiction thriller of sorts that's loaded with humour—sly witticisms, bad puns, sex jokes, and tons of pop literary references that will keep you amused all the way through.

Which brings us to the heavy lifting of the recent crop, and also my favourite. I’m a longtime fan of Peter Watts, the Canadian marine biologist-turned-author, and his Blindsight was an amazing book, so I was excited to learn there was a sequel on the way. Echopraxia doesn’t include any of the same characters but it tells the story of Blindsight’s alien incursion into our solar system from a different perspective. Watt's books are wedged full of hard science and ingenious speculations drawn from it, yet this book is very strongly about faith (OK, even if God is compared to a virus). It also features zombies and vampires, but they’re not anything you’d recognize from TV shows. The main character, Brüks, is a top research biologist, yet he’s the slow-learner in the cast. The scope and breadth of Watts' research and the searing edge of his prose are nothing less than stunning, but I sometimes feel you'd need a Mensa IQ to truly get all of it. I enjoy it, and recommend it to any hard SF fan, but don’t ask me any questions about it for a while. At least until my brain cells stop smoking.

You can read more of these, and other reviews anytime at my Goodreads page.


In my last post I mused about the plight of SF magazine On Spec losing some significant grant money, and whether or not it was partly due to a seemingly eternal stigma borne by genre fiction as compared to literary fiction.

I’m a fan of both. I love literary fiction for its deep insight into Life and the evocative language of its prose. I love SF for its startling ideas and the breadth of its imagination. And I especially love it when I discover both “genres” displaying the qualities of the other. That’s happening more and more. There may have been a time when the prose of SF was a bit rough and tumble and the characters somewhat flatly sketched. Even now there’s a lot of space opera that’s basically action/adventure and doesn’t pretend to be anything more (though there exceptions to everything). There’s also a growing wealth of fiction that sets out to do everything literary fiction does, but with more flash.

In Canadian literary circles the immigrant experience has been very big for a few decades. Why not? There’s a lot to be learned about the human condition through the story of the outsider—it reveals the new, while shining fresh light onto the old. I can’t think of a genre that has more stories of the outsider than science fiction. Are the observations somehow less profound, the emotions less valid, the insight less sharp because the outsider is an extraterrestrial among humans, a human among aliens, or a man/woman out of his/her own time? Certainly not. In fact, I would argue that the revelations can be even more enriching, since they not only explore the vagaries of life as we know it can be, but also life as we can barely imagine it to be.

I’m blown away by the exquisitely well-chosen words and phrases of writers like David Mitchell and China Miéville. But recently reading Bowl Of Heaven and Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, I found many tasty passages there too. And they’re considered hard science fiction writers. While literary authors are praised for opening our eyes to both the sweeping vistas and the exquisite minutiae of our world, are such descriptions less magical because they involve objects that only exist in the mind’s eye? Are observations of human nature less poignant because the mirror being held up is a creature of scientific extrapolation or complete fantasy? I don’t see why.

Maybe bookstores will always need to restrict certain kinds of stories to specific shelves for the sake of efficient commerce. For book readers to allow their minds to remain forever bound by such artificial constraints would be a sad state of affairs indeed.

Let’s rejoice in the richness of all fiction, and leave the labelling behind!


I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the connection between science and science fiction, as well as what distinguishes SF from fantasy. Of course science fiction has to have a basis in scientific reality, most will say. No unicorns or fairies (tell that to Anne McCaffrey, Roger Zelazny and others), no magic (forgetting Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) No gods, demons, leprechauns, dragons…you can carry the list as far as you like, and you’ll probably find exceptions to all of them in good, solid works of science fiction.

Many stalwarts would say that science fiction shouldn’t contain anything considered impossible by current scientific knowledge. Which rules out faster-than-light travel and time travel, two of the genre’s most persistent tropes (and dumps some of the past century’s best SF into the trash compactor). Some would say SF writers should extrapolate from current technology, rather than invent dazzling gizmos with no idea how they could possibly work. I can only say that such stick-in-the-muds must never have heard Walt Disney’s philosophy: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Let’s remember that there are a lot of research projects around today that owe their existence to something someone saw in an episode of Star Trek.

It’s a delight to see some of the fantastic world-building that writers like Larry Niven and Canada’s Karl Schroeder can produce while playing with (and adhering to) the laws of physics. But I also get a kick out of voyagers who travel by wormhole or transporter beam.

So much depends on what we consider to be the purpose of science fiction. Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer has told me, and many others, that SF is a literature of allegory and thereby a vehicle for commentary on contemporary society. I certainly agree that’s one of its primary functions, and when Pierre Boulle wrote La planete de singes (inspiration for the Planet Of The Apes movies) I doubt that he was much concerned about whether or not it was physiologically possible for apes to talk.

Am I saying that science fiction shouldn’t have any rules? No. I just think the genre is better served by not getting hung up on definitions, laws, edicts, preconceptions, or any of the other things that hamstring the imagination. Because, above all, science fiction is fiction of the imagination. It shows us where we might be going, and lets us decide whether we really want to go there. And it shows us ourselves as we are, though its mirror often requires a little deciphering.

I think those are the more important core values of what we call science fiction, rather than a set of rules that’s bound to change with each new leap forward in human knowledge.

Maybe that’s why it’s called fiction.