Social Realist SF

This was published on the Weaponizer website on Monday 25th of January 2010. It is a manifesto that isn’t a manifesto. Some of the language I’m not entirely keen on any more. The phrase ‘Social Realist SF’ was rightly dismissed in the comment thread that followed this being posted to Weaponizer. At the moment I’m using the term Kitchen Sink SF; although this label also feels inadequate. I do however think that the general principle and line of thought was well received.

I’ve done a few stories based on this now, and I do happen to think that they have been some of my strongest pieces of work to date. Anyway, don’t let this little preface at the top put you off. The anger and indifference to contemporary SF felt then is still there.

Something is wrong with science fiction & fantasy. Speculative Fiction in general. This is something that has been bugging me for a few months now. Maybe longer. Maybe years. I have been told that my argument is a defence of all fiction. But SF is my first love, the literature of my teenage years, so it is from that area I will be arguing.

SF, as a genre, has been around for just over eighty years. There have been attempts to kick the genre into a better state. The New Wave and the Cyberpunks. These attempts have left a lasting impression on the genre. They have changed things for the better.

But recently, for me at least, it seems like the genre has taken two steps backwards. I mean more books and films and comics than ever are coming out. But none of them feel very progressive. They all feel stagnant and weighed down by expectation. But even still hardly any of them feel very contemporary to my situation.

My situation is that: I am unemployed and broke; I carry a ton of personal debt, and own possessions and not property. Still, despite these factors, I am connected to millions of other people and can about learn anything if I want to. The future is now and tomorrow. It is an unimaginably rich and impossible to describe future present.

In the past few years Steampunk and Paranormal Romance / Urban Fantasy, as two examples, have recently exploded as things. But they are not new developments really. SF can be read as genre about ideas, for sure, and these sub-genres are about ideas. They are not about reality. They are escapism, pretty good escapism at that, but still escapism.

But to me they feel very reactionary. The boyfriend who turns into a wolf-man on the full moon is the fear of domestic abuse. And the vampire girlfriend is a methamphetamine addict, but with fangs. Cute, but addicted to something deadly. Steampunk, well that is just a way to tell scientific romances and pulp fiction stories without the guilt of getting it wrong. Because ray guns don’t exist.

But all SF is wrong! Do not kid yourself here. It is always wrong in some detail!

But like Space Opera, where the star ships are just sailing ships by another name, and corporations are just noble houses with executive bathrooms. It is getting in the way. It is starting to become a problem when we take these ideas, these visual surface level details, to be the most interesting part of our fiction. We keep forgetting our characters and their relationships.

These tropes, our metaphorical tools, are getting in the way of what makes SF interesting. We have stopped reading thought experiments that tell us more about our present situation. We have started to read abstract descriptions of impossible or implausible things because it takes us to a comfortable place.

I don’t know what this comfortable place is. The present is not comfortable. It never is. But it is always an interesting place. And it is always more interesting than anything imagined.

Many people have quite quite rightly observed and said, “Science Fiction is always about the present.” And you know what? So is fantasy fiction. So is horror. Someone stuck in a present had to write it after all. Even if they were thinking of the past. Especially if they were trying to scare themselves and their readers.

There’s this nagging notion I have that if we start focusing consciously on characters and their relationships (with people, with objects and ideas) that we will start to get better fiction.

Better fiction, of course, is more enjoyable fiction.

But there is also the problem of density. SF novels are always about one thing. One change. One problem. An anecdote I heard from a William Gibson talk pointed out that John Brunner’s novel ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ would be unpublishable today because of the density of crisis described in the novel.

If we tried to describe all the problems going on in the world right now we get a long and incomplete list: AIDS and other epidemics, energy and fuel shortages, anthropogenic climate change, immigration issues, science verses religion, the rich verses the poor, law against order, liberalism verses conservatism verses fundamentalism of all stripes.

We have the tools to explore these ideas, but instead go off wandering into escapism. No wonder really given all our problems. But enough is a enough! It is time to say fuck it and let’s get serious.

If you want a stories about a character who has the problems of a drug addict then read a story about a character who is a God damn fucking drug addict. Not a vampire. Not something magical and made up; not something that can be cured just as easily as it was invented.

We have this rich and imaginative set of shared tools. I am not going to stop enjoying them. I am not going to stop using them in my own fiction. But I am going to start exercising some restraint. I am going to strip down my fiction to the bare basics. I am going to say exactly what I mean. I am going to attempt to describe reality. It is time to inject some much needed social realism into our genre. It is not going to be always happy, but I am going to try my best to make it beautiful. Because even at my most pessimistic and cynical I still think that the world is a beautiful place worth exploring and explaining.

Will Ellwood.
Bloody England.

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