Science Fiction Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed
By Tim Maughan
“Being middle class in Britain has changed. Politicians and the media and many Britons still talk about “the middle class” as if it is a steady, secure, cohesive social group. They assume it is growing ever more populous and influential. “We are all middle class now” has been a favourite newspaper headline for decades, as long-term social and economic and political trends have weakened the upper and working classes….(yet) there is the beginning of a more ambiguous story: the increasingly competitive nature of middle-class life and the decrease in job security; Margaret Thatcher’s opening up of the classic middle-class professions, such as university teaching, to market forces; the slow decline of the great state and corporate bureaucracies; the downgrading of middle managers by new business ideologies.” – Andy Beckett, The Guardian 24/07/10
Being middle class in Europe or North America ain’t what it used to be. You used to know where you stood. You used to know how everything worked. It was easy, certain things were almost guaranteed, there was a path to follow. Work hard at school. Go to university. Get a good graduate’s job. Buy a house. Have kids. Go on holiday every year. Retire with a nice secure pension.
But now there’s a dull hum reverberating through the suburbs, the disquieting sound of self-questioning. Things really ain’t what they used to be. Worried you can’t afford to go to university? Worried you won’t get a job afterwards if you do? Oh, you’ll probably get a job…but is it what you’ll want? Will it challenge you? Will it pay you enough? Will it be the dream career your parents and teachers promised you you’d get, if you put your head down and worked hard? Will you be able to get a mortgage? Are you still going to be renting – or even worse – still living with your parents in your 30s? Can you afford kids? Do you even want kids? Is your next foreign holiday going to be anywhere as exciting as your obligatory gap year was? How is that pension of yours doing? Is it even going to be worth jack shit in 30 years time? Who is going to look after you when you’re old?
Any crisis of identity or confidence for the middle classes is also – undeniably – a crisis for science fiction. Science fiction is one of the great middle class cultural projects; an exciting, upmarket gated community where you need to show your credentials to get admittance. You’re allowed into science fiction because you understand the greatest middle class-empowering construct of the last 200 years – you understand science. You are welcome in science fiction because you understand that scientists and engineers and astronauts are heroes. You are welcome in science fiction because you understand that rationality and reasoning and hard work can fix anything. And most importantly, you are welcome in science fiction because you’re middle class and you understand that the future is yours for the taking.
And that is the biggest problem facing science fiction right now. The future isn’t just sitting there waiting for the middle classes to take it anymore (well, at least not the middle classes in Europe and North America – it’s very likely the future is up for grabs for the growing middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere – but that’s another, potentially far more exciting story). If the future is just a bunch of very scary questions, rather than something that belongs to the middle classes and makes them feel special than what’s the point of reading – or even writing – about it anymore?
So it looks like everything solid is melting into air, but it’s not time to abandon ship quite yet. Science – oh rather speculative – fiction still has ways of making the middle classes feel special. In fact there’s so many options it’s hard to know where to start. What about zombies? There’s no need to worry about the future with the zombie apocalypse because there isn’t one. Instead there’s nobody telling you what to do and no boring job you have to go to, which is pretty great in itself, plus you finally get to put all that knowledge, cunning and expensive gardening/cooking/sporting equipment you’ve amassed over the years to good use killing people your neighbors.
Zombies feel a bit passé? Then what about urban fantasy? Don’t be put off by the word ‘urban’, and how it became this kind of catch-all media phrase for black music and hip-hop and scary poor children wearing hoodies – there’s nothing that vulgar here. Urban fantasy does away with all of that and replaces it with werewolves and vampires. In effect it’s pretty much the same thing – it’s about middle class fear of inner-cities and the guilt of privilege – but it’s a lot sexier reading about your stylised fears getting carved up by a hot white girl with midriff tattoos and a samurai sword.
Of course if you’re really scared of the future, then the obvious place to turn to is the past. Again it’s tough to know where to start. There’s time travel, where middle class readers can go back to the blitz and see how plucky the working classes were – before they got shell suits, Blackberry phones that they surely can’t afford and a welfare state. Or if that’s a little too recent or unglamorous there’s always the Victorian era, when Britain truly was great and still had an empire; a real one – based on killing and talking posh, not just on cheap manufacturing costs and investing in currency like empires are now. The only thing they didn’t have was steam powered zeppelins and robots dressed like Colonel Sanders, which is why speculative fiction had to invent steampunk – the empowering benefits of which have been outlined far more eloquently elsewhere.
And if none of that appeals to then there is always ‘The Weird’. The only problem with The Weird is that nobody actually knows what the fuck it is, apart from perhaps a handful of writers and critics who don’t want their more literary colleagues to think they like sci-fi.
Either way forget the future, because as far as science fiction is concerned the future is dead. There’s still some interest in the far future – with the singularity, journeys to the exoplanets, wish fulfilling nano-machines and all the other things that’ll never happen – but as far as any future that might be relevant? Forget about it, and forget about the present too. Both are too scary, and worrying and talking about very real, very scary and very relevant things isn’t science fiction’s job anymore. It was in the past, in the 60s and again in the 80s – it even was back in the 1890s – but now it’s here to comfort the bourgeois, to provide them with an escape from the encroaching mediocrity, and to remind them how special they once once were.
Because the lower classes – the proletariat, the working classes, the ‘chavs’, whatever you wish to call them – don’t really have anything to do with science fiction at all. They don’t have the credentials to get into the community, because they don’t understand science and rational thinking – they don’t have the education. And if you don’t understand science and don’t have an education then you can’t claim or shape the future, can you? Every good, hard working middle class child knows that.
Which is odd, because you only have to pause and look around you and it’s clear that being working class ain’t what it used to be either. They’re still being accused of being responsible for all the crime and the economic meltdown they had no part in managing, yes – some things will probably never change. But while they might not understand the science they sure as hell understand the technology – maybe not the way it’s taught, maybe not the way it’s meant to be used – but increasingly they seem to be understanding the potential.
Take a look around. Right now, in those places in the cities and edgelands that middle classes are too scared to venture, there are working class kids creating new forms of music on stolen laptops and pirated software. There are working class kids hijacking corporate networks to organise violent protests against police death squads, and riots against corporate gentrification of their homes – protests that don’t just pack up and go home when they’re told to, or snitch on their never-really anonymous buddies at the first sign of law enforcement. And there are working class kids talking a language melange made from tech jargon, emoticons, repurposed slang and SMS message shortcuts that makes Nadsat seem antiquated and pedestrian.
Put simply the working classes are living an often fraught, uneasy but always fascinating science fictional future right now, and are pushing the present in directions it is near impossible – but thrilling – to try and predict. If the genre continues to sneeringly ignore them, what they do and the futures they are trying to shape for themselves then it risks continuing to destroy it’s own relevancy and existence.
The street finds its own use for things. Almost certainly. The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. Perhaps, but maybe not in the way you think.
Tim Maughan writes science fiction about the near future, probably sentencing him to commercial obscurity. His short story collection Paintwork is out now.
This week’s Locus Roundtable includes an interview with Anil Menon and Vandana Singh held during ReaderCon.
Set up last year to enable one or more international people involved in science fiction, fantasy or horror to travel to a major genre event, this year’s two recipients of the World SF Travel Fund are Swedish authors Karin Tidbeck and Nene Ormes. Both will be attending World Fantasy Con 2012 in Toronto, Ontario, also helped by the kind assistance of Cheeky Frawg Books (Ann & Jeff VanderMeer).
Karin Tidbeck has published one story collection, won a prestigious literary grant, and just sold her first novel to Sweden’s largest publisher. A graduateof the iconic Clarion Writer’s Workshop at the University of California, San Diego, in 2010, her English-language publication history includes Weird Tales, Shimmer Magazine, Unstuck Annualand the anthology Odd. Her first English-language collection, Jagannath, will be published by Cheeky Frawg books in November 2012, and has already been blurbed by the likes of China Mieville and Ursula K. Le Guin. Tidbeck blogs at karintidbeck.com and has an author page atwww.facebook.com/ktidbeck
Nene Ormes has been dubbed Sweden’s first urban fantasy author. She debuted in 2010 with the critically acclaimed novel Udda Verklighet (“Odd Reality”), a tale that draws on folklore and local legend to create a unique vision of her native Malmö. The sequel, Särskild (“Special”), is out in August 2012. Ormes was awarded a prestigious working grant from the Swedish Authors’ Fund this spring. Originally a trained archaeologist, Ormes writes part-time and works in SF-Bokhandeln, Sweden’s oldest and most popular science fiction and fantasy bookstore. Ormes blogs at neneormes.wordpress.com and has an author page on FB: www.facebook.com/pages/Nene-Ormes/163512086998912
The World SF Travel Fund Board, tasked with selecting future candidates, is composed of Lauren Beukes, Aliette de Bodard, Nnedi Okorafor, Ekaterina Sedia, and Charles Tan, with Lavie Tidhar and Sean Wallace acting as administrators for the fund, reflecting the truly international nature of the SF world today. For inquiries and further information please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 21st, 2012
Winners Of the 2012 SF&F Translation Awards
The Association for the Recognition of Excellence in SF & F Translation (ARESFFT) is delighted to announce the winners of the 2012 Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards (for works published in 2011). There are two categories: Long Form and Short Form. The jury has additionally elected to award two honorable mentions in each category.
Long Form Winner
Zero by Huang Fan, translated from the Chinese by John Balcom (Columbia University Press)
Long Form Honorable Mentions
Good Luck, Yukikaze by Chohei Kambayashi, translated from the Japanese by Neil Nadelman (Haikasoru)
Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves (Little, Brown & Company)
Short Form Winner
“The Fish of Lijiang” by Chen Qiufan, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld #59, August 2011)
Short Form Honorable Mentions
“The Boy Who Cast No Shadow” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated from the Dutch by Laura Vroomen (PS Publishing)
“The Green Jacket” by Gudrun Östergaard, translated from the Danish by the author and Lea Thume (Sky City: New Science Fiction Stories by Danish Authors, Carl-Eddy Skovgaard ed., Science Fiction Cirklen)
The winners were announced today at Finncon 2012, held in Tampere, Finland. over the weekend May 19-20. The awards were announced by jury member Irma Hirsjärvi and ARESFFT Board member Cheryl Morgan.
The winning authors and their translators will each receive an inscribed plaque and a cash prize of $350. Authors and translators of the honorable mentions will receive certificates.
Jury chair Dale Knickerbocker said, “The jury would like to thank all who nominated works, and compliment both the authors and translators for the fine quality of this year’s submissions. While both the winner and honorable mentions in the long fiction category had their supporters, we ultimately chose Huang Fan’s novella Zero (translated from the Chinese by John Balcom) as the winner. The author skillfully weaves elements from the masterpieces of dystopian fiction into his own very unique text, and the translator successfully communicates the work’s stark, frightening nature. Zero’s surprise denouement takes Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle a step further, wedding it with a touch of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves.”
“This year’s winner in the short fiction category, Chen Qiufan’s “The Fish of Lijiang” (translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu) was described by our judges as “brilliant,” “original,” and “a lovely and devastating story, beautifully written and translated.” It presents an interesting take on mental illness and wellness, work, and future technologies. In the tradition of the best SF, it offers a convincing extrapolation of the economic and consequent social changes that China has undergone in the past 30 years.”
ARESFFT President Professor Gary K. Wolfe added: “I’m delighted that the hard work of our distinguished jurors has resulted in such an impressive list of winners and nominees, and–equally important–that the international science fiction and fantasy community has taken this award to heart in terms of supplying nominees and suggestions for nominees. Congratulations not only to the winning authors and translators, but to everyone who has helped make these awards a viable and invaluable project.”
The money for the prize fund was obtained primarily through a 2011 fund-raising event for which prizes were kindly donated by George R.R. Martin, China Miéville, Cory Doctorow, Lauren Beukes, Ken MacLeod, Paul Cornell, Adam Roberts, Elizabeth Bear, Hal Duncan, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Peter F. Hamilton, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, Nalo Hopkinson, Juliet E. McKenna, Aliette de Bodard, Nicola Griffith, Kelley Eskridge, Twelfth Planet Press, Deborah Kalin, Baen Books, Small Beer Press, Lethe Press, Aeon Press, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kari Sperring, Helen Lowe, Rob Latham and Cheryl Morgan.
The jury for the awards was Dale Knickerbocker (Chair); Kari Maund, Abhijit Gupta, Hiroko Chiba, Stefan Ekman, Ekaterina Sedia, Felice Beneduce & Irma Hirsjärvi.
ARESFFT is a California Non-Profit Corporation funded entirely by donations.
Locus has currently been running its Locus Series on Translated SF (and SF that Should Be Translated). Here’s what’s been published so far:
- Cheryl Morgan on Kontakt, An Anthology of Croatian SF
- Fabio Fernandes on Doris Lessing’s Shikasta
- Charles Tan on The Stories of Ibis by Hiroshi Yamamoto and 12 Collections & The Teashop by Zoran Živković
- Aliette de Bodard on Elisabeth Vonarburg and Tran-Nhut
- Nick Mamatas on The End of the World, and a Beginning
- James Morrow on From Solaris to the Zone
- Jonathan McCalmont on French Graphic Novels
I’m temporarily taking over the blog while Mr. Tidhar is away.
First up this week is the crowd-funded Something Wicked Science Fiction & Horror Anthology Volume One, which aims to be South Africa’s first Science Fiction & Horror Anthology.
Since 2006 Something Wicked has been the only South African paying market for writers and readers of Horror and Science Fiction. Now we are aiming to be the first annual South African anthology for horror and science fiction. The anthology will be available as an e-book as well as a traditional paperback. This campaign is intended to help fund our first anthology.
With summer upon us, we’ll be going on a short break for the next couple of weeks.
We’ve got a lot of new material scheduled when we come back, including new Author Week features (on Indian author Samit Basu and Swedish author Karin Tidbeck), a thought-provoking editorial from British writer Tim Maughan, new short stories from South African writer Tom Learmont and others, and much more – so stay tuned!
Congratulations to Samit Basu, whose novel Turbulence is out today in the UK!
We’ll be featuring Samit in a future Author Week coming soon.
Aman Sen is smart, young, ambitious and going nowhere. He thinks this is because he doesn’t have the right connections—but then he gets off a plane from London to Delhi and discovers that he has turned into a communications demigod. Indeed, everyone on Aman’s flight now has extraordinary abilities corresponding to their innermost desires.
Vir, an Indian Air Force pilot, can now fly.
Uzma, a British- Pakistani aspiring Bollywood actress, now possesses infinite charisma.
And then there’s Jai, an indestructible one-man army with a good old-fashioned goal — to rule the world!
Aman wants to ensure that their new powers aren’t wasted on costumed crime-fighting, celebrity endorsements, or reality television. He wants to heal the planet but with each step he takes, he finds helping some means harming others. Will it all end, as 80 years of superhero fiction suggest, in a meaningless, explosive slugfest?
Turbulence features the 21st-century Indian subcontinent in all its insane glory—F-16s, Bollywood, radical religious parties, nuclear plants, cricket, terrorists, luxury resorts, crazy TV shows — but it is essentially about two very human questions. How would you feel if you actually got what you wanted? And what would you do if you could really change the world?
Wonderful Days (also known as Sky Blue) is a South Korean animated science fiction film, released in 2003, written and directed by Kim Moon-saeng. It features backdrops rendered using photo-realistic computer-generated imagery.
Wonderful Days is set in 2142. Environmental pollution has led to a breakdown of human civilization. A technologically advanced city named Ecoban was built and it harvests energy from the DELOS System, which uses pollution in a carbonite catalyzed reaction to generate power. Carbonite extraction is carried out by people who live outside the city in the surrounding wasteland. Among them is an enigmatic young man known as Shua. He ends up in a love triangle with his childhood friend, Jay, and her superior, Ecoban security commander Cade.
Watch the trailer!