Cheap Pleasures and CheaperThrills… and Jane Austen

Science fiction in particular has tended to mix a combination of elements — a sense of transition from where we’ve been as a society, a commentary on the present, and an extrapolation depicting one of any number of possible futures. Given the current popularity and market place domination of the F&SF genres by fantasy, it’s often hard, especially for new readers, to realize that for almost a century, science fiction was certainly far more prevalent and dominant than fantasy.

How did it come to be that in a comparatively short period of time, fantasy has literally swamped science fiction?

First, let’s take a look at Jane Austen. Over the past few years, there’s been a resurgence in the popularity of Jane Austen, manifested especially in endless cinematic and video remakes of her books, as well as the continued popularity of more than a few romance take-offs on her “world.”

I can certainly understand the Austen period fascination. The clothes were fashionable and elegant, and people didn’t board their carriages in tank tops and flip-flops. The conversation was well-mannered, even when vicious. The dances were truly dances and not frenzied athletic competitions or public pseudo-orgies. Dinners were a time for dining and not gulping fast food after a rushed trip through a drive-in service window. Even revenge was thoughtfully and carefully planned in a way that makes most current “pay-backs” seem crude and boorish. The music had melodies, and young men and women were pleased to master difficult instruments, and not just bang out repetitive chords on an electrically amplified, yet simplified guitar.

By comparison, we live in a world of cheap pleasures and cheaper thrills, gulped down like fast food, time after time, because, somehow, they never satisfy. Americans in particular have more “toys” than ever before, and yet surveys show that they’re not any happier, and in fact may be less so.

And what does all this have to do with science fiction and fantasy?

Among the chief attractions of the genre are inspiration and, frankly escapism, and it’s clear that a growing number of readers want to escape the ugliness of the present, but, from what I’ve seen and read, comparatively little science fiction offers hopeful escapism. Most of it’s pretty grim. Twenty years ago, there were more well-written SF books like Walter Jon Williams’s House of Shards, which deftly mixed SF with manners. I still write books in which the future still has culture, and so do a handful of others, such as Lois McMaster Bujold, but, in general, those tend to be the exception, whereas fantasy tends to offer, if not exclusively, more hopeful endings, or at least endings where there is a glimmer of light. In passing, I would also note that even Devention, the World Science Fiction Convention in Denver in early August, is featuring a “Summerfair Reception in Barrayar” and a Dowager Duchess of Denver’s Regency Dance.. and both are based on “mannered” societies, if fictional ones.

And we could all use more manners, more culture, and more inspiration toward excellence and beauty… especially in our fiction.