F&SF, Reviewing, and Optimism

Recently, in several other websites and blogs, there have been comments about too much science fiction being negative, as well as too many reviews being positive. There have also been suggestions, if not recently, that the boom in fantasy is partly due to the negativity and lack of “soaring imagination” of current science fiction.

One of the problems in writing science fiction, especially if one wishes to be somewhat accurate as a writer, is that science fiction is supposed to be based on science. That means that conventional faster-than-light travel is improbable, if not impossible, and certainly not possible without the expenditure of vast amounts of energy. The same is true of such devices as matter-transformers and instant travel portals.

Also, in practical terms, in the future escaping or transcending the various messes that human [or other] civilizations have made is not going to be easy, and writing about doing so will necessarily reflect a certain gritty and sometimes pedestrian reality. Currently, Americans, in particular, even with the latest financial difficulties, now live in a society whose dreams are not based on the “work hard, persevere, and you will eventually succeed Horatio Alger philosophy” of earlier generations, but more upon reality TV and lottery instant wish-fulfillment. In addition, the “mouse-click magic” of computers provides another instant escape mechanism. Given these background factors, any literature or other form of entertainment truly based on science and hard reality is going to appeal to a far smaller audience than one based on magic.

Now… there are different ways of approaching magic, as all widely-read followers of fantasy know, and some fantasy authors, as do I, take a more realistic approach to using magic. I believe that magic, if it did exist in human societies, would be used as everything else humans do — as a tool. In such societies, reality does tend to intrude, because magic usage is subject to economics and all the other nasty implications of human society. And, in general, authors who approach magic in this fashion don’t sell as well as those who are more wish-fulfillment and “isn’t this neat”-oriented do.

As for the business of too many, too favorable reviews… for the most part that’s merely sour grapes on the part of the crew that, in general don’t like anything except that narrow spectrum of books that is their special province or those who prefer nitpicking books to death rather than enjoying them. There are, I’d be the first to admit, a very few reviewers who apparently never ever read a book they didn’t like, but that’s still preferable to the even smaller number that never read one that they couldn’t find something wrong with. Most reviewers are very much aware that, in today’s information explosion, most readers are far more interested in what they might find interesting to read than in what not to read. So… if they find a book really terrible, they don’t waste space on it. I can also tell you, from personal experience, even with books that sell well and get generally favorable reviews, there’s still no lack of reviews incorporating nitpicking, nastiness, lack of understanding, and parochialism… and frankly, for the most part we don’t need them, not when only a fraction of the fiction published, even in the F&SF community, is actually reviewed.