Declinism and SF
A recent review pushes well-worn buttons
Declinism is the theory that the world used to be better than it is now--it is the conviction, common to many people, that Things Are Getting Worse. There's a brilliant example of the theory at work in a recent, very thorough and well-written review of three Best-of-Year SF anthologies at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Now, the problem with declinism in art criticism is that everybody has their own model for what the best of a particular genre or style is. If your favourite SF was all published before 1980, you're going to believe SF has been in decline since then. If it was 1960, then... well, dates differ. But declinists can always find some cut-off point where things started going downhill.
In this case, the reviewer, Paul Kincaid, seems to place the beginning of the end in the late 1990s, and he has this to say about the best SF of the past couple of years:
In the main, there is no sense that the writers have any real conviction about what they are doing. Rather, the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.
Is this true? Or is it rather Kincaid's own perceptions that have shifted? There lies the problem--one can't tell. But even if it's all in the eye of the reader, if everybody else is having the same reaction to SF as Kincaid, then it's a real effect, whether the exhaustion lies in the stories themselves, or in the minds of the readers. What seems to be true, however, is that this particular reader is finding that he's no longer inspired by science fiction. And that really is a problem.
The bigger problem, for me, is that Kincaid goes on to list my story, "Laika's Ghost," as emblematic of this malaise. I can't let that stand. He says this about the story:
It is one of the best stories in these three collections, but it is almost anti-SF in its affect: the future has run its course and come to an end; what was one of the most exciting aspirations of science fiction—the promise of life on another world—is here made available only to those looking backward to a former time. It is a story that makes manifest the exhaustion that is immanent throughout these three collections.
This is great stuff--but (quite apart from the fact that SF never promised its readers a technological and metaphorical rose garden) it's also a clumsy misreading of the story. First of all, "Laika's Ghost" has to be read in the context of the other Gennady Malianov stories. It only sorta kinda stands on its own; the fact is it is part of a continuum of stories that paints a very specific view of the near future. That view is not of an exhausted world, but of a world that is shifting gears--undergoing civilizational change. Sure, the scions of the old world order may be exhausted, but there are plenty of new and dynamic forces at work in Gennady's world. This is most thoroughly shown in another of these stories, "To Hie From Far Cilenia."
Secondly, Gennady himself is a necessary character for science fiction at this time. Why? Because he's neither a starry-eyed optimist nor an apocalyptic nihilist. He's a realist who fully intends to have a future, and for the world he lives in to have a future too. So while the people around Gennady rise and fall, taking whole civilizations and possible futures with them, he's cleaning up the mess. It's what he does.
The necessity of buckling down and tidying up the trash left by 100+ years of techno-optimism in no way contradicts the wondrous potential of the future. It's just a necessary piece of the whole process. Gennady knows this; he knows that decommissioning old nuclear reactors is a manifestation of Progress. Shooting radioactive camels in the Gobi desert is one of the prices to be paid for our industrialist past, and somebody has to pay it. Gennady represents that side of technological progress that we in SF so rarely acknowledge: he's a trash collector.
It's not starry-eyed wonder that we need at this point in history; it's a rolling-up of the sleeves to finish what we started when we introduced electric power, vaccinations, indoor plumbing and all the other critical inventions of modernism. In that sense, "Laika's Ghost" is not the best of a bad lot. It's a reminder that science fiction ultimately reflects where we stand in the world right now. And where we stand, is at a time when there's work to be done. If the science fiction of today represents that harder-edged and less sentimental vision of the future, then great! I'll write more of it.