A Dissatisfied Client

George Turner

My father read Alice In Wonderland to me when I was three years old. Once Alice has been absorbed, the young mind is ready for anything, knowing thenceforth no limits to reality. So it was inevitable that my ten-year-old eye should fasten on the first issue of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, unerringly singling it out from the competing dozens of newsstand magazines. It cost one shilling and ninepence then, an immense sum for a small boy to raise in those days when a single penny could buy an assortment of sticky sweets (how he raised it is a story best left untold), but an addiction was born and it is only now, sixty-eight years later, that surfeit has set in and I find myself unwilling to open an SF novel, still less willing to buy an SF magazine. I will, in fact, read only the work of a few authors who interest me for a particular reason - perhaps half a dozen, all told - or of some newcomer whose reviews promise well but who almost always disappoints because the reviewers cater as shamelessly to prevailing reader taste as do the publishers' blurbs.

(So why do I continue to write the stuff? Answer: because I promised my publisher one more novel and feel bound to produce the thing. It will be the last, and it proceeds most slowly and unwillingly.)

My main reason for exhaustion of interest is the generally low standard of sf writing. In the 1950s it was commonplace for writers to letter columns, and later to fan magazines, to trumpet the virtues of their favourite writers as being equal to the best in the mainstream. Even then I knew this for foolishness, the cry of fans who read for thrills and found Hemingway, Faulkner and Dreiser a pack of old bores touted by the effete intelligentsia; the truth was that outside of Brave New World there hadn't been a really literate sf novel in fifty years. And there have been precious few since. When did you last see an sf novel win a literary award (save in the restricted sf venue and mostly voted in by fans) or even figure in the final listings?

Since those brave but mistaken days we have seen the rise of British sf and a consequent improvement in style and general literacy, but not to the point where sf could hail itself as equalling the great writers of its time. Aldiss led the British renaissance with some wit and originality but has fallen into the humdrum exercise of following fashion, producing novels in whatever style or format is currently popular, as if to say, See, I can do one of those! Later, we saw Ian Watson come to the fore but his promise foundered on ideas appealing for their strangeness while he lacked anything to say about them. Christopher Priest promised well but gave the genre away before he reached his peak. Moorcock began with a flourish but soon degenerated into a purveyor of easy cult sellers. Iain M Banks came to sf with a fine (and well- earned) mainstream reputation but is already following well-trodden sf paths with flair and finesse but no true originality of theme or plot or technology.

In America, Gene Wolfe and Tom Disch opened up in a shower of pyrotechnics but quickly degenerated into rehashing the tried-and-true old themes. However, they are still a pleasure to read because they are craftsmen and expert at what they do. David Brin is occasionally pedestrian but displays some freshness of thought, but the remainder of the 'big name' writers - Pohl, Benford, Card, Gibson et al - leave me, even in the brainstorm of their technological ingenuities, with the feeling that I have been there before.

The main trouble with all their work is a lack of human presence in their plots. It is as if characterization has been relegated to unimportance in the display of melodrama. Without realistic characters there can be no human drama. Has there been a truly memorable character in all of sf? A Yossarian, a Snopes, even a Scarlett O'Hara or a Jeeves?

Surveying the field, only the name of Ursula Le Guin comes to mind as one who knows both the freedoms and the limitations of her art, exploits both with care and precision, and remains perennially readable.

So let's stop pretending that sf can challenge mainstream fiction at its own game. It is genre fiction with all the limitations implied by the term, produced mainly by writers of the second rank. If it is, for the most part, avoided by the discerning reader of mainstream fiction, this is because its occasional gems of fine writing and shrewd thinking are buried under floods of repetitive gloop and not easily distinguished on the display counter by the reader asking for better.

Sf recipe: place your action on another planet or so far in the future that you don't have to worry about plausibility. (This is applauded as 'creativity'.) Take one scientist, one space ship captain, one heroine menaced by a villain with some metaphysical capacity, throw in a few weird local customs, mix in with search, chase and combat sequences culminating in the destruction of an empire - and you have a whole series on your hands. What's more, it will sell.

Alternatively, take one Dark Lord, one Heroic Swordswoman, one Tough Hero with muscles up to his ears, one Sinister Magician, mix in with search, chase and combat sequences culminating in the destruction of an empire - and you have a whole series on your hands. What's more, it will sell.

The bitter truth is that most sf, however disguised, is adventure fantasy churned out in bucketloads and getting the public it deserves.

There is another sf, of course: thoughtful stuff whose authors have their eyes fixed on the realities of life, who have something to say about both life and science. Tom Disch tried it in his 334 and the reviewers didn't seem to know what he was on about; others have suffered similar fates. I, also, tried it in The Sea And Summer, which was a sales disaster. Oh, it won the Arthur C Clarke Award and a Commonwealth Literary Prize (mainstream!) and was very well-reviewed - after which my publisher told me not to offer the firm any more sf.

What, then, has the literary future to offer the serious writer?

I have a few ideas. They won't sell, of course. Well, not to science fiction fans.

But they just might attract the attention of the mainstream reader.

One powerfully obvious matter that sf is treating very warily is the greenhouse effect, and with some justification. My own novel on the subject was written too soon, before sufficient data was available to make a reasonable forecast of probable conditions in fifty years time, and I almost certainly overstated the case for the rise in ocean levels, but not necessarily for some of the other 'forecasts'.

Over-population, for instance, is a daily newspaper bleat but there is no sign that anyone but the Chinese and the Indians take it seriously enough to actually do anything about it. The Chinese 'one baby' law has been vigorously resisted by the general population and its main result has been the exposure and death of girl children in favour of the boys required for the handing-on of the farm; the population still soars inexorably - twelve hundred millions in a land area only one-fifth larger than Australia. India tried a vasectomy programme whose main effect was the emergence of a surge of fake doctors and providers of fake pills which were guaranteed to do the job without unpleasant surgery. India expects to top one billion people in the next generation or so.

What has been sf's reaction to this, the most menacing threat to world stability yet to appear? None worth noting. There are occasional references to giant cities, people packed into huge dormitories and other such obvious drivel, but where is the sf biting into the basic problem of what to do about an overcrowding world? Too hard? Or too downbeat for fans raised on heroic pap? Or too touchy for professional writers (and editors) to risk because the answers are liable to be horrific?

The answers lie, in the not-too-distant future, in attacking humanity itself in one way or another. Which reminds me that at least one novel, observing that modern medicine and hygiene have extended life expectation into the seventies and that the 'useless' aged will very soon represent fifty per cent of the community, predicated legal euthanasia at sixty. It didn't go down very well. Extreme solutions rarely do. But what, then?

How about enforcing a one-child-per-couple law? It hasn't worked in China and it would raise horrendous problems anywhere else. What to do with unwanted babies? Kill them? Set up public abortion clinics? Execute one parent to maintain the status quo? Legislate that only people with abilities useful to the state may procreate? Or throw up our hands in despair?

Probably the last, but with a global population of ten or eleven billions forecast for 2030, there could a problem in feeding them. With one-third of our present world population living below any rational poverty line, and forests being destroyed to provide farmland while arable land is simultaneously grabbed for housing, what will double our present population eat? Don't expect super-technology to provide plenty for all; that's the sort of silly answer sf comes up with, ignoring the fact that the technology has first to find the sheer bulk of material suitable for conversion into food. Science can't provide something from nothing.

Which reminds me that another food source is in danger - the oceans. And all because of the ozone layer and our man-made interference with it. The UV radiation let through by destruction of the ozone plunges into the upper layers of the Antarctic Ocean, destroying the krill that swarm there. The krill are the bottom line of the ocean food chain; if they go, the whole ocean ecology will be impoverished.

It seems to me that an sf which looks at present day problems is badly needed and might find an interested public stirred by rational debate.

One theme that our own Australian writers might consider springs from the present debate on immigration and the recent statement, on TV, by one visionary that this country could support a hundred and seventy million people. In the population debate in which this was said, not a single participant mentioned water or the fact that Australia is the most water-starved land on Earth, with three-quarters of it wasteland and the remainder subject to devastating droughts. I doubt if we could support more than twenty-five million, and it's no good the crowded Asians looking to us as the land of space and plenty.

Any ideas, sf? And please don't feed us the old chestnut of weather control. Remember the butterfly in the chaos metaphor? You can't disturb weather locally without disturbing the weather patterns of the whole world (and weather prediction is still more art than science) and probably thereby starting another world war.

Local writers might give all this some thought; there are quite a few good tales waiting to be written on the subject of our near future - tales to be written by authors prepared to think instead of grabbing at the nearest easy solution.

Still on the subject of population, how about the effect of technology on the work force, with about eight per cent out of work in the developed countries and the economists keeping very quiet about the chances of this being reversed? With employment falling mainly to the specially trained twenty-to-forty group, and business and manufacture streamlining themselves mercilessly in the effort to stay abreast of change, and the income gap between rich and poor becoming greater every year, what are the chances of the unwanted forming a new underclass - an underclass with possibly a new solidarity (and, equally possibly, a total disintegration) and, more dangerously, a wholly different conception of ethics and morality?

And how about that other bone of today's contention, casually called 'women's lib' as though it were a passing fad? Sf recognised it some sixty years ago in The Inevitable Conflict (a very forgettable novel) and has hardly progressed beyond token recognition since - an occasional female president of the US or scientist or business manager. Oh, there have been Pohl's military commanders (Jem, was it?) who were only man-hunters with tits, and C J Cherryh's biologically and evolutionally silly lion-headed female space captains, and no doubt more such ratbaggery in a thousand unread novels. What there has not been is a sensible consideration of the problems raised.

The male writers nibbling at the subject give us, for the most part, man-hungry bitches or smouldering despots; the female writers seem unable to get past dressing women in trousers and giving them men's jobs which they carry out exactly like men in trousers. There is nowhere a hint of rational thinking on a subject which may well be pressing us sooner than we expect.

The traditional division of lifestyles into men's work and women's work is blurring slightly with the entry of women into apprenticeships (particularly into the building and automotive industries); there have been, also, a number of men doing the dusting and cooking as house-husbands, but this has usually been the result of an inability to find work. We have, also, the 'sensitive new age man', whatever he may turn out to be, and a host of strident women thumping their various drums of protest for 'equality'. What we do not have is any group of intelligent people sitting down to consider a few basic facts.

'Equality' as a term blurs the issues. Male and female serve different biological purposes and are both physically and mentally different from each other. Their mental and physical capacities, in the Stone Age, divided them logically into hunters and child-carers, and this division hasn't changed greatly in half a million years.

But the circumstances of existence have changed. A man's superior physique doesn't really qualify him for much more than a labourer's job and just about everything else can be done equally well by a woman.

"Equally"? We may have to reconsider that. The editorial in New Scientist for 4 February, 1995, points to a survey of British schoolchildren. I quote: "Last year, nearly 46% of girls gained 5 or more passes at the top grades in the GCSE examinations taken at 16, while fewer than 37% of boys reached the same standard. The gap is larger in subjects such as English and foreign languages but . . . at A level, taken at 18, girls now score better than boys in mathematics, physics and technology." There is much more, none of it comforting for the men.

Perhaps some day, when male resentment and female stridency have simmered down, it will be recognised that the differences must be considered as well as the equalities. There is for instance marriage, an institution common to every race on Earth, arising from the once simple separation into provider and home maker, but now, owing to the changing face of civilization, no longer so simply divisible. As an institution it just doesn't work in its present form. The divorce rate in Australia has risen 60% in two decades and the number of single mothers, mostly by choice, rises each year. It is time we looked at the whole system from the standpoint of modern conditions - and from the standpoint of the children - and found a new set of values and responsibilities based on self-knowledge as well as realization of sexual selfishness.

These will come from sheer necessity, and will rock social structures to their foundations. I have no idea what the end will be, but it will drive theologians into conniptions. I hesitate to think of the earthquake in Islam or in the Hindu caste system. Nonetheless it will come.

And a responsible sf should be taking account of it.

There are plenty of other subjects I could raise, human subjects of which sf takes no account or barefacedly dodges.

Sf has always prided itself on being the literature of tomorrow. In fact it is the dream world of fantasists, and a pretty irresponsible dream world at that.

Why do most sf stories and novels set themselves in a far future, or on a far planet, where the civilizations described are invariably the Terrestrian today with a few technological changes for cosmetic purposes? Because this saves their writers from a serious novelist's job of examining the present and evolving the future from it.

There are good, seriously intended sf works but they drown in the flood of high adventure churned out for a fan public who in fact couldn't care less about tomorrow.

Why the hell has it taken me seventy years of sf reading to say at last what has been festering in the back of my mind for at least twenty of them?

I don't know the answer, only that my own small achievement in the field has been too much influenced by current fads and fancies, and that after seven novels - with another still to come - I have little, by my own standards, to be proud of.

But there is a better, more thoughtful, less unhuman sf to be written, an sf mindful of mainstream values, which could at last justify its noisy but mostly empty existence.

Originally appeared pp. 108-113, Eidolon 17/18, June 1995.
Copyright © 1995 George Turner.
Reprinted by kind permission of George Turner.