Have you heard of the Great Science Fiction Schism?
Okay, okay. It’s more like the Great Science Fiction Continuum. Sci-fi writers may fall anywhere upon it, and bounce up and down the scale from story to story. But if you want my opinion, sci-fi stories almost always fall into one of two categories: futurist or escapist.
Wikipedia defines futurists as “scientists and social scientists whose specialty is futurology or the attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present, whether that of human society in particular or of life on Earth in general.” Futurist science fiction, as the name suggests, makes predictions about the future. Notable futurist sci-fi authors are H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov.
The dictionary defines escapism as “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.” Whereas futurist science fiction seeks to confront the ugly realities of the human condition and their possible effect on the future by presenting them, writ large, in a fantastic context, escapist science fiction does just the opposite. If you’re stressed about something, escapist science fiction lets you slip into a good story, join a cast of lovable characters, get lost in an amazing world, and have a rollicking good time.
Futurists and escapists fall into two very different ideological camps, and each camp has a different definition of science fiction. Futurists believe that sci-fi is a tool meant to elevate the human race to a higher plane of existence. Through their fiction, futurists seek to inform the human race about the possibilities of the future—and warn them about the consequences of their own folly. As a result, futurist sci-fi is often gloomy, cynical, depressing, dystopian, post-apocalyptic stuff. Many futurist sci-fi authors seem to see only the negative side of human nature, and tend to focus on our propensity to heap suffering on each other and the planet we live on.
Escapists, on the other hand, don’t care about any of that crap. To escapists, sci-fi isn’t really a “serious” genre. Sci-fi is meant to entertain, not educate or warn. That’s why escapist sci-fi stories are often upbeat, humorous, fun, wacky, adventurous, glamorous, heroic, even downright campy. If you’ve ever read a really pulpy science fiction story about two-fisted, hard-drinking great white hunters bagging a trophy Tyrannosaurus, or a disembodied brain growing to massive size and taking over Earth, or any story that involves a robot hefting a half-naked woman around…you were probably reading escapist science fiction. Ray guns, pet dinosaurs, aerobatic spaceships, scantily-clad women, dark jungles, sweaty men, showdowns at high noon, robot sidekicks, flesh-eating aliens…escapism, baby. Campy fun.
Many famous science fiction authors have written escapist science fiction stories, or even out-and-out pulp fiction: Jack Vance, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick, among others. Some science fiction authors never wrote anything but escapist fic. Edgar Rice Burroughs leaps immediately to mind. He’s most famous for writing Tarzan of the Apes and its 23 (!) sequels, but he also wrote pulpy adventure sci-fi: A Princess of Mars and At the Earth’s Core, both of which I dearly love.
I feel I should stop here and point out that these are entirely subjective definitions of escapism and futurism that I’m using. The categories aren’t nearly as clear-cut as I’ve made them out to be. You could argue that any science fiction that isn’t futurist is escapist. And quite a few people think all science fiction is escapist fiction, lumping it in with bodice-ripping romance novels, mystery novels, fantasy novels, horror novels, and thrillers. Hell, that’s even how Wikipedia classifies it. But with regards to what I’m going to talk about next, I’m going to use the definitions of escapist and futurist sci-fi as I’ve defined them above.
I hate to say it, but futurist science fiction is more popular right now. It’s not hard to see why, I guess. The big climate change debate has been raging for over a decade. Seems like every week there’s a story in the news about an ice sheet retreating, or a coral reef bleaching, or bees dying off by the truckload, or moose skulls shrinking. Nine nations possess nuclear weapons, and two of them are all over the headlines as I write these words, threatening to use them on each other.
I have subscriptions to both Asimov’s Science Fiction and Clarkesworld, and it seems like almost every story I read in those pages is futurist—anviliciously futurist. The very first story in Clarkesworld’s January 2018 issue is A World to Die For by Tobias S. Buckell. It couldn’t be a more dire warning about the consequences of runaway global warming if it tried. I’d estimate that a good 80-90% of the fiction that appears in Asimov’s is futurist, too. (A notable and pleasant exception was “In Dublin, Fair City” by Rick Wilber, which appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Asimov’s. It’s about the continuing adventures of Moe Berg, baseball player and Allied spy, and his adventures in Ireland after England falls to the Nazis.)
That doesn’t really surprise me. You might say that Isaac Asimov was the original futurist. Known as one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers of the Golden Age (alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein), Asimov has been called “the father of modern science fiction.” He was one of the most prolific authors of all time, writing more than 500 books and penning countless short stories in his lifetime. His works have inspired thousands of latter-day sci-fi writers. He invented or popularized quite a few seminal sci-fi tropes: planet-spanning cities, galactic empires, sentient robots. Asimov believed that science fiction did nothing less than benefit humanity, and our collective destiny as a species could be predicted (perhaps even expedited) by insightful sci-fi. He made many prescient predictions about the course of human events and technological developments. Arguably, his fiction set the tone for the futurist sci-fi of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Since the 1950s, escapist science fiction has become…unpopular. There seems to be a general consensus that we need to face up to our problems as a species rather than escape from them. The books and stories that win awards nowadays are the gloomy, futurist ones that hammer some point about how flawed human society or culture is home with a giant sledgehammer. The pulpy action stories are the dog-eared paperbacks you find in the used bookstore for fifty cents apiece. Critics of escapist sci-fi say that the genre is outdated and unrealistic, that it reinforces unhealthy gender and racial stereotypes, that it has no literary or artistic merit.
Phooey to that, I say.
I write escapist fiction. If I’ve ever written futurist fiction, it wasn’t on purpose. It was escapist fiction that just happened to deal with a hot futurist topic, like climate change, nuclear war, or gender issues. But it was meant to entertain, not warn or harangue or criticize.
I suspect this is another reason why I haven’t sold a single story to a major sci-fi magazine. I just don’t like futurism.
I have two problems with futurist science fiction in general. Number one, it’s pretentious and preachy. I read sci-fi to be entertained, to have my imagination stimulated, to escape into a well-crafted world with believable, relatable characters and have howling adventures with them. I don’t read science fiction to be lectured about how humans are evil, myopic, greedy idiots who oppress each other and kill each other pointlessly and are going to commit mass suicide soon if they don’t wise up. I can read one or two stories like that every now and then, but when that’s all there is out there, it gets tedious.
Second, futurism—if it takes itself too seriously (and it all too frequently does)—can slide into absurdism. Futurists’ predictions can go from maudlin to paranoid to ridiculous but quick. Some have even gone so far as to say that futurism is dead, thanks to all the phony, shameless, and even loony predictions that latter-day futurists are making. (Seriously, follow that link to Wired and read that article, it’s incredible.)
Futurists and escapist sci-fi writers generally loathe one another. Ever heard of the Sad Puppies? It’s a voting campaign intended to influence the outcome of the annual Hugo Awards. A Hugo is the highest award any science fiction writer can expect to receive. The Sad Puppies are a group of sci-fi writers who got sick of always being passed over for Hugo nominations in favor of “boring message fic” (read: futurist sci-fi) and decided to resist the trend. Starting in 2013, and every year after, the Sad Puppies have attempted to lead a voting bloc to get their own stories nominated for Hugos. Larry Correia, the sci-fi author who led the movement in 2013, said that it was an attempt to “poke the establishment in the eye” by advocating for the nomination of “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy-handed message fic.”
You could say that the conflict between the Sad Puppies and the Hugo Awards’ establishment is the 21st century’s big showdown between futurists and escapists. Futurists snottily believe that “literature which only entertains is simply bad literature, whatever genre it belongs to” (as sci-fi author J. Timothy Bagwell claimed in his essay “Science Fiction and the Semiotics of Realism”). Escapists, on the other hand, are sick and fed up with the futurists’ endless flood of banal, sententious message fic (nothing more than thinly disguised propaganda, some critics allege), and believe that adventurous, swashbuckling, two-fisted pulp sci-fi should be accorded more respect and recognition.
My definition of “good science fiction” is sci-fi that contains a nugget of truth, as Lovely Umayam (research analyst and program manager at the Stimson Center) points out in this article. That’s what made The Twilight Zone so great, even despite some of its campy premises. Science fiction doesn’t have to be dystopian, heavy-handed, moralizing, preachy, or dire in order to be good. It can be uplifting, light-hearted, entertaining, and downright fun, as long as it’s still truthful. Bad science fiction is as easy to spot as any other kind of bad fiction: unbelievable characters, clunky dialogue, predictable plots (or plots that make no sense at all). Too often, futurist sci-fi nabs the spotlight even if the prose is blisteringly awful, simply because the author has capitalized on a political trend and his or her story promulgates a politically fashionable idea. Escapist sci-fi deserves just as much credit as futurist sci-fi does, as long as you can strip away the fantastic setting and imaginary technology and still find a romping good story underneath.
That’s my two cents, anyway.