I recently discussed how science fiction isn’t about predicting the future, even though that’s how many people see the genre. Instead, SF’s true power comes from inspiring the future. The genre does this, as author Cory Doctorow has so aptly stated, by creating “narrative vocabularies by which futures can be debated, discussed, adopted, or discarded.”
Of course, that raises the question of what types of science fiction narrative vocabularies are being created these days, and where today’s cutting-edge SF narratives are taking our genre. So consider this essay a short exploration of SF’s possible future.
First off, understand that when I talk about where science fiction is going, I’m discussing science fiction literature. While SF films, TV shows and video games are an integral and beloved part of our genre, and absolutely the public face of SF, they are rarely where groundbreaking science fiction arises. Visual SF mainly reacts to what is first successful in written SF. While that may change in the future, up to this point visual SF has merely played with the tropes and ideas common in SF literature decades before (with a few significant exceptions).
And even within SF literature, few stories are actually groundbreaking. This isn’t a criticism—our genre sees frequent retreadings of many subgenres and types of stories, such as military SF and space operas, and these are often fun, enjoyable reads. But they are rarely groundbreaking (although, again, there are exceptions, such as Iain Banks’ unique take on space opera, or the gender- and mind-bending space opera Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which deserves to be on this year’s major SF award short lists).
So when I discuss groundbreaking SF, I’m talking about stories which totally change how we view the genre. Examples include such novels as Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (which revolutionized SF warfare and influenced a generation of video games), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (which almost single-handedly created the subgenre of alternate histories), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (which laid the groundwork for feminist SF), Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (which, along with The Left Hand of Darkness, proved that SF novels could also be high literature), and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (which helped spawn cyberpunk).
Love or hate these novels, it’s hard to dispute their impact. Within the SF genre, these novels hit like a tsunami, washing away everything in their path and leaving a completely change literary landscape in their wake. In addition, these novels rippled far beyond our genre. Not only are these novels well-known to the general public, they also changed how humanity views not only our own selves but the universe around us.
So when I speak of where our genre is going, I’m aiming high. Possibly too high, in fact, intimidatingly high, but what the hell. Let’s give it a shot.
Of course, until the next groundbreaking novel appears it’s impossible to imagine what that novel will be like. But we can get a sense of possible trends by looking at the cutting-edge short fiction being created in our genre.
Short fiction—short stories, novelettes, and novellas—are where new writers have traditionally honed their art. Not only does short fiction allow writers to find their voice and try out various themes and styles, the fact that short fiction is, well, short, encourages a good deal of experimentation. After all, it’s easier for an author to experiment with a 6,000 word short story than with a 100,000 word novel.
And this experimentation doesn’t merely rest with the author—readers are also more open to experiments in short fiction. As a result, writers and readers can see what types of cutting-edge fiction and ideas work. You can witness this clearly from William Gibson’s writing career. In 1981 he read his novelette “Burning Chrome” to an audience of four people at a science fiction convention—among them author Bruce Sterling, who according to Gibson totally understood the story. The story was a landmark in the creation of cyberpunk, and also marked the first use of the term “cyberspace.” But equally as important is that “Burning Chrome” and Gibson’s other early short fiction allowed him to create the worldview which culminated in 1984’s Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick Award winning novel Neuromancer.
So what are we seeing on the short fiction front to indicate where our genre is going? To me, the most exciting stories being written these days are defined in terms of their high literary qualities, sense of wonder, multicultural characters and settings, and exploration of the boundaries of reality and experience. These science fiction stories flirt with the boundaries of what is scientifically—and therefore realistically—possible, without being bounded by the rigid frames of the world as we know it today. In some ways the stories feel a bit like fantasy, but they aren’t. Instead, they’re pure science fiction, an updated version of the literature of ideas. A science fiction for a world where the frontiers of scientific possibility are almost philosophical in nature.
Authors writing this type of short fiction include Paolo Bacigalupi, Aliette de Bodard, Ted Chiang, Eugie Foster, N.K. Jemisin, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, Hannu Rajaniemi, Gareth L. Powell, Rachel Swirsky, Lavie Tidhar and Caroline M. Yoachim, among others. Some of these authors are well established. Others are barely known. Some exclusively write these types of SF stories. Others create these stories only on occasion.
When I’ve previously discussed these types of stories, I’ve called them Sci-Fi Strange, in a nod to an editor who stated that the stories felt like science fiction’s version of fantasy’s New Weird. And just as the New Weird revitalized the fantasy genre over the last decade, I feel this type of short fiction has the potential to do the same for science fiction.
Of course, it’s impossible to know if Sci-Fi Strange, or any of these authors, will create the next groundbreaking science fiction novel. But the signs are encouraging. Already three of these authors have written SF novels which have excited the genre like few other works in recent years—Paolo Bacigalupi with his Hugo and Nebula Award winning The Windup Girl, Hannu Rajaniemi with The Quantum Thief, and Lavie Tidhar with his World Fantasy Award winning Osama (despite that fantasy award win, I believe Tidhar’s novel is pure SF). In addition, Nnedi Okorafor has written a mind-blowing novel called Who Fears Death which blurs the lines between fantasy and SF in truly exciting ways, while other of these authors have written impressive pure-fantasy works, such as N.K. Jemisin with her Inheritance Trilogy.
So when people ask me where the science fiction genre is going, I tell them it’s going to be a Sci-Fi Strange future. Now we only have to wait and see if that’s the future our genre is currently inspiring to create.
Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.