In many ways, I felt as if I grew up in the end of Science Fiction’s Golden Age. It’s hard to explain, exactly, but in my time the was already a vague sense that the genre was in decline. Or, perhaps more accurately, that the greats were past their prime, or gone altogether. Some of those in my generation might take exception to this, for I was only a toddler when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, came out, commonly extolled as the greatest product of the Trek universe. Star Wars, of course, was still very much a thing. Pop culture Science Fiction was never stronger, it seemed.
Nonetheless, as I followed my passion for the genre, it took me to older works. It was to Foundation and Dune that I turned. These books left their mark on me in ways that newer works never could. And, it seemed, fewer works of that level of quality came out every year. Conversely, I would read of the genre’s history, of John Campbell and his Golden Age, and some of my favorite stories and movies came out of that era. I remember watching When World’s Collide on TV and finding myself fascinated not with the mundane special effects, but the human element in the story. There was something genuine and deep in science fiction of that era.
Ray Bradbury’s Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed is another story that never really left me. There was a scene in it where the protagonist dives deep into the waters of the Martian canals, musing on life and the acceptance of change. There were times when I would do the same, diving into the pool and waiting awhile in perfect stillness, holding my breath for a time and pretending I was on Mars, pondering philosophy and the universe.
Those memories often bring a smile to my face, and I am a curmudgeonly sort, so that’s saying something. I’ve always felt that I was born a couple decades too late, and nothing cements this view more for me than my love of the classics. But something changed in Science Fiction by my teenage years. The change did not come all at once, nor was it a simple break, easy to detect. In fact, it is only in retrospect that I see it at all.
It is a change that, I am ashamed to admit, I participated in as well. Long before before the Sad Puppies formed, back when the Torlocks were yet small and powerless, a sort of narcissism began to creep into Science Fiction. It didn’t come all at once, and in the manner of boiling the frog, nobody seemed to notice at first.
For me, the first awareness of it came in the world of Star Trek. It seems like a silly place to start, for Captain Kirk certainly painted a picture of a crazy narcissist in the original series. But the original series still seemed to have, at its core, an attachment to the Golden Age of Science Fiction. City on the Edge of Forever, for example, gave us a story not unlike what you might have read in Campbell’s world, once. But Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced some subtle changes. There was now a ship’s counselor, and every few episodes people would talk about their feelings, as if they were all on permanent therapy out in space. Exploring the feelings of characters is good and proper, but this was a bit much.
I remember thinking that these were exploratory vessels that occasionally served a military role. These were supposed to be hardened people, living on the edge of the known universe, going where no man has gone before. Instead, they were going straight to the therapists’s couch. Then we were supposed to care that Wesley Crusher was a special snowflake, or that children were regularly tossed over to helm duty with minimal training because of parental nepotism.
Nonetheless, Star Trek: The Next Generation remained a good series, overall. Political messages of peace, love, diversity, and understanding had always been a part of Trek, and if they were a somewhat bigger part of The Next Generation, what of it? I, like most people, just ignored Wesley Crusher and considered that if there had to be a therapist on the Enterprise, Counselor Troi at least made the part look good. Afterward, the gritty edge to Deep Space Nine seemed to indicate that the therapist’s couch and “muh feels” attitude of The Next Generation had been a temporary affair. Then we got Voyager. I don’t need to tell you what that was like. Everything that annoyed me with The Next Generation was blown up to epic proportions. Everything good about the franchise was tossed into the dumpster.
This was around the time when I was getting back to reading Star Trek books as your regular pulp SciFi. Sometimes, as with the Golden Age of Science Fiction, you didn’t need complex lessons on life, exploration, technology, and philosophy. You just wanted some spaceships to blow up, or some monsters to eat lead. Only, where the Star Trek books once provided a convenient source of the former and sometimes even the latter, back during my teenage years, by the time I went back to them, I discovered that whole genre had gone over to drivel.
There was one book in which Captain Picard spent most of the story in tears. Starfleet’s greatest Captain (or second-greatest, if you prefer), was a cry baby and a wuss. Forget the therapist’s couch, get this character some meds, stat! The only thing I could think of was that the writers were on meds themselves, and had some sort of fixation with mental instability.
I almost gave up on Science Fiction. Abandoning Star Trek, I returned to searching for new authors, new worlds, and new ideas. What I found was a load of crap, stuffed full of political messages and Mary Sue characters. While not at all a part of our world, Twilight is instructive for the phenomenon of narcissism in fiction. I remember reading in an article explaining how to write good fiction (the location of which escapes me at the moment), that Twilight’s success was due to the fact that the protagonist was not described hardly at all. I never read this book, so I cannot confirm if this is true or not, but the article writer went on to explain that teenage girls loved the book because it was, essentially, self-insertion fiction. They could imagine themselves as Bella. So, naturally, Bella had to win at everything, to choose between two attractive men, and do… well whatever else is in that story.
The article was explaining that this was the proper way to write. Your main character should have minimal depth, claimed the article, so that the reader can envision that they are the character. Then they should win at everything, so the reader feels like they are winning. No, not merely step in the shoes of the character, not imagine themselves in the same world, but actually be that person. Self-insertion plus Mary Sue equals a clanking fortune?
When I read Sarah Hoyt’s Darkship Thieves recently, I realized that I had almost nothing in common with her protagonist. She was not me. In fact, some of the things she did absolutely horrified me! In one scene, she winds up costing her patron a clanking fortune by, essentially, reneging on a bargain they had made. I found myself biting my nails here, because this went against all of my personal principles. I could never do something like that. Yet, I loved the character anyway. She had depth. She was clearly her own person, with her own motivations, personality traits and otherwise. This was a story, and Sarah Hoyt was a storyteller. I was along for the (wild) ride.
But, for me, that was far off in the future. I didn’t even know of Baen books in those dark days. And so the idea that characters were supposed to be shallow, predictable, and simple, so that the reader might better imagine themselves as that person, was alien to me. Yet, it made a strange sort of sense in those days. As I saw the rise of selfie culture, duck faces, people constantly taking pictures of themselves, however, it became clear. Fiction was no longer about exploration, or imagination. It had flip-flopped, it was now about the glorification of yourself and your own beliefs.
This explained an awful lot about what I found in Science Fiction when I came back to it. If you want to see an example of what I am talking about without going through a pile of crappy books, read this terrible short story by Lavie Tidhar. It is basically a self-insertion fic about a Kibbutz-dwelling Communist meeting Karl Marx. The author is, himself, a Kibbutz-dwelling Communist. Our characters are often inspired by things that we have experienced, and on occasion cribbing from your own traits can be useful if done right (Tom Kratman, I’m looking at you), but Lavie Tidhar’s work here is just drivel. It lacks any substance. It just reads like a bad Communist propaganda story as published by the English-language edition of Cold War era Pravda. Note that I found this “gem” on the Escape Pod, next time a work one of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Twitter followers tagged her in.
There were dozens of other terrible, political propaganda pieces on there which only used Science Fiction as the flimsiest of frames for their own personal political viewpoints. It was like taking a selfie of your brain’s worst delusions and converting them into something vaguely fictional. It was then that I realized that Science Fiction had become infected with this everywhere. One’s beliefs often leak into the story, and sometimes you can even get away with building your world likewise. Tom Kratman is one of my favorite rule-breakers in this regard, for his Carrera series is rather blatant about this. Yet, you get the sense reading it that Tom didn’t write this to glorify himself or his views, but rather because these were the things he understood and knew very well, so naturally, he wrote about them. It wasn’t forced, like Lavie’s story. If I could give advice to authors out there who look at Tom Kratman’s work and think they can get away with it, it would be this: don’t try this at home, folks.
Science Fiction had merged with Pop culture, and both had become infested with this me, me, me viewpoint. When I heard John Scalzi got a Hugo for Redshirts, I didn’t know whether to laugh or mourn the death of the award. I admit that sort of self-glorification and derivative work got to me, as well. Out there in the world of an Internet which never forgets, there is a boatload of fanfiction I wrote in my early 20s. It’s pretty bad. I wish I could scrub it from the Earth, because I fear that someday it shall come back to haunt me. Perhaps someday I’ll actually write a good book, and then somebody will say: “oh my God, he once sucked worse than ShopVac in a tub of lard!”
Writing became about self-validation more than storytelling, and we should not be surprised that this infected the highest levels of major publishing houses, already used to snubbing their noses at the self-published, already possessing a measure of the superiority complex. The SFWA was not spared this treatment either, and if it weren’t for the sudden rise of ebooks, we might still be stuck in the mire of bad SciFi.
Fortunately, I discovered Baen books. One day a book with the little spaceship logo on the side interested me, and I began reading it. The book was good, and reminded me about everything I had once loved about science fiction. It was a throwback to the Golden Age, but with a spice of Wing Commander thrown in for good measure. It was unpretentious and simple, yet compelling. That book was On Basilisk Station by David Weber. Soon, I discovered a Baen CD, and read all of the stories contained therein. Oh, these books were not Dune or Foundation, they were not epics of that sort. But they were like Ray Bradbury’s stories often were, compelling, simple and human. The glorification of self was mercifully missing from them.
It was like jumping into the pool once more, and pondering the universe from the imaginary canals on Mars.
From there, I discovered Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, John Ringo, David Drake and many others. I loved these books. For the first time in a long time, I craved more Science Fiction and Fantasy again. For the first time, I felt as if I had not been born too late, but just hadn’t been looking in the right places for good work. Baen reignited by love for the genre, but it didn’t stop there.
Since then, I’ve discovered a host of great works, including Chaplain’s War, by Brad Torgersen, which was an incredibly moving story. Soon, I rediscovered older authors I had forgotten about, too. I reread The High Crusade by Poul Anderson. That led to the discovery of a host of his works that I had missed over the years.
I came back to Science Fiction too late to ever meet Jim Baen, but I feel I owe him a tremendous debt anyway.
I’m a WrongFan, I know, for I just can’t stand drivel loaded up with propaganda, diversity quotas, and writing so full of hypens and colons you forget it’s even about Star Wars. Derivative works like Redshirts don’t interest me in the slightest, and stories of time travelling Communists looking to score with Karl Marx written to push a fantasy revolutionary agenda just make me laugh. Mary Three Names can narrate a story telling us all to feel guilty for Hiroshima and it I just shudder.
Because, when it comes down to it, these aren’t stories. And if they are Science Fiction, it is only on the flimsiest of pretexts. They are just selfies of a narcissist’s skull, and not a particularly good skull, either. These are as empty as Bella the Twilight character. They are snapshots of ideology, and I find that I just don’t care if you were a dinosaur, my love, because, quite frankly, I’d rather read about spaceships exploding, or even half-naked women riding around on technological broomsticks. I’d rather read about Paul Atreides predicting the future in a drug-induced haze, or Hari Seldon doing the same with a calculator.
I want to read stories of what lives up there, of the future, of humanity, of our achievements to come. I don’t want to pretend I’m a teenage sparkling vampire groupie, or be made to feel guilty for things I did not do in the past, or spend my time pondering the ins and outs of homosexual discrimination by blue-skinned elephant aliens in the Star Wars Universe in some misguided attempt to push a social agenda in the real world, just because somebody who was paid to write a bad book thinks this is what I must be educated on.
I’d rather be a kid again and imagine swimming in the canals of Mars, bright and shimmering, pondering the universe from the bottom of the pool.