My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone

Anyone who reads my blog knows I’m very into science fiction, but I have to admit that I’m having a devil of a time finding new science fiction stories to love.  For the past decade I’ve been getting most of my sense of wonder thrills from rereading science fiction books I first discovered in the 1960s.  I occasionally stumble across a new SF novel that rekindles the old thrill, somewhat, like Hyperion (1989), Snowcrash (1992), Red Mars (1993), Old Man’s War (2005) and Spin (2005), but life wasn’t like it was in my teens when I read several mind blowing SF books a week. 

Has my sense of wonder fuse blown out? 

Have I discovered all the great science fictional concepts?

I was page turning thrilled by The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) but it was written by a literary writer, Audrey Niffenegger, and its appeal did not deal with time traveling, but a very fascinating romantic relationship.  I’ve read many books and watched many movies about time travel and that far out idea is really tired.

And I’m burned out on alien invasions too. (I mean, be honest aren’t you too?)  Ditto for Star Trek save-the-world space opera.  And just how boring have all those after-the-collapse stories gotten?  I’ve been in the mood for a great robot yarn, but the film I, Robot, although fun, wasn’t sense of wonder thrilling, and neither was WALL-E, but I loved it.

Thinking about it, the most exciting SF I’ve enjoyed in recent years has been the film Gattaca (1997) and the recent version of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), and neither of these sense of wonder thrillers were for traditional reasons.  Vincent Freeman’s epic struggle to compete with genetically selected super humans was emotionally uplifting.  And even though I’m an atheist, the idea of a race of robots, the Cylons, trying to exterminate the polytheistic human race because of the Cylon’s belief in monotheism was just too delicious not to love.  However, as much as I enjoyed the series, it had little traditional sense of wonder.  I was very disappointed it did so little with the psychology of the Cylons.

Am I jaded over science fiction, or have science fiction writers lost their mojo?  The last science fiction novel that came up with a fantastic new H. G. Wells level concept was The Life of Pi by Yann Martel in 2001. 

Now most people are going to scream at me, “WTF!” 

I know, I know, most of you ladies and gents think The Life of Pi is a literary fantasy.  That’s because you want to believe in Pi’s tale, which is a fantasy.  We all want to believe in his fantasy, the fantasy of God, and all the other fantasies we love.  When you accept the realistic ending, you accept science, and The Life of Pi becomes science fiction.  A science fiction novel that kills science fiction.

And that might be why my thrill is gone.  I want a new science fiction fantasy to believe in, like space travel, time travel, mind downloading, meeting far out aliens, mind travel, teleportation, immortality, and so on. 

I can’t help but believe I’ve written this blog post before. 

My mind is going, but the desires stay the same.

JWH – 12/16/9

15 thoughts on “My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone”

  1. Jim,
    I know it won’t sate your hunger completely but I think Neal Stephenson’s Anathem would make a nice morsel for you. It has invigorated me (for the time being) in the same way that Hyperion and Snow Crash and Ender’s Game did way back when.

    In addition to reading the Classic Sci Fi lists are you in any groups that talk about the best of today’s Science Fiction? I would be interested in finding a group like that as well.


    1. Dan, after reading your comment I went and read about Anathem, and it sounds fascinating, so I’ll give it a try. The description suggests Anathem is more philosophical than science fictional, but I’ll wait and see. And I do love good philosophical books.

      I thought of something last night after I made my post. Lots of modern science fiction authors write great stories using old science fictional ideas and we can think of them as writing wonderful science fiction books, but those books don’t give me the thrill of discovering a new concept. But if you are 13 or 33 and have been exposed to their ideas before, they will be mind blowing books.

      1. Hey, Jim,
        I don’t know if you’ve decided to read or listen to Anathem but I would highly recommend going the audiobook route. I started reading the book and couldn’t get into it as much as I’d hoped. But when I got the audiobook from the library everything I was struggling with while reading the book faded away. I think my audio memory did a better of job of storing the meaning of all of the new terms and concepts then my visual memory ever would.

    2. Dan, I definitely plan to get the audio book version of Anathem, even though it’s 2 credits at I read and listened to Snowcrash and without a doubt, listening is the way to go for Stephenson. Ditto for Dan Simmons.

  2. Well, were those books you read in your teens more thrilling because they were great books, or because you encountered them in your teens?

    I’m coming to SF (modern and classics) recently and almost exclusively as an adult in my mid-30s. Aside from Dune and some Bradbury, I had read very little classic SF until about 8 years ago. I find that while some of the classics on your list hold up wonderfully, there are many for which I have no idea why they are so well-thought of. All of the recent ones you mention above I would put up among the upper tiers of the classics I’ve read, and I can think of a good number of other more recent novels (e.g., Darwin’s Radio, The Sparrow, IIlium, Blindsight, Revelation Space) I would put above many of the top 100 of the classics.

    It is also possible that with the state of science and technology, compelling SF speculation these days as become harder to do without a strong scientific background. It’s not that all the ideas have been used up, but that all the low-hanging fruit is gone. The more literary types with interests in speculation may be gravitating nowadays more toward fantasy instead of SF. Our modern-day Besters, Sturgeons, Herberts, & LeGuins (of her 60-70s phase) if we have any, are probably working in fantasy, whereas 40 years ago, they would have been working in SF.

    1. JRQ – that’s exactly what I’ve discovered. Rereading my old favorites has open my eyes in many cases about how poorly written they were. The Sparrow is indeed a much better book of first contant than most of the classics. Often modern science fiction books have a baroque feel to them, richly retelling classic tales.

      I do think books encountered in youth have greater impact than good books discovered later in life. I also think my desire to find new great science fiction is akin to wanting that power of adolescent wonder to work again. Getting old takes a lot of work.

      Now JRQ, since you are coming to science fiction late, is it the writing and story that thrill you, or are you still discoverying new far out ideas? I would think anyone growing up in our times would exposed to all the classic science fiction concepts in childhood because of television, movies and games.

  3. @ JRQ: “…with the state of science and technology, compelling SF speculation these days as become harder to do without a strong scientific background.”

    This is something I’ve been thinking about for a few years. I suspect that the quality of science education among both writers and readers has regressed to the point where it’s difficult for both groups to bring the science into the fiction. Some of the writers don’t have the background in science necessary to present the science (and will be called out by knowledgeable fans if they err), and the readership has difficulty understanding the science/technology incorporated into the story. (My wife, who is not a SF fan, at least grasped much of BSG whereas the technobabble of ST:TNG would seem like a foreign language to her.) Fantasy (which I don’t read) is probably much easier for both writers and readers to grasp.

  4. JDsq, don’t you think science fiction writers should be apostles of science? Look at what H. G. Wells did with The Time Machine – he took the concept of evolution and packaged it in an awe-inspiring story that most anyone could read. And those readers might not have understood how evolution work, but their minds were expanded by being shown the speculative results of evolution – that man could evolve into new species. Wells also exposed them to cosmology and showed the Earth and Sun changing and evolving too. That was amazingly far out in 1895, and I’m sure new readers in 2009 are still amazed.

    Maybe all the good speculative concepts about science have been made into science fiction, and the latest science is more subtle and less easy to illustrate in stories so modern writers are left with retelling classic themes. But I’m not sure.

    I hope there are new H. G. Wells and Robert Heinleins out there researching science who will make giant speculative stories about what we haven’t thought about before. Fantasy novels are fine for fun reading – I loved the Harry Potter series, but I still hanker for new sense of wonder science fiction. If it takes more work, then I expect new science fiction writers to study science harder.

  5. I certainly think we’ve had some of this conversation before, but I’ll take the risk of repeating my own opinion on this, which is, that all I’ve ever wanted from the literature I read is a good story. This is true with science fiction as much if not more than anything else I read. I came to my love of science fiction through Star Wars and the novels of Brian Daley and Harry Harrison. Needless to say that love was born out of space opera. I have never looked to science fiction to have ever expanding scientific concepts. Those that do, when well written, are just an added bonus.

    Even today I get the same sense of wonder from reading ‘classic’ science fiction as I do modern sci fi. Case in point, the last two science fiction novels I read were Podkayne of Mars by Robert Heinlein and Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters that I as a reader was able to journey along with through those novels and the science fiction concepts in both filled me with a sense of wonder and triggered a positive response in my imagination.

    I’m fully willing to admit that maybe I am not asking enough from my novels, but this is what works for me. I am confident in my intelligence and feel that I have good taste in what I choose to read. I also have my fair share of guilty pleasure reads.

    I realize this doesn’t speak much to your issue. In spending time on your blog over the last several years I know that you personally expect and want more out of science fiction than I do. That is not a criticism, it is just a point of fact. I tend to be optimistic enough to believe that there just has to be the kind of science fiction out there that you are longing for.

    Its hard to know what to recommend without knowing what you’ve read out of books that were published say in the last three years. If you are looking for more contemporary work it might help to know if there is anything you’ve picked up and read that you just didn’t like.

  6. Three Sci-Fi tales that have given me that old-skool, throwback thrill in recent years:

    “Little Brother,” by Cory Doctorow, which felt just a bit subversive, but in an intelligent and pragmatic way, reminding me a bit of Heinlein, not so much in style as in delivery. It was so good, I read it in one sitting. And then it introduced my teenage son to the wonders of Sci-Fi.

    “Old Man’s War,’ by John Scalzi, which did remind me of Heinlein, stylistically. Also, he has that Heinlein swagger and disregard for what people think of him. He’s the youngest codger in the group. ; )

    Either “Implied Spaces” or “This Is Not A Game,” both by Walter Jon Williams. High recommended.

    1. I’ve already mentioned liking Old Man’s War, so we’re own the same wavelength there. I’ve already bought a hardback copy of Little Brother and it’s in my pile to read, so your comment will push it up the pile some. And I’ll try Walter Jon Williams. I haven’t read any of his stuff in a long while, since cyberpunk days. And I’ll check out Raygun Revival. Thanks.

  7. James,

    For me, reading was something I did alot of years ago when I was in high school but after graduation, heading off to college, getting married, having a career, and ultimately a family, I found that I just didnt have the time to devote to the amount of reading I had done in the past. For many years I rarely picked up a book that didnt have something to do with my work.

    Then, when my daughter, who is now 13 and also an avid reader, was starting to find an interest in reading at an early age, found the Harry Potter books. While science fiction was always my preference, I picked up the first Potter book, read it cover to cover in one night and there I was, hooked again. I went on to read all of the Potter series, and then on to re-read many of the science fiction that I read when I was younger, including H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and so on. Although my main interest is still science fiction, particularly outer space travel and alien life. I give J.K. Rowling a ton of credit for re-kindling my interest in reading with her fantastic series of fantasy books.

    More recently, over the past couple of years , I have read and would highly recommend the following, if you haven’t already read them that is:

    Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy – hands down some of the most fascinating reading about colonizing Mars that I have seen in my 40 years.
    Alastair Reynolds Revelation Space series – Again, fascinating and I had no trouble immersing myself in the story of each book.
    John Varley’s Red Thunder, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder – just plain fun to read.
    Mark L. Van Name’s One Jump Ahead, Slanted Jack, and Overthrowing Heaven – again, just plain fun to read.

    I am currently reading Alastair Reynolds – Pushing Ice, and next up on my reading list is an author by the name of Ben Bova who I have never read but looks very interesting to me.

    Just my 2 cents worth. Enjoy.

  8. This post expresses my own feelings to a tee. Perhaps it’s a common experience of science fiction fans born in the 50s?

    I have a theory that many other fans will dispute, and I’m willing to let it go, but here it is for your contemplation. An former English professor (and we’re talking 1970s here) once characterized science fiction as the only genre where the most important element is not plot or characters but setting. That’s not the same thing as saying coolness or originality of ideas (the blow your mind factor) is the most important. I think either factor runs a good story.

    The next step: I don’t know if ideas have been used up, I doubt it. But current science fiction seems to pick and choose from an established body of science fiction themes. The science fiction I grew up with, like Asimov, picked and chose from science and philosophy (and neglected things like character, viz. Asimov’s wooden characters). I think it’s part of a maturation of science fiction as a genre, it’s become more stylized and self-referential. And a bit more developed on the story & character side. I agree it’s rare to find a mind-blowing new idea (where hard science or just speculation). So I would say re-cycled settings drive new SF which leads to some disappointment.

    I found two things pulled myself out of this to some degree. First, finding a new story with a really cool setting, even if it’s a new science concept or mind-bender. David Mole’s story Finisterra perhaps (floating living islands). Second, identifying a theme and going back and re-reading an original or defining story from earlier years, e.g. Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself – it gets me excited all over again to play amateur anthropologist on SF themes – and even makes me more forgiving to contemporary fiction — then I can appreciate it as a literary tradition (rather than a speculative tradition).

    A good analog are detective stories. It’s a tradition with a long history, and surely recycles themes an ideas, but clearly stays fresh for new readers. I wonder if detective fiction fans ever feel the same way? Do they go back and read Holmes stories to get refreshed?

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