Back in 1964, when I was twelve, the future was so bright we really had to wear shades to read science fiction.
Fifty years ago, when I was twelve, I discovered sense of wonder in science fiction books from the 1950s. Those books were more exciting than getting high—and I knew, because, by a few years later I was smoking dope to jet assist my science fiction take-offs. My teen years in the 1960s was a combination of rock and roll, counter-culture and science fiction. My mind flew interplanetary high with great expectations for the future. In the 1970s I jettisoned the drugs, and coasted though the decades, living off the hope of 1950s futures. Music and science fiction stoked the fires of the future, and kept the old dreams simmering. Music stimulated my emotions and books energized my mind, but after fifty years we never reached the futures I once saw so clearly.
Between 1964 and 1969, I read book after book, that wowed my evolving mind with far out ideas. Now my brain isn’t so young anymore, and I need some science fictional Viagra. My future vision has been darkened by cataracts cause by living through years of reality. Is it just me, or do kids growing up today see different futures? They look all cyborg cool in their Google Glass specs, but they don’t seem to see as far as we used to. I’m not sure what they see, or what drugs they are on, but I’m not sure I like their dreams of the future. Where’s the dazzle? Where’s the vision? Where’s the great expectations? Or was science fiction no better than psychedelics at getting us Baby Boomers off Earth?
I still depend on music every day to boost my emotional self, but I’ve developed a tolerance to science fiction. It just doesn’t give me that old sense of wonder high that thrilled by twelve-year old self. Maybe the future I see from my retirement years doesn’t work with modern science fiction. Maybe I need to be young to love today’s science fiction. But I can’t help but believe there’s new science fiction out there for us old Baby Boomers that will help us keep the old 1950s dreams alive, but where is it?
Oh, I can find plenty of books to escape into, books that make me want to turn the page to find out what will happen, but I rarely read a science fiction story that gets me sensawonder high anymore. No offense or criticism to modern science fiction writers, but they seem more into story than ideas, especially ones that can turn into a series of books. Many of my SF reading friends love finding a character to stick with book after book, but that doesn’t appeal to me.
Back in 2009 I wrote “My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone.” In the almost half decade since then I’ve found a handful of really good science fiction novels that I liked:
- Wake/Watch/Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
- Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
- The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- The Martian by Andy Weir
Actually, averaging one great science fiction book a year isn’t bad. Looking back over the history of science fiction, most years only produced one or two books I really loved. But in the past I had a lot more near misses to keep me going through the slow times.
I’ve read many fun books I’m not listing, but they aren’t the kind of SF I’m talking about. Nor am I talking about non-SF books that impressed me with other kinds of sense of wonders. I sometimes stumble on older science fiction books I missed from earlier times, like Dawn by Octavia Butler and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, as well as rereading many of the classics of SF I’ve encountered over my last half-century.
Yet, what I really crave is great new mind-blowing sense of wonder science fiction. The kind I have to wear shades to read.
I can go for long stretches without any science fiction sense of wonder boosts in my life. I miss that. Such withdrawals are depressing. Are all the great far out ideas used up? I know many of my favorites concepts from my Golden Age of Science Fiction years have been done time and again. Just how many aliens invading Earth or time travel stories can one consume in a lifetime without becoming bored with them? How many stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before the thrill of being on Mars becomes dull? Is there a new way to present societies developing colonies on the Moon and Mars? And don’t get me going on how jaded I am about military SF and galactic empires.
When I look at the science fiction selection at Audible books sorted by relevance, giving the most popular and highly rated books, giant fantasy epics fill the top of the list. A few science fiction books show up, like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, both of which I’ve read. However, fantasy dominates the list, for page after page. The few new science fiction books that I haven’t read are books that I consider retreads of old ideas. Sure, they might be great stories, but I just don’t want get involved with trilogies and longer multipart series just because of action and heroic characters. I guess military SF give many science fiction fans something to read that feels like the old days, but I’m just too worn out on action to care anymore. I don’t even like action SF at the movies anymore. I was thrilled by Her. Action packed, military based SF, including those set into galactic empires, feel like fantasy worlds to me, like reading Tolkien.
I hate to be an old fart bitching about how today’s science fiction ain’t as good as the stuff I read growing up, but well, shit I am. I sped through The Martian by Andy Weir and it felt like I was twelve again, reading science fiction back in the 1960s, but we should be reading realistic literary fiction about life on Mars by now. What the fuck went wrong? Are the futures of 1950s all played out? How can being a grunt in an interstellar fleet be such a popular future today? And why did kids switch from space explorers to endless wars with the undead? Really, is that what you want to grow up and do? Is the only kind of alien you can imagine is the one you want to kill on your PS4 gun sight? It’s no wonder that military SF is so popular, kids today grow up game-trigger happy, and they can only imagine futures where cardboard enemies pop up endlessly.
I want science fiction where I explore. I want futures where fantastically far out ideas are possible. In a way the failure of science fiction vision can be seen in the history of the various Star Trek series. Over time stories became routine, usually about conflict with standard enemies. Science fiction was better when it was like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where they had to invent a new concept every week.
Did all the concepts get imagined? Have they all been used up? Have the bright futures become boring? Or am I just a foolish old fart? When I was young, I remember old farts claiming their youth was better than ours, so I’m assuming I’m going through the same stupid phase they were, but still, why does things in the past now look so bright I have to wear shades?
JWH – 7/29/14