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Trash Science Fiction

Theodore Sturgeon told us that 90% of science fiction is trash. But, as he wisely went on to say, 90% of everything is trash. All we have to do is identify it…

Two defining characteristics of trash are an over-fondness for clichés and a ham-fisted prose style. Using these criteria, we should immediately point an accusing finger at E. E. "Doc" Smith, the schlockmeister extraordinaire of science fiction. He could barely write an elegant sentence; he was as style deaf as a block of wood (the same block of wood that his characters resembled so closely) and the stories he hammered out were cliché-ridden monstrosities, utterly lacking in subtlety and charm. All this is undeniable and were he writing today I think we could easily dismiss him as trash and move on straight away to a discussion of more worthy writers. But although his books continue to be published, you can’t escape the fact that he isn’t writing today. His first novel was written in 1915 (though it wasn’t published until 1928). The science fiction of nearly a century ago was often a much less mature and much less sophisticated genre than today’s SF – and let it be admitted that the audience for SF was also much less mature and much less sophisticated than today’s audience. By placing the work in a historical perspective we can perhaps forgive some of its infelicities. And we must also remember that Smith invented the space opera – this is no mean achievement. Yesterday’s sophistication is all too often trite today, but that is not a good reason to dismiss it as unworthy.

But having said all this, I still can’t escape the niggling feeling that there is a little more to it. I’m not completely convinced that Doc Smith’s work was all that sophisticated yesterday either. After all, while he was beginning his galaxy-spanning career and while he was writing the ultimate in crude space operas, his near-contemporary H. G. Wells was writing some of the smoothest, most mature, most erudite SF that the world has ever seen. Wells opened up the SF floodgates, building trails into the wilderness that are still being explored today (though many of the trails have now turned into urban motorways). Viewed in that light, Doc Smith has to be seen as merely a clumsy and immature stylist at best and as being literarily naïve at worst. Whatever he was doing, it certainly wasn’t art. However its historical importance to the genre lends the work a certain cachet – without Smith and his contemporaries it is highly likely that the SF genre would not exist today (at least not in its current form). Wells’ scientific romances might have remained just that and we would all have been unable to indulge our perverse literary obsessions.

Mind you, that’s a two-edged sword in itself. The scientific romances that Wells was producing were well regarded in their time. But once they were able to be perceived as being SF they became easily dismissible as a youthful aberration and it is perhaps significant that Wells turned his back on that form of writing later on in his career. It can be argued that Smith and his cronies are directly responsible for the fact that for most of its life SF has immediately been dismissed as trash by most literary critics (often with good reason). Doc Smith has got a lot to answer for.

Some aspects of Smith’s novels feel rather uncomfortable to the modern day reader. His Lensmen cheerfully commit genocide in the name of justice and decency and right thinking. This is a quite repugnant idea to a generation that has seen genocide in action. Wiping out a race, be they human or alien, merely for the sake of an ideology cannot be justified, no matter what the circumstances. And yet the Lensmen and the vast military machine that backs them up march on for the honour and the glory of Arisia.

The trashier types of SF are often overtly militaristic. War based sagas serve two main purposes – they are wank-fests for the wet dreamers who idolise militaria (typified by the jackboot fans that stomp around at conventions dressed in camouflage gear and brandishing ray guns) and they are also a vehicle for examining strategic and tactical problems, often as alternate history (what if the South had won the American Civil War?) or as simple time travel tales. These last are often surprisingly effective and decidedly non-trashy – Harry Turtledove’s novels are perhaps the prime example.

The archetype is probably Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; a novel which was also anything but trashy (at that period of his writing career, Heinlein was routinely producing genuine art). The viewpoint character fights hordes of ravening aliens. However the book is far more than just a military adventure. Much of its time is spent exploring the reasons why the aliens need to be stomped and along the way we have a lot of discussion about history and philosophy and politics and societal structures, all designed to give some degree of rigour to the moral position that it espouses. The book excites enormous controversy even today (a controversy that was recently re-ignited when an appallingly bad movie was made from it), but like it or loathe it – I like it AND loathe it – there is no denying its stature.

But its offshoots are among the trashiest you can find. They take only the surface features and run with them. It seems to be a given in books of this kind that military action is always justified and the books then set out to glorify it. An immediate giveaway is that all too often individual novels are merely episodes in a never ending series (the SF equivalent of the Robert Jordan fantasy phenomenon).

Consider for example the Lost Regiment novels by William Forstchen. Here a regiment of Union soldiers lost in space and time fight hordes of ravening aliens in book after book…

Or what about the Hammer's Slammers novels by David Drake? The Slammers are expert mercenary troops from the planet Nieuw Friesland who fight hordes of ravening aliens in book after book…

In the Starfist series by David Sherman and Dan Cragg a group of tough marines fight hordes of ravening aliens in book after book...

John Ringo has a series starring Captain Michael O’Neal who fights almost single-handedly against hordes of ravening aliens in book after book…

John G. Hemry writes of the alliterative and eponymous Sergeant Stark who fights hordes of ravening aliens in book after book…

(Note to the anal retentives in the audience: I don’t necessarily mean the word "alien" to be taken literally in this context. I KNOW that some of the enemies these people face are human. Alright? OK. Shut up.)

The writers and readers exhibit a fondness for the minutiae of military protocol that borders on mania. Strategy and tactics and the killing power of various bits of hardware are major highlights. They are all thud and blunder and they make for very dull reading for everyone except the military junkies. John Dalmas wrote a book called Bavarian Gate which involved mystic warrior Curtis Macurdy fighting Adolf Hitler’s psychic shock troops in a mythical World War II. One reviewer complained:

There were some technical errors that bothered me in the extreme. First the German standard armoured half track did not have doors in the drivers compartment, entrance was through the troop compartment. The second error was that the standard German rifle and machine gun cartridge during WWII was 7.92mm not 7.62mm (modern NATO round) A little easy research would have fixed these mistakes.

I wasn’t kidding about the anal retentives who are attracted to this stuff.

Closely related to this kind of trash militaria is the translation into space of the concerns and characteristics of the sea-going navies of the Napoleonic era. Certain parallels can easily be drawn: the vast distances that had to be travelled with little or no communication with home, the physically isolated officers and crew forced to live together in a confined space for months on end, battles to be fought – sometimes ship to ship duels, sometimes fleet actions, sometimes combined land and sea campaigns. When these take place, a terrible responsibility is placed on the captain of the ship. Not only does he have a difficult tactical problem to solve, but the politics of the situation may well have changed during the long voyage and the strategic necessities that he set out to accomplish may no longer apply. Careers were at stake here as well as lives.

Novels of this historical era have always been very popular, both inside and outside SF. C. S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower books and Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey / Maturin novels are the defining works, but there are hordes of lesser imitators (e.g. Dudley Pope’s Ramage series, and the Richard Bolitho novels by Alexander Kent). Harry Harrison wrote a wonderfully funny short story about the adventures of one Honario Harpplayer which was a beautiful satire on the genre. I suppose it was obvious that sooner or later it would be pillaged by hack writers desperate for a new idea.

We’ll pass lightly over David Weber’s Honor Harrington stories. These books have never made any secret of the fact that they are blatant Hornblower rip-offs and I suppose you have to give them some respect for that. Forrester’s will expressly forbade anyone to write more Hornblower stories and his literary estate have steadfastly stuck to that. But I don’t think Forrester ever considered SF (every clause has a loophole) – hence Honor Harrington. But the books are extremely derivative as well as being excessively military which I think makes them at least mildly trashy.

Among the worst offenders in this area are undoubtedly Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The Mote in God’s Eye is the most appalling trash and its unreadable sequel is even worse.

There’s actually a marginally entertaining "alien contact" story buried in the junk (though James Clavell did it much better in Shogun even though that isn’t normally considered to be SF). However the maritime story they’ve grafted on to it is so overt that you almost lose sight of the prime purpose of the book. I kept expecting the aliens to board the spaceship with cutlasses gripped tightly in their teeth. I don’t object to the maritime trappings per se – as I said earlier on, there are genuine parallels between the situations. But I strongly object to having them transplanted almost verbatim, seemingly without thought and without change, directly from the nineteenth century into the umpty umpth century. Am I honestly expected to believe that the military organisations of the far future will be indistinguishable from their nineteenth century forbears? Sorry; even my willing suspension of disbelief isn’t big enough to swallow that one. The book is junk.

Vernor Vinge has said that one problem with writing SF set in the far future is that if we try to extrapolate the contemporary rate of technological change it becomes obvious that what we end up with will simply be incomprehensible – we can’t even imagine it. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I always enjoyed the corollary that any technology which IS distinguishable from magic must therefore be insufficiently advanced. If we apply this thought to Niven and Pournelle’s book we realise immediately that the technology is indeed insufficiently advanced. (If I remember rightly, they can’t even clean their coffee percolators properly. Surely they should have at least learned how to improve their coffee making methods over the intervening centuries? Assuming people still drink coffee, of course).

Furthermore, I have a sneaking feeling that Vinge and Clarke’s ideas can also be applied to societies and political organisations (the rates of change are much smaller – nevertheless they DO change; there aren’t a lot of feudal societies left in the world, for instance). Niven and Pournelle ignore this one as well – indeed, given their regression to the nineteenth century, perhaps the rate of social and political change in the Motie universe is a large negative number!

If we assume that future societies will be forward looking rather than backward looking and that social and political thought does change significantly with time, then we are driven to the inescapable conclusion that the soap-operatic ruritanian aristocracies that infest much contemporary SF are again a defining symptom of trash.

One of the major practitioners of this kind of writing is Lois McMaster Bujold who is currently working on an interminable series starring one Miles Vorkosigan. This poor chap has all the disadvantages – not only is he a distinguished aristocrat, he is also hideously deformed and is generally regarded as an utter incompetent by his contemporaries. Every book involves an extremely dull and predictable plot wherein Miles faces a challenge, overcomes almost certain defeat, gains many followers as a result of this (protesting all the time that he doesn’t want to be a leader – the responsibility is too much for him). Lather, rinse, repeat until the book is long enough and then stop until the next book is due. Intersperse all of this junk with social trivia about the aristocracy.

Bujold’s work is often nominated for prestigious awards – I have no idea why. I find her novels trite. They are just overly sentimental Austenitic ramblings about a future Burke’s peerage. They are extraordinarily tedious and lacklustre.

Jane Austen remains a very popular writer even though she hasn’t written anything at all for about two hundred years. Oddly, she seems to be more popular with women than with men. She also seems to be far more popular in America than she is in her native England. I have no explanation for this – I merely present it as an empirical observation. Consequently it comes as no surprise to me to find Austen-like clones popping up now and again in (mainly) American genre fictions. Almost invariably though the writers seem to miss the point. They pick up on the romance and the surface trappings of upper class England and easily transpose these into the genre in question. But what the writers often seem to omit is the real reason for Austen’s longevity and popularity. She was a hugely comic writer with an extraordinary grasp of both language and style. She was never lost for a witty bon mot, an exquisite turn of phrase. She also disapproved of the upper classes that she wrote about so eloquently and she never missed an opportunity to lampoon them.

These aspects of Austen seldom surface in her many imitators. Bujold passes them by completely. Therefore the result is, quite simply, trash.

The very best Austenite I have come across recently is neither female nor an SF writer, though his novels are extremely popular among SF fans. Patrick O’Brien is an Austenite par excellence and his stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are an unalloyed delight as a result. There is no doubt that O’Brien knew exactly what he was doing. I have, on occasion, caught him slyly interpolating direct quotes from Austen novels into his own sentences; an engaging literary game to play.

Why are aristocracies so attractive to SF authors? I would have thought that being born to high office rather than being appointed to it through merit would be a certain recipe for societal disaster. Look how it ruined the British empire. Surely no future society with any sense of history would be stupid enough to re-implement it? And yet the idea occurs again and again and again in science fiction. I find this quite bewildering. Consequently I am immediately biased against novels that present such societies. So I freely agree that I had an instant antipathy to Bujold’s books.

But it IS possible for me to overcome my biases and it IS possible for an author to incorporate aristocracies into SF novels that are anything but trash . Look at Dune for example. The uneasy equilibrium between church and state was a fundamental theme of the book; a foundation stone without which it simply couldn’t have existed. History shows that such struggles are often best exemplified (and most vicious) when some degree of heredity is involved in the ruling classes. Again, just take a look at European history which is full of such things. So to an extent, the aristocracy in the book can be justified as a necessary ingredient that allows the theme to be properly explored. However, to return to my biases for a moment, I strongly suspect that Herbert could have made exactly the same points without using a traditional aristocracy as a plot device. After all, corrupt dictatorships exhibit many of the same traits (heredity via nepotism is an aristocracy in all but name) and then we could have avoided all the ceremonial window dressing that the ruritanian aristocracies invariably seem to drag in their wake. At the very least, their introduction into a future society indicates that the author was not thinking very deeply at all about that society.

I know a lot of people who would like to be writers. As with all would-be writers they are full of ideas for the stories they would like to write. Not many of the stories get written. The wannabes can never "find the time to write it down" (an attitude with which I have no sympathy at all).

However they are always willing to talk about their ideas and I have found that when I discuss with them the things they would like to write one day, there is often a large degree of commonality in what I hear.

"Tell me your story," I say.

They regale me with the details of a world they have invented, a society they have imagined or the unexpected side effects of some scientific phenomenon.

"So what’s the story?" I ask.

They look puzzled and then tell me even more details about their little gimmick.

"The story," I persist. "Where’s the story? What happens to the people?"

They brush that aside impatiently and tell me more about the really neat implications of their idea.

This goes on until one or other of us gets tired of it. Unfortunately some of these things do eventually get written. Even more unfortunately some of them even get published. It’s the ultimate trash science fiction and I think it is unique to the genre. It’s the wiring diagram with dialogue type of story that Analog used to publish far too many of (and probably still does for all I know).

A story without people is never, ever going to work. I don’t insist on the classical structure of problem, complication and resolution but I do insist that people (not necessarily humans; this is SF after all) must be involved. If the characters are merely puppets acting out stereotypical roles solely to illuminate some gimmick then the whole thing is pointless. Why not just write an essay about the gimmick instead? After all, isn’t that what the "story" is really about?

Far too much SF is just a technological (or sociological) essay with a thin veneer of fiction around the outside. Sometimes it is so thin that the fabric tears and the structure falls apart. James Hogan is a very prolific writer but he suffers a lot from this fault. He has genuinely interesting ideas about the universe and I truly wish he would write them in a form that doesn’t make me wince with embarrassment at every word. The Immortality Option, for example, has a seemingly never-ending series of dazzling speculations about the possibilities of machine intelligence. But the crummy "plot", dull "characters" and stock-cupboard "situations" makes the book almost unreadable. Why does he feel the need to wrap this sugar coating around his ideas? Does he think that nobody would be interested unless there’s a crap story on the pages? Does he think that non-fiction cannot be entertaining? I don’t know. But I do know that if he does think that, he couldn’t be more wrong.

Charles Sheffield used to be like that. He is a professional physicist with literary aspirations. His early stories (particularly the short stories about McAndrew) are absolutely typical trash of this kind. However Sheffield quickly outgrew those early efforts and learned how to present ideas as fiction. It is quite illuminating to read The Compleat McAndrew which collects all the McAndrew stories that were written over a period of many years. You can actually see Sheffield learning the tools of the trade. The thick essays with thin plots and characters soon metamorphose into proper stories with interesting characters and situations. The heavy science doesn’t go away. The details of the gimmick still matter a lot. But the difference is that the story arises naturally out of the situation and the gimmick is central to the resolution. It ceases to be forced and each side complements the other. Each would be weaker were the other not there. I think this should be the true focus of the so-called hard science fiction. When it is done well there is nothing else like it (it sends the authentic tingle down the spine). Unfortunately it is seldom done well. The field has too many James Hogans and not enough Charles Sheffields.

Stanislaw Lem, wearing his critical hat, once called science fiction "…a hopeless case with exceptions." I think he was right.

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