The other day I read the current issue of the New Yorker, which called itself a science fiction issue. I didn’t read the fiction (never do with the New Yorker, for whatever reason), but did read several pieces by science fiction writers. One was by Ray Bradbury (that was good timing), also by Ursula Leguin and William Gibson, as well as at least two by authors I hadn’t heard of before. That’s one way to talk about science fiction, and arguably a better way than trying to list all the various themes and pertinent writers.
So yesterday I picked up the new Miles Vorkosigan novel, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Bujold has been publishing for about 30 years, and is one of the best of the sf (my preferred abreviation) writers currently. The main character of most of her novels, Miles Vorkosigan, is a very likeable character. Born to a noble family of high achievers, because of exposure to poison while still a fetus, he is very short, his bones are very brittle, and he has seizure disorder. But he’s also very ambitious, and doesn’t let his physical limitations stop him from doing what he wants to do. What he particularly likes doing is sticking it to bad guys, and he gets around his physical problems through intelligence, imagination and energy. Perhaps that description suggests Bujold’s stories are compulsively readable. If so, it’s because they are. Happy endings abound, but that doesn’t mean the stories are necessarily superficial. Bujold is one of the best of the current writers in the genre.
You don’t have to take my word that there were more good writers in the genre in the 1960s. If anyone is interested, I can send you a list, and you can decide for yourself. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some very good writers today.
Besides Bujold, I have to admit that William Gibson is one, though I’ve never read anything of his that I’ve really LIKED. Maybe that suggests a lack of sophistication on my part. C.J. Cherryh is a different matter. She’s been publishing 35-40 years now, and though I haven’t read a lot of her books, a number of them are of really high quality. The longest, and arguably the best, is Cyteen, published between 25 and 30 years ago, though she published a sequel fairly recently. Part of that novel deals with sexual molestation and its effects, and the sense of being trapped. Cherryh handles that theme very effectively, which makes me wonder if she possibly experienced something of that herself, or knew someone who did. Having begun publishing so long ago, when she must have been relatively young, and being so successful, makes me wonder. I don’t think writers are so successful so young unless they have something to say. Perhaps that theme was part of what was driving her.
More recently, she’s been writing a series in which humans are a minority race on a planet full of black humanoids who are also larger than humans. The main character in that series is human, the ambassador between humans and the native race, who finds himself losing contact with his human friends and family, and to some extent going native. The series is adventurous, and the message is more implicit than explicit. The native race’s culture seems to be more Japanese than African.
C.S. Friedman’s first novel, In Conquest Born, absolutely blew me away, but though she’s continued to be successful, I’ve liked none of her subsequent work as much. Unfortunate.
L.E. Modesitt is another author who’s been doing it a long time, and very prolifically. He leans a bit more to fantasy than science fiction, but is good in both. His novels tend to be violent, though his characters frequently deplore the need for violence. He also values hard work, discipline and responsibility.
David Wingrove published a series called Chung Kuo beginning perhaps two decades ago, about a world in which virtually all the landmass was covered by an artificial environment on pillars (so a few people could live underneath) dominated by the Chinese, and about the forces trying to destroy it. I found the last novel in the series disappointing, and haven’t heard of anything much he’s done since, but the series is worth checking out.
David Zindell is another who wrote a series about the far future, beginning with the novel Neverness, about a space pilot who is ambitious, daring, and somewhat criminal. The series continues with his son as the main character, and the son is rather a nicer person (in fact a bit too nice to be true), but the series holds together very well.
Gene Wolfe is a writer who’s been around for quite a long time, and has an impressive body of work, with several different series. He writes more in the science fantasy vein, with both advanced technology and the apparent supernatural. One series is based in the past, another two in the far future. He’s old enough that more work may not be forthcoming from him.
Orson Scott Card is another author who has been around a long time. He’s done quite a variety of things, but I think his best work remains the series that started with Ender’s Game. An alien race invades earth, and genius-level children are the group that finally repulse and nearly destroy it. Sequels to that novel have gone in a variety of directions, but my favorite is the series based on Bean, first found as a child on the streets of Rotterdam, who develops into being second only to Ender in the force opposing the aliens. Little as I like Card’s political opinions, he’s a very fine writer.
Peter Hamilton started publishing within the last 20-30 years, but I only came across his work a few years ago. His most recent series is what is called space opera: A truly evil alien race attacking human settlements in the galaxy, which makes for a wide picture, with lots of action and characters. The sequel to that takes place in the same universe, in which a mileu separated from the rest of the galaxy finds a man with the power to change the past. Other humans get wind of this and attempt to enter the mileu. That’s the kind of power that makes people salivate.
Although there are a number of good writers currently in the sf genre, I get the impression that quite a few of them are more interested in producing product than good writing. I’ll mention just one, and I’m not even sure it’s true of him: Brian Herbert, son of Frank Herbert, who created an instant classic with Dune, in the 1960’s. He also wrote an interesting biography of his father, who encouraged him to write more about the Dune universe. By now he’s written more books about it than his father did. I picked up the first of those, and quit halfway through it, not really liking his writing style. I haven’t checked since to see if it has improved.
But it’s hard to come up with new themes. In one of the recent series (not Twilight, more recent than that), in which war has become an entertainment, reminds me of a novelette from 50 or so years ago, based on the same premise. The background was more 1960s than futuristic, though. The same themes keep coming back, and I wonder if that theme is now more urgent than then. The novelette was written before the Vietnam war had begun to really escalate.