Strange Horizons and the Exclusionary Genre World

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of monthly reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, The Fix is no longer around so I'm reprinting these reviews on my website.

Science fiction writers have a dirty little secret: Sometimes we don’t like outsiders entering our imaginary worlds.

It’s not that we don’t like readers. After all, every literary genre lives only through the graces of that genre’s readers. The problem for science fiction writers, however, comes in explaining to the general public many of our genre’s current insights—concepts such as the singularity, neural downloads, nanotechnology, ansibles, and so on. While all these concepts are well known to science fiction insiders, they can easily confuse people who don’t continually immerse themselves in the genre. So every time science fiction authors write a story, they have to decide how much explanation they’re willing to give for ideas which their biggest fans are likely already familiar.

The result is a chasm between science fiction which is accessible to the general reading public and that which can only be appreciated by science fiction insiders.

In many ways, this issue with science fiction exclusion is a lesser echo of the problems within academic writing, where insider-laden jargon and references prohibit the general public from reading many academic works. This problem has become so bad that for a time Denis Dutton, editor of the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature, ran a contest to highlight bad academic writing. Dutton’s experience with the contest led him to write an influential essay lambasting academic writing for its “language crimes.”

This raises two questions: Does science fiction risk going the way of academic writing, enjoyed by only a small insider group? Or can the genre still produce great works of literature for the larger reading public? Answers to both questions exist in the September, 2008, fiction published by Strange Horizons.

An example of a very good insider’s science fiction tale is “There Once Was a Fish” by Brandon Myers. This story is about a human scientist who loses herself—both physically and mentally—while exploring an alien species on a distant world. This species is far beyond humanity in both intelligence and how they exist in relation to our universe. While the scientist travels on this world, her young daughter, Milvia, whose age is never given but is likely five or six, remains behind on the scientist’s spaceship with a virtual intelligence called Nannynoo. When Milvia’s mother disappears among the aliens, Nannynoo encourages Milvia to save her mom.

Myers’s story is well written and, by showing this alien world through the eyes of a small child, offers an interesting view on humanity and the universe. The problem is that the story is too vague about its different plot devices, including Nannynoo’s artificial intelligence, the transcendent intelligence of the aliens, “reproduction by declension,” and how the aliens exist across multiple dimensions. Readers already familiar with such concepts will enjoy this story; newer readers to the genre will have a tough time and likely come away confused.

The only thing that didn’t work for me in Myers’s story was the opening epigraph, which is a made-up scientific quote from the child’s mother. The epigraph felt like the quotations one finds at the start of many academic tomes. While epigraphs are supposed to expound on the work’s theme, many authors use this device to showcase how profound their work is. The reality, of course, is that too often epigraphs have the opposite effect by making a work feel pretentious.

Pretentiousness, unfortunately, is a problem one encounters in the next Strange Horizons story, “Cowboy Angel” by Samantha Cope. Published in two parts, this tale isn’t technically science fiction, but neither is it any genre of speculative fiction except in the most fleeting of senses. The story follows the life of Roxanne, a tarot card reader who hooks up with an outlaw musician named Nick. Roxanne is always doing the wrong things in life as she runs full tilt toward her death, while Nick is one of those “misunderstood” geniuses who hide their deep inner selves by drinking and hurting everyone around them. As the story progresses, the readers experiences scenes of sex, motorcycles, and barroom musical performances intermixed with Nick abusing Roxanne.

There is a good story buried in “Cowboy Angel,” but it’s buried beyond hope of discovery in the tale’s endless narrative. In addition, the characters never reach beyond their stereotyped existence to fully engage the reader. It’s almost like Cope forced her story to go in a certain direction instead of letting the characters dictate their own path. This feeling is reinforced by the story’s section headers, which feature the names of famous tarot cards (and are supposed to reflect what happens in that section of the story). This literary device has been done to death in recent years and reinforces the awkward box into which this story was forced to live.

The next story, “Kimberley Ann Duray Is Not Afraid” by Leah Bobet, returns Strange Horizons to firm science fiction grounds. This is also a very good example of a story which can be embraced by those unfamiliar with the genre. Set in the near future, the story opens at what appears to be an abortion clinic, complete with protesters, a bombing, and staff both scared by the violence and committed to doing their duty. However, it quickly becomes apparent the clinic is actually there to help people change their skin color through a new medical procedure. Protesters scream that this is tantamount to genocide against specific ethnic groups, while supporters say the procedure merely proves that all racial categories are nothing more than social constructs.

The story is narrated by a white woman named Kim, who works at the clinic and is married to a black man named Colin. While Kim and Colin deeply love each other, they are also unable to move past the racism which both permeates their relationship and the greater world of the story. This conflict causes Kim and Colin to make an all-too-predictable decision as the story progresses.

Leah Bobet is a great up-and-coming writer. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of her best tales. The idea of changing one’s race has also been done before, most importantly by African American author George Schuyler in Black No More, a 1931 satirical novel in which a black doctor discovers a way to turn black people white. While Bobet’s story is interesting, it doesn’t carry the weight and impact it would have had even a decade or two ago. Still, this is a good example of how science fiction can explore deep issues while also remaining accessible to the general reading public.

The best Strange Horizons story this month is also one that manages to appeal to both science fiction insiders and the general reading public: “The Future Hunters” by Christopher J. Clarke.

Set in Australia four thousand years after Earth’s ecological collapse, the story is about a middle-aged engineer named Kale and her attempt to save her people. Despite the ecological problems of the world, Kale’s people have managed to stabilize their location so their small community can survive, if not thrive. However, as more and more of their children die each year, Kale knows their settlement has become so isolated and inbred that their eventual fate will be extinction unless new people are brought into the society.

Clarke’s story addresses a number of big scientific issues—including founder effects, genetic drift, and population bottlenecks—without over or under explaining these concepts. In both tone and language, Clarke’s tale wonderfully evokes Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the most famous examples of a science fiction novel which also appeals to readers outside the genre. “The Future Hunters” is highly recommended.

Earlier in this review I raised two questions, each of which pointed to the different paths science fiction can take as it tries to either broaden or narrow its audience. I don’t know which way the genre will go. And it isn’t necessary for science fiction to always appeal to all audiences. There is a place for stories which are narrowly tailored.

But as Christopher J. Clarke’s “The Future Hunters” so successfully shows, any population—or literature, in our case—which becomes too insular and inbred risks extinction. So I hope science fiction authors keep writing stories which attempt to reach beyond the genre’s already existing audience. Only by doing so will science fiction have a truly great future.