The Golden Age

It feels churlish to complain about a feature in a major British newspaper that boils down to “British science fiction, yay!”, but Stuart Jeffries’ article in the Guardian is a bit … odd.

Here’s the intro:

This is a golden age for British science fiction, chiefly thanks to a wave of writers who are tackling an area their American rivals tend to leave well alone — far-future set, space-operatic, hard sci-fi. Americans tend to set their sci-fi in soft (ie, scientifically unsupported) near futures. Wimps.

Let’s take this bit by bit. The argument that the writers most associated with space opera at the moment are British is relatively sound, I think, although a look at the contents of The New Space Opera and The New Space Opera 2 anthologies reveals plenty of Americans. (And even a few people from other countries!) But it seems to me it rather sells short the diversity of current British sf to say that is chiefly what is going on — it leaves no room for, say, Ian McDonald, and though you can include writers such as Justina Robson or M John Harrison or Gwyneth Jones on a list of “people who have at some point in the last decade committed space opera”, that is to pigeonhole them more than they deserve. Still, I can live with it. If you need a hook to hang your article on it, this one will do.

Two things trip me up, however. First is the addition of the “hard sci-fi” qualifier. Reynolds, sure; McAuley’s The Quiet War, OK; Baxter’s Exultant, arguably. Charles Stross, perhaps. So you can build that argument, if you want. Jeffries’ actual examples, however, are brief profiles of four writers: Peter F Hamilton, Neal Asher, Liz Williams, and Iain M Banks. Say what? Remember, these are meant to be examples of hard sf space opera. When Peter F Hamilton is the best fit to that description, something’s not quite right. (I’m not sure Williams has even written a novel that could be considered space opera, has she? Certainly the example they give — Darkland — is more of a planetary romance.) Reynolds and McAuley are particularly noticeable by their absence — they get a name-check at the end of the piece, but they fit its overall argument better than, well, anyone else Jeffries mentions. Maybe it’s just that he didn’t contact anyone from Gollancz when he was researching.

Second, there’s the swipe at American sf: that it tends to be set in “soft” near futures. Now, we can argue all day about what counts as a “soft” near future, but the examples of American near-future sf that spring to mind — David Marusek, Kim Stanley Robinson and, because I’ve just received a proof of The Windup Girl in the post, Paolo Bacigalupi — are surely closer to the hard end of the spectrum. Indeed I would say the more commonly heard complaint is not that the near futures of American sf are “soft”, but that they are absent; that, proportionally speaking, writers are turning to the past, to alternate history or, yes, to space opera, rather than the next ten years. Of the two Americans on this year’s Hugo ballot for Best Novel, for instance, one — John Scalzi — has written a textbook definition of a soft space opera, while the other — Neal Stephenson — has written, well, it’s not soft near future sf, that’s for sure.

So, yes. Not unwelcome. But it’s a bit like Jeffries took that interview from Today, put it through a blender, then removed any mention of Reynolds on the grounds that the Guardian ran a whole feature just on him the other week. Odd.

EDIT: As Joseph points out in the comments, this is actually a sidebar to an in-depth interview of Alastair Reynolds, which explains his absence here.

14 thoughts on “The Golden Age

  1. The future of SF lies in Tory smugness and in very very young-looking girls being penetrated by messianic mary sues who have air-tight, in-character reasons for why they are so highly proficient at penetrating said very very young-looking girls.

    Peter F Hamilton has shown us the way.

  2. Niall: I’m as avid an admirer of Harrison and Banks as any, and although I usually don’t go for Space Opera, I’m more than willing to believe that the writers mentioned are excellent at what they do, but what’s with the ridiculous nationalism associated with this sub-genre I’ve noticed lately? Inferiority complex? Or does the very expansionist, imperialist, sometimes militaristic aspect of the plots engender dreams of geo-political ascendancy?

  3. This particular nationalism stems from the fact that this is the sort of glib newspaper column that journalists knock out in ten minutes.

    However, there is a pretty good argument to be made that New Space Opera is particularly British in flavour. The Centauri Device and Consider Phlebas are often pointed at as the first examples and it has probably been the dominate strand of British SF for the last fifteen-twenty years.

  4. Jonathan: There’s less of that in the post-Misspent Youth books (not less sex, just less of that particular … configuration), but yes, the sex is not the most appealing aspect of his work. But he is quite good at doing what he does — I devoured Night’s Dawn as a teenager, and then went on to other things.

    Steve: Oh, yes! I meant to mention that.

    Jeff: What Martin said, largely. Plus Take Back Plenty.

  5. It is an odd group of writers: it seems like a collision of two seperate lists – Big British names and current British space opera writer – that happen to sometimes intersect. I blame Eric Brown.

  6. Thanks. I was curious about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the writers themselves engaging in it, so I wondered where it came from and why.

  7. But it’s a bit like Jeffries took that interview from Today, put it through a blender, then removed any mention of Reynolds on the grounds that the Guardian ran a whole feature just on him the other week.

    I don’t know whether you’ve seen the print version, but the article to which you’ve linked in your opening sentence was actually the sidebar to the longer piece on Reynolds which appeared in G2 on the same day (yesterday).

  8. Ah! This piece? No, I didn’t notice it — or rather, I assumed it was this piece from a couple of weeks ago. That does explain Reynolds’ absence; although now I’m surprised they ran two such lengthy profile/interviews of the same writer in less than a month.

  9. I was surprised that the Guardian wanted a second piece too, but it’s not like I was going to turn them down…

    I think Martin’s correct in that you can’t really talk about the British arm of the NSO without looking at the influence of The Centauri Device and Consider Phlebas. I don’t think that makes it any better/worse than the American stuff, though. It’s just that right now there’s more of it, and the Americans who were doing something like NSO in the eighties and nineties – people like Bear, Brin and Vinge, for instance – have largely moved on to other things. That’s what I was trying to articulate in my comment in the interview. And I take Niall’s point that just because it’s near-future SF, it doesn’t have to be soft or something other than hard SF – not, of course, that there would be anything wrong with that.

  10. I reviewed New Space Opera for IROSF (I posted a copy of it on my site here
    (, but this is the first I’ve read of the sequel (which I expect I’ll be checking out sometime soon).

    I have to agree (speaking from this side of the ocean) that the characterization of American sf as soft is confusing.

    And there is a fuzziness about Jeffries’ discussion in general, which I think has to do in part with the messiness of some of the labels, like the tendency on the part of some to regard anything in space as space opera, while others have narrower, more exclusive definitions. (As I commented in the review, I’m not even sure everything in the New Space Opera anthology really qualified as space opera, quite a few pieces making me wonder.)

    Anyone familiar with Stuart Jeffries work in general, whether he really knows science fiction or not? My glance at his list of articles suggests he writes on a lot of things in general.

  11. Another quibble I had was the characterisation of ‘soft’ SF as ‘scientifically unsupported’. My understanding has always been that soft SF is rooted in the human/social sciences rather than the physical sciences, but is no less unsupported for that.

    (As an aside, I see that Patrick Nielsen Hayden makes a similar point in the comments of a post you link to, Niall — though he uses a slightly different definition of soft SF.)

  12. Niall, thanks for your post. As an American (but also British citizen) sf writer living in Britain the smugness and arrogance of those few lines really smacked me in the face and of course was the subject of my own heated rant on Facebook. While I’m all for bigging up British SF I’m not for doing it at the expense of the SF from any other country. I also don’t write Hard SF so again for me, to say that somehow there was somethingy “whimpy” about other types of SF is utterly ridiculous. Many of the books which are considered classics of Western SF (both British and American) are not hard.

    The quetion I put not only to the silly ‘up-his-own-ass’ journalist but to all writers and readers of Science Fiction everywhere is shouldn’t it be about the quality of the writing and the storytelling and not so much about the type or sub-genre? isn’t it the diversity of Science Fiction which makes it so interesting and so accessible?

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