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.