No Boom Today?

I’m breaking this topic out from yesterday’s thread because it’s something of a tangent. Paul Kincaid said:

I have a distinct if unquantifiable sense that sf in Britain has become more male-oriented over the last few years (since, if you like, the end of the so-called British renaissance). I have no idea why this should be.

I asked whether he’d be willing to put a date on that ending. Martin Lewis suggested:

2000? Publication of Look To Windward in which Banks symbolically loops back to Consider Phlebas. Also publication of Revelation Space which marks the rise of Alastair Reynolds and the new generation of British male space opera writers.

To which I have just replied:

Not sure about that. Andrew Butler’s article on the boom [pdf] wasn’t published until 2003, and refers to it as contemporaneous: “It is asserted that there is currently a boom within British science fiction — by editors, by critics, by authors, by readers, in the pages of Science Fiction Studies and in the publicity for some events at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London in May 2003. Let us assume that this is not a mass delusion, and there is indeed a boom.” He also includes Reynolds in his census of boomers, which I think is right; to me it feels as though the period, say, 98-03 is when the boom really got traction. I might even pick Interaction as its peak moment, with that all-Brit shortlist for the Best Novel Hugo. I suppose you could say that’s also when it ended, but to be honest, until Paul’s comment I thought of it as a continuing phenomenon.

Your thoughts? It now occurs to me that Paul may have simply meant to suggest that the shift he detected in itself could be taken as a marker of the end of the boom/renaissance, although I’m not sure that holds up. Surely the central marker of a boom has to be the visibility and success of the thing that is booming, and I don’t think there’s been a change for British sf on either front — or if there has, it’s been upwards, given the recent Hugo successes of messrs Gaiman, Stross and Mieville. And Doctor Who.

23 thoughts on “No Boom Today?

  1. Surely the central marker of a boom has to be the visibility and success of the thing that is booming

    Maybe I was coming from a different perspective. For me, a boom is a limited period of fast growth so I see it as starting with Interzone and then coming to maturation in the late Eighties and Nineties. So it isn’t that I think UK SF is current bust, more that having boomed it has now successfully plateaued. This fits with Paul’s use of “renaisance” rather than “boom”.

    My reference to 2000 was pretty off the cuff but there is a pleasing symmetry to it. And I think you do have to consider Banks to be the key figure of the British boom: the most commercially and critically successful author. Obviously Reynolds was publishing prior to 2000, he was one of the key short story writers of the period, but it was only after that he became so popular (see also Charles Stross). It seems like a change of the guard moment.

  2. I wrote a Blasphemous Geometries column a while ago about the collapse of the British Boom and so I definitely agree with Paul that it is a thing that should be spoken of in similar tenses and terms as the British New Wave.

    As for when it ended, I am sympathetic to Martin’s suggestion. Look to Windward certainly marked the point at which Banks’ fiction jumped the shark (it still stuns me that the person who wrote Excession and Use of Weapons also who wrote Matter and the Algebraist) and given that these types of artistic periods invariably have fluid boundaries it makes as much sense to draw it at the point at which the Culture loop was closed.

    As for the all British Hugo short-list, I think that that is an example of the way that fruit can be picked and can ripen on the way to market despite the fact that the tree that bore it has since died or been cut down.

  3. Martin: If you see the original boom/renaissance as purely or primarily a science fiction thing (i.e. contra Butler), then yes — British fantasy novels have, after all, won five out of the last ten Hugos for Best Novel. But I don’t see it that way, so those Hugos are part of the reason I see it as a continuing thing — and don’t think the British field plateaued as early as 2000, although I could be persuaded we’re in or entering a different/mature period now.

    Said fantasy boom is also very male, of course.

    Jonathan: I think I missed that one, I’m afraid: link?

  4. I’ve not thought of a definitive date for the end of the British Renaissance, just as I haven’t thought of a definitive date for its start. Perhaps Andrew’s article is itself the end point (when you start to talk about something rather than just experience it). But it definitely feels like something in the past to me.

    One of the things that made the British boom was a relative decline in American sf, that decline has been reversed.

    There was a distinct mood and tone to British sf (‘radical hard sf’, ‘new space opera’, call it what you will) – those elements now feel more like they are parodying themselves rather than being continually inventive.

    British fantasy is now far more visible than British sf (as Martin says).

  5. Paul, that’s interesting; I was just this morning catching up on the last-but-one Coode St podcast, wherein Mr Wolfe and Mr Strahan were discussing The Quiet War as an example of mature radical hard sf/NSO that hadn’t received the attention it deserved.

    As I said in the other thread, I don’t disagree there’s been a shift in the character of the British field, and I’m interested in trying to pin down what that shift has been. Part of it might be a shift away from British settings: McDonald, of course, but look at the last Clarke shortlist — Eastern Europe, Italy, Central Asia, Russia, Siberia. The winners of the Award at the start of the decade — Perdido Street Station, Bold as Love, The Separation — made much more use of British places.

  6. If you see the original boom/renaissance as purely or primarily a science fiction thing (i.e. contra Butler), then yes

    It may be contra Butler but we were explicitly discussing the boom in terms of science fiction. I share Paul’s sense that this boom is intrinsically linked the radical hard SF and new space opera movements. Butler’s paper is interesting but it covers and awful lot of ground with little underlying thesis:

    It is impossible to draw a clear, stable boundary around these distinct and overlapping booms, to subsume them within a single movement, but that is what, with the clarity of hindsight and the demand for narrative convenience, we do with Romanticism and Modernism.

    That is certainly a bold approach but I’m not at all convinced we aren’t better off looking at the distinct, individual booms. And, to be honest, I’m not sure Butler doesn’t prioritise SF himself:

    The Boom contains cyberpunk, postcyberpunk, cyberpunk-flavored fiction, steampunk, splatterpunk, space opera, hard sf, soft sf, feminist sf, utopias, dystopias, anti-utopias, apocalypses, cosy catastrophes, uncomfortable catastrophes, Bildungsromans, New Wavestyle
    writing, planetary romances, alternate histories, big dumb objects, comedies, tragedies, slipstream, horror, fantasy and any combination of generic hybrids and cross-breeds… It is worth first comparing the Boom with two other movements within science fiction.

  7. I was paying more attention to fantasy than sf in the early 2000s, but I do get a sense that something has changed over the last decade. For example, there are a good number of British sf writers who were in their mid-thirties or younger when they came to prominence with novels in the late ’90s/early ’00s (e.g. Reynolds, Roberts, Robson, Stross, Lovegrove) — but I’m not sure that this is happening to the same extent now. (Though, as Jonathan notes in his column, quite a few are being published outside the genre).

    I think there has also been a shift in fantasy (and probbaly not just in the UK). With writers like Miéville emerging in the early 2000s, it felt as though something exciting and different was happening; nowadays, there’s still interesting fantasy around, of course — but the genre does seem largely to have settled into a new set of ruts.

  8. This isn’t going to be very helpful, but I want to observe just how data-starved both this and the male/female discussion yesterday have been. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts but wow, with just a few statistics all of this would be so much clearer. A chart showing science fiction, fantasy, and total fiction sales in Britain over the last 20 years, for example.

    I know this data isn’t publicly available (and maybe not even privately given fragmentation between Amazon, BookScan, etc.) but it’s so tough to ever feel confident about a conclusion based on anecdotal evidence. Does anyone have any ideas about how to get something useful?

  9. FWIW, as far as getting attention goes, I don’t recall ever seeing a copy of The Quiet War in a bookstore, and I’ve looked several times. I don’t even think Forbidden Planet had it on the shelf last time I was in London.

  10. (A) I bought the Quiet War in a bookstore

    (B) What’s wrong with Matter? For arguments in favour see the review Clute did for NYRSF and reprinted in Canary Fever

    (C) I’m not sure boom is the right word but I think British SF is still an ongoing viable powerful phenomenon

  11. I would love to read some of this new American SF you mentioned, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere.

    Also, discussion of Banks’ merits doesn’t add anything here.

  12. Evan (and going back to James): Around the turn of the century there were relatively few new writers emerging in America. In the last five years we’ve had Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, Tobias Buckell, Christopher Barzak and on and on and on. A sudden emergence of new young writers who (more importantly for this discussion) are mostly concentrating on very traditional forms of sf in a way that recalls what British writers were doing during the boom.

    Nick, there’s nothing much wrong with Matter as far as I’m concerned (though I think it is the weakest of the three Culture novels he’s written this century). There is, however, a change. Starting with Look To Windward the explicit subject of the Culture novels has been death (and implicitly the approaching death, or transcendence, of the Culture itself). In many ways, I find this makes them the most interesting of the Culture novels; but it has been offset by too many distracting elements, the Ship Minds have become almost parodic, the use of violence has become excessive, descriptions of cruelty and of death go on far too long (both Matter and Surface Detail are much longer than they need to be). Whether this marks a sea change in British sf I don’t know, but it seems to mark a sea change in the fiction of Iain Banks.

  13. Evan, Paul has mentioned some names – the reason you are not finding their SF is probably that it’s mostly not getting British publication. As a result, you will very rarely find it in any British bookshops except the specialist ones (which these days means Forbidden Planet and very little else in most parts of the country) – and online you have to go for rather than

    My reaction to the question of the British boom is:
    – Yes, it’s died away, some time around 2005
    – I’m totally unsurprised, because that kind of cultural flowering is unsustainable beyond five to seven years. After that, the revolution has become institutionalised. Of the original artists (in this case, authors), some may disappear but most will continue. However, even if they don’t continue just doing what they first got known for (and most of the participants in the British boom haven’t), their new work, however good, is by now in a known voice. And the next wave have their own voices but find all the best new territory already occupied by their predecessors – they can certainly build reputations, but there isn’t the same excitement about it.

  14. Paul & Peter: I’m American, so I’m well enough versed in it, I guess, but I was mostly taking exception to the idea that there are a lot of currently active American/Canadian SF authors on the scene at the moment. I’m sorry, but I should have been clearer (and less sarcastic).

    It seems like I go months these days between seeing anything notable at the bookstore (which is one of the better SF specialists in the country) that isn’t A) Fantasy or B) from the UK. If there was a burst of activity in the past couple of years, it flamed out before it gained any traction. Barzack doesn’t write SF, Lake has turned to fantasy, Scalzi seems to be on hiatus as does Schroeder. Bear has just lost her SF contract and will likely be doing mostly fantasy from here on out. Buckell seems to have already flamed out. I guess you have Paolo B.

    Anyway, all of that is off-topic to the point of the British boom, which I would vote for ending around the middle of the decade, when the emergence of new, high-profile authors slowed or stopped.

  15. Paul, excuse delay while I read Surface Detail… Yes I agree there has been a change – the culture series has now become, well, a series. SD, if I can remeber the others right, is clearly the one with the most internal references to previous culture novels. In effect, Consider Phlebas, The Player of games and Use of Weapons were almost stand alone novels – SD is less so. SO, on one hand, it would be possible to say the series is more formulaic and this carries some of the side effects you mention, but this allows Banks to do other things and, as you say, the examination of death is interesting and also I think, in general, that there is a renewed sense of purpose and a level of meta commentary on the culture itself which is of real value in a philosophical sense. I wouldn’t say that Banks has sublimed yet, but there is a clear jump to another civilisational level.

    And, if one can stretch the metaphor to this extent, maybe that is what happened to the boom in general – it is no longer booming, because it has moved into another level, where it can sustain a debate within itself without expanding in the same way (sorry, this is a really nebulous description so I’m looking for some good will on the behalf of readers here). Ken Macleod seems to be going somewhere similar but the most obvious equivalent to Banks would be Gwyneth Jones in the way Spirit interconnects with the Aleution and the Bold as Love series. What is in common here is the foundational period for the values and ideas is the late 1960s through the 1970s. And this can be seen in other Boom books such as Revelation Space. And to me this seems a more productive way to think about this group of writers than some narrowly periodised sense of a British boom. So I guess its a generation and as such it has a antural limit because after a certain point emerging writers would not belong to that generation. They are still very much the people I want to read – because more than any other branch of contemporary fiction in Britain they articulate an alternative to post 1979 British politics and the seemingly irresistable rise of neoliberalism.

  16. I think that the Culture novels are timely but that their time is now, not twenty years ago. The first Culture novel was written (ages before it was published) in the shadow of the Vietnam war and this is why the early Culture novels (though mostly stand-alone) are all about interrogating the morality of a liberal super-power that nonetheless feels compelled to spread liberalism to other cultures.

    I think that this theme was very strong in the earlier culture novels and I think that there has never been a more pressing need to ask this question of the so-called last remaining super-power: Where the fuck does a liberal democracy like America get off executing its own citizens and toppling foreign governments? How is that okay?

    It could well be that the more recent Culture novels have moved this question on to the collapse of the ideals of liberal democracy. In effect, the Culture’s obsession with its own death mirrors America’s fear of its own death (a fear that is working its way through the American body politic in the shape of unhinged reactionary opposition to any desire for change — change is socialism, socialism is bad, if there is no change there is no socialism) and this all ties in neatly with the grand arc of the Culture as a forum for political commentary upon the fate and morality of a liberal super-power.

    I can see that that reading might well hold water. It has the architectural clarity that good criticism should have.

    But I’m not convinced. I’m not convinced that the later Culture novels do interrogate the Culture’s fate in a way that constitutes any advancement on the idea when it was raised in Excession.

    Clearly Paul, you’re just going to have to write a book on the Culture :-)

  17. But, Jonathan, the Culture is not a liberal superpower, it’s a communist one. In one of the best lines in SD, it’s a collective of losers by the terms of neoliberal debate. Even in Consider Phlebas, the culture is not intervening with the Idirans but fighting a war with them. And the reference point is as much Afghanistan in the 70s as Vietnam. The Culture intervenes in specific manners, it doesn’t send in the troops directly as the US likes to (obvioulsy the grey areas of intervention are a theme of the series). Nor do I think it is obsessed with its own death – our 21st C western liberal society is obsessed with death – that is what Banks is interacting with – and the Culture itself is not beyond death but it is not a society driven by the death drive and this is what marks it out from many of the other equivalent civilisations depicted in the series (and the equation between the abandonment of the death drive and the abandonment of Property ownership and capitalism is a key theme of Banks’s fiction). Well, that’s my take.

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