A Farewell to Science Fiction
It is said, jokingly, that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve. It was certainly that way for me. At that age I devoured anything in the genre I could get my hands on, most of which came from the library at the high school I attended in Craigie (sadly now demolished, both library and school). Golden Age SF it was too, much of it from the fifties. I would read anything, but I was particularly fond of those old stagehorses Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I liked the Foundation series, including the later reboots that had been published in the eighties. My favourite was Foundation’s Edge. But it was Clarke that held my attention longest, in books like Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood’s End and A Fall of Moondust. There was the occasional newer title on offer at the school library, like Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. I loved that too. I didn’t exclusively read SF. I was and still am a voracious reader, but I loved the genre above any other. I say this with a tinge of sadness now. My first attempts at novel writing were informed by the above writers and their newer counterparts, such as Stephen Baxter. I had a whole novel, my second, that was essentially a Baxter rip-off.
My obsession with SF continued into my late teens and beyond, far beyond the age of twelve. By my late teens I was starting to map out the history of the genre in my mind. I was an expert on fifties and sixties SF and here I had recourse to that fat, blue brick of a book, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I would pore over it for hours and then digitally dash off to abebooks, as it was then at the turn of the millennium, to make my purchases. Not only that, but I used to go on what I termed ‘book jaunts’ around the secondhand bookstores of Perth, often taking in four or five stores in a carefully-planned trip. I was a young man obsessed, but it was an obsession that had already passed its zenith. Like a jaded, restless lover, it took more and more to satisfy me.
By the age of twenty, three important things had happened that would prolong my involvement in the genre for a few more years. The first had occurred in 1999, at Angus & Robertson bookstore at Whitfords City Shopping Centre. I had been hovering over the SF and Fantasy section (more on these sections later) not much liking what was on offer. I was on the verge of buying another Baxter novel, Titan, a book which, as it turned out, I’d never read. What drew my attention instead was the very first volume in the Millennium Masterworks series from English publisher Orion. The book was Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. It had a beautiful cover and thus I bought it. Haldeman didn’t make any particular impression on me, although I did enjoy the book, but some of the books that followed in this series impressed me greatly. I adored Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, books I’d heard of but never read, but it was the thirteenth volume in the series, Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, which had the profoundest impact. Upon reading that, I fell into a reading delirium that lasted many years and was only to be extinguished for a lack of further fuel. That was after I’d read every word by and about PKD, and that meant an awful lot. In truth, that delirium lasted throughout my twenties and has only really fully abated now, at age thirty-two. There were other writers I loved too, but these tended to be writers who had started in SF and ended up writing something else, such as J. G. Ballard.
The second important thing that happened was that I came into email contact with SF writer Barry N. Malzberg. I’d stumbled upon a Malzberg blog run by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, now a renowned SF writer in his own right, and to my surprise received an email from Malzberg himself in response to a forum post I had written. I had read several of Malzberg’s novels and would end up reading virtually all of them. Over the course of an email correspondence that lasted about a year, Malzberg educated me on some of the lesser lights of SF or those I’d neglected to read, such as Cyril Kornbluth, James Tiptree Jr. and Malzberg’s personal favourite, Mark Clifton. Malzberg ended up sending me signed copies of several of his books. My two prized possessions in this regard are signed and dedicated copies of Malzberg’s book of essays on the genre, The Engines of the Night, and his then recently-released newest (and best) collection, In The Stone House. Malzberg was even kind enough to read and respond to a short story I was working on at the time, which he praised voluminously. This was right at the time of the 9/11 attacks and Malzberg lived close enough, in New Jersey, to witness the carnage firsthand. Another writer, Malzberg’s friend Carter Scholz, narrowly missed out on being on one of the ill-fated planes and was thus ‘consigned to life’, Malzberg told me. About my story, he’d have a word with David Pringle of Interzone and off I’d go. I was of course ecstatic. I sent the story off but nothing ever came of it, not even a rejection letter.
The final important thing that prolonged my involvement with SF was that I’d managed to get a job at Supernova Books, a F&SF bookstore on William Street in central Perth. I had my job interview on my twentieth birthday and my recollections of that time are recorded here. I worked at Supernova for around two years, but although I didn’t quite know it yet, I’d already fallen out of love with the genre. I had loved the New Wave of the sixties, yes, but not so much what came after. I probably read less SF in those two years working at Supernova than in the two years preceding. There were exceptions, like Jeff Vandermeer and his magnificentCity of Saints and Madmen, but these were few and far between. I walked out of Supernova for the last time in 2003, at age twenty-two, its owner as it turned out with only months to live.
I did read SF in my twenties, but it tended to be by writers who had moved onto other genres. Since 2008 I have kept detailed records of every book I’ve read and the stats display my dwindling interest. In 2008 I read sixteen books that could be termed science fiction, but many of them were PKD re-reads. In 2009 that number was two (including Vandermeer’s wonderful Finch, which I think is still his most recent novel). By 2009, I’d finally found other genres and other writers to sustain me. Raymond Chandler opened up the world of crime fiction to me and Harry Crews introduced me to southern Gothic. By 2010 I had discovered local small publishers like Twelfth Planet Press but I still only managed ten SF books read for the year if you exclude PKD. In 2011 it was eleven, but that included Australian writers like Paul Haines and Kaaron Warren who’d be better classified as writers of horror. In the past two years, me reading SF has been very much the exception and not the rule. In 2012 I enjoyed China Mieville’s The City and the City (a book which owes at least as much to crime as it does to SF) and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (alternate history and only SF in some people’s estimation), but little else. This year I’ve barely dabbled in the genre at all. My affair with SF is over.
None of this would matter greatly to me if not for one salient point: reading informs writing. The things I write, I’ve learned, lag years behind the things I read. I stopped reading SF years before I could stop writing it. All ten novels I’ve written, the last three of which have been published, are SF. I’ve only been able to make the break in my newest novel, Dan: A Cautionary Tale. In part the decision to stop writing SF has been a mercenary one. I might not have liked what I saw in the F&SF section at Angus & Robertson in 1999, but over the past 14 years the amount of SF in F&SF has dwindled to a trickle. For years this has been the realm of the fat fantasy series punctuated by the occasional SF title by someone like John Scalzi, whom I’ve neglected to read. Recently I saw, for the first time, one such section named, finally, Fantasy. At another store, SF had been relegated to one lonely, half-sized shelf, and even that was mostly taken up by Stars Wars and Doctor Who spin-offs. SF writing might not be dead, but it’s very ill. Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice the burgeoning world of crime fiction in all its guises.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had some success in publishing short fiction. These stories have for the most part been SF/crime crossovers (my ‘Tyler Bramble’ series) but they barely tip their hat to the genre. The newest of these, “A Void”, is not really recognisable as SF even though it is certainly reminiscent of the mindfuckery of PKD. The stories and novels I plan to write in 2014 and beyond will be crossovers between crime and literary fiction.
So I’m finally jumping ship. Farewell, science fiction. Our affair is at its end.