The State of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Urban Steam

November 6th, 2010

When I was a kid (yeah, I’m feeling like an old fart today), science fiction was Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, and Frederick Pohl’s Gateway.   Asimov still had his robots running around, even if Heinlein’s efforts seemed less about space travel and more about making it with his mother.   On the fantasy side, which I also read a lot of, Lord of the Rings was lord and king, while derivative but more accessible versions like The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks were prominently displayed everywhere.   It was space on one side, and medieval style quest fantasies on the other.

When I go to cons or bookstores these days, it’s quite a different story.   There weren’t a lot of book sellers at the most recent con I attended, but the ones that were there had limited selections both on the science fiction side and on the fantasy side.

This will come as news to few out there, but on the science fiction side steampunk has started it’s engines and seems to be dominant.   I’ve read very few books I’d consider steampunk, although a few have steampunk elements (e.g. the excellent Diamond Age by Neil Stephenson).   There are plenty of lists out there to get started.   Here’s one.   Here’s another.   Yet another.

I DON’T LIKE VICTORIAN STYLE AND SETTING!   I’ll endure it once in a while, but I never go, “Oh boy, Victorians!”   I will recognize and enjoy a good story IN SPITE of these elements.   I will not seek them out for it.   Maybe I had to read one too many books like Pride and Prejudice or something, but I got turned off to a culture that has such artificial social constructs.   And old technology?   OLD.   I want NEW.   The Diamond Age may have had Victorian elements, but they got consumed by the changing world in that book just like they did in ours.

OK, this is threatening to become a rant.   Maybe I’ll do some more reading of some of the “best of” steampunk and come back to this topic again, either with a title like “Why I Hate Steampunk” or “Learning to Love Steampunk.”

The dominant fantasy trend of urban fantasy has been obvious more longer, and it seems to slay immediately most competition.   I’ve probably read more urban fantasy than steampunk.   I view it as easy, escapist reading, similar to how I viewed more traditional fantasy reading.   With a few notable exceptions like Glimpses by Lew Shiner, Replay by Ken Grimwood, or A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, I haven’t regularly found in fantasy life-changing works.   I have found great entertainment and hours of excitement, plenty to be worth the price of admission.   Like steampunk, there are plenty of lists of must-reads in urban fantasy.   Here’s one.   Here’s another.   A third.   Be warned: these come not in novels, but in series of novels.   Twilight is probably the most currently obvious one.

I like both, but love neither.   I hate to let myself fall prey to age and failing to move to the next great thing when the thing is obviously great, but…are these obviously great?

I think steampunk is a fad, and will resume niche status at some point.

I think urban fantasy is here to stay, although it may evolve somewhat.   I’ve always been shocked that people haven’t tired of vampires.   Werewolves and zombies, and hunters of all three, also seem to be proof against time.

OK, sure, you can still find science fiction set in the future, in space, with robots that don’t run on steam.   It’s just a little harder.   And you can still find plenty of quest fantasies, usually with dragons on the cover (nearly as proof against time as vampires), but they’re harder to find, too.

Well, if ballroom dancing can come back to be hugely popular, I suppose anything can.   I just hope that when spaceships are again shooting into hyperspace more regularly, disco isn’t the theme music.


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