My kind of science fiction

During this recent hiatus in my science fiction writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is I like about science fiction and I’ve come to a rather startling realization: my kind of science fiction no longer seems particularly popular today. I like to write the same kind of science fiction that I like to read. These are essentially puzzle stories involving science fictional elements. Think Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Or today, think of someone like Jack McDevitt.

Science fiction has come a very long way as a literature. It has evolved from the super-science adventures of E. E. “Doc” Smith to some beautifully written, moving stories like Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary.” My tastes–what I like to write–are somewhere in between. I recognize that my skill level as a writer is not yet such that I could produce something as magnificent as Ken’s novella. But had I the ability, I don’t believe I would do so. And I think that it was my recent attempts to do just that that pushed me over the edge and forced me to give up writing for a while. (Time constraints and other stresses played a big part as well.)  In the last few months, I realized that I was attempting to write science fiction stories that were the kind of stories that garner the most respect today. I did so miserably, both in terms of skill and temperament. And it occurs to me that the spate of rejections I’ve collected in the last 6 months or so has less to do with the quality of my writing than the themes I am choosing to write about and the styles in which I tried to write them.

It is a double-edged sword: I don’t have the skill or desire to write the kind of science fiction that seems popular today; and it is harder and harder to sell that kind of science fiction that I do enjoy writing for the very reason that it no longer seems as popular as it once was.

I think my most successful story was “Take One For the Road” (Analog, June 2011). The story is a kind of ideal for me. It takes a science fictional idea and creates a mystery or puzzle that needs to be solved. The story was, in fact, conceived at Readercon in 2010 after I watched a panel on science fiction mysteries. It was not a particularly difficult story to write and most importantly, I had a blast writing it.

That is the kind of story that I want to write. And going forward, when I can find the time to write science fiction stories, that is the kind of story that I intend to write. It may not be the most popular kind of story today. It may seem dated and lack depth. But it gives me a lot of enjoyment to sit and write those kind of stories. It is certainly more fun than my futile attempts to write stories that keep up with the current trends. Recognizing this fact, obvious though it may be, has made me feel a lot better about my writing.

ETA: Upon re-reading this post, it comes across to me as sounding whiny, and that was not my intent. I am not complaining about today’s science fiction. The genre must and should evolve. Perhaps I worry a little that it is evolving beyond me and my meager abilities. Mostly, I was attempting to explain my recent insights into my writing failures and frustrations.


  1. There was an early Greg Egan collection, Axiomatic, that was billed as “Science fiction that is for people who like science fiction”

    It annoyed me, because there are plenty of people who love SF who do not love Greg Egan.

    There are many kinds of SF to love. And to write.

    1. Paul, I hear you, but I must admit to falling prey to the idea that I’ve got to try to keep up with the changes, instead of sticking to what I like. Now that I’ve recognized that, I hope to avoid repeating it.

  2. Today everything is dystopic or postapocaliptic, I’m kinda of tired of that, but most people is still loving it.
    Also I feel most writers are thinking in term of doing a movie script, there are many ways to shape a story beyond a script.

    1. Ha, it seems to me that writers are thinking in terms of novels. I am struck dumb with fear at the thought of having to write a novel. I like short stories. I’m not a fan of science fiction movies, so there’s no chance of me intentionally falling prey to that outlet.

  3. There is what sells and what is good, and of course it is somewhat egotistical to say that “you” know what is good. LOL

    But then there is REAL SCIENCE.

    Like this whole “uploading minds” concept. When you upload something to the net you are not moving something you are MAKING A COPY of something. Even if you could upload a perfect copy of your mind it still would NOT BE YOU. And from the moment the copy was made it would begin changing at electronic speeds. How soon would it be something nothing like you?

    Too many people who say they like science fiction do not like science. How many people regard Kim Stanley Robinsosn’s Mars Trilogy as boring but Arthur C. Clarke said that future colonists of Mars should read it.

    But then what government or corporation is going to spend millions of dollars to send average intellects to Mars. That is one aspect of the relationship between science and science fiction that mundane readers of sci-fi do not address. Robert Heinlein addressed it in his short story “It’s Great to be Back”.

    1. I didn’t mean to imply that I knew what was good. I do, however, know what I like.

      Perhaps the best take (in my opinion) on the “uploading minds” and “copies” of yourself was Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. (Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer was not bad either, but AJ’s Rogue Moon beat Rob’s Mindscan by 45 years.) In AJ’s case, he was dealing with what was essentially a “transporter” while Rob dealt with actual uploads. But the principle you point out applies to both and this has been a considered trope of SF since at least 1960.

  4. Jamie, it is probably NOT a coincidence that you posted this on the 100th birthday of Alfred Elton van Vogt.

    A tremendously popular writer from Campbell’s ASF Golden Age who bore the brunt of criticism and ridicule from those ‘betterers’ whose ‘vision’ of what SF should be, MUST BE. No live and let live.

    But Van Vogt took it all with great grace and wry humor. See his ‘Author’s Introduction’ to THE WORLD OF NULL-A (Berkley PB – 1970).

  5. Didn’t sound whiny at all.

    The reasons I have enjoyed your stories so far are for exactly the reasons you say you write them. Please don’t stop. The market is probably not as small as editors think it is. We just aren’t as noisy.


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