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.