The... books sent in for review this month were so bad that we've decided to ignore them, rather than pan them, and turn our attention to a discussion of the reasons why the books were so bad. -- Alfred Bester, "A Diatribe Against Science Fiction" collected in redemolished
he entirety of the quote Ken is referring to can be found in redemolished, which is yet another posthumous anthology of Alfred Bester's works. It was handy because I'd scanned, printed, and stuck it above my own desk about a week ago to remind myself to not junk Whitespace as well after writing about 60,000 words since I started in mid December. I am in Bester's second problem and it is not good.
If you're unfamiliar with Bester I don't recommend you pick up a copy of redemolished unless you're strictly interested in his nonfiction. Some of what's recollected there was deservedly unknown. You should, however, find his novels (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination, The Deceivers, The Computer Connection, The Rat Race and Golem100) and his short stories (Star Light, Star Bright). The Demolished Man won the first Hugo award and set how telepathy would be handled in most fiction thereafter; Golem100 is philosophical kin to William S. Burroughs' Cities of the Red Night or Bladerunner screenplay. Bester's works are increasingly available in brand new trade paperback. Don't buy them in trade. Hunt them out in used bookstores for a buck or two and screw those greedy cocksucker publishers that are issuing 200 page pocket books as ungainly $20 trade editions. Bester is dead; he doesn't need your money. Save the $18 and spend it on a live broke author. Or send it to me.
Science fiction is the only mechanism whereby we commonly casually consider what's likely to happen in a decade or two if we keep being nasty little bastards. Casually, because its first purpose is to provide an engaging alternative to whatever you were doing, as opposed to persuade or instruct (when it's first purpose is to instruct, it is not fiction, it is a disguised essay or masturbatory garbage). It belongs to commedia rather than tragedia (regardless of grim dystopianism or cyberpunk) as comedy is based on incongruity and tragedy is all-too-intimate. All good comedy has a subversive element which is magic-tricked into your (or my) tiny brain: first we laugh at Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On Teevee", then it settles into the back of our minds that maybe words like, say, motherfucker, aren't inherently evil after all. It may not have any practical effect, but it's less dangerous than Isms of any stripe -- an Ism being a social reflex about which you cannot comfortably laugh.
A good book is nothing more than someone sitting down and saying "Given what I consider a plausible set of characters within a probable set of circumstances, here are the likely results." Science fiction is nothing more than definitions applied to the set of circumstances. If science fiction is written poorly it is because the people writing it are not plausible, probable, or likely. This is true of any kind of writing, or almost anything at all.
(There are very few commedia authors, let alone science fiction writers, practicing the above; but this is also true of any kind of writing. On the other hand, I could write a hundred columns on 20th century commedias which are astonishingly unknown and will start tomorrow if someone that will pay me more than a cent a word to do it.)
A Model-T is a museum piece; The Last Tycoon is a piece of probable life. All of today's technologies will be curiosities tomorrow. What we must do today is set down words brave rather than ignorant, vulnerable rather than cynical, and fearless rather than bored. Any book written this way, even by doubting fuckers like me or Ken (who is writing contempt-orary fiction unless I miss my guess), will be good. If the readers refuse to be plausible, probable or likely, that is another matter which all the good-intentioned naifly Bill Joy essays in the world cannot solve.