Rip It Up And Start Again
Like every genre, sf has always mined its past, of course, but Kincaid senses something new: a lack of passion. A lack of edge. Of danger.
Way back when, when I was writing Eternal Light, when the whole 'Radical Hard SF' and 'New Space Opera' thing was kicking off, I was part of a bunch of writers who, along with Interzone editor David Pringle, felt something similar. If you were going to reuse the old tropes, we thought back then, you shouldn't take them at face value. You should strip out their guts and rebuild them from the ground up. You should weld in the new biology, the new physics, the new cosmology. Punk it up. I still think that. The internet makes it much easier to keep up with what science is doing now (twenty years ago, I was working in a university, so unlike many of my contemporaries, I had a whole library of scientific literature to draw on; now, much of that stuff is just a few keystrokes away). Ditto cutting-edge fashion, architecture, information technology . . . The future is unfolding all around you, right here in the happening world of the present.
But as Kincaid points out, the present isn't a comfortable place, right now. Which is perhaps why too many sf writers recoil from it, into cosy futures from days past. And there's a professionalism in the genre now that wasn't much in evidence twenty years ago; perhaps people aren't inclined to take risks that might affect their brand. It's certainly harder to publish a different kind of novel, every time, than it once was. And let's face it, twenty years on, it's possible that I've become part of the problem. I'm not sure what my 'brand' is, let alone how to nuture it, but it's possible, yes, that I've grown lazy and complacent. That's why critics like Paul Kincaid are useful - to ask hard questions, to point out uncomfortable truths. That's why we should take them seriously. That's why, if they point out a problem, we shouldn't react defensively, but try to figure out how to solve it. How to do better, next time.
All I know is that I wrote The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun because I was excited by images of the real landscapes of real moons captured by actual robot spacecraft, and wondered what it would be like live out there, and walk across those craters, those wrinkle ridges, and how it would change the people who did. I wrote In The Mouth of the Whale because I wanted to mash the ur-trope of interstellar travel and colonisation with riffs on posthuman transcendentalism into an extended metaphor about death and rebirth. And one of the seeds of Evening's Empires was a reaction to the ongoing denial of science in favour of the kind of magical thinking that has people reject vaccines for homeopathic pills. 'In good times magicians are laughed at,' Fritz Leiber wrote in his short story, 'Poor Superman'. 'They're a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures and buy perpetual-motion machines to power their war rockets.'
Which is kind of where we came in.