What makes great science fiction, and why Vernor was the best


Yesterday, I declared in commemorating his life, that Vernor Vinge was the greatest SF author. Of course, there are many opinions on who might get that title, and a solid argument that there isn't just one, or one axis of what makes great SF.

To explain my claim, I want to describe why I read SF, and how I judge greatness in it. Those who read SF may read all sorts of other books (and should) but they have a reason why SF holds a particular attraction and value. While any great book should have great characters and great prose and a gripping story and bring you to new realizations about the world and "the human condition" SF readers seek even more. (This is true to an extent which causes mainstream critics to disparage SF, because readers are willing to accept less than the best of these other virtues in order to get SF that is great at being SF.)

All good fiction explores important issues and the consequences of certain hypotheticals -- "What if?" For most fiction, these topics are important but "ordinary" and concern that human condition, our lives, our emotions, our morals, our philosophy, our politics and many other things.

Speculative fiction asks "what if?" with the world itself. Imagine a world that isn't just ours (often just because it's in the future as is not yet ours) and explore what that means. The more popular fantasy genre explores a world that can't be real. Alternate history explores the real world where the past was different. Science Fiction strives for an alternate world that could be real, in a meaningful way. It is different in some big way, though, and in particular it contains new technologies and new science, and/or new political systems and philosophies, often made possible by new technology.

Most importantly, for the best SF, these different worlds have relevance to reality. They describe (sometimes by allegory) things which actually could become real and important. They say something about how life may change or be affected by such changes.

One ideal is SF in which everything novel is still possible, broadly known as hard SF. There's lots of SF that isn't that way, and which mixes fantastic or improbable elements with realistic ones. As long as we end up exploring a real issue, this can also be great SF. There's also fantasy which explores real issues either through allegory, or by keeping to a rigourous set of rules within its fantasy universe, and this is quite popular, and of course all the genres can be highly entertaining, and a platform for all the virtues of more ordinary literature.

Indeed, most readers happily read all forms, for they call can deliver great reading. But the best SF leaves you with new thoughts about the world to come or central issues of philosophy, and it often changes the world, by inspiring new technologies or social change. This can range from Star Trek Communicators inspiring cell phones, or Vernor Vinge's "True Names" and Rainbows End inspiring virtual reality technologies, or Orwell's 1984 warning us about the perils of a technologically efficient police state.

The Hugo Awards, which are chosen by dedicated SF readers and fans, not a jury, tended to flow along those lines until the year 2001. Until then, the novel winner was always fairly clearly classed as SF, but in 2001 a Harry Potter novel won, and fantasies win about half the time in the 21st century. When we look to name the greatest SF writers of all time, the award list is a good start. The champions of that list for novels are Robert Heinlein, Connie Willis, Lois Bojold, N.K. Jemisin, and of course Vernor Vinge.

Jemisin pulled off the special feat of getting 3 wins for the 3 novels of her trilogy, and it's amazingly good, but it's also fantasy. (It's the sort of fantasy that could have easily been SF with a few tweaks.) Bujold's wins have come from a great space opera series with great characters, and I quite enjoy them but they are also partly "fantasy in disguise" about Lords and Ladies and Emperors, though not simply that. So in this method we leave only Heinlein--the greatest of the mid-20th century, and Vinge. (Heinlein won 4 best novel awards, and 2 more in hindsight, though the latter don't count the same way.)

I've tried to also list what I think were the greatest SF novels of each decade, and though the choice is often very, very hard, with many great novels not listed, my list comes out as:

  • 50s: The Demolished Man
  • 60s: Dune
  • 70s: The Dispossessed
  • 80s: Neurmoancer
  • 90s: Fire Upon the Deep
  • 00s: Rainbows End
  • 10s: Ancillary Justice
  • 20s: (TBD)

(These are far from the only great books of each decade, but rather the "if I were forced to pick one" set.)

Here, Vernor Vinge's importance stands out. There are of course some other contenders who didn't make the other lists, including most prominently Neal Stephanson. His books like Snow Crash (as important to cyberspace thinking as Neuromancer and True Names,) The Diamond Age and Anathem are masterworks that tick all the boxes above. When it comes to pure hard SF, Greg Egan must be noted, though he doesn't quite crest the top. Clarke, Asimov, Niven and of course LeGuin (who I listed as writing the greatest novel of the 70s) also have wide oeuvres, and in this decade newcomers like Martine and Wells are breaking impressive new ground. Ann Leckie's first entry was incredible but her follow-ups have not cemented a position for her -- yet.

Her novels make my point well. Leckie's "Radch" series and Jimisin's "Broken Earth" are good contenders for the most lauded works of speculative fiction for the 2010s. But there's a reason why I named Ancillary Justice as the top SF novel of that decade. I look at what questions the stories explore, though both are marvelously written. The Radch series proposes a character who invented AI and made herself emperor, both through the fleet of AI-slave run warships she commanded, and also by uploading her own mind into a thousand bodies so she could be everywhere in her empire and live indefinitely too. It's a fascinating concept (The story is told from the viewpoint of one of the ship AIs that has transferred into a human body) and you could imagine elements of it really happening. Broken Earth is, like many fantasies, the story of wizards (hereditary supermen) battling over power, with the SF-like element of orbiting magic magnifiers the seek to control to change the world. Gripping with amazing prose and characterization, but it's hard to find relevance of that theme in musing about the future of humanity.

Any great book will inspire you to think about the characters and the story, but great SF triggers even more discussion about the world and the issues and the future of humanity. That's what makes it one of the most important forms of literature. There are some writers who deserve recognition for having done that once or twice -- Orwell, Bester, Varley, Dick, Burgess, Brunner, Brin, Vonnegut, Atwood, Zelazney, Simmons, Keyes, Haldeman, Cherryh, Wolfe, Bear, Benford, Butler, Card, Sterling, Swanwick, Robinson, Kress, Wilson, MacLeod, Stross, McDonald, Banks, Scalzi, Watts, McGuire, Miller, Kowal, Anders, Wells, Spinrad, Adams, Liu and McCaffrey, to name some I follow in no particular order, and there are more to come.

Vernor Vinge did what he did in part because he was a computer science professor. While you don't have to be a scientist to be a great SF writer, it definitely helps, at least with my standard of saying something real and relevant to our future. If you get your science wrong, it just immediately takes me out of the story -- unless you are doing it deliberately and doing it well. Of course, the combination of being good with words and also good at science doesn't always happen. (It can happen the other way -- Gibson did so well with Neuromancer because he wasn't tied down to the thinking of his day on AI.)

In his career, Vernor explored:

  • Intelligence amplification through brain-computer interface, first in animals, later in humans
  • Virtual reality and cyberspace
  • Stopping time in a small space
  • Political philosophy, libertarianism and anarchism, and authoritarian (leveraging technology and "emergency powers.")
  • A technological singularity -- in non-fiction as the creator of that movement, and in fiction
  • Group minds
  • Mind control used for advertising, and to create slaves focused on the tasks you command
  • Swarm robots and micro-robots
  • A galactic bulletin-board network, constrained to low bandwidth
  • Mind uploading, and its use in slavery
  • Destructive scanning of all the books in a library
  • Curing Alzheimer's and what comes after
  • Wearable technology with augmented reality
  • Self-driving cars
  • The rise of AI
  • Surveillance and sousveilance
  • The consequences of godlike superminds, both benign and dangerous
  • Interstellar trade and commerce without faster-than-light ships

He also created some fantasy concepts as backgrounds for these stories, such as the zones of thought (thinking and computation get vastly better the further out you go in the galaxy.) While these were never explained, it was often hinted that they were artificial, but mostly they were a plot device. *

While that combination Vernor had is hard to find, it probably becomes easier now that nerd culture has become much more mainstream, and fewer people feel one must choose between STEM and the arts. So while it won't be easy, we probably will see the like of Vernor Vinge again.

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