Good Science = Bad Fiction

A number of years back I had the opportunity to meet Michael Swanwick. I attended a modest science fiction convention planets.jpgin Edmonton (Canada), hoping to hang out with my Canuck colleagues, put faces to some of the names that had been popping up alongside mine on the contributor pages of various genre magazines and anthologies. I was surprised that someone of Swanwick’s stature was attending—must have been a combination of a fortuitous touring schedule and the alignment of the planets (cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, please). I had fun at the convention, tootling about with my buddy, Dan, glancing surreptitiously at nametags, looking for people I knew only through their work. Met colleagues like Peter Watts and Robert Runte, Sean Stewart…good folks. I had no idea what Swanwick looked like and someone finally was good enough to point him out to me.

I approached him with some trepidation, hoping he wouldn’t recall that I’d panned one of his books, The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (or something like that) in the New York Review of Science Fiction. Couldn’t help it; bad book. It was like Swanwick, a hard science guy, was tentatively dipping his toes in the lucrative fantasy market. He was simply out of his depth and the book was a stutter step in an otherwise excellent body of work (see: Vacuum Flowers, Stations of the Tide).

Fortunately, I had a good ice breaker since something he’d written, a short story or novella (I forget which) had just won a Hugo Award. I congratulated him and introduced Dan, everyone dutifully shaking hands. I saw his eyes dart down to our name badges but no bells rang because the conversation stayed genial…

…until I made a fateful mistake.

We were talking about the state of contemporary science fiction, all of us agreeing that the genre was in pretty good shape, some exciting writing out there. Then I made the observation that I wished the scientists who moonlighted as sci fi authors would spend as much time in the English Literature racks as they did their bloody physics textbooks and I saw Swanwick’s face harden like quick-drying cement.

“That’s why it’s called science fiction,” he snapped, or words to that effect.

“And that’s why science fiction writers are looked down on by mainstream critics,” I countered. “They may get their tech shit right but their prose is clunky and…”

Well, the conversation broke off not long afterward, Swanwick moving away to seek friendlier company. I could see Dan shaking his head in amusement.

For the record, that wasn’t my only social gaffe that weekend. It was around the time that Stephen King got hit by a vanbeer.jpeg while out walking and suffered grievous injuries. I’m not a fan of King’s and when someone in a group I was passing brought up the accident, I remarked that if I had been driving, I would have backed up and finished the job. I’d had more than a pint or two of complimentary beer at that point but the jab was tasteless, no question, and received with appropriate shock by those present.

“Who is that guy?” someone hissed.


Well, truth be told, I’m a snob. And an elitist. I don’t read for pleasure, I read to learn something from the writer, picking apart their prose, analysing their style and word choices, point of view. There aren’t many genre writers who stand up well under such close scrutiny.

Fantasy writers…well, fantasy writers are uniformly terrible. Their audience is made up of pointy-eared boneheads who can’t wait for the next installment of the latest Robert Jordan abomination, a thousand pages of muck he manages to churn out on a monthly basis. Airheads. Twats of the first order.

Horror fiction has gone the way of the dodo—odd, that. Especially since there has been a host of high-grossing (emphasis on gross) slasher flicks over the past couple of years. You’d think publishing houses would be catching on and breathing some life into their dormant horror lines. But, then, publishers and editors aren’t that bright or observant, I’ve argued for years that most are barely sentient.



Science fiction…well, I’ve always had a soft spot for space operas, galaxy-spanning works by the likes of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge. Lately I’ve taken a hankering to guys like Richard K. Morgan, Tony Daniel and Charles Stross. I really dig the dark, depressing visions of Peter Watts.

But even as I’m reading my faves, that critical eye of mine is darting along and I’m frowning at the pages of exposition describing the deployment of nanometer thick solar sails or the operation of ram scoop starships, etc. etc., blah, blah, blah. Why do these fucking geeks feel the necessity of having every rivet of their imaginary space vehicles certified by NASA or some computer jockey at JPL? Who gives a shit?

Exposition is exposition, folks. And all that impressive science is getting in the way of the story, slowing things down to a crawl while you impress us with your research and erudition.

And have you noticed that while sci fi scribblers are quite good at describing possible futures involving A.I., FTL, “grey goo”, terraforming, et all, when it comes to creating the three dimensional people who populate these worlds, they fall flat on their faces? And the sex scenes, my God, have these guys (mainly guys) ever had penetrative intercourse? Maybe that’s why this whole “transhumanist” shtick is so big with the geeks—virtual sex isn’t so sticky and icky and maybe, with some careful engineering, we can get rid of the messiness of reproduction and evacuating waste in one technological swoop.

So, hey, you hard science types, put away your slide rules and Blackberries, shut off those role-playing games, shitcan those fucking physics texts and take a bite out of some of the great mainstream authors out there whose talent leaves you eating their book dust. Scribes like Paul Auster, Robert Stone, Colson Whitehead, Cormac McCarthy—they have a lot to teach you (probably more than you dare believe). For sheer power of the printed word, you can’t beat the Annie Dillard (Holy the Firm will make you want to break every pen on your desk and tear up your latest paper on “Theories Relating to Anomalous Telemetry on the Interstices of Event Horizons”).

One last observation: all of the theories and extrapolations scientist-slash-writers are taking such great pains to presentmars.jpg (to readers who will skim past that techno shit anyway) will likely be trashed by future discoveries and extrapolations. That’s the way science works. Better, instead, to shoot for universal truths—Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, which includes not a single equation or long-winded description of the engines that brought the Earthmen to the Red Planet, will be read a hundred years from now. It’s the power of the writing, dummies, the beauty and music of the prose.

Outdated science is quaint, laughable. In twenty years, likely less, the cosmological musings of the smartest egghead in the class of ’07 will be viewed with the same amusement and condescension as the cannon-propelled spacecraft from the 1936 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Things to Come.

Science is finite.

Good writing, on the other hand, lasts forever.




  1. El Condor

    This is a contentious topic which has bothered me since I was 12 and started reading Asimov, Bradbury, Tolkien, Herbert etc. Quickly I began to lean towards sci-fi or fantasy (or any texts) that actually contained developed/interesting characters, with original narratives/plot and ideas combined with skilled writing. This was further highlighted after reading the ‘Literature’ greats which could be sub-categorized as Speculative, Science-Fiction, or Fantasy: Aldous Huxley, Borges, George Orwell, Zamyatin, J.G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, Vonnegut, Tolkien, and a host of others I’m surely forgetting (I’ve purposefully left out Atwood due to personal distaste). The fact is many ‘literary’ authors had produced texts where the medium or setting employed a speculative device – whether near/distant future or fantastical/magical elements — which ultimately was a vehicle, or secondary, to a primarily excellent tale whether didactic/expository or to a degree escapist.
    And even in the genre fiction canon there are/were wonderful standouts (depending on one’s personal preferences): Bradbury as Cliff mentioned, Ursula Le Guin, Fritz Lieber, Gene Wolf, Moorcock, Delaney, and even the pulpy likes of Robert E. Howard. Original standouts that sometimes defy categorization are Philip K. Dick (in a hazy class of his own) and William Gibson (spawning hordes of ‘punkish’ imitators) whose near future predictions/visions were either dead-on, or his inventions later made real by the techies. In the ‘new’ generation we are blessed with Banks, Reynolds, Macleod, Stross (there is something in the UK gestalt? Or water?), Jack Womak, Sterling, et al.
    Undoubtedly I am forgetting many others worth mentioning, and my own categorical attempts are implicitly doomed to fail. Let us just say, as the crux of Cliff Burn’s essay proclaims, that good writing withstands the test of time somehow… despite the diminishing levels of astute readership in our modern times.
    This diminutive capacity of readers and the publishing world is acutely witnessed in contemporary Science-Fiction and Fantasy (we could also add Horror and Mystery or other genres to this list) as Cliff points out. People desire large new scientific ideas, without first demanding good writing. As much as I liked Niven’s Ringworld, I didn’t really try to understand how it all worked, yet this is the focus of the majority of his fans. Diagrams, equations, and 3-D models cannot replace a worthwhile story. [Hard Science-Fiction writers: remove your dongs from the hard drive. Enough said.] I’m always on the lookout for Fantasy worth reading, but a quick perusal of jacket covers/back blurbs and the first page of 99% of what I am likely to find at major bookstores elicits a Sartrean nausea response. The main problem, perhaps, is most readers are seeking an escape from their reality – we all hunker for a level of escapism in our reading but hopefully not by sacrificing our intelligence. Thus, the publishing/writing world has latched on to this adolescent urge and stagnated the market.
    There are some good horror writers out there (Ligotti stands out, even Lumley, etc.) but I have to wallow through gallons of piss first. I truly enjoyed King’s early novels (I was a teenager then) but have read nothing of his published since the 80s… Cliff already acknowledged his overly harsh comment at King’s accident (at heart Cliff is not capable of murder unless you dare threaten his family or integrity) propelled by the extra booze (believe me I’ve made worse drunken comments), but it reveals the frustration towards writers like King who hit the publishing lottery and lost their original impetus, and maybe he wanted to prick the weak skins of the die-hard fans at the convention for a reaction….
    The Swanwick incident is funny yet sad. I loved his early work like ‘In the Drift’, ‘Vacuum Flowers’, ‘Stations of the Tide’ – penned in the 80s and 91. Since then he’s produced 3 mediocre novels in 16 years so Cliff’s comments may have rung true and Swanwick knows it (that’s why he walked away) – otherwise what is wrong with healthy/fun/heated debate? But everyone is fucking afraid to speak their minds. Aspiring writers or adoring fans wish to pucker up to famous nether cheeks for a future morsel of approbation. Established writers want positive blurbs from writer friends or good reviews. In the end the blind lead the blind into a reeking morass, swallowing bellyfulls of septic tank eflluence.
    Enough with my conjecture and rambles.

  2. Fraxas

    This smells of M. John Harrison’s ‘world-building is the clomping foot of nerdism’ argument. And you know what? Exposition is the clomping foot of nerdism. World-building is ‘inherently boring’ if you’re after great characters, and pathos, and Literature.

    But I’m not after that.

    I don’t read mainstream fiction because I feel NO NEED WHATSOEVER to spend my oh-so-copious leisure time reading about ordinary people making bad life decisions. I get enough of that in my real life, thankyouverymuch. In SF, for a few hours, I get to inhabit a world where even if the universe doesn’t make sense and is out to get us, at least we’re surrounded by smart people doing their best.

    If I wanted to watch people in positions of power make terrible decisions for dogmatic reasons, the bad guys winning almost every time, children slaughtered because their parents’ parents’ parents came from the wrong side of the river, the inevitable decline of the human race into a reeking morass swallowing bellyfuls of our own septic tank effluence, I’d watch CBC Newsworld and C-SPAN. I want my fiction to show me a better world than that.

  3. Fraxas

    That came off overly harsh. I do appreciate good writing; I do care, deeply, about the craftsmanship in the books I read. But I’d prefer the book be about the world than the characters… fictional people are not as interesting to me as fictional worlds are, because I have more access to diversity in people than I do diversity in worlds.

  4. Richard Derus

    Hello Cliff,

    After reading your opinions of POD at, I felt compelled to write to you about you MS So Dark the Night. I’m an editor working with Mystic Eye Books, an offshoot of Mystic Eye Games. Your occult horror novel sounds like exactly what we’d like to have. I would love to have the whole megillah via email in a Word doc, if you have it, at the email address you can see (but the rest of the world cannot, I pray).

    If you decide to send the MS, response time will not be a year…how about 6 weeks?

    Richard Derus

  5. malicenwonderland

    Thanks for coming by. I’ve read you. You don’t trouble me like Ellison, but you do trouble me.
    Don’t break your pens, or chck the keyboard

  6. El Condor

    Re: Fraxas Comments
    Dear Fraxas,
    First, I am flattered you found one of my lines worthy of quoting in your own comments (even though you did not actully use quotation marks, in the spirit of generosity and friendly banter I would not presume to call it plagiarism since your text appears right after mine).
    I am trying to understand what it is you mean to say or outline about your reading preferences/choices (and since it’s your personal choice I would not deign to criticise your opinion).
    You equate “mainstream fiction” with “reading about ordinary people making bad life decisions.” Does this not strike you as an odd and perhaps incorrect statement? [I will grant you that a lot of mediocre books do fall in that boring category, since that is as far as many readers’ intellectual leaps of fancy can take them.] I’m sure we could list countless examples of mainstream fiction (and I suppose it might be useful to define what that is?) that do not fit your categorization? [And are you suggesting that if mainstream fiction was about strange people making good life decisions, then you would be interested? How about strange people making bad decisions? There are plenty of examples for that in mainstream fiction…]
    Believe me, I am the last person who will be the champion or defender of the mainstream, and in particular ‘popular’ fiction, but since there are numerous examples of writers and their work who might fall under the categegory ‘mainstream’ yet at the same time have characters that are not ordinary nor necessarily make ‘bad life decisions’, such generalisations are dangerous without at least providing some examples.
    I too enjoy the escapism of slipping off to another world – whether it be futuristic or fantastical – in moments of leisure reading (alas far too few these days) where I am not looking for a mirror, distorted or otherwise, of our own world and people. Though in truth, any imagined world is in some way related to our own ‘real’ world since we have only the words, images, maelstrom, metonymy of our own experience/knowledge from which to spring forth creatively? Even the brain’s world seen after eating a sheet of acid would still have relation to reality, since it is still coupled with the internal psyche? (Let’s not try to prove that point or experiment…)
    But, if we only read a SF Book because we are interested in the created World, and there is not an interesting story/plot and characters (whether humanoid or completely alien) – or worse, no story whatsoever – then it is no longer a novel is it? It would be something akin to a RPG Scenario or World Supplement simply outlining the context and setting, but would lack substance perhaps? That would somehow read like a fictional textbook.
    I do get what you are after, and perhaps the SF novels of Iain M. Banks and Alistair Reynolds, as two examples, would fit the category you seek? Or the majority of Fantasy fiction?
    Lastly, I disagree and think we also have vast access to diversity in both worlds and people within our own planet? A trip to various remotes part of the globe, would seem more alien than the imagined ones in the majority of SF. How much more diverse can you get than an alien language, landscape, people and mindsets, all of which surround us…
    I hope you take my own Opinions (as in the end that is all they are) in good spirit of comraderie, since you do strike me as a likeable person (I checked out your Blog) reminding me of any one of my friends with whom I might disagree/agree and enjoy a good debate over a cup of coffee or beer… We may not always been in perfect synchrony (and ultimately that would be so boring) but we are using our little grey cells and smiling.

  7. kooneiform

    Hey Cliff, thanks for leaving a trail to your blog, I enjoyed the article. I found it much in the spirit of one of my favorite Moorcock books, ‘Wizardry and Wild Romance’, and since you listed McCarthy (another favorite) with some other guys I’ve never read I have some new authors to try. Then again I’m still an unabashed fan of both M. John Harrison and Tolkien, so maybe I haven’t had enough experience (or bitter disappointment?) to reach all the same conclusions as you.

    I’ve heard from a few places that hard SF (or as some acquaintances like to write, HARD SF) is not published as much these days (for lack of quantity of quality I don’t know), is this true?

  8. Martin Wisse

    You’ve been reading the wrong science fiction or you’ve been confusing your own preferences for universal dogmas about writing; I’m not sure what.

    Though saying “I’m a snob” when what you really were was a boor gives me a clue.

  9. Prodigal

    To complain about how people ought to concern themselves with how good their writing is, only to then complain that they care too much about how good their science is comes across as having no small amount of irony.

  10. V.

    Well this is a rant from a self-limiting reader if I’ve ever heard one. Go read Lois McMaster Bujold’s work.


    I find that much of the ‘science’ in science fiction is fairly boring. The only writer currently writing science fiction that I read for the science rather than for just a fantasy in a technical setting (and I do enjoy such things quite often) is Greg Egan.

    JonathanMoeller: By the way, I think that Cliff’s phrase “I don’t read for pleasure” should be taken in context. In context it looks to me like it means something like: “I don’t read for ephemeral pleasure — I read for the deeper pleasure that one obtains through learning.”


    JonathanMoeller: I think Cliff’s sentence must be taken in context. My reading of it would put the meaning something more like: “I don’t read for the ephemeral pleasure of sitting with a book — I read for the deeper pleasure of learning something.

    Cliff: My opinion on the state of SF differs from yours in some ways. My own current favourite SF writer is Greg Egan because he does ideas in science so wonderfully. He doesn’t get caught up on annoying details of technology. However, he also doesn’t get caught up on things like having characters that have much depth. His characters strike me as being like characters in one of Plato’s dialogs. They’re just there to represent a point of view. The plots aren’t all that exciting either yet I find his books to be page turners. (Yeah, I do like Vinge and some other people too. Sean’s “Nobody’s Son” is a marvelous kid’s book. I hadn’t thought about that book in a decade or so so thanks for reminding me of it).

  13. leahzero

    Despite the irascible hubris (which doesn’t lend credence to your postulations, FYI), I was with you until you started dropping names. Auster, McCarthy, Dillard? I’ll take dry sci over their execrable, masturbatory fi any day. These are disposable names that are destined for the bargain bin and insignificance inside a decade, two at most. Sorry, but Oprah/daytime television/popular culture aren’t annointing new classicists.

    Nor do I believe your interest is in high style, delicate characterization etc., but in literary fashionability. Perhaps also in the business of writing, less so the craft.

    This article makes me feel embarrassed for you.

  14. Pingback: The impact of negativity on the creative process. « Words Fail Me
  15. maximumbob

    I agree with you, but only to a point. Part of the problem for me may lie in your cited list of great non-genre writers. Apart from Annie Dillard, I don’t have much time for those people. I did my PhD on Don DeLillo, but it became apparent that he started to believe his own publicity, and I find his later books unreadable. I find the likes of Auster the purest form of torture.

    Sometimes you read for the plot, sometimes you read for the ideas. I’m convinced most character development takes place in the imagination of the reader. I just don’t see it on the page that much. I think the reader fills in the gaps, if he/she is enjoying the book.

    As for out-of-dateness, part of the charm of Golden Age SF lies in the fact that the ideas are out of date. Science Fiction isn’t about the future, it’s about the present, and it provides us with a useful history of ideas to look back upon.

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