by tom moodyComments Off on you can have your cyberpunk-near-future-with-elves
Science fiction writer Charles Stross announces his intention to write fantasy novels for the poorest of reasons: because you don't know how your smartphone works, saying "Siri, where can I get a hamburger" is kind of like a magic incantation, if you do in fact, get a burger.
One of the purposes of reading is to learn, and the John Campbell style of sf had side benefits to its escapism. Editor Campbell made his authors (Heinlein, Sturgeon, Del Rey, et al) explain how things worked. If the premise of your story is "we live in a universe governed by arcane rules of magic," a limited amount of useful information can be gleaned there. Stross's already-extant "Laundry" novels, combining Len Deighton-style spy stories and watered-down Lovecraft, have a limited repertoire of magical effects and those aren't terribly interesting. Once you've used the severed hand of a dead convict to make yourself invisible you can't really employ that trick again.
Lovecraft himself didn't believe in "magic," which is one reason his supernatural stories are so scary.
Escape into a world of elves because we can't understand our smartphones also sounds like a political cop-out. Leave the phone production and marketing to our betters, those shadowy world-dominating corporations that are also beyond our comprehension. Heaven forbid we should look to fiction for tales of little-guy empowerment -- better to keep talking to Siri and having our witch and warlock fantasies.
A writer who does very well what Stross wants to do is Michael Swanwick (in novels such as Stations of the Tide and The Iron Dragon's Daughter). Cyberpunk meets elves and fairies, yes, but you are usually aware, as a reader, that these tropes are locked in deadly antagonism.
Addendum: To sum up, if it needs summing up: If the world's awash in puerile fantasy the solution isn't to write more of it. Stross has a point about the difficulty of continuing to write SF when less people believe that, say, faster-than-light drives are possible. Yet the first story I read of his, a few years ago, was "Bit Rot," which had AIs making long star voyages (precisely because of that physical limitation on human space travel) and something going horribly wrong. It combined horror and SF in a way that seemed relevant to the present, more so than recycling Tolkien for an age of microchips.