I’m reading Brad Torgersen’s Sad Puppies 3 manifesto (which I use not as a pejorative, but as an honest-to-goodness genre term) from a few weeks ago, and… I’m just really confused. Maybe somebody can help me out here.
After an extended metaphor about breakfast cereals, Torgersen states what he considers the problem:
A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?
A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.
Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.
Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.
So… huh. OK, it sounds like Torgersen doesn’t like metaphor in his SF. If it’s got a spaceship on the cover, and it’s got themes that don’t have to do with spaceships, it’s apparently a problem. In a long-but-well-worth-your-time blog post on the 2015 Hugos debacle, Philip Sandifer describes this as “the spectacle of a grown man complaining about how he just can’t judge a book by its cover anymore.”
But this is where I get really confused, folks: what the hell era of SF is he talking about? Later in the post he indicates that he’s talking about the 1960s through the 1980s... which I’d say is a period pretty well defined by the metaphorical treatment of social and political ideas in SF. If you want to go back to a time when rocket ships and ray guns really meant just rocket ships and ray guns, you’d have to go back to the 1940s. And there are surely people who like Golden Age SF quite a bit, but for my tastes, I think it wasn’t really until the dawn of the digest era in the 1950s that SF got really, really good.
So I’m really confused. I can’t even recognize the picture that Torgersen paints as a caricature of SF publishing history. And since he coyly generalizes, you can’t even identify what books or authors he has particular problems with. (One name that’s emerged as one of his major bêtes noirs is John Scalzi—whose Old Man's War series has its sociopolitical scales tipped so far in favor of gee-whiz adventure that it should float Torgersen’s boat right out of the bathtub.) (It's pretty militaristic, too, if that's a factor.)
He says he’s OK with SF about social and political issues, as long as we don’t “put these things so much on permanent display, [so] that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side”. But to thousands of readers, “boldly going” means exploring just those issues that Torgersen has a problem with. And exploring those issues in SFnal terms is a time-honored tradition, going back a decade or so before the time that he considers the good old days.
For a lot of us, SF’s ability to deal with current problems in metaphorical terms is the whole point. It’s why we got interested in the genre, and why we’ve stuck with it—because there will always be new questions, and new angles on them. Does Brad Torgersen really want SF to be a genre about space ships and ray guns with no resonance with current society? Does he really want SF authors to abandon the time-honored tradition of exploring social issues with SFnal metaphor? That sounds to me like an SF that’s afraid of the future.