Damien Walter is a writer and storyteller. Words in The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Independent, Aeon, OUP. Teaches the Rhetoric of Story and Writing the 21st Century Myth to over 35,000 students worldwide. Host of the Science Fiction podcast.
I loved short form scifi storytelling. Mirrorshades, the anthology that defined cyberpunk, made me want to write SF. In my 20’s I published two dozen short stories. I really enjoyed subbing stories to these mysterious old magazines that – back in the day – often still demanded you send manuscripts in PRINT! In 2008 I graduated from the Clarion writers workshop, 6 solid weeks of writing, reading, critiquing and weeping (literally) over short form SF.
And then I stopped.
Even when I was writing and subbing – almost 20 years ago – the short SF field was in a state of radical decay. One fundamental problem plagues the art form. And it’s a bad one.
Nobody really reads short form SF.
“There’s no shortage of READERS out there. There are billions of us glued to our smartphones, soaking up blog posts, op-eds and think pieces. Why aren’t SF stories in that mix? Because they stopped being dangerous.”
Yes, there’s a tiny rump of dedicated readers. Then there’s a fluctuating fringe of writers trying to get their own stories published, who are also readers to some extent (if you ever have to deal with a slush pile you realise that very few writers have read widely in the form). And then there’s…a infinite void of people who do not read short form SF.
So imagine a time when people DID read short form scifi. Not only did they read it, they were excited by it. They thought it could change things, in radical ways. They thought it could be…dangerous.
Back in 1967, when Harlan Ellison edited the first Dangerous Visions anthology, short story writing had that kind of edge. Science fiction was wrapped up in the Counterculture of the era. It was read and thought about far beyond the SF community.
So it’s natural to hope that the long delayed publication of the third volume, Last Dangerous Visions, might rekindle some of the old spirit of science fiction. But J Michael Straczynsky’s plan to publish neither the original stories – which would at least be a useful historical document – nor an entirely new Vision of what a Dangerous scifi might be – does not seem promising.
Could short form science fiction be dangerous, again?
Scifi has become very big business since the days of Dangerous Visions. But it has not become dangerous. Today’s scifi blockbusters, tv shows and AAA video games are tame affairs. Visually impressive, absolutely, but any vision they have is designed for mass consumption, not radical change.
And in the 50 years or more since Dangerous Visions, the world has become saturated with stories. Films, tv, video games, advertising, social media, politics, electoral theatre, the 24 hours a day psychodrama of ego and delusion that is Twitter.
It’s hard to see where and how short form science fiction could claw back a sliver of attention in today’s attention economy.
But if there is a hope for the science fiction story, it might be in recapturing the spirit of Dangerous Visions. The world is full of stories. But most are determined to please. Few, if any any, set out to be dangerous.
I still love short form SF. I love the potential for a few thousands words to transport a reader into an imagined world, and in the process transform how we see this world. When done well, short form science fiction IS dangerous. It can change our narrative – and there’s nothing more dangerous in the world than that.
There’s no shortage of READERS out there. There are billions of us glued to our smartphones, soaking up blog posts, op-eds and think pieces. Why aren’t SF stories in that mix? Because they stopped being dangerous.
If short form SF can find the spirit of Dangerous Visions again, it might have its long awaited comeback.
Advanced SciFi & Fantasy
Writing the 21st century myth
Damien Walter, writer on sci-fi and geek culture for The Guardian, BBC, WIRED and graduate of the Clarion writers workshop, leads a journey into scifi and fantasy storytelling.
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