Notes from The Buffer Zone: 

The Past is Another Country


Kristine Kathryn Rusch


Lately, when I look at science fiction, I find myself looking at the past.

Some of that is my age: I’m now old enough that the world of my childhood is so far distant from this world that it actually needs explanation to anyone under the age of forty. I remember when World War One vets marched in the Veteran’s Day parade—when old people were people who were born in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. I knew some of the pioneers of the modern age of science fiction. Some were my instructors and a few became my friends.

I met others at a conference, and got to shake their hands. And a few others I watched from afar, too nervous to even try speaking to them.

Another reason that I’m looking to the past is because it’s being forgotten. In September, an anthology I edited Women of Futures Past appears. It shows how women science fiction writers have always been with us and, more importantly (at least to me), how they influenced what’s being written today. Early next year, I’ll be Kickstarting some anthologies that will reprint lost stories from sf’s past—award-winning and award-nominated stories by authors whose names you might not have heard of.

And yet, those anthologies are not the only reason I find myself looking toward the past.  I’m feeling weirdly nostalgic for something I used to rail against. I used to hate the closed, high-school feel of the science fiction genre, the fact that Certain People seemed to be the Kings and Queens of science fiction conventions, and that the sf press was essentially a state-run business, charged with keeping those In Power in power.

I hated that aspect of sf, and now that sf has become widespread and diverse, I find myself thinking of the old system a lot.

It has taken me months to figure out why.

The old system was easier.

It’s so much easier to have someone point to one story, and say This the story of the year. If I disagreed, I could argue, No, that’s the story of the year. And then we’d argue, because we had both read the two stories in question.

Now, the sf community has sprawled. Dozens of magazines, some online. Lots of writers self-publishing their books, or small presses publishing books, books I’ll never see. Lots of anthologies appear that never vie for my attention—anthologies I would read with great pleasure if they came my way.

Honestly, I love this new world. Most of what I like about science fiction is going through a resurgence now, precisely because the narrow-minded gatekeepers are either dead, unemployed, or without a state-run vehicle to promote their points of view. (Most of those narrow-minded gatekeepers don’t seem to understand what a blog is, let alone the fact that they could actually write one.)

There are at least eight year’s-best anthologies coming out in print for science fiction stories published in 2015. That doesn’t count the year’s-best anthologies for fantasy or horror, which brings the total to at least eleven, if not more. And then there are the year’s-best anthologies that are ebook- and audio-only. I’m not even counting those, because I can’t find all of them quickly.

The awards have proliferated so much that I can no longer keep track of what award exists for which story type, and whether or not those awards are run by a pack of judges or voted by the fans.

Science fiction book lines at big publishers like Penguin Random House are shrinking, but science fiction book lines from medium-sized publishers are growing. And none of that counts all the books that are being published by the authors themselves.

Gone are the days when I could walk into an sf convention and know what the latest titles are, who the hot new writer is, and what trend everyone will be talking about. Last column, I mentioned Mirrorshades, the influential 1980s anthology edited by Bruce Sterling, which sent winds of change through the genre so strong that sf never looked the same again.

I can’t remember the last time a single anthology changed the face of sf. A decade? Maybe more? I have no idea.

Oh, certain subsets get changed. They each have their own influential anthology, the thing that they are discussing in their own circle.

And really, that’s not very different from the folks in the sf genre discussing a book that the folks in the mystery genre never heard of. But it feels different, because the bifurcations are happening inside the genre now.

I realized that my focus on the past of sf isn’t really a desire to return to the bad old days when people I mostly disagreed with determined what was Important and what was not.

My focus on the past is a desire to be able to wrap my arms around the entire genre, to hold it close and understand it, just like I used to. It’s a desire for control, which I never really had in the past.

I only had the illusion of control.

Now I have real control, and I find myself overwhelmed by it. At least six different studies have shown that too much choice overwhelms a consumer. (And those six studies have sparked a dozen different TED talks—ack! More choice!) Consumers are happier when they have fewer choices.

The key isn’t to limit the product. I really want all those magazines, and year’s-best anthologies and the short story resurgence. I love the fact that adventure fiction has made a comeback, thanks to indie- and self-published writers. I like the fact that those narrow-minded gatekeepers are gone.

The key to handling all the choice is to find a way to thumb through it. I haven’t yet found a community that will help me filter my choices. Part of my problem is that I’ve always been an eclectic reader. I like a little bit of everything, unlike most consumers. I enjoy literary fiction. I like badly written fiction with great plots. I like slow-moving character stories. I like stories that move so fast you can’t put them down. And on, and on, and on.

Maybe I’m looking less for what I want to read than what I want to dismiss. In the past, when everything was heavily curated, I could dismiss things curated by So ’n So, because his tastes differed from my so drastically that I couldn’t read what he liked. Or I could rule out everything written by That Author, because That Author only wrote a certain kind of bug-eyed monster story.

Cue the modern era, and I learn that That Author also wrote grand space opera and quiet little character studies, and his narrow-minded curator thought no one would want to read those stories. Even though I would have.

I have no real conclusions here, no words of wisdom, no good way to end this little column.

Just wanted to make a little observation, and add this one to it:

I do realize it’s deeply ironic that while I’m contemplating science fiction, the literature of the future, I find my mind trapped in the past. Sure wish I could find a solution for it.