There’s one more story with between five and ten recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. This is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” by James Van Pelt, published in Analog. I gather from other reviews that this is an entertaining read, but it’s not available online so I’ll have to defer comments. That’s means I’m done with this set of reviews and ready to sum up some thoughts.

As I expected, the message fiction thinly disguised as SFF dropped off as I got deeper into the list, to be replaced with the usual highly sentimental stuff that all the pro magazines publish these days. There’s heavy emotional content in every one of these stories. Limited themes. Four of the eight are about abused children, and one more is about elderly dementia. That suggests the Nebula is a competition to see who can provide the biggest emotional whallop.

Other than that, science fiction in general is clearly in trouble here. The two stories that might be SF only use that as a framework to present the story—it’s not at all necessary to the plot. There are no serious questions or ideas offered up, no real predictions of where we might be going in the future. I have to conclude that science fiction, what Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas” is dying. Instead, people want to cry about something.

So why is this happening? Some of it is social trends, of course. People may be just less interested in questions and ideas these days and more interested in emotional chills. But there’s something else, too, which is that this is how people are now taught to write. Last year I meant to comment on this, and I located this quote about teaching methods for children: “…an emphasis on emotions and feelings and ‘expressing’ them. This pressures children to produce work that is cathartic and trite—a very bad combination—and puts the teacher, to say nothing of the classmates, in the position of acting as an untrained, ersatz therapist…”

Unfortunately the link I have for this now seems to be bad, meaning it may have been taken down. More fortunately, there are other sources available. For example, Advanced Writing: Fiction and Film by Wells Earl Draughon offers advice on how to get started on a successful story. Draughon suggests that opening with a character is dull and boring unless some kind of suffering is also attached. This hook attracts the reader and produced sympathy for the character that will lead into the story. By definition, this emotional hook has to be trite or “stock” in order for the reader to quickly understand it. Everyone now expects this. So, in order to get your story published, you have to sift through all the trite trigger situations out there and try to find a creative way to incorporate some overused theme, i.e. child abuse, into your story. If you’re really good at it, then you can be a star writer.

But where does this leave SFF as a genre? As a potential reader, I end up with a choice of the same stock situations used repeatedly as themes because they’ve got great emotional hooks. As a writer, I’m limited in what I can present because I have to stick to these strict requirements to capture an editor’s attention. Add to this the apparent trend to progressive message fiction in the pro magazines that the top of the Nebula list indicates, and you’ve got content that’s restricted to emotional, hot-button issues with no new ideas, and heaven forbid that there be any actual science in there. It’s too cold and clinical for a story to actually ask questions about space travel or the future of the human race.

Is there any hope for change on this?