People writing book reviews today all grew up in the 20th Century. When I was a kid the 21st Century was a far-off future inhabited by the characters from Gerry Anderson TV shows. And yet now here we are. In some ways the lives we lead are very science-fictional compared to what we knew back then. But people are still writing science fiction, and I occasionally see reviewers using the phrase, "21st Century science fiction". What does it mean?
Well, who knows? But let us, for the moment, play the Movements game and try to think how SF written now might be different from what was written then. Here’s a very simple classification.
19th Century SF was centered on Europe and came out of the old empires that collapsed after World War I. Classic writers were Verne and Wells, and the prevailing technology was mechanical.
20th Century SF was centered on the US and began with the idea of space as an extension of the Frontier (Heinlein). From there it evolved into the Galactic Pax Americana of Star Trek, and finally to a future ruled by sinister American corporations (cyberpunk). The prevailing technology was electronic and, latterly, digital.
21st Century SF, in contrast, will concentrate on the future after the fall of the American economic empire. It will often be set in former Communist countries, and in countries now regarded as "Third World" such as India and Brazil. The prevailing technology will be biological. Early examples of the sub-genre might be M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life, Geoff Ryman’s Air, and Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (not to mention the eagerly awaited Brasyl).
Where does all this lead us? Why, to a book review of course. Indeed, to a review of a book that fits squarely in the definition above. The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson is set in a resurgent Mexico, led by President for Life, Emil Obregón. The Mexicans have their own Pope, have renamed their capital Ascensión in recognition of their rise to the status of a world power, and they are busily reconquering Tejas.
This hits me like a cricket bat because it is exactly what I have been trying to do writing wise since Chaga/Evolution's Shore only I was too dumb to realise it. Now, because I don't look good in an orange jump-suit, or much desire to be turned around and headed back to bonny Belfast the next time I try to enter the US, I wouldn't go so far as to say 'fall of the American economic empire' (though Cheryl chooses her words carefully here), but certainly a century where the US vision is not the sole one, or even the prevailing one, is what I'm about. I feel it will be a 21st century SF about the 21st century, and not the far distant spaces of a future where all nationalities (thus avoiding the problem for British sf writers about how to get Brits in Space rather than having to write about Americans) have homogenised.
It is also points up what I found vaguely unsatisfactory about the mundanistas: while there was much I agreed with about the kind of sf it proposed, it seemed too mundane yet insufficiently worldly. The game itself, (as Geoff proposes) is entertaining, but seems too much part of SF's interior dialogue to revitalise the genre, particularly with that general readership that enjoys SF when it comes across it, as long as it doesn't look like that stuff with spaceships with lots of windows. But an SF that looks beyond the American Century to the century we will surely inhabit, in all its diversity and conflict and challenge, seems to me a lot more relevant, and accessible.
(And thanks for the nod for the next book, Cheryl, as well)