Half of the writer's complaint about modern SF is entirely valid: the absurd, bloody-minded obsession with The Trilogy or The Series. Tolkien probably changed modern literature more than any other single writer in the 20th century, and you can view those changes as being for good or for ill; but it is without dispute that he bequeathed to fantasy, and to a lesser extent SF, a certain awful legacy: we can't have proper stand-alone novels any more. They have to come in three volume packages, or worse. There is probably no single thing about fantasy/SF as a genre that annoys me more than this - if you can't tell me a good, satisfying story in 400 fucking pages you aren't trying hard enough.
The other half, I am puzzled by. It is best set out in this sentence:
There is a problem...with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction.
This connects to an earlier comment on the GRRM piece:
At the most basic level, if Martin can’t write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I’m certainly prepared to believe he can’t) then he has no business writing anything. He is basically saying he has no eye, no ear, no empathy. And that is why it is speaks to the problem of commercial fantasy in general.
Which seems to say the same thing in a different way: modern SF (and fantasy) needs to, in some sense, speak to the real world. And while SF perhaps achieves this more than fantasy, it still suffers from an artistic problem: it is mired in genre and stylistically and narratively conservative:
[D]espite Osiris's fundamentally progressive approach, both publisher and writer have made equally fundamentally conservative choices. For Swift, that is to play it safe artistically: the two placeholder protagonists representing philosophies as much as people, the interleaving chapters getting shorter and faster as they go, the third person narrative that cares a bit about voice but more about story. It turns out that at the novel's heart is not a question about how we live our lives now but instead a conspiracy. There is always a bloody conspiracy. Whether it is fantasy's palace intrigue or SF's corporate secrets, there is always a piece of hidden knowledge that will unlock the world. But, of course, there isn't. With wearying inevitability, the novel climaxes with a set piece action scene (it is safe to say such scenes are not Swift's strong point). In this way, the novel's potential ends up dribbling away down the plug hole.
I should say first of all that I am not one of those people for whom the word 'conservative' is an automatic negative and 'progressive' an automatic positive (which seems to make me bizarrely counter-cultural and radical among my peers, but that's another issue). Nowhere is this truer in literature. As an undergraduate I had to read Dos Passos, Gaddis, Stein, and plenty of other "progressive" writers (both politically and stylistically) and found little or nothing there to love; my general feeling about literature which is self-consciously "progressive" is that it tends to be cold, arch, and unentertaining.
Be that as it may, stylistic evolution is important; without it we'd still be reading Cervantes. (Though I have to say, as somebody who reads a reasonable amount of SF I just don't recognise the genre the reviewer is describing: it seems to me to be much less stylistically conservative overall than any other, but perhaps I am reading the wrong books.) What concerns me more is this idea that genre fiction has to "address" or "speak to" issues - be they to do with post-20th Century resource scarcity or anything else.
No, before you get ahead of me: this isn't one of those paeans to escapism. It has its virtues, but that's a conversation for another day. This is something more fundamental, to do with the nature of fiction and authorship, and it is this: professional writers of fiction are, probably, with the exception of movie stars and musicians, the least appropriately qualified people in the world to speak with any authority whatsoever about important 'issues', and yet we are expected to not only indulge them in their phony philosophizing and half-educated musings, but pay them for the pleasure of it - for the wonder of being enlightened by their ill-formed and incorrect opinions. Why on earth they should arrogate for themselves such a role is beyond my comprehension - except for the obvious armchair psychology of noting that writers tend to be college educated and "intellectual", and that sort of person tends to think that not only do they know best; everybody else should hear about it. "Issues writers" are like impotent, frustrated people who post on forums on obscure websites - the only difference being that, because they happen to be good at telling marketable stories, we're expected to take their impotent, frustrated opinions seriously.
Bruce Sterling once wrote that science fiction writers are court jesters. They caper about making fools of themselves, while occasionally uttering veiled words of wisdom and speaking truth to authority behind the veneer of a joke. I would go along with that, although my assessment is perhaps unkinder: there is no truth for writers to speak, and their wisdom can only be of that homespun, general kind which your grandmother has more of in her little finger.
When I read fiction books I do so to be entertained - that's what I'm paying for. I am giving you money in exchange for amusing, exciting, horrifying, mind-blowing and/or beautiful lies arranged in a certain order with a beginning, middle and end. I can make up my own mind about resource scarcity, and have no need whatsoever to hear what Paolo Bacigalupi has to say about it. In fact he's close to the bottom of the list of People Whose Opinions On Resource Scarcity I Actually Care About, just above Justin Bieber and the guy who's always hanging around the local supermarket and urinating on himself. Which is to say nothing about his writing skills, which may be excellent; it is to say only that they have no bearing on anything when adults are talking.
Professional writers make shit up for a living. Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them. Simply put: Tell me a good story that makes me glad to be alive in the world, and fuck everything else. Dance, Paolo Bacigalupi. Dance!