Clinging to the Wreckage: How to Save Science Fiction

In its introduction to its list of the best science fiction and fantasy of the year, the io9 website says 2012 was a great year for books that transcended genre boundaries. I had no problem with them talking about science fiction that turned out to be fantasy (not sure what they actually meant by that, since it’s all fantasy in the dictionary sense of the word, rather than the publishing category). But I do question their statement that “stories that began as outer space battles turned into thought-provoking meditations on the political future of humanity.” Seriously? But, doesn’t the best science fiction do that anyway? And has it not always done so? This kind of disingenuousness is one of the issues that plagues the image of science fiction nowadays.

Leaving aside those who simply don’t want to read science fiction, there appear to be two schools of thought about the genre’s relative value. One, that it can (should?) extend beyond its genre boundaries. And two, that there’s nothing wrong with straight science fiction that’s simply for fun, and providing that sense of wonder that originated in the pulps. Here at AISFP we’re debating the apparent decline in adult SF readership, with authors turning to YA, which apparently sells better. Having no evidence to back this up, I suspect that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “reports on the death of science fiction have been greatly exaggerated.”

What are we actually discussing here? The decline of “hard” SF, or pure scientific/political extrapolation? Is fun space opera on the way out? While it’s true you’re unlikely to find Walter John Williams on the same bookshelf as JK Rowling — other than in the homes of those of us who read that widely — it’s surely true that the Star Wars books continue to sell well, and even game tie-ins like Tobias S. Buckell’s Halo novel and others of its ilk. This begs the question of whether movie and console game tie-ins are a good or bad thing. My own view is that, if it encourages people to read, there’s nothing wrong with the tie-ins. As to whether this moves people to seek out more SF, by different authors, unrelated to a film of TV series, that’s debatable.

In my short tenure as a reviewer for AISFP,  and looking at the advance catalogues from publishers, I am seeing less of what I would call science fiction per se, though there is still quite a decent amount of that around. Instead, there appear to be more crossovers and pure fantasies these days (most recently, Kay Kenyon’s A Thousand Perfect Things). Frankly, I found this a little surprising. And, looking at some publishers’ advance listings, what comes under the general science fiction banner contains more fantasy than what I would deem science fiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, the publishing labels “science fiction,” “fantasy,” “horror,” and even “literature” are just that: labels. I believe what is happening these days is often a mélange. Science fiction-cum-fantasy-cum-horror (the current vogue for zombie books and films is the perfect illustration of this). As for the literary value of science fiction, why is that so important? Isn’t it okay that science fiction can simply be for fun, while also leaving room for the literary end of the genre.

Margaret Atwood, so beloved of the literati and an author for whom I have the highest regard, once denied having written science fiction, but later moderated her comments somewhat. Oryx and Crake, a recent novel, is absolutely science fiction — okay, purists, maybe there’s some fantasy in there as well — and The Blind Assassin has many science fictional passages and pays homage to pulp SF of yore. Not forgetting The Handmaid’s Tale – also science fiction. And, in response to a question show host, Tim Ward, sent me by email, these are the very types of novels that would appeal to readers who claim despise science fiction. I’d also add Audrey Niffenegger’s wonderful The Time Traveler’s Wife.

To come back to the question of authors changing horses from adult science fiction to YA, what’s wrong with that? Sure, they want to make some money. But it’s not as though YA is a downgrade. I feel confident in saying that YA at its best can appeal to adult readers as much as teens. For my own part, it was Robert Heinlein’s books for teenagers (we were not back then called “YAs”) which introduced me to the wonders of science fiction. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy, which went to prove one can actually write morally complex, dystopian science fiction marketed to young people.

So, let’s not be afraid of the potential death of science fiction, but instead welcome the evolution of literary forms. In much the same way that music continues to change and grow, with techno tracks meshing with folk and world music, for example (Afro Celt Sound System, Nitin Sawhney, et al.), science fiction also is bound to change with the times.

The closure of the major bookshop chains such as Borders, and suggestions that literacy levels are dropping, haven’t helped the sales of books generally, and certainly not science fiction in articular. However, the popularity of reading devices such as the Kindle and the Nook are driving an upsurge of sales of e-books, and it tends to be the SF geeks who are first to adopt any new technology. Which means that, if SF as was generally understood has an evidently lower profile, we can’t blame readers. People are certainly reading. So it may be just the current zeitgeist that’s to blame.

Bookshops and publishers will push the flavor of the month at the expense of equally worthy material. Interestingly the bookshop chain in Scotland, Waterstone’s, has good, varied science fiction shelves, while their fantasy and horror shelves tend to be dominated by the Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings. If science fiction is indeed declining, why then does Waterstone’s offer such a great choice, if it’s down to economics or reader disinterest?

I suspect that uncertainty, suspicion, or even embarrassment, has something to do with the poor image of SF. I knew a rabid SF fan, who would shove his latest read behind a cushion if his wife, or friends, happened on him reading on the couch. Embarrassed to be caught reading science fiction. Then there are those who view the genre with suspicion or uncertainty: if it’s set in the future, or about something that doesn’t exist, why would it interest me? In much the same way that some people who love Stephen King claim they never read horror novels.

I’m not convinced that non-SF readers understand the delights the genre holds, and may even have some fixed ideas about it being spaceships and aliens, or something of the sort. All us SF fans could do worse than introduce our non-fan friends to some of the literary works I mention here, and even some of the great short stories in the genre that prove that 1) you don’t need to know any science to enjoy sf, 2) that it is worthy of respect and enjoyment as any other literary form and 3) remind them that some of the films they enjoyed are actually science fiction (Inception, The Adjustment Bureau, Gamer – all fine examples of films that are respectful to science fiction). 

Another problem is that mainstream newspapers rarely review science fiction. The UK’s Guardian newspaper does, but I can’t think of others, off the top of my head. A more mainstream presence, whether in the broadsheets or the tabloids, would potentially give the genre more credence that it’s credited with right now. If only science fiction were talked about in the open, rather than hidden in a cupboard (see my own blog posting, The SF Word and More Hollywood Curses) the situation might change.  AISFP listeners and readers could do worse than direct their friends to the show, too (shameless plug)- and listen to some of the incisive interviews which demonstrate even more of the things that can potentially improve the image of science fiction with a wider audience. The science fiction community, as I know it, is generous, widely read across different genres, and themselves would make great ambassadors for the genre – if for no other reason than to prove that cosplay and trekkiedom is only a populist misconception about what science fiction really is.

Finally, while I would welcome more straight-ahead science fiction, I don’t believe we need to cling to the old tropes. Genre lovers can be every bit as hidebound in their thinking as the literati. But I also agree with io9 that the best science fiction does indeed transcend genre boundaries.

Instead of desperately clinging to the wreckage, why don’t we just gather up all that splintered wood and floatation and build a new boat? Or, at least, a liferaft.
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John Dodds Article by John Dodds

John Dodds is the author of The Kendrick Chronicles crime novels (Bone Machines and Kali’s Kiss ) and, under a pseudonym, JT Macleod, has written a collection of historical/paranormal/erotic/romance stories called Warriors and Wenches, as well as the first novel in YA steampunk series called The Mechanikals.

46 Responses to “Clinging to the Wreckage: How to Save Science Fiction”

  1. Perhaps the problem is that the SF fandom has spent too long reading SF and thus has developed rarified tastes? A bit like classical music having drifted to the point that it is no longer accessible to the mainstream.

    • And thus isn’t embracing the popularity of genre mashups? I would think that these mashups would help lure those traditionalists into a wider net of genres. This is an interesting comment, because it asks whether the low SF readership is due to traditionalists not reading mashups, or whether the wider public isn’t interested in SF because of what it looked like decades ago. Either way, I think John has a good point about using mashups to reach a wider audience. The onus on us then is to point fans of other genres to SF that could be a close brother in style.

    • I’m not sure that SF fandom has developed rarified tastes. It’s possible, of course. Although it seems to me that SF readers as a breed are more open-minded to other, and read more widely than other genre reading groups. For example, I know a number of crime buffs who wouldn’t go near SF, while I know plenty of SF folks who love crime…and horror…and fantasy…and mainstream literature. I do take your point, though. It might be interesting for us to try a survey on the notion.

      • I take your point about the broad minded thing.

        However, SF folk read one book in the light of other books. They – we- want to see new takes on tropes, and a kind of discourse with the genre as a while. Mainstream folk want – to generalize – laser guns, killer robots, and sex with aliens.

        • sex with aliens, see that’s worth reading about… Er… Well in a SF sort of biological. blood and guts sort of way. (Sex with Aliens! Imagine that, or not!)

  2. Great article, John.

    Though I don’t have hard statistics to back it up, I firmly believe that SciFi is more popular than ever. This perception is skewed because, despite its enormous and pervasive appeal, there is still a stigma attached to SciFi fandom. People who love movies and books that are clearly SciFi in nature, choose not ot identify themselves as SciFi fans, because they think that there is a weird obsessiveness that goes along with it.

    When people say they ‘hate’ SciFi, I immediately start quizzing them. Even if they haven’t chosen to read much SciFi, they almost always liked a ton of SciFi or Fantasy movies, but they explain them away as being an exception, or belonging to another genre (e.g. time travellers wife = romance). The fact is that SciFi is SO massive as a genre, that it overarches numerous (all?) other genres – SciFi Romance, SciFi Murder mystery, SciFi Action, SciFi Drama, SciFi War, Western and Historical.

    It seems to be simultaneously a victim of its own success (so pervasive that people identify it by its subgenre) and yet still shunnedfor some imagined connection with an obsessive subculture. Perhaps SciFi only appears to be dying because it’s gone from subculture to mainstream, without the majority idntifying themselves as the fans that they are.

    • I feel the same way about SciFi seeming to be blowing up in popularity, but mainly through movies and TV. Lots of police procedurals w/advanced tech and genetic modification creating many of our bad guys, but you’re right, people don’t identify that as SciFi. I don’t know about statistics either, aside from just hearing authors say how much better a career in writing Fantasy is over SciFi. Is it because SciFi is more prevelant in media, so people are getting their fix that way? Personally, I have more SciFi books to read than I have time to read them, and that’s just what’s been released in the last few months.

    • Great points, Scott. That’s an interesting idea, about SF moving more into the mainstream. I may be that some fans would prefer the genre to be less mainstream. A lot of SF has an ant status quo feel, even anti-authoritarian, perhaps. And I don’t just mean Philip K. Dick paranoia. Look at what Charles Stross and some of his contemporaries are doing.

  3. This dovetails with the greying of fandom seen at cons like Worldcon.

    However, media cons like Comiccon are more popular than ever. Movies are full of genre elements. I think written SF may be changing, but science fiction and fantasy in general is bigger than ever.

    The trick will be if today’s YA readers become tomorrow’s fantasy and SF readers.

    • That’s a great point about the YA readers possibly becomming the next wave of SF readers. I hope so. My biggest problem is not being drawn into the character perspective of YA fiction, so when my favorite authors (like T.C. McCarthy) move to YA, that means I won’t be getting the books I want to read from them. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe he’ll bring me into YA.

      How do you think written SF is changing? Do you mean how it is blending into other genres?

    • Yes, I gather the cons are veering more to being comics, movies and computer games fairs these days, not that I have attended one, but I’ve heard suggestions to that effect on the podcast. And, yes, I feel it’s highly likely that YA readers will become SF and fantasy fans – I did, though, as I said in the blog, I wasn’t called a young adult back in the day.

  4. “The death of SF” has itself become a trope.

    In addressing questions of “where is the genre going?”, one ought to ask “where has it been?” as a starting point.

    Although some excellent literary historians have mined the subject, there is no real consensus: start with Gilgamesh; start with de Bergerac; start with Bellamy; start with Shelley, Verne, Wells. SF drew its roots from the gothic, from social satire, from political screed, the scientific romance, the Arthurian legends, Greek and other myths. In short, SF was and always has been cobbled together from earlier forms, continues to engage with them and has the strength to be able to accommodate just about anything to one degree of success and acceptance or another.

    Where is it going? The same place it came from. Art evolves. It may evolve under the pressure of base considerations like markets and sales or more loftier ones such as the author’s desire to stretch and explore new territory, or as answer to other works, a desire to replicate what one enjoys, or even out of ignorance of what has gone before. Certainly combinations thereof.

    Whether it remains “successful” – as measured by sales and popularity and space on bookshelves is an entirely different question. By today’s standards, SF was largely unsuccessful from the 20s through the 50s – at least in comparison to today. And yet it grew and thrived and prospered anyway.

    Perhaps what we are witnessing is more the effect of external pressures brought to bear; in the US, the general anti-intellectual, anti-science mood contributes; so does the effect of niche marketing; electronic media vs traditional, with all of its attendant disruptions to distribution, budgets, etc.

    YA ought not to be seen as a problem; a whole generation of SF fans was created by the “juvenolves” of Heinlein and Norton and others.

    The glancing embrace of authors like Atwood though – there is a problem there. Deny your work is SF when it clearly is, realize you’re hurting your sales as a result and THEN write a book attempting to redefine the genre – as if you really knew it – that has a negative effect on the perception of the genre by those who might be enticed to read it? (That’s elevating yourself at the expense of others, negative promotion). The entire exercise boils down to “Atwood good, SF trashy”. Unacceptable.

    What we really have going on is the failure of fandom, not the genre itself. Fandom hasn’t found a way to embrace these changes and therefore has no effective voice in helping to shape the face of the genre as expressed through the works published. It used to have a fairly large influence – communicating directly with the leading editors of the day, generating tons of debate, rewarding the producers of the art they approved of. Simply put, the “mundanes” now influence the genre far more than the fans do.

    • Thanks so much for contributing to this, Steve. I admit changing the title to avoid the trope of “death” because I don’t think it’s dead, or dying. I’m somewhat new to the media aspect of SF, so I’m trying to get a feel for why SF doesn’t have enough a strong enough readership that people like T.C. McCarthy decide to step away from the genre (maybe his YA will have SF in it, I don’t know).

      My thoughts on YA is that it’s not a downgrade to write it, but it’s the lower end of my interest level as a reader. I developed my love for reading through YA, but now I’m more interested in characters with adult problems, so YA characters aren’t as engaging.

      The failure of fandom is another great point. What can we do? That’s my main goal in bringing T.C.’s article to my team and audience’s awareness. It seems fandom failed to spread the word about and pay for his book, and the consequences of him moving to YA fandom are sad. I want SF fandom to be just as strong. How can we get fandom to embrace this new age of technology and communication? Is this about educating people on how to leave reviews? Or the benefits of ereaders for getting book deals (are people unable to afford new releases at bookstores, so they buy all their books at half price stores, thus not supporting new releases?).

    • Thanks for the long, thoughtful feedback. That comment about the anti-intellectual, anti-science mood may well contribute. I feel that to many truly stupid science fiction films (Oblivion – so dire I couldn’t get past the first 20 minutes, but feel free to disagree and let me know if I should watch it to the end) don’t help the genre. either. As for sales, margins and epublishing, Michael Moorcock once said he didn’t feel he’d made it as an author until his novels started finding their way into the Woolworth bargain bins.

      • There is a cost to “stupid” mass media SF fare. Films, games and television are exposed to a much wider audience than literature is (“yet another indication of the incipient decline and fall of western civilization”); bad SF in media has certainly contributed to turning a large number of individuals away from the genre.

    • That sounds like YA with more swearing and sex, which could backfire to parents not wanting their kids to read it because they can’t trust what they’re consuming. Maybe it’s always been that way, new stuff edgier than parents want, I don’t know. There is a New Adult category gaining popularity.

      • Yes, there’s already a problem with YA dividing between MG friendly (which I can let my son read) and teenage-friendly (which I can’t!).

        However, I was meaning that… well, a lot of adults read YA because it offers fast-paced stories in digestible reads and delivers the tropes, i.e. is *fun*. What I’m wondering is whether we’ll see a kind of Neo-Pulp category like that, but with dollops of sex and violence, and specifically *for* adults.

        • Fast paced and digestible sounds like what I’m looking for. I think Bryan Thomas Schmidt is going for that angle with his anthologies, a fun SF. My problem is not caring much for short fiction. I’m up for that without too detailed dollops into sex. I’m prude like that, I guess.

          • Not that short, but the same length as genre books in the 60s and 70s, say 30-60 thousand words.

            As for the sex – nothing wrong with being a prude. :) However I stand by my prediction.

          • I think your prediction is accurate and highly possible. I enjoyed Extinction Point as a shorter work, in spite of some logic problems.

  5. The “problem of fandom” is what I am attempting to address with Amazing Stories. I’ve deliberately courted graying old fandom (of which I am a graying member) and younger fans for at least two generations.

    As always, there are younger fans who are “real fans” (I’m not embracing exclusion here), by which I mean they are captivated by the entirety of genre fiction and have a yen to learn as much as they can; these are not the readers or watchers who say things like “Oh, I hate black and white” or “I couldn’t read it because half of the problems could have been solved if they had imagined cell phones”; (and by and large the huge number of attendees at the “media cons” are NOT those kinds of fans – more on that momentarily).
    When I “became a fan” (60s/70s) I wanted to learn everything I could about the genre – its history, its people, because I’m a history buff but also because I recognized, on a visceral level, that it is absolutely a product of EVERYTHING that has gone into it over the years – at least since 1926; simply put, Haldeman could not have written and published The Forever War if not for Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Heinlein couldn’t have written that if not for Wonder Stories publishing a writing contest that got him started and that wouldn’t have happened if not for…(No, TFW was not a direct answer to ST, but that’s not the thrust here) and ad infinitum into the future. Our current faves owe most, if not everything to what has gone before, whether they embrace it or reject it.
    I had one other thing going for me: older fans who were on a mission to recruit new fans and make sure that they became FANS, not just superficial readers of a few works. THAT is one thing that seems to be in short supply these days. I’m constantly reading blogs or comments from younger folks who go to a “real” SF con (volunteer, run by fans for fans) who felt they were rebuffed, felt lost. And yet for every 100 of those, I’ll read one that says something like “Oh, I’ve finally found my people!”
    FANS are born, but then they are made. The vast majority of potential fans are largely products of their age – more focused on media than the literature, more interested in vicarious experience (standing in line for hours to get an autograph from a TV actor) than they are in engaging in fannish activities. This focus is seen as entirely superficial, not real and not worth the time to “correct” on the part of older would-be mentor fans because – the kernal of truth – true love and fannish adoration for the genre begins and ends with the LITERATURE. It’s great that we’ve got movies galore, and games and television shows that can appeal to our interests to one degree or another, but if you focus more on an anime show or playing Halo and collecting the figures and your only engagement with the literature is a few tie-in novels – you just don’t get it. You’ve only been exposed to one very limited form; you probably think giant ring structures in space were invented by the game designers – you know nothing of Niven, let alone Dyson. You can’t be a FAN because you’re ignorant (and probably stupid and superficial).
    PLEASE NOTE: I am describing the environment, NOT necessarily expressing my personal views.
    SF is not explosions in space or giant robots tearing up sky scrapers. If you can’t talk about how a film supports or diverges from its literary roots – not-a-fan.
    Fandom was never huge, nor will it ever be. The trick, as I see it, is to gently bring the two “sides” together by exposing both to their shared interests. That kid playing Halo all the time who thinks space combat is cool might be interested in the fact that Paul Cook (author of HALO – “oh yeah, I read that!”) also wrote some non tie-in novels. If you liked his writing, maybe you might want to stretch a little. And maybe the old fart explaining all of that might actually enjoy playing Halo for a bit if introduced to it by someone who shares their interests.
    It will take the efforts of older, GOF fans to work. Once they’re gone, they’re gone and everything they’ve built will go unless they can find a way to pass it on. Onus on the old men sitting around the campfire. But they’re largely not going to find a willing audience at media cons because the majority of those attending have already sorted themselves into the “only interested in receiving” end of the pool. Most would never think of volunteering to work on a con, or write a fanzine or review a book. Three years from now they’ll be off on the next item of fleeting interest. A few will fall out, look for better pastures.
    So – prospective fans have to demonstrate some interest beyond the superficial AND the graying old fans have to be willing to take the time to encourage them. There’s bits and pieces of that going on SF Outreach for example, behind the scenes stuff at Amazing, etc – but we need more. We need the not graying yet fans to reach out and the graying fans to receive them in a welcoming and supportive way.

    • I would like to see teachers assigning more SF in public schools and higher education. That will help curtail the attitude that SF is less worthy of attention than the literary counterparts. Since graduating I’ve been free to read what I want, but it’s meant trying to play catch up across Fantasy, SF and Horror, as well as reading new releases for blogging/podcasting purposes. This has led to me not fully understanding the roots of any. I think I’m still a fan, though.

      I enjoyed meeting Glen Cook at DemiCon this year. He had some interesting things to say about writing in the 70′s and publishing since then. He was a little upset with how readers have responded to some of his more challenging style of names and plot. I wonder if that is a common dividing wall between GOF and the non greys.

      I would like to hear from GOF in ways that introduce classics and what draws them into the stories. The new releases have blurbs across social media and people reviewing them, but the classics are rarely talked about aside from titles and authors, nothing about why I should read their stories.

      I didn’t make the connection of you being in charge of Amazing Stories. I don’t make time to read a lot of blogs, but I’ve seen some really helpful posts on there, mostly via Michael Sullivan. I’ll try and browse your site more often. I’m also a late adapter to RSS, like many GOF, I assume.

      • Tim,

        I’ve got several planks: creating a better fandom (sustaining it is more the act right now); seeing SF and its authors elevated to the level of respect, involvement (and pay) they are truly deserving of. Consider that the worlds they dreamed up are largely the world we live in and you’ll have some idea of where I think they ought to be in the pantheon – certainly drawing more attention than Kim Kardashian. And the basic idea that SF is a tool that we can (and have used) to create a better future.
        I liken SF to forecasting for the future. Not predicting (prediction means: tomorrow at precisely 1:04 am est a sinkhole will open in your backyard. It will be 200 feet deep and roughly 15 feet in diameter and will swallow your swimming pool.) Forecasting, or the term I’ve currently been using – “modelling” is the action of taking a set of known factors, the methods by which they interact, introducing some external factor(s) (such as time) and obtaining an output that one can examine. More often than not the output from a model only tells you that there are more factors that need to be included, or that there is something undiscovered about the way in which they interact, an unforseen relationship. But even that is good information when trying to figure out where we want to go in the future and how we’re going to get there.
        The thing that impressed me the most about the first generation of fans was that SF inspired them to believe that the future could be a better place. Perhaps more importantly, it also led them to the conclusion that they did not have to sit by passively as the future unfolded – they could make the future into what they wanted it to be. Many early fans went into the sciences or engineering so that they could have a hands on approach to creating that future. Others went into writing about it – attempting to show us the desirability of their imagined futures (or the pitfalls we needed to avoid).
        These days it is fashionable to say that SF is not predictive and I believe that is right and wrong. Right, because what they did was forecast, not predict, wrong because not including that as one of the purposes of SF means we’re giving up on intentionally trying to create a better future.
        Classics ahh classics. One of my pet peeves is that readers who are trained in the art of reading science fiction have learned to disconnect their knowledge of the real and engage in that suspension of disbelief and yet many turn their noses up at the classics because “computers don’t work on tape anymore” or “they treat women in an old school way”. Those same readers will devour an alternate history tale in which Germany won WWII. All they really need to do is extend their “suspension” one notch further. Think of EVERY SF work as presenting an “alternate history”. In Heinlein’s future, computer science didn’t progress as rapidly as it did for us – hence the tapes. (Not to mention that Heinlein’s universe was inhabited by the capable man, one who would eschew a computer in favor of knowing the math themselves and computing their orbits on a sliderule out of pride and for practice rather than simply not having had the ability to invent digital thinking machines.)
        You can’t read anything SF from today that isn’t firmly grounded in Doc Smith, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and Bradbury. Those ideas you’re getting excited about are OLD. And I will strongly suggest that a familiarity with the whole of the genre greatly enhances enjoyment of the genre. Not only that, but the total number of SF works written since 1926 til about 1990 or so is not an unapproachable pile. It’s quite accessible, relatively cheap to acquire. most novels are short (132, 168 page paperbacks) and a dedicated reader could probably largely catch up inside of a year. There are four or five anthologies that make the task even easier: Conklin’s The Big Book of Science Fiction, Healy & McComas’ Adventures in Time and Space, Silverberg’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame, The Hugo Winners Volumes 1 & 2 (Asimov), Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction…Wollheim’s The Pocket Book of Science Fiction.
        Unortunately for the new yet engaged reader, many of these works are going to seem like old hat – nt because they are, but because these are the original stories that developed the themes, concepts and tropes that make up the literature. These are the Originals. On the other hand, anyone who can handle reading A Princess of Mars by Burroughs can handle all the rest of it. (Another pet peeve: folks will read Shelly’s Frankenstein and excuse it all kinds of disconnects from today, yet will not even think of extending the same courtesy to other older SF pieces.)
        And yes, some of it does have to do with the era: when I started reading SF, humans had not yet walked on the Moon and computers were giant machines recording data on tape-to-tape reels. Television (US) had 3 channels plus PBS and shut off their broadcasts at midnight. Nuclear armageddon was a serious, daily concern; polio had just recently become preventable and folks were still innoculated against small pox. We believed our politicians (mostly), suburbia was being invented, there were no civil rights, etc., etc. So many of the things I was reading about were unknowns – possibilities, but not cemented in reality.

        Amazing Stories is a project. I’m asking fans to lend their eyeballs so that I can build it to the point of being able to give everyone free fiction. Eyeballs = advertising. Everything on the site is free and will remain so. Membership is free, so please feel ‘free’ to sign up and pop in.

        • Thanks so much for stopping by to share. It’s been great. I’ve signed up at Amazing Stories (will comment on the Transcendental review) and I’ve started adding those books to my Goodreads shelf. I’d have to really adjust my reading schedule to fit those in, especially since I don’t enjoy short fiction (or make time, there’s just something about the form that appeals less to reading for a few minutes at a time). When I got Gardner’s year’s best, I had lofty goals to read one story a week, but that never happened. When I say wanting to catch up, I mean the novels, but even those fall through the cracks as deadlines for interviews and releases end up taking prescendence. At this point in my reading taste, modern SF like Day One (Nate Kenyon) and Nexus (Ramez Naam) appeal more to me because they are the what if tech questions that are more likely than an alternate history type of story like you mentioned. Those have their place, and sometimes appeal… you know how reading tastes change. I’m going to have to pick this up later, just wanted to say thanks in case I get distracted from responding real soon.

          • Paul Weimer has created a series that is exactly what I’m looking for: http://skiffyandfanty.com/category/mining-the-genre-asteroid/, which he describes as, “Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.”

            I’m taking your advice, Steve, and will be looking up Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand next.

  6. If you enjoy that, move right on to Delaney’s Dhalgren. It truly is a mind-bender; a successful read will have you saying to yourself: huh – I could have sworn he wrote something different in that earlier chapter but now I can’t find it…it’s protean in nature, lyrical, dense and, while you may feel as if you’ve climbed Everest when you get to the end, you will also feel tremendously rewarded.

  7. For those that do like the old pulp sci-fi stories there is a free ezine called, Planetary Stories, still functioning, called, planetarystories.com. Most of the stories in the 29 issues are written out of love for the things written between, roughly, 1930 thru 1955, the golden age of the pulps. Within the pages, they also have two other publications, one being, Wonderlust, and the other, Pulp Spirit, for other types of stories. They’re all free and fun reading. I discovered it several years ago looking for something science fictiony to read and the stories don’t disappoint. I have enjoyed each issue. Hope this helps if you like rockets and adventures. Johnny

  8. Planetary Stories is an excellent example; there are many, many other “pulp” presses, not to mention folks doing old time radio (many of the shows in radio were pulp-based).

    Just search for “pulp” and you’ll find plenty to keep you busy for months

  9. Interesting article, it made me think, and reflect on an interview I recently did with James Gunn. One of the things he mentioned was the observation that science fiction is – like everything – subject to an evolution which depends on types of media which present it as a genre to audiences.

    Once upon a time long ago, science fiction writing and reading was an arena of magazines. It brought a distinct concentration of focus, both in terms of marketplaces as well as mindsets from both readers and writers. Over time, this moved on towards books – and in recent decades increasingly towards movies and TV formats.

    And that last part, has a definite influence on the orientation of the genre, as well as it bleeding over towards other genres. But even more so, it has had an effect on expectation patterns, as well as patterns of thinking. Something which influences both readers and writers alike. Consider here the impact of the vampire phenomenon, the fantasy focus in particularly TV series, but also how in more “core” science fiction the focus has become one of writing based on actions, rather than decisions (very visible in the screenwriting, and increasingly in self published science fiction writing).

    I can see the trend of writers moving from science fiction to other genres quite clearly. To be honest, only very few of those I interview stick with the genre. Many experiment in bleeding over the genre walls. A great many simply switch towards YA indeed. But I also see publishers pushing writers in that respect, very much so. Horror for example. And always the vampires.

    Still, I have to say, I also do see how those who stick with the genre, and who follow what one could call the decision type of story creation, are able to make their mark. Especially when they tap into what these days people quickly call styles of the golden days, adventure formats of exploration represents another clear angle. I did a show this week with one such writer, and a prerecord with another, who made quite the impact by NOT “bleeding over”.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Mack! Great addition to the conversation. If the trend went from magazines, to novels, to TV, I hope the novels stick and even grow. I’m somewhat new to reading SF, like six years, so I don’t know about authors who bled over into other genres. I’ll admit, after turning in my SF novel to the editor, I’ve begun work on a Rural Fantasy. I get the desire to branch out and experiment. I just don’t like to read about authors making the decision to move based on poor sales in SF.

      Who would you say have made an impact by not bleeding over? I don’t mind if you share about your show. I don’t think I’ve heard of it.

      • Well, one author springs to mind right there. Granted, he’s also published other works, though those are educational / non fiction, but he’s made an impact without bleeding over. Ben Bova.

        Truth be told, most of the “vested” names don’t have what you call bleeding over. It should be noted though that all of these names are from before the age of self publishing, and from well before the magazines started to, well, die. And from before the movie industry became an inspiration point. In that regard, one of the interesting commonalities in discussions with them that I’ve had is the movie 2001. Pretty much all of them mention that movie as a turning point. I’m inclined to agree.

        Science Fiction as a genre is, in contrast to appearances, not a small market. Not even a market getting smaller. In truth, the sales numbers show it is growing. But it IS susceptible to trends in competition, primarily because audiences these days are influenced by different types of media.

        Go back to the interbellum, or to the cold war era. Magazines were the trendsetters. But then TV set in, and while there was room for great science fiction settings there, it did pull attention away. From there it went to movies, and movies are even more commercial as they tend to be equivalents of venture capital management. What works gets done (which answers the question also of why these days we just get the reboot formula). And movies were able to reach large audiences all over the place, they took over as trend setters, with TV following suit as it became more commercial.

        There’s no real “trend hub” for science fiction, in a psychological sense (and sociological as well) because unlike other genres it requires a degree of emotional and intellectual investment. The same pattern is visible in for example the thriller genre, it was not until what is known as “scandinavian thrillers” had proven themselves commercially on TV and Movies on a European / National level that it became something interesting to pick up on for larger marketplaces.

        And I’m not even talking about vampires, which essentially comes down to applying age old marketing formulas of pushing behavioural buttons… :P

        Science Ficton has become a diluted genre, because it has no media trend or attention hub that carries it. At least not globally, or on a sufficiently interesting commercial level that volume marketing can be applied. As such, it is less obvious as interesting, or even rewarding. Add in self-publishing of childhood imaginations by the hundreds, and no real catalysts for media attention, and you get a strong incentive for writers to explore other genres.

        • Sorry, Mack, but I’m not sure I’m following. I’m not sure what you mean by “trend hub.” Other genres don’t require emotional and intellectual investment?

          By a diluted genre, do you mean that most of what Science Fiction that is consumed is via movies and TV, and that mainly just in new technology inserted into police dramas or thrillers (my thought)? Maybe this is a recent gripe of mine seeing the SciFi TV shows coming out recently are mostly just police dramas with cool gadgets.

          • I should have been more clear yes, my apologies.

            A trend hub is a medium which focuses attention on content, creates reach for created content (across prospect audiences) and which provides impact (much like social media does).

            In the early days, magazines were such a trend hub. Authors submitted stories, magazines were the default medium by which they reached audiences. In truth, audiences only knew those magazines as medium and source. Think of it as messaging or a broadcast, if you only have one or two stations, it is far easier to find what you look for, but it is also far easier to reach your prospect audiences because those two stations are all they know.

            As Jim Gunn, puts it (interview: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/james-gunn-grand-master-of-science-fiction apologies incidentally for the hiccups, unfortunately his phone had a reverb every now and then) we only had magazines. Then we also got TV, but TV did not have a dedicated station (so to speak) for science fiction. We then also got Movies, but there too we did not have such a dedicated content provisioning.

            That created a growing difficulty for science fiction (aside of the cultural trends he observes), very much like a new TV show has a difficult time reaching prospect audiences when those audiences can pick from a thousand channels. Once movies came along, the format changed even harder. Instead of exploring the imagination as such, the story telling itself changed. It’s easier to show what happens, as opposed to how or often even why, so to speak. It made us approach the content itself in a different manner.

            Instead of sitting down to imagine, we started to sit down to see. That may seem subtle, but it is quite imporant. It is very much inclined to work better by following the screenwriting methodology of “evolve story by action” – it’s simply easier to show that.

            Add to that the commercial element. Sure, content can be created to tailor to any niche. But it pays better to create to tailor to more. It’s like volume marketing. It’s also better paying to not reinvent the wheel, and stick with a formula which works.

            The only experimentation in that regard is commercially inspired. Let’s combine what works for this and that audience without facing the risk of potentially dealing with a niche audience. So we throw in police drama, so we throw in the gadget factor (which surprisingly often is an increasing additional revenue source for the movie industry as it is easy to link with brands / branding).

            To quote a certain screenwriter I had a conversation with a little while ago, who fortunately managed to not be lost anymore, science fiction is a known audience, but it is too risky to just cater to “as is” because expectations are nearly impossible to manage – it’s easier and it pays more to cater to a setting as futuristic and mix that with non science fiction elements.

            There’s an evolution of media which has affected science fiction, but also an evolution of culture (who today still goes into a career of science to name a shuttle after an imaginary spaceship now that culture focuses on looking good rather than being good) and an evolution of commercial methodology.

            Media has become distributed, and it has become very, very diverse. But it is ruled by commerce which seeks to create content cheapest to sell to the largest audience at the lowest cost. There is no “central” medium any more which serves as a source of science fiction. In fact, there was a certain TV network once which set out to fill that gap. Look at how commercial doctrine has changed the SciFi channel :P

            That’s why I find it so refreshing to come across writing which does not follow the example, perhaps even lure, of following the theme and commercial focus on movie inspired writing. Honsinger’s trilogy (conversation here: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/h-paul-honsinger-on-the-science-fiction-spotlight) is such an example.

            Nate Kenyon, who incidentally turned down the offer to write a star trek novel, however (interview here: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/5-star-author-nate-kenyon-on?in=authorsontheair/sets/science-fiction-spotlight) is a good example of how one can use a science fiction setting to follow a trend / popular general interest focus mixed with current topics, but also of how hard it is for a writer to stick with a single specific genre and not “bleed over”.

            Dystopian writing was once a part of science fiction writing, these days it is more or less in practical terms (commercial, marketing) its own genre. Military science fiction for example has become an effective sub genre, while in the past it very nearly stood as its own genre (which ended incidentally when the magazines died once we started to watch tv).

            Every genre requires an emotional and an intellectural investment. But depth, even if that is a bit of a risky word to use here, is a factor. Perhaps we should consider the difference between active consumption of content versus passive consumption. Active as use imagination, immersion in visualisation by means of imagination. Passive as in watch what happens. Maybe that makes it more clear why it is often so much easier for writers to take the approach of “story by action” – because passive consumption is not just what is prone to pay better, but it is what we have become used to.

    • That’s an excellent point, Mack, about writing based on actions rather than decision. Robert McKee makes a similar point in his books, Story, in which he spells out the difference between story (good) and plot (bad). A good story is driven by things which have an impact on the characters, on their emotions and instincts, whereas a plot is just a rote set of connections going from point A to point Z, often with little substance in between.

      • It’s a bit of a trend today, in many ways even a preferred trend. I recently had a bit of a discussion with some people at 47North and Tor, on the topic. One of the things which really popped up was that there is a strong preference for what is known as “consumable reading”, which follows the “evolution by action” format – mostly. I found it interesting that they made a distinction there in observations on published and self-published works, with the latter being more likely to get noticed if following that format, akin to screenwriting today in the science fiction genre.

        That said, it’s my observation that it is not a golden rule. As mentioned, I had that conversation with Mr. Gunn, as well as other authors, but it is also visible in the sales data from marketplaces like Amazon itself. There are exceptions. Even more, it is remarkable to see that when new writers don’t follow that general approach, they’re actually quite likely to rise to the top of the curves (and get picked up for publishing).

        Not to make a sales plug or something, but I had a conversation recently on a show with such an author (H. Paul Honsinger) in the sub genre of military science fiction, which turned out to be exactly such an exception to the “rule”. Not movie focused, or screenwriting focus, or action based evolution. Instead it was writing reminiscent of quite a few decades past. Rich atmosphere, decision based evolution, clear depth of field & character – and the authors books are quite the hit. I don’t know if it’s permissible to post the link, but to me it was quite a refreshing find :)

        And yes, I agree, McKee is right on the mark. Incidentally, something someone at Tor also made note of in that conversation.

  10. WordPress won’t let me reply anymore to your comment, Mack. So, new thread. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts. This is all mostly new information for me.

    Would places like SF Signal and other popular websites be considered a Trend Hub? People like John Scalzi? I don’t know much about the Syfy network aside from they made a movie about flying sharks. (no cable here, have too much to watch with Hulu) What other options are there for SF trend hubs? Is this something only major businesses, or breakout celebrities can make?

    Story by decision making vs. story by action is such a fascinating formula to analyze, I have trouble coming up with examples. You mention the sit and see (action) vs. sit and imagine (decision) as another way of looking at these formulas, but I wouldn’t necessarily make those connections. Prometheus comes to mind as a bland action based story but which had elements of sit and imagine as you thought about how the alien race formed.

    So you podcast via soundcloud? I have an account there, but the free option is limited to only an hour or so of content. Is it worth paying for? Does it export to itunes and other places like stitcher radio?

    I just read Day One. Very interesting that he turned down a Star Trek novel. I’m barely a casual fan of Star Trek, but I imagine I’d say heck yeah if given an invitation to write a novel. I’m still starting out though.

    • Yes, I’m puzzled by this distinction. Surely all “true” stories about some kind of struggle, and play out in decisions and actions with results/complications?

      IIRC, a lot of old SF shorts are really just strung out revelations.

    • On the podcasting, we use Soundcloud as permanent archives for show episodes as part of a beta program Soundcloud currently has to develop a podcasting format. iTunes support is present, the feeds are proper ones so ideal to use for places like stitcher, pandora, mixlr and so forth.

      I mostly do radio shows though, it’s only irregularly that I do podcasts – at least for now. It’s something I’ve been experimenting with, and so far I’m liking it. The guests as well it seems, smart content can serve the guests very well too without any direct sales angle, and still serve as a massive sales boost. If I do continue it though, I’d like to pursue a more multi media angle, think enhanced podcast format.

      It’s easy, especially for the guests. Simple references, permanent archives regardless of whether track URL’s change. Very easy sharing options, and tracks always show up as readily playable content anywhere they link it.

      Is Soundcloud worth it for podcasting? As an archive as it is currently it is worth the money. As a podcasting platform, that will depend on how the beta program evolves. Let me put it this way, if Soundcloud created an online recording / editing studio element, it will become a killer platform. If not, it will become a competitor to libsyn / blubrry / podbean / blogtalkradio (which is dying anyway) and so forth. Marketing aptitude will then define which one will rule.

      Prometheus “worked” indeed because it managed to combine the action based formula of screenwriting with a mythology element very close to that “decision” angle (marketing wise very smart, as it deliberately left that angle to prospect audiences, instigating discussions and word of mouth prior to the release).

      Places like SF Signal and others are indeed hubs. Publishers realise this as well, look at how Tor focuses on providing such a community platform focus. io9 however is also such a hub, because it carries a focus on science fiction elements as well. But in contrast to the days of the magazines, there is no single medium anymore which provides the content. Instead of the kiosk / bookstore where folks would pick up the magazines, there’s a dozen media types around now. On top of that, there were a handful of magazines, there’s thousands and thousands of content sources now.

      And that is part of the problem. Especially combined with the commercial element. There’s no single medium these days, and those media are far more caught in commercial struggles than in those early days – the stakes are higher. The more platforms, so to speak, the less room for all of them, and the bigger the drive to compete. The result is that places like that are hubs, but they no longer have sufficient room to create trends for the genre – only for a market focus by means of sales. Which is something else.

      Where it comes to “schools of thought / writing” these days, a good starting point for action vs decision is dramatica pro, aside of their software (there’s many such softwares really) they feature a very good and broad library on backgrounds, analysis, hands on materials and so forth. http://dramatica.com/theory

  11. Just because it is changing doesn’t mean it is growing. I think Hunger Games was pretty weak and the rest of the trilogy just got worse. But it sells and is filmable so there is lots of money flowing. Rite of Passage (1968) by Alexei Panshin is so much better it is shocking. But Hunger Games gives young girls the opportunity to get excited about clothes. None of that in Rite of Passage.

    But what science is there in Hunger Games? Try finding any scientific words being used. Compare it to Ender’s Game. The SCIENCE has been lost from modern stuff called science fiction. It is just special effects that look cool.

    • A lot to read here and a lot to comment on.

      Science Fiction as a form has led the way as the go to subject every single time a new media has been rolled out for consumers: I suspect that it has been chosen for this role because it is perceived as representing “the future” and as such lends itself well to displaying something “new”. Film – George Melies and Edison both turned to SF subjects; radio – some of the earliest non-news programs were SF based shows; television – one of the first regular daily broadcasts was Tom Corbett. CGI? – Star Wars. Go back to the pulps – Munsey published Burroughs in 1912, just 7 years after launching the All Story magazine (and there were plenty of other fantastical pieces preceding Princess). When paperbacks were launched, one of the first anthologies was an SF one and one of the leading genres (next to westerns and mystery) was SF.

      I wouldn’t describe several hundred titles as “a handful” – which is the number of pulp magazines devoted to SF that were on the stands by the mid-50s. And today, every single major publisher has multiple imprints devoted to SF and fantasy.

      One thing that is certainly getting short-shrift these days is the fact that while the presentation of SF in any media is far better than no SF, the literary form of the genre remains the preeminent form – and justifiably so. Nowhere else is the story communicated directly to the reader by the creator. Every other media places interpretations between the author and the reader, and every other media imposes – to one degree or another – its own imaginative imagery on the consumer. Even radio plays “interpret” sounds and voices that might have been different when occurring only in the consumer’s head.

      One of the major points of science fiction, and one of its greatest gifts to us, is its ability to engage with and inspire pure imagination on the part of the consumer. (Even an author reading their own work imposes elements that can influence the listener’ – a sentence read differently than the reader would have, a voice that is different than the mind’s ear.)

      By de-emphasizing the literature in favor of other media that deliver the story in pre-digested ways (and they ALL do it) is, I am afraid, (and based on observational evidence that is by no means rigorous but definitely showing a trend) causing atrophy of the “sensuwunda” “gene” – and I believe that publishers going for the “consumable read” is yet another symptom of this malady. What’s the point of a book that is forgotten two seconds after the last line is read? It may be labelled as “science fiction”, and it may even be chock full of SF elements, but it isn’t really “science fiction”.

  12. “Trend Hubs”….

    At some point, one has to make their own decisions about what is and is not appropriate matter for consumption. As a “fan”, I have to decide not only what is and is not “SF”, I also have to make a value judgment as to whether or not those things that fit my definition of SF are “good” or “bad”.

    And then there are those things connected with the genre that I have to decide whether or not they are “good” or “bad” FOR the genre.

    Taking those things that were mentioned earlier: John Scalzi is “good” for the genre. As an author he’s delivered everything from very good to acceptable literature. On other fronts, he’s helped to firmly entrench a greater respect and engagement with diversity and an examination of what that means for our events, our stories, our awards, etc.

    SF Signal is “good” for the genre as it has demonstrated that a web site can be a valuable asset to fandom – when it understands the genre and fandom and actively works towards making the new media “fit” within the traditions of fandom.

    IO9, on the other hand, is “bad” for the genre. Instead of being “for” geeks, IO9 points a finger and laughs AT the geeks. Their headlines are trainwreck come-ons; their coverage shallow and often incorrect (and more frequently incomplete).

    Juxtaposing the two reveals an interesting divide: SF Signal is by fans, for fans; it was (in fannish tradition) not conceived as a commercial enterprise; it doesn’t pander, when it is critical it does so from a knowledgeable and experienced background. IO9, by contrast, was conceived as a commercial enterprise from the beginning, one of several “marketing niches” that its media empire felt was under served at the time of its conception and one that is easy (for them) to present in a National Enquirer, tabloid fashion.

    If one could obtain the data, I am sure that it would reveal that IO9 has more traffic than SF Signal, but that the traffic at IO9 is fleeting, ephemeral and not a part of the fan’s daily routine, whereas just about every single visitor to SF Signal stays, reads multiple posts and visits the site every day.

    What harm does it do? IO9 treats its subject and visitors in a snarky, looking down its nose manner; it elevates meaningless drivel over substance; it provides bad information and, perhaps worst of all, it perpetuates the myth that there’s something ‘wrong’, something to be looked down upon when it comes to SF. And here we are in a world created from SF dreams….

    • Thanks for stopping by Steve. Very good points. I don’t visit IO9, but I can see what you’re saying. John and SF Signal have a really special gift for SF fans. I try to create a unique hub here without copying what they do, but they are pretty ingenius, and a large team. I wanted to create something that people visit everyday, but writing has to take a higher place in my time spending, so I may be giving up on the daily posts goal. Sorry I haven’t been over to Amazing Stories since signing up. Running this site is about all the blog time I have. I really appreciate you coming here, though.

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