Brad R. Torgersen

Big fat old guys with beards

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That’s how I remember one of the Harley-Davidson reps saying it, on NPR a few years ago. It was during the company reformation, prior to H-D’s re-rise as the premiere big bike maker in the U.S. motorcycle market. He said, and I quote, “We realized that there were only so many big fat old guys with beards.” Put another way, as long as H-D continued to be the ‘outlaw fringe’ bike for the outlaw fringe bikers — whose numbers were aging and dwindling — the prospects for the company were not good.

I think written-form Science Fiction is too much like that. Not necessarily outlaw, but too often fringe. Definitely fringe. And exclusive. Written by and for a shrinking audience of aging intellectuals.

Oh, without question, the fluctuations in distribution — combined with general economic tumult as well as the e-publishing rush — have made life harder for the average SF author. But these external forces alone cannot explain the general decline in SF readership over the last decade. Especially not when Fantasy — the once kid brother of SF — continues to produce monster blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight. Somehow, SF as a written genre is ‘missing’ the market. By design?

Certainly the Old Guard of outlaw bikers enjoyed their exclusivity. Such that when Harley-Davidson began a ‘retro’ mass marketing of the ‘outlaw’ hog culture to suburbia — home of affluent young yuppies with lots of liquid recreational cash — the Old Guard balked. How dare H-D “sell out” the cherished, rough-riding heritage of The Biker to the Izod set? Did H-D have no shame?

What H-D had, in the end, was common sense. Either they took an entirely new approach, in design, in how they appealed to the public, in the way their product was accessible to buyers — or the company was liable to founder.

H-D’s decision to go mainstream could not have been an easy one. As consumers, the Old Guard were fanatically loyal to their ‘hog’ company. But you know what? Once the grumbling was over, I think even the Old Guard liked what happened to Harley-Davidson. The bikes that H-D began producing are some of the finest the company has ever produced. Also, being a biker became respectable again — following the ‘Wild Ones’ outlaw years from the 1950s through the 1970s. Once the suburban campaign was in full swing, it was not uncommon to see a Softtail in the neighbor’s garage. Law-abiding biker clubs — as opposed to straggly, drug-dealing gangs — sprang up all across the country.

For H-D and bikerdom as a whole, the outlaw years — the real outlaw years — were over. More people were selling — and riding — Harley-Davidsons, than ever before.

Unfortunately, written Science Fiction — as a genre — has made no such mainstream commitment. In fact, written SF seems more recalcitrant than ever. While written Fantasy is actively courting and winning new generations of readers, written SF seems content to continue the long evening retreat towards High Literary obscurity. An ordinarily esoteric genre anyway, SF’s Old Guard works to ensure that SF remains esoteric: a closed conversation for “ghetto” members only.

More worrisome still, there are self-styled ‘progressive’ components active within the ghetto who seek to erect and enforce a kind of political purity, almost akin to doctrinal observation within a church — replete with shibboleths and orthodoxies. Thus not only is written SF tough for entry-level readers to penetrate or understand, it’s actively hostile to entry-level readers who do not approach the genre with a previously-conforming set of political opinions.

Kris Rusch and her husband Dean Smith have speculated that the thing which will save written SF, is also the thing which will destroy written SF: the total dissolving of the label Science Fiction into all the other labels already on the shelves: Romance, Thriller, Contemporary, Crime, and so forth. From my very-young-to-the-game perspective, I am hard-pressed to disagree. Those authors who have been most successful writing ‘Science Fiction’ for the mass audience, are those who have done so without needing to embrace or label their work as Science Fiction.

Michael Crichton — whom I have mentioned before — is a good case example. Not always the most scientifically rigorous writer, he nevertheless attained phenomenal audience penetration and connection with numerous books, such as Jurassic Park. Almost nobody who read Jurassic Park or saw the movie, realized it was SF. But it was. Yet neither Crichton nor Jurassic Park were/are common finds in the explicitly Science Fiction section of your local book store. Same goes for some of what Stephen King has written. Books like The Stand are as much SF as they are fantasy, but King isn’t anywhere near the SF shelves. How come?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the SF Old Guard seem to consider commercial success to be unworthy. The more broadly a work sells — especially if it’s made into a successful movie — the more actively the SF establishment criticizes and tears down that work. And the author. Real SF authors are esoteric: not easily read or understood by anyone not already a conversant member of the ghetto. Commercial success is for hacks, or the unserious dilettante writers.

This is especially true for what’s known as “media” fiction: novels that tie into or spring out of a game, television, or motion picture franchise.

Consider Star Trek books. By many standards, the long-running and ever-unfolding series of Star Trek novels are the best-selling and most widely published set of single-subject novels in the entire world — written by some of the most talented authors in the genre. But who among the SF Old Guard will ‘own’ these books, as part of the so-called community? You practically never see a media book win a Hugo or a Nebula, even though such books have been written by Nebula or Hugo level writers. Even though the source material for these books can and often does win awards — in the categories of film and television. So why does written SF have its collective nose in the air?

Especially when media fiction is the most easily portable and marketed of all SF genre fiction: the kind with a built-in platform because it pulls in readers — especially young readers — from the most youth-accessible mediums: movies, TV, and video games. Even the worst media novel is almost guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies, above and beyond an original fiction book, because the “platform” of the tie-in reaches out to touch an entirely different spectrum of the buying public — people who might not ever wander into the SF shelves at a bookstore, or may not even go to a bookstore proper, but who will pick up a copy of a Star Wars novel at their local grocer. Because Boba Fett is frickin’ cool and everybody loves lightsabres and laser-blaster battles, right?

Hey, I won’t lie, I catch myself looking down my nose at media fiction all the time. I can’t remember the last time I bought or enjoyed a media title. Yet media novels were what brought me into the ghetto as a teen: Star Trek novels specifically. I eventually “graduated” to reading Larry Niven and Orson Scott Card, Chris Bunch and Alan Cole, but it all began with Diane Duane and Vonda McIntyre, David Gerrold and A.C. Crispin. I remember loving those media titles, and now I feel a little ashamed if ever I spot a Star Wars or other media novel, and sense the ghetto hackles rising.

Perhaps it’s just human nature, to tend towards elitism. All of us have a desire to feel special — and I am enough of a contrarian to understand the sweetness that comes from feeling exclusive; part of the unique club.

But I can’t see SF as a distinct written genre surviving another decade or two as long as SF as a distinct written genre maintains its current course. Eventually, economics will kill it. Or it will truly become a Literary plaything: a genre so incomprehensible and dense, by general public standards, that it’s only ever consumed by the rare intellectual at the academic level. Or it will go the way Kris and Dean predict: dispersing into the other genres, such that writers like Crichton were merely predictors of the future: when no SF exists independent of an encompassing label.

Or…. the writers and editors and publishers and readers and critics — of SF — could realize that there are only so many big fat old guys with beards.

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