Science Fiction’s political failure is also its economic failure

Sometimes I feel as if American Science Fiction literature in the 21st century has become an island community. With novel sales dropping yearly and almost all of the short SF markets operating as subsidy programs, many SF readers, writers, and even some editors, appear content to continue with their closed-circle debates about the finer points of (insert progressive political topic here) while the island itself — the literary enterprise, if you will — continues to drift further and further away from the bulk of readers on the mainland.

Let me point to something that’s really made me sit up and take notice in the last month.

Almost immediately upon release of the November 2010 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact, I began hearing from many “old” SF readers who have told me they’ve not read a lot of SF lately, or have even stopped reading SF altogether, barring Analog. They all have a more or less similar theme: I don’t read much SF anymore, or I don’t read SF novels at all, because so much of it bores or annoys me, and your story (“Outbound”) is the first story I’ve read in a long, long time that reminded me of the science fiction I used to read when I was a kid, or when I was young, or when I really enjoyed the genre.

That’s been the message — overwhelmingly — from those who have written me to tell me about how much they’ve enjoyed the novelette I have in the November 2010 issue.

This is (yet another) canary in the coal mine: the writers and editors of Science Fiction are too often failing the audience that helped to make Science Fiction a successful, growing fiction genre a couple of decades ago.

Why?

Personally, I suspect it’s because we’re spending far too much time tilting at our own ideological windmills in this genre and not enough time doing what we used to do best: taking people on grand, entertaining adventures.

Which is not to say that we should produce fiction that is devoid of message, political or otherwise. But I’ve suspected for awhile now that ‘message’ is too often getting in the way of the fun, and that too many writers in particular see their fiction not as entertainment, but as social education. And if the mail I’ve been seeing is representational, the decline in sales — and the apathy of former and sometimes-seldom readers — is directly correlated to the politics written into so much current work.

The result has been that we’ve lost a big swath of readers who came into the genre for the “wow” factor, and who have been disappointed to see Science Fiction disappear slowly into its own political bellybutton. This disaffection seems particularly strong among readers who are moderate to conservative — not card-carriers for any given political party per se, but readers who have told me that they’re tired of being swatted on the nose by (insert politically progressive ‘activist’ message here) because it sucks the fun entirely out of the reading.

So they vote with their wallets, and they stop consuming. Who wants to waste money on entertainment media which fails to entertain, or even insults the reader with presumptive moral or ethical harangues? Very few people enjoy being lectured — even if they happen to agree with the lecturer. This is why Ayn Rand is simultaneously topical and boring; an author whom even like-minded ‘prime mover’ conservatives find painfully tedious.

I can’t count the number of fans I’ve bumped into — when I was still an aspirant on the convention scene — who looked this way and that, before leaning close to me and whispering, “I don’t really like Science Fiction anymore, because everything written since (insert date here) has been annoying political crap!” Usually these ‘legacy’ fans are at the cons for the nostalgia, or the special guest authors from the Old School whom the legacy fans remember, and still enjoy. If they bring books to be signed, they’re never fresh off the shelves. They’re yellowed paperbacks with print dates in the 1990s, through the 1980s, and reaching all the way back into the 1970s.

Again, the island community. In Science Fiction’s collective effort to stay “progressive” and live up to its ideals from the 1960s, Science Fiction appears to have left the rails of popular conversation en route to its own, hyper-aggressive brand of ‘activist’ fiction. The old days of pulp entertainment and mainstream appeal have passed.

The only stark holdout appears to be Baen Books. Under Toni Weisskopff’s piloting, Baen has doggedly pursued the conservative SF reader’s dollar, picking up novels and series from most of the (few remaining) conservative writers in the field, as well as bringing on fresh, exciting talent, like my local Utah writing friend Larry Correia. If Larry has a ‘message’ for his audience, it’s that you can never have too many firearms. Beyond that, Larry is interested in one thing only: giving the reader one helluva fun ride. Not surprisingly, his first book — Monster Hunter International — exploded onto the shelves late last year, going into multiple printings and spawning sequels, like the much-anticipated Monster Hunter Vendetta, an advanced copy of which I scored from Larry this past weekend.

Now, I’m not saying the entirety of SF should be like Larry or Baen. But I do think Baen is picking up a great many of the Old School readers looking for some of the old “Buck Rogers” SF they got into when they were kids. Likewise, kids coming fresh from the media books — like video game or movie tie-in fiction — have an easier time getting into “Buck Rogers” action-adventure, because they’re not freighted with the ‘conversation’ of Science Fiction from the past few decades. They don’t give a damn about politics or message. They just want to root for the good guys against the bad guys, and have some fun.

The moral to the story? Fiction which fails in the fun department is fiction which fails in all departments. However well-intentioned the ‘message’ might have been.

But is it too late? Has Science Fiction already crossed the collapsar boundary en route to its ultimate black-hole fate as a self-absorbed literary genre of the academics — incomprehensible to most of the public, and dined on by snobs and effete intellectuals?

I certainly hope not!

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13 thoughts on “Science Fiction’s political failure is also its economic failure

  1. I think you’re very right on this, Brad. Your story felt very much like the classic stuff that drew me into the genre in the first place. In the past few months, I’ve decided I’ll probably cancel my F&SF subscription and instead buy the occasional Asimov’s or Analog on the basis of who it is that’s in each individual issue (more likely, I’ll switch to an Analog subscription). On Saturday, in addition to the November Analog, I picked up the Dazois anthology The New Space Opera 2. I’ve only read the first story so far, but THAT is the stuff that makes SF great — not preachy agenda-based fiction. Entertainment, adventure, wonder…these are the qualities that keep a reader’s attention. There are other avenues for people to find reinforcement for their own sociopolitical views — fiction doesn’t need to do the same.

  2. I agree with Alex in agreeing with you, Brad. I recently had a friend who stopped reading a science fiction novel that he had been HIGHLY anticipating, almost salivating over, because he felt the author was beating the reader over the head with his political views. And this wasn’t from a writerly standpoint; my friend has no intention of ever writing anything.

    I’ve actually talked with several people who feel this way. And I don’t think that it’s just conservtives. I’ve had more than one person tell me they stopped reading a book where they agreed with the politics but felt like the author’s “Very Important Message” got in the way of the story.

  3. I’d go with the 90s as when it went sour. This is purely anecdotal, but that seems to be when everyone whom I knew from ages fifteen to fifty abandoned the genre. Whether it was the ascendancy of an ideology or a a shift from idea-driven to character-driven stories, something went wrong.

  4. Hi Brad,

    Apologies for being that jerk who hijacks a thread with an unrelated remark, but if I may just hijack this thread with an unrelated remark: You commented on the Elizabeth Moon thread about writing a novel on the subject of what would happen if America suddenly disappeared one day. ‘Fraid you’ve been beaten to it — check out Without Warning by John Birmingham.

    (I don’t think you’ll be upset about this, because it’s a really great book!)

  5. Figures somebody had already done it. (grin) Thanks for the tip, however, as now you’ve got me curious to read the book. That’s a thought experiment that could go in a hundred different directions.

  6. Alex, I think you’re 100% correct. The 90s is when SF seemed to have a very significant falling out with many in the readership. I wonder if part of it, too, wasn’t the distribution collapse that hit during the 90s. Anecdotal: when I lived in Seattle there was an independent grocer called Larry’s Market that was near our house. They used to have a very BIG paperback section, and the SF&F subsection was the biggest subsection. Dozens and dozens of SF titles were stocked, and I used to walk in there and buy and/or daydream. Then, one day, poof. Gone. Replaced with a standard (boring) magazine rack. Of course, Larry’s itself went poof about a year later, so maybe the disappearance of the paperbacks was just a sign of the end for the store? Still, between distributive disruption and the tastes of the novel houses diverging with the tastes of many old-time readers, things definitely went sour.

    I’m hoping that the e-book revolution brings back some of those readers. Not only will their favorite authors from the past be able to put their entire backlist into print, authors who had series punked due to the “death spiral” (see: Normad Spinrad) will be able to revive those series and move them directly to the audience, sans publisher lens.

    I think sometimes some of the predictions about the death of traditional NYC publishing won’t be proven correct? The “rules” are shifting so fast, and certain key aspects of the old ways of doing business are beginning to not apply anymore.

  7. I harp a bit on the progressive vs. conservative thing, but I think you make a great point Steve. Message — especially political message — can really distract from the story, if it’s not done carefully and with respect for the reader’s intelligence. I suspect that’s where too many novels go south: the authors drops into lecture mode and suddenly the reader starts feeling like their intelligence is being insulted because they’re not being allowed to make up their own minds about a thing. Viewpoints get “pushed” and even people who agree with those viewpoints, can be annoyed enough to put the book down and/or stop buying that author.

  8. I’ved heard very, very good things about TNSO2. The first volume had problems. I think too many stories in the first volume tried too hard to be ‘bleeding edge’ in the technical theory department, and the characters and adventure aspect often got swamped. I think TNSO2 didn’t make the same mistake, though I’ve not picked it up yet — I should. As for cancelling subscriptions, that’s kind of what I’ve done too. I hit the book stores and grab short fiction markets as I see fit. I’ve got a BIG backlog of magazines I still need to read — stuff I’ve been slowly buying piecemeal for the last 3 years. One market I will say has kind of impressed me as been Interzone. That’s a british fiction magazine that’s not always easy to get in the States, but I found a B&N in Seattle who has it, and I also found a B&N in Salt Lake City who has it. I might start picking it up too. I’ve loved the production values and the stories so far.

  9. I think you can see the trend in genre magazines stating in their contributor’s guidelines that they are looking for fiction of “literary” quality that is “character-driven.” (I’m pretty sure nearly everyone states something like this now.) Yeah, sure, these elements are important, but the attitude is (in my opinion) a bunch of bull picked up from the literary fiction market–which, I’ve long suspected, relies on “quirky” characters and “artful” language because, uh, real life isn’t any fun. F&SF, on the other hand, does not need to suffer so. You know what I want? Deathrays and alien babes. Characters and the “literary” quality of the language come somewhere in between.

    Mr. Kane! Contrary to you, I actually really enjoy The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I find it to be probably the only genre ‘zine that publishes stories that are not all… exactly the same. Now, let me say for relevance here, I very rarely read Asimov’s or Analog, because I’m a big fan of both F… and SF. But I find that ALL of the online ‘zines, although they definitely publish good stuff from time to time, have VERY distinct styles and practically never deviate from them. When I write a story of my own, I can always say: “That’s a Clarkesworld right there,” or, “Booyah, Strange Horizons.” Sure, I still don’t sell them (haha), but the style of a lot of ‘zines is becoming so predictable, it’s occasionally nauseating.

    And that’s why I actually really enjoy a lot of semi-pro ‘zines, also. In Canada, we’ve got On Spec and Neo-opsis–both of which constantly push the boundaries, instead of reinforcing them.

    -bn

  10. No worries my friend! Thanks for the comments! And yes, more alien babes. MORE! (grin) I’m at the point with my fiction where I am not sure I’ll ever have a chance with some of the very-defined on-line markets. Analog seems to be the only one I can hit with any precision, and that’s a venerable print pub. As markets go, it’s definitely an excellent market — but then I am now a “kool aid drinker” of Stan’s, so I am biased. (smirk) The literarity you refer to is a big reason why I am thinking Kris Rusch is correct: eventually the people making money on SF, won’t be writing SF. The genre will vanish into the literary black hole, and the real SF writers will be going SF-flavored mainstream fiction: thriller SF, romance SF, and so forth.

  11. Ben, I may not have been clear: I LOVE F&SF, generally, but lately their magazine has been a little bit of a disappointment. They usually have one very excellent story, and then a bunch of stuff that I really can’t get into.

    Otherwise, I’m totally with you on the subject matter thing — stories are way too tailored to the market these days. What made classic F&SF stories (going off of the collection “The Very Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction,” ed. Gordon Van Gelder) so damn good was that, well, you never really knew just what to expect. Now, it seems, you often do. I guess I’m hard to please, but sometimes the Big Three really let me down. I guess reading collections beginning with “Best of” in the title, or filled with names I recognize, has set my standards pretty high. šŸ™‚

    Maybe I’m the reason I can’t sell a story to a pro market yet? LOL.

  12. Brad,

    I cut me teeth on Heinlein, and when I was young read everything of his I could find. I never lacked for adventure with him, but his political and philosophical views were definitely in there.

    I never felt preached at, but it certainly widened my young mind. Did I adopt his politics: no. But in retrospect I came to value how reading about his worlds widened my own.

    So for me, action is not enough. Not in books, not in moves, not on TV. I want the babes and the cool stuff; but I also want to think and to feel.

    A more modern example: I was a big fan of the new Battlestar Galactica. They had the babes, and robots, and the space fights, but they also explored some heavy and relevant topics. They went were other shows couldn’t go.

    SciFi has an ability to present topical issues in a safer venue where they can explored in a way you can’t in contemporary work. I value that.

    And maybe it is not a “message” that I seek, but an interesting and compelling point of view (even–and maybe especially–if it is not my own). For me any fiction fails when I walk away not caring about the characters and their journey. And I find much of modern SF rather cold. The tech might be interesting but if I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the story.

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