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.
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!