I was struck (again) the other day by the unending lamentations coming from some quarters of the SF community. In my head, it sounds like I’m standing in an alley between a Catholic Church and an Orthodox Synagogue as both congregations engage in response:
From the left: Priest: “For God hath created the singularity beyond which there is no knowing”
Congregation: “It is truly a turd in the punch bowl that stinketh to high heaven”
Priest: “It is an abomination in the sight of the Lord, from which he turneth away”
Congregation: “And there shall be no more science fiction”
From the right: Rabbi: “And the Lord said ‘these words lacketh in style’”
Congregation “Truly, they are non-literary”
Rabbi: “And the Lord said ‘these characters are flat and uninteresting”
Congreation “Truly, they are non-literary”
Rabbi: “And the Lord said ‘Go ye forth and write literary works for they are a sweet smelling sacrifice. No longer shall ye write in a clunky pulp style”
Congregation “And on that day, science fiction was no more. Amen.”
It seems like every day there is yet another reason why science fiction is no longer relevant, is dying or already finished but for the burial.
The post singularity future is unknowable, so we can’t write about the future. SF is not literary enough and will therefore die in the marketplace. We’re living in a science fiction world and therefore can’t imagine a future sufficiently wonderous enough to engage the reader. SF is and always will be perceived as an adolescent affectation. Science Fiction is for geeky nerds. There aren’t enough geeky nerds in the worlds to support the market. YA is stealing SF’s thunder. SF is a literature of short stories and the short story is dead. Magazines are the foundation of SF and magazines are dead. The audience has dumbed down and can’t handle thought-provoking literature of any genre. The society is falling apart and is too distressed and depressed to care about the future. Genre’s only have a 75 year life cycle and we’re in year 100+.
My first thought is: you can’t have it both ways. Liteature of any kind is supposed to be about character. SF’s contribution is a focus on the future, a vehicle for illuminating today through non-threatening speculative tropes, the home of the ‘big idea’. But all of those things are realized through the characters that inhabit the story, the people that things happen to.
Maybe a lot of SF characterization is ‘bad’ when seen through some ivory tower literary prism, and maybe there is room for improvement but, if stories are really about character (or are supposed to be) then how can a concept like the singularity threaten the genre?
I don’t think any of the aforementioned laments is accurate, nor are any of them the genre-killer they’re sussed out to be. I think the real problem is some underlying dissatisfaction with where the genre is today. But not even that. I think it’s dissatisfaction with where the genre is as opposed to some people’s fevered imaginging of where it ought to be. It might be a pay-scale thing. It might be an earnings thing, it might be a marketing thing. Some authors look at their advances and royalties and think they ought to be doing better. Some publishers think they ought to get more notices, or a better distribution deal or more shelf space. A lot of people look at the enormous impact some SF films or televisions shows have had and wonder why the golden touch hasn’t reached the book end of the business.
I’m not intimately familiar with the behind the scenes work that agents are doing for some of the more vocal authors (film options, etc), but of the authors who’s intimates I am familiar with, none of them are amongst the complainers, because they’re doing ok. I don’t draw any conclusions from that observation, merely pointing it out as a possible data point.
And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with wanting more – better pay, more cultural recognition, bigger presence in the marketplace – but if that is what all of the complaining is about, I think the effort would be better spent on figuring out how to achieve those goals, rather than bemoaning the death of the genre.
Jason Stoddard was recently interviewed and covered a multi-part blog post he’s got going on SF and marketing. His mantra is self-promotion and social networking (and the relatively low cost of high-impact advertising available via internet resources).
In those pieces he correctly identifies most writers initial reactions – “ugh, barf”. And I agree that that is probably the standard reaction, except for a chosen few who seem to have a natural bent for it, such as Doctorow or Scalzi. Not surprising, considering the relatively solitary nature of writing and world-building. Most authors are, of course, happy to share the end product, but many are reluctant to let all but a few carefully hand-picked people in on the beta testing.
So, maybe the solution is to foist this activity off on the publishing companies? Maybe, as part of their marketing efforts, they need to not only host their own websites with lots of nifty content and quasi-social networking applets, but should, as a matter of course, automatically set up a blog, a youtube channel, a myspace page, add characters to virtual environments, generate appropriate widgets and etc. Most authors have no problem writing, but many have a problem with the day-to-day maintenance of building a website, adding RSS feeds, finding the tributes and commentary, the reviews and such.
Instead of having each individual author try to do these things, there should be a department at a good publishing house that handles all the background crap. Think of the traffic: if every single published author had at a minimum, myspace, youtube, flikr, website and blog, and all of those were linked in to the publishers main site AND cross-linked to each other (maybe a company logo at the top of the page), we’re talking a huge amount of internet real estate. Think of the cross-promotion when every single one of those websites becomes a billboard, not just for the author in question, but for every other author represented by that publisher.
Then the writers can do what they do – write. Preferably non-singularity conflicted, non-literary, pulpy science fiction.