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Let's put the future behind us

There's always a bloody force five hurricane making landfall in the little teacup of a genre that I inhabit. Last year it was the Mundane SF manifesto (short form: they don't believe in having sex standing up because it might lead to dancing using classic science fictional tropes because they might lead to fantasy). This year it's the back to basics thing. When will they learn?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who is old and distinguished enough to know better, wrote a critical essay for a book (titled "Star Wars on Trial") in which she attempted to make the case for the defense, and which was republished in Asimov's SF magazine. She lit a match (thus: "First, the promised answer: to what extent is current sf writing influenced by Star Wars? The answer is simple: Not enough"), then tossed it in a pool of petrol (and so: "In order to make my case for that answer, however, I must address #3: Star Wars and the battle for SF readers and shelf space. There is no battle for shelf space because of #6: to what extent does SW define how the general public sees SF or, as I like to call it, the definition of SF") before generously carpet-bombing the area with the reductionist napalm of genre categorization (which sticks to everything like a label, and burns, baby, it burns!).

To try and paraphrase (or parody) her argument: SF is of declining interest (and has declining market share) to the general public because it's not true to its pulpy roots. So let's all go write media tie-in novels, because they attract readers, and if we attract lots of readers, we'll reinvigorate the ghetto. In other words, the past forty-odd year long project of trying to inject some quality into the stuff our dreams are made of is not merely a failure, but counter-productive.

All of this would be messy enough, but she managed to phrase it in such a way that it got right up various noses (That's Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald, in case you don't know them in drag), not to mention the sinuses of large numbers of other hoity-toity folks who think that what they're doing might possibly have some literary merit to it. (Like me.)

Now, it's not my purpose to whack on Ms Rusch. Being dogpiled by Hugo winners is not terribly funny, it's unlikely to change anyone's mind — this whole thing boils down to a matter of tribal identity, really, because the exclusionary origins of SF as a literary field injects a powerful side-order of identity politics to what would otherwise be issues of critical analysis — and it's not dignified. But I would like to take it as the starting point for some observations.

SF and fantasy literature accounts for a declining proportion of fiction sales. KKR is absolutely correct to raise this point:

"In 2004, romance novels accounted for 39.3 percent of all adult fiction sold. Mystery and thrillers came in second with 29.6 percent. General fiction, which is what most of us would call the 'literary mainstream', was 12.9 percent of all adult fiction sold, followed by 'other fiction' a category that includes such things as Western and Men's Adventure, at 11.8 percent. SF came in dead last at 6.4 percent."

I believe the Katrina-in-a-cupcake issue we're talking about and that's responsible for all the raised emotions and vitriolic denunciations here is summed up right there, in one damning paragraph. Everybody who works in the SF/F field is asking themselves, pace Lenin, "what is to be done?" After all, we don't want to go the way of the Western genre, which dried up and blew away like a dead tumbleweed, some time during the 1960s or thereabouts. (Note: I use "the 1960s" as a general short-hand for "way back in pre-history, before I was born". Don't take it personally if you remember them.)

Everyone agrees on the problem, but there are multiple proposals for how to bell the cat. On the one hand, we have the populists, the back-to-the-pulp-era advocates of writing more Star Wars tie in books and doing more TV work. On the other hand, we have the erudite literati; Ian McDonald and Geoff Ryman brilliantly attempting at reinventing SF for a 21st century that isn't dominated by whitebread euro-americans: John Barnes' discourses on memory and regret and alienation: Peter Watts questioning the very existence of consciousness — and so on. We have Clarke award shortlists that feature Kazuo Ishiguro and that don't tempt you to play "Where's Wally". We have literary academics studying us (and as a jobbing writer, I can tell you there are few things as terrifying as discovering that some poor bastard's dissertation depends on a misinterpretation of one of your books).

So. What is to be done?

Firstly, let me tackle the reason for the decline in the SF/F readership over time as a proportion of written fiction. I don't have quantitative data to hand, but I believe we can attribute it to the fact that the civilization we live in is changing so rapidly that we're all exposed to rapid technological change all the time. SF as a genre evolved during a period of industrialization and standardization and rapid linear progress. It was both an escapist literature and a didactic form that lent its readers some exposure to new ideas about how they might live in future. But things have gone non-linear, and a lot of the future has arrived today, albeit in bastardized form. Want to go live on Mars? Tough, you can't — but you can download travel albums from the red planet til you're blue in the face. Want to go live on an alien world? Go visit Japan — it's not that expensive — or explore the Goth night club scene in Ulan Bator (I'm informed it has one). We don't need SF for pre-adaptation to the future: the future is now.

Meanwhile, we're competing in the special effects stakes with TV, film, and increasingly, computer games. Back in the 1950s or even 1960s, special effects were so poor that, for real sense of wonder, no visual medium could compete with written literature. But today, if you're a writer who strives for versimilitude or believability, you can't compete with film! (After all, you know damn well you can't hear explosions in space, even if those bloody franchise productions insist on putting them in ...)

The gap between the visual imagination of things, and the literary imagination of the universe, has narrowed.

Of course, we're seeing reactions in a number of directions. Some folks are going all-out to create new fine art within the field (most of the authors I cited, and many others besides). Some are writing spin-off fiction, hoping it'll work as a gateway drug and lure new readers into the genre: and some are writing what they view as good old-fashioned pulp, albeit better structured and more polished than the likes of E. E. Smith or Edgar Rice Burroughs would have bothered to make it. We have no less than three Hugo winners or nominees vying for the crown of being the second coming of Robert A. Heinlein, circa 1950 — John Varley, Spider Robinson, and John Scalzi are all writing Heinlein juveniles, the classic gateway drugs of the 1950s that captured the interest of the baby-boomer generation of SF readers.

Now, don't get me wrong. I still like traditional SF — hell, I sometimes even write it! But the underlying assumptions of much of it are so questionable that these days we need to approach them with the proverbial three metre barge-pole. Meanwhile, the real world has moved on. If we start re-writing Heinlein's 1950s novels, we will appeal to Heinlein's 1950s readers, who are nearing retirement, not to new readers who are the age the older cohort were when they first met Heinlein's work. "It worked for granddad: let's try it again!" never worked for music — why should it work for fiction?

Maybe Heinlein's 1980s readers would be a different kettle of fish (once you strip out the effects of the brain eater, and the pathological discursiveness, self-indulgence, and tendency to wander all over the map, the later Heinlein is a fundamentally more interesting writer than his youthful incarnation), but they're still stuck in the 20th century. To address the ills of SF, we need to do something new.

So let's take five ...

First, an axiom: we read fiction for pleasure, not to be clubbed over the head with a fistful of insights. If the fistful of insights is coming anyway, it needs to be decently clad in a velvet glove lest the casual reader take fright. But while part of the pleasure comes from a rolicking good story and/or interesting characters, we need a bit of fibre in our dietary sugar — and what we're debating here is where the roughage of ideas comes from.

I believe the problem is not definitional (is Star Wars spin-offery SF, or not? Is SF literature, or pulp?) but semiotic. What does SF mean? And more importantly, what does it mean to the readers?

There is a very large tranche of younger readers who perceive SF in general as boring. (There are exceptions, and I'll deal with them shortly.) The complaint is that it's old hat, it's the stuff their grandfathers read, and it talks to the grandfather's attitudes and outlooks. SF is predicated on a modernist political program. It was, in fact, the fictional agitprop arm of the Technocrat movement, and it carried on marching in lockstep into the radiant future even after Technocracy withered in the 1930s. These days, the beliefs that form the bedrock of this medium have a curiously quaint, archaic feel to them. Technocracy was about central planning, enlightened rational leadership, and utopianism. SF as we know it is descended from a literature that reflects these values, either by amplifying or adopting them, or by explicitly contradicting them — but either way, Technocracy's ghost lies at the core of a multitude of genre conventions.

We've been writing technocracy-influenced fiction for eighty years, whether we knew it or not. You can catch its reflection in the mirror if you don't turn round fast enough; the belief that technological progress cures all ills, that progress is always good, and that rational, educated people will come up with the best solutions to problems are all hallmarks of technocracy. I have some sympathy for these views (I wouldn't be writing what I do if I didn't!), but these days only a lunatic would still argue that a panglossian faith in Technology as the Simple Answer to All Human Problems is a reasonable ideology on which to build anything other than a pile of bleached skulls.

Moreover, the vision of technology that was prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s has changed. No more Mme Curie working in her lab: instead, we have CERN and ITER and the other huge enterprises of Big Science. No Frank Whittle tinkering with a prototype jet engine in the back of a semi-disused foundry. No more lone inventors creating revolutions in their toolsheds: the nearest we've gotten to that in twenty years was Google, and even Sergey and Larry's great idea took $1.1 million to get off the ground. The increasing complexity of the modern technosphere means that the low-hanging fruit have been plucked, and the era of the two-fisted lone gunman engineer uber alles is no more credible than any other wish-fulfilment superhero.

The political and ideological concerns that lay at the core of the original SFnal project don't interest the very people they used to appeal to in the 1940s and 1950s, because they're obsolete. And the outward trappings and glitz that were used to sugar-coat the politics have been adopted with glee by the purveyors of mass visual entertainment. Thus, the emperor has been robbed of his suit.

We've arrived in a different future, and central planning doesn't work. Things are fast, chaotic, cheap, and out of control. Ad hoc is the new plan. There's a new cultural strange attractor at work, sucking in the young, smart, deracinated mechanistically-minded readers who used to be the natural prey of the SF movement. It's geek culture. You can find it in the pages of Wired (although it's a pale shadow of what it used to be) and on Boing!Boing! and Slashdot. You can find them playing MMORPGs and hacking their game consoles. These people have different interests from the old generation of SF readers. And unfortunately they don't buy many [fiction] books, because we aren't, for the most part, writing for them.

This isn't to say that they don't read. There is a literary culture that switches on the geeks: it started out as a branch of SF. Yes, I'm talking about cyberpunk. But while cyberpunk was a seven day wonder within the SF field, which subsequently lost interest, the geeks recognized themselves in its magic mirror and made it their own. This is the future they live in, not the future of Star Wars and its imitators, of the futures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And in addition to cyberpunk — the golden age SF taproots of their field — some of us are beginning to address their concerns. Among the quintessentially geek authors, the brightest names are Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Douglas Coupland and (in his latest incarnation) Bruce Sterling. (I'd like to append my own name to that list, if only to bask in their reflected glory.)

The authors I listed above are not writing SF for your traditional SF readers. They are writing something quite different, even if the forms are similar, because the underlying assumptions about the way the universe works are different. There's no need for the readers to internalize a bizarrely rehashed bundle of strange ideological preconceptions about the role of science and technology in society, which have accreted remorselessly since the 1930s until much modern science fiction is incomprehensible and alienating to the outside world; that's because they are writing fiction that is based in the world-view of the present day. You don't need to study golden age SF and its literary conventions to get Neal Stephenson, because rather than constantly referring back to it, he references (a) the science fictional zeitgeist in popular culture, and (b) the cultural milieu and outlook of WIRED's readership. Which is why he managed to write a 1100 page novel about cryptography with a plot that didn't quite join up in the middle, and it still outsold everything else on the map. He's got your audience, right here, buddy, right here in the palm of his hand. Thanks to generation slashdot.

The audience I'm talking about is today's successor to the traditional SF readers of yore. They're smart, not brilliantly well socialized because their energies have been going elsewhere, and they increasingly self-identify as geeks. We are competing for their attention time with computer games, video, the internet, and fuck-knows-what new bleeding edge media that haven't made it our event horizon of self-absorption yet: anime, manga, machinima, your guess is as good as mine. They don't, yet, have a separate section in the bookstore, but they know what they like to read and they get it from the fringes of the mainstream and the edges of the genre and the core of the slipstream. And their time is coming. If you're a writer and you still want to be in business in something vaguely resembling SF in thirty years time, study them.

Meanwhile, my answer to KKR is: if your market share is collapsing, it seems to me that the thing to do is to stop doing whatever it is that didn't work, and pioneer a new field. Going back to the 1930s doesn't work because the pulp era relied on certain underlying cultural and political assumptions that are at odds with the modern zeitgeist. Going back to the 1950s will work only insofar as it clutches on to the conservative and change-phobic old farts who are nearing retirement age. What we need to do is to go forward to the era of dot-com 3.1415926535 ... (an infinitely receding string of irrational optimism in the procedurally generated but chaotic future) and grab hold of a new audience by the short-and-curlies.

As for me, I am going to ignore my own advice. (As an author I feel absolutely no need to maintain a false facade of consistency! This isn't a literary manifesto and I'm not a politician. So there.) May 2007 is the hundredth anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein's birth. I am therefore going to celebrate the year by writing a Heinlein hommage. Not a Heinlein juvenile, but a late-period Heinlein novel (I like a challenge). And I'm going to try drag it kicking and screaming into the BoingBoing era.

See you in 2008!

(The title of this piece, "Let's put the future behind us", is also the title of Jack Womack's brilliant and vitriolically funny apocalypse geek novel about life in Russia in the 1990s. Buy it, minion!)

243 Comments

1:

I'd like to begin by questioning whether KKR (whose work as editor and writer alike never impressed me) is even correct. She alleges, "SF came in dead last at 6.4 percent."

But is that so, or is it as truth-deficient as a Bush press release? How much of what sold last year is in actual fact SF, whether ghetto-labeled or no? James Patterson and Nora Roberts are both writing SF, albeit packaged as mysteries; and the list of "prestige" names who do the same continues to grow. Maybe we instead need to be debating whether it is worthwhile to pin the yellow atom-and-rocket to our lapels nowadays?

2:

Before I try to think of a comment on your writing, thanks for the Moorcock link - what a great essay! I'd never read that. It's a brilliant summary and denunciation of the values explicit and implicit in "mainstream" SF.

3:

Things may be different in the UK, but in the US I find it really odd what's considered SF/F and what's considered general fiction.

At my local library, books like Letham's "Amensia Moon" and "As She Crawled Across the Table" are classified as general fiction, while I clearly see them as Science Fiction. Miéville's books and Suzanna Clark's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" are both classified as Fiction as well, compared to Robert Jordan's books which are Fantasy. What gives? It seems that there's a great deal of subjectivity here, someone saying "this book's too good for SciFi, lets make it general Fiction". If that's the case, do sales numbers really mean anything?

4:

Michael, it's worse than her figures suggest, for ghetto-identified work: her figure of 6.4% is for SF and fantasy combined, and fantasy outsells SF 2:1.

Meanwhile, her point was, deconstructed: is Star Wars SF? And a lot of people don't see eye to eye on the answer to that one, any more than they see eye to eye on whether 1984 is SF, or Kafka's Metamorphosis is SF, and so on.

You're right, lots of stuff with science fictional premises are published outside the genre -- but whether you can classify them as part of the SFnal ideological project, with a lineage going back to the 1920s Gernsbackian continuum, is another question entirely.

5:

"May 2007 is the hundredth anniversary of Robert A. Heinlein's birth. I am therefore going to celebrate the year by writing a Heinlein hommage. Not a Heinlein juvenile, but a late-period Heinlein novel (I like a challenge). And I'm going to try drag it kicking and screaming into the BoingBoing era."

So it will go boing rather than spung?

6:

"I am therefore going to celebrate the year by writing a Heinlein hommage."

I do hope you'll refrain from having your main character shtupp his mother, however. That aspect of later Heinlein is, you know, kind of creepy.

While I of course cheerfully admit to structuring "Old Man's War" in the manner of a Heinlein juvenile, I'm not entirely sure I agree that the appeal of that style is largely for older readers. I have no sales data to back it up, but anecdotally I seem to have as many young(ish) readers as old(ish) readers.

Also, I'm not entirely sure that what worked for Grandad doesn't work for the kids when it comes to music, either: I seem to recall a fairly big swing revival within the last decade, and the 80s had its rockabilly moment via Stray Cats and etc. And then there's the Dresden Dolls and their updated cabaret.

In both the cases of Heinlein and cabaret, I think the issue is not to slavishly recreate what's come before but to use the structure these tropes provide to do something that speaks to a modern audience. Which is, if I grok correctly, what you hope to do with your own Heinlein pastiche.

7:

Too many responses to too many interesting points in Charlie's post come to mind for me to even attempt to handle them in one or two posts. So let me just say 2 things right now:

First, one of the (fewer and fewer, seems like every year) advantages of having been there and done that is that you get to say "Yep, I saw this before, so I don't think I'll step in it this time." We must have these "We're going under, man the lifeboats" firedrills in SF every decade or two. Anyone remember the New Wave? (I bet Michael Moorcock does, he was in the thick of that :-) Some of those arguments (both directions) were more obnoxious than the venom that was spewed out over Cyberpunk. And in every case, that I've seen (I admit I missed the Futurians debacle in the 40's) most of the angst was because one side or the other had narrowed the definition of SF down to something that left a lot of what was being written at the time out.

So the Old Wave was pissed because Chip Delaney worked outside of traditions and used tropes that weren't invented by Gernsback or Campbell; that's precisely why SF survived the 60's and 70's. So the New Wave was pissed because the cyberpunks had dived back into using real technology, even if their world view was sort of noirish. If you don't think they can be fused in one writer (even in one story), you haven't read Michael Swanwick's work. Looked out even half-way objectively, I think the same thing is happening here: if you define SF narrowly enough, yes, it is dying. But writers like Doctorow and Stephenson, et. al., are writing something different precisely because they see the audience there. so some genre, whatever you want to call it, will survive to cater to that audience.

Second point: one of the things I always missed about the Old Wave was how rare humor was. Sure, there were people who wrote occasional funny pieces, many of which were rather ponderous, but there weren't many who had the slightly cockeyed view of the world that leads you to grin everytime God gets in a good one on you. In fact, I can only think of two offhand: Randall Garret and Eric Frank Russell.

Personally, I was sold on Stephenson when I read the first few pages of Snowcrash because he could see the humor of cyberpunk, and could be both serious and humorous about it at the same time. I think if some of the writers who are taking up the cudgels over the fate of SF right now had some of that humor the whole argument might even be worth having.


Side note: Charlie, I've been having trouble all morning keeping a connection to antipope long enough to display a page. Have you been slashdotted?

8:

John: I do hope you'll refrain from having your main character shtupp his mother, however. That aspect of later Heinlein is, you know, kind of creepy. Yeah, that's exactly why late-period Heinlein needs re-writing. Not in a mood of Bowdlerisation, but in exactly what you go on to note -- because the older Heinlein, despite the weird icky fetishes and the barking political rants and the self-indulgent shit was nevertheless a more interesting writer than his younger self, and did stuff that would have had really humongous merit, if it had got the editing his earlier self received.

(If I say I'm thinking of playing with the toy-box he developed in "Friday", would that surprise you?)

9:

Bruce: seems to be a sick router at my colo host. Watch the skies.

Incidentally, I used to get "Cheap Truth" in the mail, back in the early-to-mid eighties; I remember the whole Cyberpunk thing first hand and grew up in the messy echo chamber left over from the New Wave, so this isn't news to me (more like third time round the block). That's why I said, up front, "this is not a manifesto". I'm not recruiting for a movement, I won't join one, and I certainly won't be conscripted to lead one. Movements by their very nature are exclusionary and I don't want to Do That ...

10:

Charlie Stross:

"(If I say I'm thinking of playing with the toy-box he developed in "Friday", would that surprise you?)"

Nope. And good for you. Friday was always my favorite of the late-era stuff.

11:

"And I'm going to try drag it kicking and screaming into the BoingBoing era."

Heh. I devoured Gibson's sprawl trilogy, Stephenson's Snow Crash, and about a dozen other classics in the cyberpunk subgenre. I'm sorry to see where that literary movement ultimately went. (Some of the newer writers haven't grabbed me.)

The only Heinlein novel I ever finished was The Number Of The Beast. Couldn't stand his earlier works, and I confess most of his later stuff was just didn't quite get over the top, but I remember liking NotB. You manage to do an homage to that kind of writing and drag it "kicking and screaming" into the cybersf age, and I'll be very interested to see how well the market responds to it. I think you might break some ground there.

Or not. At least... it can't hurt.

12:
That's why I said, up front, "this is not a manifesto". I'm not recruiting for a movement, I won't join one, and I certainly won't be conscripted to lead one. Movements by their very nature are exclusionary and I don't want to Do That ...
Yeah, politics makes lousy art, even (especially?) when it's the politics of art. My cousin was a sculptor, and taught sculpture, but she was always so bloody wrapped up in a cause that I don't think she did anything like as well as she could have in actually creating the sculpture. I'm still trying to decide if she was even really creating or just wanking-with-great-craft when she created wood-carved reliefs of the Great Masters' paintings...
13:

I started to read "Starship Stormtroopers" that was linked in the original post on this thread, and was irresistibly reminded of
Howard Zinn and Naom Chomsky review the "Lord of the Rings" movies.
It's worth a giggle or two no matter what you think of Chomsky's politics (or his linguistics, for that matter).

14:

Charlie wrote:
"If your market share is collapsing, it seems to me that the thing to do is to stop doing whatever it is that didn't work, and pioneer a new field."

I have a suggestion. Stop using the "SF" label altogether. Margaret Atwood had the right idea. (*Gasps of shock and outrage in the audience*)

See, the only way to get out of a shrinking ghetto is to GET OUT OF THE FREAKING GHETTO. Or burn it down. Keep writing what you want to write, about aliens, time-travel, all that jazz, but just... ignore the label. It's not your "identity".

Call it "Speculative Literature" or the Russian "Fantastika", just don't use... That Word. It's obsolete.

We have spent too much time building walls around a ghetto. Tear down that wall! Start writing speculative literature. Write Fantastika. Write about intelligent robots, mutants, alien planets, the future, alternate futures... whatever.

As long as it's not "SF".
Kill "Science Fiction."

15:

Well, as an older reader... I don't think it even works for older readers.

If I want something new, I want something new. OTOH, I find myself dismayed at how often I'll go back to read an old favorite...and find I no longer like it. I'd been attributing this to getting older, but it may be more basic. Lsat time I tried to read the Skylark of Valeron I just STOPPED half way through. I couldn't make myself read his version of the trip through the 4th dimension. (That was never my favorite part, but never before had it bothered me too much to finish the book. This time I couldn't even just skip that section.) It's been 10 years since I read the lensman series. "The Mightest Machine" and "The Incredible Planet" (John W. Campbell, Jr.) have held up better that that, though I used to think them much inferior.

It's been a over decade since I've read "When World Collide"/"After Worlds Collide". That was the first time I noticed how shallow and racist it was. The adventure was still there, but the plot kept falling apart.

Heinlein has held up better, but it's been a long time since I read most of his work, also. (Well, truthfully there were several I never did like, e.g. Friday.)

So either I have changed drastically, or I'm reflecting my environment. I think (hope) you're right.

OTOH, I remember several periods before when SF went through a doldrums or a pessimistic phase. The same dreams may recover...or some of them. Still "The future isn't what it used to be".

16:

ARY: The trouble is, genre isn't a self-adopted badge of pride; it's a marketing description. If you stop calling it SF/F, it won't stop Borders and similar from calling it SF/F -- it'll simply confuse your readers.

17:

Just remembered what this discussion - and the linked discussion on Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald's blogs- was reminding me of. I now have had an overpowering urge to reread my battered and disintegrating ccpy of Harry Harrison's Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers. That was simply the best ever send-up of both the silly tropes and the fascism and racism of the "old school" SF. "The accumulators are crackling with barely restrained power, Chuck!"

Unfortunately (fortunately) my copy of Glasshouse just arrived, whee!

18:

Charlie writes: "The trouble is, genre isn't a self-adopted badge of pride; it's a marketing description."

Yes, and the fucklefest over defining SF/F as a genre has always been an intellectual cyclone-in-a-blackbox, mostly interesting to academics and the circus geeks who love them. The business end of this discussion is where you ought to focus your attention.

As a marketing category, SF/F just sucks. The booksellers make their SF/F customers slog all the way to the back of the store, where the racks are farthest away from the information desk and the cash registers. The shelves get the least attention of any section in the store, so the product is haphazardly sorted, there's fifteen copies of the latest Forgotten Realms title, with its N+1 authors named on the spine, and you can just forget about finding the latest Prometheus Award winner in hardcover.

You know of what this reminds me? What it was like to be heavily invested in Mac OS computers before Apple had its own retail stores. (Now, I happen to be employed by Apple Computer, and I'd rather not sound like advertisement, but you have to admit: the retail buying experience for Apple customers sucked before they opened their own retail stores, and it's substantially better now.) I mention this, because I strongly believe the cure for lousy retail visibility for the SF/F category is not to be found by making the product less differentiable from the stuff in the rest of the store. It's to open nice, clean, well-lighted stores that specialize in it.

Like Borderlands Books, for example. In San Francisco, traditional retail booksellers aren't growing at nearly the rate of their specialized competition. All the successful stores in my neighborhood have some kind of special focus.

Until most of your readers have a reasonably convenient way to avoid the indignity of browsing for books in the SF/F ghetto at Borders by going a few extra minutes out of their way to a store that specializes in SF/F, there's going to be a limit on how much market share growth you can reasonably expect to see. You can write the most mind-blowingly cool literary experience ever, but if your readers have to skip past all the tables up front next to the cash registers with all their hard covers face up and go hunting for it in the back with their head tilted over ninety degrees just to find a mass market paperback, then your share of the market is going to continue to suck wind.

Of course, I don't expect authors, or even publishers, to be able to do much about the retail visibility of SF/F books. That's why I, personally, have limited patience for the ongoing pissing match over defining the genre. We benighted hillbillies out here in the literary weeds can't really do much of anything about the poor treatment of the SF/F marketing category— because it isn't our job. The things we can do, which amount to building yet more walls around our particular wing of the genre studies department, are pretty pointless by pragmatic standards.

I suppose if you really wanted to help make a difference, you'd try to form an alliance of independent SF/F book retailers and start building a brand for it. Who would have an incentive to do that? It would be hard work, wrangling all those independent book sellers (unnaturally weird people, it should be noted), getting them all to sing out of the same hymnal, hooking up their online presence through a professionally engineered web portal, blah blah blah.

Don't look at me. I'm not going to do it.

19:

Hi, this is my first time posting. I'm a big fan of Mr. Stross. I read Accelerando online, then bought it as well as Iron Sunrise. Just FYI, I am in the 18-25 demographic. I read Slashdot and have 2 Linux computers sitting beside my workstation/gaming box that runs a pirated WinXP. I write software and play computer games and probably won't gainsay someone who labels me a "geek". And yes, I purchase and enjoy the SF-genre works of Mr. Stross. Forward this to your publisher's marketing dept. ;)

On the topic of this delicious blog post specifically, I may be missing the point, but do most good authors really *choose* their genre or niche? Can they really engineer their works for a specific demographic? I mean, its art. I understand things change somewhat once you write novels professionally and for a living, but is creative output really that much of a malleable commodity to most writers?

Also, one problem from where I'm sitting (in Canada) is that the American market (a large population of consumers with disposable income) is currently reputed to be at war with Science (and Thinking in general). The current social atmosphere discourages intellectual pursuits; hence the proliferating bodice-ripper market and the "withering" of SF.

Lastly, to Charlie: Thanks for sharing your work with the world. It has expanded my mind, and for that I sincerely thank you.

20:

Confusing the old readership? Yes. Absolutely.

But if it's shrinking anyway (Note to self: the surest thing about old readers is that they're not getting any younger), then it's a NEW readership that should be focused on. So a measure of confusion is practically inevitable, if you're going to have change.

Frenetic made two good points.

1. "Do most good authors really *choose* their genre or niche?"

- There's no straightforward answer to that, but I think most writers start writing in their favorite genre. The choice of genre is determined by an early passion, rather than a business calculation.
(When I picked up my first book from the SF shelf in the local library, I wasn't thinking "One day, this could become a lucrative occupation" -- more like "Wow, spaceships and aliens and women in skintight clothing!")


2. "The current social atmosphere discourages intellectual pursuits; hence the proliferating bodice-ripper market and the 'withering' of SF."

- On the other hand: here we are having an intellectually stimulating debate (in realtime) between people on different sides of the Atlantic -- definitely a positive social atmosphere.

Maybe part of the problem is this: We won. The world is now a science-fiction scenario (or rather an incoherent mix of various SF tropes and themes). "Science Fiction" isn't so futuristic anymore, hence it has lost much of its promise and glamor.

Thought experiment: imagine that there was a literary genre that focused on one theme: manned expeditions to the Moon. For hundreds of years, the Lunar Fiction genre produced nothing but stories about this futuristic dream.

Then, in 1969, reality caught up. What were the Lunar Fiction writers to do now? They could still call themselves "Lunar Fiction" writers, but the term would carry too much baggage and seem antiquated. Or they could discard the term.

21:

The trouble is that the American market is where the money is.

Points that caught my eye: the misleading use of the SF label in book marketing. It fits with Frenetic's point; Nora Roberts writes hi-tech crime thrillers with a dash or eroticism (under the name J.D. Robb, if anyone didn't know), and they're not that icky science stuff. But, except for the eroticism, I could see them in the sci-fi pulps. They're adventures.

Charlie's latest, "Halting State", has the same mix of hi-tech crime and policing, with more thought given to what effects the tech has. It's even got some of the elements of genre romance: the guy and the girl, thrown together by circumstances, misunderstanding each other, and yet finishing with a climactic realisation of True Love.

(Pauses for Charlies to pick himself up from the floor.)

Of course, Jack isn't ultra-studly, and the book doesn't have the standard sex-scene I am told is a part of the Modern Romance. And has been part of thrillers for decades.

So, which genre will that book's sales be allocated to?

22:

I target the US market because, as the bank robber said (when they asked him why he kept robbing banks), "that's where the money is".

Now to get to Frenetic's question ... yes, you can decide which genre to work within the constraints of. Broadly: if it's got wizards and dragons it's fantasy, if it's got space ships and talking squids it's SF, if it's got a detective and a murder it's crime, and so on. (Romance can bracket all of the above tropes, as long as it's also got "... and they lived Happily Ever After" as it's primary obsession. Horror can bracket all of the above tropes, as long as it's also got a sense of dread. And so on.)

Once you're selling books in one of these areas it's hard to do something very different because your readers expect more of the same; if you drive off the beaten track you'll confuse them (this is common knowledge among publishing folk) and therefore authors are encouraged not to spread themselves around too much.

As for targeting the slashdot generation ... if I say "fork bomb", it will mean one thing to you, and something very different to a 1950s vintage traditional SF reader who doesn't have a computer. So yes, I'm writing fiction that relies on a common culture that is shared by the computer-literate generation but not by the generation that were born with propeller driven aircraft and lived to see manned spaceflight. (And whose yardstick for measuring progress was therefore very different to ours.)

23:

Or take Michael Crichton, for that matter. Does he NEED the SF label?

Crichton is one of the most commercially successful writers ever. His name has become synonymous with hit movies (WESTWORLD, JURASSIC PARK, etc.). He consistently uses concepts like cloning dinosaurs, robots, nanomachines and other such familiar tropes.

His books are not marketed to the "SF market". And never, not once, have his sales suffered. His vast readership has never complained that the lack of a "genre label" is confusing them.

Crichton must be doing something right. Invite him to the label ghetto if you want, but... he will probably decline.

Am I getting through? Our readership is shrinking because we are working too hard to shut out new readers. The problem is not the ideas in the books. They are NOT "too demanding" for a wide readership, not amymore. That's just self-congratulation.

A paradigm shift is needed.

24:

I read this very interesting and insightful post with delight. I am myself a huge fan of this "new geeky SF" movement (esp. Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and the present author's Accelerando). I was (and still am) a great fan of cyberpunk, and got introduced to science-fiction with Neuromancer, which to me remains a must only recently challenged by the incredible Accelerando.

I guess I'm the prototype of the "young geek reader" described in this blog post (early 20's, CS student, slashdot reader), and I really identify with what was said here. However what the point I wanted to raise is that I often feel quite alone, being a french-speaking SF fan. I know many science-fiction readers and writers, most of whom usually only read french translations of novels. AFAIK, most of the "geeky SF" discussed here remains untranslated as of now (apart from Neal Stephenson). Going to the Utopiales convention in Nantes in two weeks ; Cory Doctorow will be there, but I bet most of the participants (*including* the scene of contemporary french writers) won't have a clue about his works.

As an amateur writer (in french), I am also left wondering whether geeky stuff isn't too marginal for people who have not yet been exposed to that new facette of SF and who probably don't know about Slashdot, BoingBoing, Wired, SecondLife and the likes...

So I have a few questions here:
(1) Charlie, are there Accelerando translations to french or other languages in the works (assuming it's even doable and someone dares to commit to the task) ? I will ask Cory about his own novels..
(2) Has a sexy buzzword been coined for the new evolution of "geeky SF" ?
(3) Is the young, "slashdot geek" audience really broad enough to support this trend (I am still wondering how older, long-time science-fiction readers react to a work like Accelerando) ?

Anyway, thanks to Charles Stross for taking time to sharing his insights in this blog and writing such mind-blowing novels!

25:

Hmm late Heinlein?

Lots of incest?

Self-referencing smugness?

Or (and?) lots of questions as to why peolpe BELIVE rather than think?
The famous "Lazarus Long" quote on "What are the facts, and to how many decimal places"?

Could be very interesting.

A lot more so than the "merchants" stuff, anyway ......

26:

theefer: "Accelerando" is currently doing the rounds of French publishers right now, and hopefully a translation will show up in a year or so. Meanwhile, you might enjoy "Le Bureau des Atrocites", and the forthcoming sequel (they haven't told me what they're going to translate the title "The Jennifer Morgue" into yet). I'm being translated into French; it's just the translations run a couple of years behind the English language originals.

G. Tingey: buried within the bloated and self-referencingly smug carcass of almost every late-period Heinlein novel you can find a classic of the field screaming to get out. He lost the economy of prose and efficiency of visualisation that characterised his early work, but he wasn't a simple writer, and his ideas weren't all simple (or dumbed-down) either.

(I'm not going to comment on my Merchant Princes books other than to note that in #4 the hard-SF underpinnings begin to show through the costume drama ...)

28:

Theefer,
I an a 63 year old lifelong SF reader and I loved Accelerando. Still dwell on parts of it months after the first reading. It seems to me that modern SF that includes developments in sciene seems to be too much work for many modern readers, young or old. I have loaned books to friends who were avowed SF readers only to have them returned unfinished with the comment "I just couldn't understand what was going on."

29:

Gabe, thanks for quoting me out of context in such a way that it makes me look as if I'm issuing a manifesto.

Really. (Shakes head in irritation.)

30:

Hey Charlie, I just sent you an email hoping to clear up the confusion here, but I think I'm getting an idea of what you're talking about.

Apparently wires are crossing at all points here, because I didn't approach your post as any kind of "manifesto". To wit, there is a lot you say that I agree with, as I said several times in my post.

What I take issue with is that the thrust of your post isn't inclusive enough for me. Taking an exclusionary stance by deriding anything *but* 'pioneer[ing] a new field' is just downright silly, like saying I can only eat oranges if I want fruit. To hell with that, sometimes I want a mango!

What, exactly, is so wrong with pulp attitude SF?

31:

Although he was a bank robber, [Willie] Sutton had the reputation of a gentleman; in fact, ... Sutton simply replied, "Because that's where the money is." ...
http://www.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/sutton/sutton.htm

Mr. Stross is likewise a gentleman, with a more nuanced yet pragmatic take on Capitalism.

This is a fascinating thread, as are many of the comments.

I cannot tell if Kristine Kathryn Rusch believed her manifesto, or was being provocative in a useful way.

The statement that "SF and fantasy literature accounts for a declining proportion of fiction sales" is probably true, based on figure that I see for the North American market. But probably false for Japan and China, among other important markets. Indeed, Romance more than takes up the NA slack, as I have examined more comprehensibly in
http://www.magicdragon.com/RO-authors.html

I do remember the 1960s, and the 1950s, for that matter. My understanding on Science Fiction is deeply influenced by this, as well as by my Science Fiction book editor father, who had a professional connection with Hugo Gernsback and remembered the 1920s.

To a first order, I accept the Strossian claim that "the future is now" -- albeit unequally distributed. I agree that this affects the role and marketing and raison d'etre of Science Fiction.

I consider it important that "we have the erudite literati" in that the purpose of radicals is to move the center of the mainstream. I think much of the arguments in the commens deal with, sometimes at cross purposes, what are at the fringes and what is at the (moving) center.

I strongly agree with the Strossian: "we're competing in the special effects stakes with TV, film, and increasingly, computer games." Yes, but it is a chaotic combination of competition AND cooperation, typical of market forces in a robust early to mid-aged industry [Mathematical Economics references omitted to avoid obscure tangents].

Axiom 1: "we read fiction for pleasure, not to be clubbed over the head with a fistful of insights." True, but Science Fiction has a significant didactic component, as Stross agrees in: "the fictional agitprop arm of the Technocrat movement." This may have been more extreme in the deep past (i.e. Gernsback's proselytizing for home-brew electricity and radio hacking), Asimov (preaching Science and rational suasion and Secular Humanism), Heinlein (in his juveniles, explicitly and successfully trying to propagandize the generation who would build the actual space program), and recent examples such as Crichton preaching the Frankenstein gambit and influencing the anti-Science White House, or Singularity authors either pushing towards or away from what the utopianate or dystopianate. Religion is the utopianate of the people.

Axiom 2 (hard to keep track of the count): "fast, chaotic, cheap, and out of control." Yes, as applied to robotics, spacecraft, and many things netcenteric. But that would seem to apply more to fanfic than to books and magazines. And to blog disucssions such as this.

Axiom 3: "There is a literary culture that switches on the geeks: it started out as a branch of SF." Yes, and may be found in allegedly mainstream and award-winning authors, and in the The Yorker, perhaps more than near the core of Science Fiction. That itself confuses the foundational and definitional issues, which Chip Delany postmodernistically (in NYRoSF) argued were an irrelevent waste of time.

Lost count completely. But, yes indeedy. Spider Robinson and John Scalzi (I LOVED "Old Man's War", and so did my web-centric 18-year-old son). Mary Turzillo also wrote a good neo-Heinlein juvenile in Analog. John Varley does so brilliantly, but with an updating of reference frames. Jay Lake does an even more subtle transmogrified webulated ironic neo-Heinlein juvenile.

Finally, I agree with the Strossian insistence that late Heinlein is "more interesting."

See also the discussion about readable/unreadable SF at
http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/10/the_cranky_book_meme.php

"With the Heinlein Centenary celebrations scheduled for July 7, 2007, more and more stories about sf writer Robert A. Heinlein will start to surface."
http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/16663.html

The Stross neo-late-Heinlein will probably be a controversial and exciting and contradictory and popular novel. I await it with tremendous excitement.

32:

Wires crossed over authorship of that bit in the Vector blog ...

Sure, geeks aren't the sole future of the SF readership: I could equally well make a case for romance readers as being the future of the SF readership. (Certainly there are many more novels with SF plot trappings being sold as genre romance than those of us outside the romance genre generally recognize!) But I stand by my prediction of a serious short-fall in new 1930s (or even 1950s) readers coming down the pipeline, by and by. And if we want to stay in business, we need to identify new sectors. (As it happens, the geek sector is my subculture, so I'm naturally going to pander to them. But it doesn't follow that they're the only entree on the menu.)

As for the diminishing corner of the popular mentality that we occupy ...

I reckon that the viewers of a single episode of a daytime soap opera in the UK outnumber all my readers, of all my books, in all editions and languages -- possibly by as much as an entire order of magnitude. Let's keep this in perspective.

33:

I'm with Yngwie. Your first priority is to write well. Your second priority is boost sales of your books. Your distant last priority is to boost sales of Genre X. Especially if you are thinking in terms of refloating SF rather than replacing it with something better. If the books are good they'll make their own genre, assuming that you need one. 70 per cent of current SF is dated space opera wankology, a delivery system for the kind of cover art that makes me embarrassed to read the book in public and the kind of sick onwards'n'upwards cowboy bullshit/Spengler-on-the-Seelow-Heights western elite declinism that Moorcock essay laser-kebabs so viciously.

Creative destruction, baby. Joseph Schumpeter, Presente!

34:

And if we want to stay in business, we need to identify new sectors.

Now THAT is a credo I can totally get behind.

35:

theefer asks: "Has a sexy buzzword been coined for the new evolution of "geeky SF" ?"

We have buzzwords coming out of our wazoos— it's a defining characteristic of the subgenre. I suggest "hashbang" here, but I'll probably have another one tomorrow. (NB, Charlie: I make a point of saying you're not in the manifesto business.)

36:

I cannot tell if Kristine Kathryn Rusch believed her manifesto, or was being provocative in a useful way.

KKR wasn't writing a manifesto; her original context was a book of critical essays on the topic of the role of Star Wars in genre SF, and she chose to put the case for the defense, of Star Wars as being integral to the health of the genre.

I wish we could make accusing someone else of issuing a literary manifesto an arrestable offense. We could probably cure world poverty with the fines we'd raise ...

37:

Conversely, we could have a designated ManifestoMaker whose only role is to create manifestos for nonexistent movements.

Having done so once, I refuse to be that person.

But maybe someone else will volunteer.

38:

Sincere apologies hereby manifested to both Charles Stross and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. In lieu of fines, I hereby surrender one clone and one avatar to the carbonite freezing chamber. I was once hired by an opera company to write a manifesto for 21st Century Opera, which I did, but that's another aria.

39:

Warning: Inadequately caffeinated ramblings follow:

That table Gabe linked to on US book production... if it's vaguely accurate, then KKR's notheestimated 6.4% would be about 1800 titles F & SF combined out of 28,010 titles (2004). Assuming your estimated 2:1 F:SF proportion (might be a little low on the Fantasy side?) that would be about 600 SF titles hitting the market in 2004. To me, that's a huge number, if I think about trying to read it all. (To you writers it may seem like too little room - how will I ever make a living at this?!)

If 1800 F & SF titles had been published in 1993 (when 7,721 fiction titles were allegedly published) that would have made 23%, nearly a full quarter of the US fiction in print, with 8% going to SF. I could now extrapolate backwards in time a la Mark Twain, and conclude that in the '70s (for which I had no data) enough F & SF titles were published to consist of more than 3 times all the fiction published each year. (Perhaps they were all published in alternate universes, the barriers between them being weaker in the '70s due to widespread use of psychedelics.)

I think I'll speculate, instead, that my foregoing reasoning might be faulty, that the total SF books published were smaller in previous years, and that the SF niche is still growing, though much more slowly than the general market. If this is the case, I think some of the usual genre-centric brow- and breast-beating is a wee bit misplaced. (Much like my own periodic bursts of angst about why I didn't get rich in the Big Internet Boom.)

Now when it comes to which way Charlie takes his own writing, that's a completely separate question - I heartily applaud writing more stuff that appeals to me and my kind of person. I first found out you were now writing SF via the geekiest and most frighteningly intelligent mailing list I'm on (a lot of email admins and antispam people) where they were raving about your books and talking about the Grubor/Boursy in-joke in Singularity Sky. When you did the BOFH + Lovecraft fusion of The Atrocity Archive stories I was fully sold; Accelerando had me going around waving it at all the geeks I knew (especially thanks to the free download I could point them to.)

Whew! Excuse me, sorry for the fannish outburst there, but my point is that it seems to me that in writing what you want you are reaching the people you want to, whether or not the NYT buys into it.

40:

Damn.
Nice essay, Charlie.
Now I'll read the comments.

41:

Well, first, if you look at the demographics, our audience IS largely confined to whitebread Euro-Americans (and other types of Americans).

In fact, it's largely confined to Americans full stop, with some minor outliers in Britain and the Antipodes.

SF in other languages is a hobby, not a business. Anglophones don't read much fiction, per-capita, but there are so bloody many of them that they dominate quite handily even so. Rapid population growth in the US -- it's the only developed country whose population is steadily growing at 1% a year -- means that this will _remain_ the main SF market, too, for the rest of our lives.

42:

Howe and Strauss "Generations:The History of America's Future" argued that we have a four generation cycle. So we shoud be writing fiction of our great grandparents time. Discuss.

43:

Whenever politics comes up, Moorcock's ability to discuss books rationally vapor-locks, dies the death and goes face down in the rice pilau with an audible _splat_.

In the link Charlie gave he's actually, seriously trying to argue that SF written by people whose politics he disagrees with is somehow _bad_ SF -- not just morally but in literary quality. And that the writers are bad people whose writings are pernicious.

Didn't this sort of Stalinist nonsense go out with Auden and the 30's? Christ, the man should wash his mind out with some Orwell.

Tolkien was a reactionary Tory romantic. His works are classics which will probably live as long as the English language. Moorcock is a lefty anarchist. His early fantasies are also good.

So knock-knock Michael M! Political orientation has ABSOLUTELY NO EFFECT on literary quality!

44:

SF has never been a very big share of the fiction market; never as large as Westerns used to be, for example.

If you look at what _is_ selling, you'll find that ringing changes on the technothriller -- by bringing in something like time-travel -- seems to be attractive. John Birmingham has had some very encouraging results.

Alternate history sells very well; my sales have been heading steadily up and I just broke into the NYT list (admittedly the extended version) with the latest.

I also used things which are attractive (serendipity strikes) to the New Age market in that series.

Folks, the NA types are _numerous_ and they buy a _lot_ of books. The number of neo-Pagans in the US went from a few thousands in 1970 to over a _million_ in 2006, with a less committed penumbra of something like ten million, and they're still growing by 50% per decade or more.

And as I said, they read compulsively -- five to ten times as much per-capita as the general population.

45:

SF is a form of adventure literature; it's the Tale of the Wondrous Far-Off Place, like pirate stories or chivalric romance or the Western.

It's a form of the adventure story adapted to the period after the scientific and technological revolutions in Western Civ.

The "Tale of the Far-Off and Strange" type of story has timeless basics; it just has to be reinvented periodically. (Our culture's predominant form of it could also be called "The Romance of Western Expansion".)

And it's actually a fairly significant type of literature, apart from giving a lot of pleasure. We live in the physical world, but we also live in history and in our shared fantasies.

Before something can be done, it must be dreamed.

Take this example: read Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the conquistador who was with Cortez and later wrote a chronicle of the expedition to Mexico.

As Cortez and his little band of ruffians in rusty armor came toting their Toledo swords and arquebuses over the mountain passes and looked down into the vale of Anahuac, with its huge teeming cities bigger than any in Spain and gigantic blood-stained pyramids and skull racks and glittering palaces and tapestries of hummingbird-feathers...

... they exclaimed to each other "This is just like something out of _Amadis of Gaul_!"

In other words, they were demented fanboy geeks who'd been raised on their era's equivalent of heroic fantasy.

They were living out a real-time live-action D&D game or an SCA tournament; that was the script in their heads, the valiant knight who overcomes evil infidel enchanters and wins the kingdom and the princess. They came looking for Morgan le Fay, as well as 'to serve God and the King, and to get rich'.

And of course this fed back into the literature of adventure in turn. The fight scene in one of R.E. Howard's best stories -- "The Phoenix on the Sword" -- is taken almost word for word from the best account of the death of Pizarro, right down to the fatal wound caused by lack of time to lace up the side-plates of the armor.

Except that Pizarro was 66 when he killed 3 men half his age in hand-to-hand combat. They made 'em tough in those days!

46:

An example: I'm currently doing a Planetary Romance series, recast as alternate history. Mars and Venus were terraformed back in the Jurassic by absent aliens or possibly their AI's, who periodically seed them with species from Earth; we discover this in the 1950's(*); we go there.(**)

THE SKY PEOPLE, (out next month -- buy! buy!), the first one, has Venus -- hot jungles and savannahs, dinosaurs, sabertooths, cave princesses menaced by Neanderthals, and a tiny little base (New Jamestown), plus hidden relics of alien super-science.

The second, IN THE HALLS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS, does Mars -- a slowly dying world with decadent survivors of a high civilization living amid unthinkably ancient ruins, swords, sand-yachts, needle-guns, airships.

Sure, this will appeal to people who've read the field... but there's no reason it won't appeal, I think, to people in their own Golden Age (adolescents of all chronological periods). After all, they like "Pirates of the Caribbean", too, even if they've never heard of Farnol or Sabatini.

What's not to like? The writing is, I hope, way better than the pulp average (tho' you'd have to be very good indeed to be better than say Sabatini), and the approach to character and incident is more modern, but that's just the periodic reinvention that the overall genre has to go through.

(*) which is when we'd really have found out, tho' there would have been ambiguous hints in the 20's and 30's.

(**) but everything after the premise done straight -- real science using our physics for the interplanetary travel, etc. Why should the old Big Bull Gorillas get all the interesting settings?

47:

Mr. Stirling, it seems to me you are either attacking a straw man or have seriously misread the Moorcock essay, and should re-read it. At no point does Moorcock say Tolkein writes badly; like many before and after him, he criticizes the implicit values of the LotR - the faithful forelock-tugging gardener, etc. If you believe that literature does not implicitly communicate some set of values - even when it is not explicitly preaching values - I think you are seriously mistaken. It does not follow that all literature whose values disagree with ones own is worthless, nor does Moorcock say that; I suspect you appreciate Orwell's writing even though he was an avowed socialist and you avowed against socialism.

48:

My comments?
I have just read that 3 of my favorite authors will continue to write incredible, interesting, and entertaining books.
I don't care if anyone else reads SF. I will continue to read you guys until the day I die. Reading SF and fantasy has enriched my life beyond words. If I may say so, I would rather be dead if it did not exist.
I love all you guys.
Thank you for putting in the blood, sweat and tears it takes to write well.

49:

I was going to post a nasty reply to S.M. Stirling here, but my "mature" side kicked in, and I deleted it.
Suffice to say, by the volume of text he's written here in a two hour period, it's easy to see how he can churn out the quantity of titles he currently has in print.


To our host, I'd like to say that I just finished The Atrocity Archives in two nights of before-bedtime reading and I loved it. I pre-ordered The Jennifer Morgue on amazon.ca just this evening.
I am currently into the third chapter of Accelerondo, and I haven't been this excited by anything I've read in SF (or whatever we're going to brand it!) since Ribofunk [Paul Di Filippo] and The Diamond Age [Neal Stephenson] (and Snow Crash before that, and Schismatrix [Bruce Sterling, one of my most re-read books!] before that, and Count Zero and Burning Chrome and Neuromancer [all William Gibson, of course] before that...)
I am so into Accelerando that I went back to the store where I bought the other two books to pick up Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise so I can just keep reading Stross for the rest of my vacation...

thank you!

50:

Just remember: it's about writing and reading stories, not upholding the walls of a rigidly defined ghetto.

I think Charles Stross, writer, is going to do just fine.


51:

SMS: Well, first, if you look at the demographics, our audience IS largely confined to whitebread Euro-Americans (and other types of Americans). In fact, it's largely confined to Americans full stop, with some minor outliers in Britain and the Antipodes. SF in other languages is a hobby, not a business.

My royalty statements call bullshit on that :)

Seriously, I get bigger book advances per capita in France than in the UK, and bigger book advances per capita in the UK than in the US. My advances for non-English speaking countries, combined, for SINGULARITY SKY, are closing in on the size of the original US advance for the book. (It takes time to sell and I'm still opening new markets, which is why I don't have a definitive figure.) Now you may argue that this is proof of your point -- if the rest of the world was a market for SF on the same scale as the US, then the non-US advances should be fifteen times the size of the US advances -- but I'd like to point out that (a) selling into a non-English market entails the additional cost of a translation, and a decent translator costs near-as-dammit as much as an author per unit time spent on the job, and (b) genre SF is substantially an invention of the anglosphere because of [see long discursive political ramble about the effects of technocracy on the origin of golden age SF as agitprop fiction].

Nope. The non-US markets are my bread and butter, and I can't afford to ignore them.

The neo-pagan market thing is interesting. Now that you point to it, it makes a lot of sense: I've never seen a new age shop that didn't have bookstands coming out of the eaves, and they're not selling the usual stuff. Hmm.

Bud: planetary romance is one of the poles of our genre, predating the ideological trappings of the whole Gernsbackian project and, as SMS points out, harking back to stuff that goes all the way back to antiquity. Remember that adventure fiction outsells SF/F by about four to one! Again, another field some of us can usefully plough is the readership who want, well, entertaining adventure stories. And before you turn your nose up at that, just ask yourself how long the Illiad and the Odyssey have been in print ...

52:

This debate is a subtype of what appears to be a major theme of the times - It's All New And Only I Know What to Do vs People Don't Change, The Stuff Does. (See the so-called "Technocrats vs Warriors" debate in the US defence establishment)

Upthread, Charlie remarked that the founding myth of SF, the lone inventor, had long been obsolete because of the growth of the capital requirements for basic scientific discovery. I disagree. If there's a key to the geek culture, it's that the barriers to entry are falling for a whole range of things. Cheap general purpose electronics and bandwidth mean that value migrates to software and applications. Cheap access to knowledge means large epistemic communities. Invention is being redemocratised. (If this is the BoingBoing era, MAKEzine is its cutting edge.) The next wave of basic innovation, which remains capital intensive, seems to be heading for three things quite quickly - distributed energy generation (cheap solar power, ultracapacitor/fancy battery storage), rapid prototyping, and changes to biotech analogous to the changes in IT in the last 20 years. You can buy a used DNA synthesiser for $1,000.

For most things, basic research will get ever more capital heavy, but technological development progressively less so. In a sense, technology - and more fundamentally, writing - are ways of transferring evolution from the physical layer to the memetic layer, thus accelerating it. The stuff changes faster than we do. How will characters similar enough to those in the Iliad, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, that they can commonly identify with them, behave in a world of highly distributed and ephemerised technology?

Frank Whittle needed a major industrial complex (British Thomson-Houston) to prototype and test his jet engine. Another, much bigger, got involved (Rover) and buggered it up. Eventually Rolls-Royce got the job done. Tomorrow he might have run the prototype parts off his RepRap on the kitchen table.

It's not as if science fiction hasn't engaged with Big Science. The research institute setting is almost a cliché (Ballard, Vonnegut, Clarke among others), as is the Couplandesque computer company. In fact I seem to recall Vonnegut saying that he was inspired for Player Piano by the GE Research Labs engineers, physicists and mathematicians he knew when he worked at Schenectady. Bell Labs is of course the archetype, although I'm not aware it has ever appeared in a work of fiction. (Are you as horrified as I am that some fool wants to knock down Saarinen's building there? We could make it the Wewelsberg of a worldwide technocratic cult.)

If there is a reason why we need SF/its replacement, it's as the literature of a culture of fact, opposed to a majority literature that essentially doesn't examine the realities surrounding its characters. Can anyone write completely about the February 15th, 2003 demonstration in London without the OC-192 fibreoptic lines from the foot of the BT Tower that looks down on the protestors, north to the NSA Menwith Hill facility in Yorkshire, an infrastructural token of the USA and UK deep states' Siamese relationship buried under feet of tarmac and unexploded Luftwaffe bombs?

And if the geek culture means anything, it's the technological empowerment of the citizen as against organisation.

53:

Translations into other languanges usually have the advantage of knowing how well the book sells in it's native language before they print it in another. Your books may be getting higher advances in France because you've already proven that you've written a book that people want to buy. There's less risk than your UK & US publishers are taking on by printing the book for the first time.

And if books are marketed well, the US will be the #1 market for English language books for a long time. 300 million English speakers vs 115 million or so in the UK, Canada, and Aus/NZ. Of course, there might be some differences in taste -- it seems to be that triumphalism is more common in US SF/F.

54:

"Classic" Sf was totally steeped in the GI Generation mindset and Cyberpunk, in the GenX. One has long passed (though as one poster mentioned the Millies may revive it as they have swing) and the other will dominate for a while and then fade as have their hippie predecessors. So instead of getting into they style of whoever is on deck at the moment, just do your thing. I've been gobbling down the Hidden Families series. for instance.

You mentioned Barnes. I have also been gobbling down his Thousand Culture series and want to see the last book in it! No, not "Armies of Memories", which ends in a galaxy-wide cliff-hanger, its sequel.

And Lois McMaster Bujold, whether it's SF or fantasy, space opera or (some of you fellows cover your ears and make a sign against evil) romance.

And I gobble down Brin, who has been crusading for the "Modernist" viewpoint since he first picked up a pen.

What do I look for? A rattling good story, with vivid and memorable characters I can care about. A plot. That's right, that old-fashioned Beginning, Middle, and End. Worldbuilding - a vivid and coherent and interesting world.

Another poster mentioned Nora Roberts' futuristic police procedurals. She does great at everything, encluding the flavor of a long postwar (The Urban Wars - what we're at the edges of now) austerity (tastes like soy dogs and fake coffee). Her only failure as a worldbuilder was when she took the action offworld into one of Roark's resorts - and it could have been a conference center here on Earth. (She didn't even have her cop & husband try out the zero-G rec room, or indicate that one existed. And knowing the cop's husband..... but then, she is not primarily an sf writer.

OTH, a certain Canadian writer who tells a very good tale indeed has often let his current ideas of the good send a totally unintended message. As in the first book of a trilogy which showed - vividly (sorry for the repetition!) what was wrong with affirmative action - and the author didn't even seem to know this, so committed was he to the concept. Because the 'villain' actually had been given the shaft, totally.

Anyway, enough rambling.

55:

It seems obvious to us.

What do geeks want? We want worlds that appears complex and chaotic in which only our hero (Hiro?) can identify the patterns. Why do we want this? Because this is how we see ourselves interacting with the world. Let's take it meta. Charles' article and the resulting comments can be seen as an example of what people desire from the SF genre.

How many of you read his comments, searched for information on the books he quoted, followed the predecessors and successors to this article, branched out and created a fragmented, but inter-related web of information that you then attempted to parse into simple statements of power and persuasion. How many of you needed, needed to post a response to expand the conversation--to control the flow of information. This is the audience that Charles describes.

Information is a drug; this we understand. Information with which we can interact and evolve is the most potent form of that drug.

And he identifies the problem. We're getting it here, on blogs, on SlashDot, on MMORPGs, on Wiki, along all the "tubes" of the internet. Those of us who are hopelessly addicted even create our own quests, our own conundrums, devising our own linked paths to the final resolution. It's emergent gameplay. So if SF still wants to describe itself as the genre of ideas, to lead this pack, to inform us about ourselves and the society we perceive, it has to deliver something shinier than the worlds each of us has already created.

We appreciate the efforts of writers like Charles. We know this isn't easy, and we know most people fail at it. We wouldn't want it any other way.

56:

Charlie,


KKR is right in everything she wrote in her essay.


- Write what you love, publish for the money.


Write what you love, but publish the book in the marketing category where it makes the most sense money wise.


You are now finishing up a "near future" novel, why not publish it in the marketing category "fiction" rather than in the marketing category "SF/F"?


- I don't need an answer to that question here in the comments area. I'm suggesting that you sit down with your agent and address the issue.


In today's market, if your agent took the book to one of the big publishers, like Random House or Simon & Schuster, it would sell and be snatched up by a large number of readers who are hungry for Story. You will make more money with that one "fiction" book than you've made with all your other books and stories combined, and that's not a bad thing.


Write what you love and publish the occasional book in the marketing category "fiction" to help pay the bills. If you come out with a "fiction" book every couple of years, you can have a successful career as a writer in the "fiction" marketing category.


Allyn Edgar Hughes

Helping people accept the things they cannot change.

57:

Andrew, if election figures are any guide, Charlie's politics means he can write off half that market. They also suggest that somebody such as S.M. Stirling can write off half the market, but they're different halves.

It may be more realistic to suggest that the loss attributable to politics is less than half, and it isn't just going to be about a certain sort of Americanism. Still, that apparent even split doesn't seem to be so likely in the rest of the world. So maybe the American market isn't such an overwhelming share of the total.

58:

Charles,

According to Wikipedia, SM Stirling lives in New Mexico, the heartland of American New Agers, so it makes sense that he's hyper-aware of the pagan/Newage market.
But any writer who sits down and thinks, "I'm going to program my story and characters and tone to appeal to market segment X!" is more hack than artist. Maybe I'm naive or uninformed about the writer's game, but both the inspiration of this thread (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) and SM Stirling strike me as more the former than the latter, based on their statements...
We could spin off a whole discussion about the great works-for-hire that have been made through the centuries (the Sistine Chapel, anyone?) -- and it now occurs to me that perhaps KKR and SMS both see themselves as artists-for-hire, and their patron is the "audience," out there. They're writing to please their patron so they can continue to earn a living from writing. Fine. But in my opinion that doesn't give them a right to tell those who are following their muse (artists who aren't pandering to their audience) what the should be writing about to "save the genre!"
I used to listen to Mocean Worker's dark drum and bass music and enjoy it. It was, IMHO, good but not great, but interesting enough to seek out. And I even liked his "Aural and Hearty" album, which changed direction into a feel-good "house-ier" vibe. It wasn't great, but it was good. And then I read an interview where he "admitted" that he had changed musical direction because "well, d'n'b isn't selling anymore...and house is." Well, call me an "Intention" fascist, but that kind of soured me on his work. All of his work.

59:

Mr. Stross and Alex are onto the key change with "the founding myth of SF, the lone inventor" and its mutating chronology.

Reference: the 125th anniversary issue of Nature, a journal founded in 1869 by Sir Joseph Norman Lockyer, an astronomer. They detail how their original 19th Century readership reflected that Science was a creature of amateur gentleman of means puttering about, and local curates, and curators of museums.

The 20th Century was an anomaly: science dominated by the triumverate of corporations, universities, and government funding.

The 21st century is in part a pendulum swing back to (in its best sense) amateurism -- "Write what you love." But the geeky infrastructure changes everything. "'Wikiscience' is leading to perpetually refined papers with a thousand authors."
EDGE: SPECULATIONS ON THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE By Kevin Kelly.

In my own experience, I was necessarily an amateur as a child: unincorporated, unemployed, nonmatriculating, grantless. My career was then over 3 decades in universities, corporations of all sizes, and federal contracts.

Finally, the past decade, I more and more am managing a distributed network of coauthors and colleagues rarely if ever seen face to face, and have over 2200 (twenty-two hundred) publications and presentations and broadcasts to my [over 10,000 to our] credit -- a great percentage in prestigious on-line edited venues (not blogs or my own web domain, but gold-standard entities such as the Online Encylopedia of Integer Sequences and MathWorld).

Our grandparent's working world assumed that one stayed in a job a very long time, barring disasters, with mutual loyalty between Management and Labor. Today's working world is overlapping short-term compilation of a Skillset through an employment/consulting Portfolio, changing not just jobs but entire industries repeatedly, where Management wants to squeeze and discard you, and Labor wants to enhance the skills and networking, until one reaches the Promised Land of Liquidity Event. Stross nails this again and again.

Stross, Doctorow, Gibson, Sterling, Vinge, Brin, Egan, Walter Jon Williams, others are holding up the mirror of Science Fiction to show this revolution in its full glory: the Virtual Corporation, the Robust Distributed Conspiracy, the disinformation wars of the wikiworld. Founding myth becomes multiverse shuffle.

Single inventor morphs towards Singularity.

60:

Don't write them off, Dave. (/hal) If they hear it's like Heinlein they might read it - and then our memes can infect them.

61:

Oh, and it seems to me that it's pretty easy to keep The Illiad and The Odyssey in print -- no artist to pay, no book tour to support, universal seal-of-approval on their value as art, etc.
And the cynic in my wants to know (like Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake, among others in the Western Canon) how many purchased copies actually get read?

62:

But any writer who sits down and thinks, "I'm going to program my story and characters and tone to appeal to market segment X!" is more hack than artist. Maybe I'm naive or uninformed about the writer's game, but both the inspiration of this thread (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) and SM Stirling strike me as more the former than the latter, based on their statements...

Bud, all writers cut their stories to fit their audiences -- if they want to eat. I do. If you're a member of my natural audience, then you may be less inclined to notice this than if you're sitting outside of J. Random Other-Writer's target audience, but it amounts to the same thing.

Of course, the process of how you tailor your stories is an interesting one. The dirty secret of story-telling is that ideas are cheap; in fact, they're ten a penny. So those of us to whom ideas are cheap simply pick and choose the ones we invest time and effort fleshing out and turning into a novel. For example, I have a couple of ideas for Mil-SF alternate history novels -- but I'm probably not going to bother turning them into books any time soon because that's not where my existing audience lies, unless I can come up with an angle that's so compelling it forces me to write it. Ditto cowboy stories, police procedurals (heads up: I just wrote one!) and so on.

Perhaps KKR and SMS both see themselves as artists-for-hire, and their patron is the "audience," out there. They're writing to please their patron so they can continue to earn a living from writing.

I can't speak for KKR and SMS, but that describes me, dude.

Hint: once you get far enough into this game to have sold your second novel, the scales drop from your eyes and you realize that at best you might be able to earn half what an upper middle class professional can expect -- an accountant or an airline pilot, maybe -- and you'll never be rich. Those "hacks" who you're denigrating are working like crazy to tell stories so they can continue to tell stories in front of an audience, not so they can get rich.

Any damn fool can starve in a garret and tell stories to their pet rat. But there's a common public delusion that great art has to be created through suffering and deprivation, and that art running on a reasonably comfortable budget, art tailored to suit an audiences desires, commercial art, is intrinsically derivative and second rate. This is, to put it bluntly, pernicious rubbish. Goal #1 for any artist, with very few exceptions (and most of them were mad) is to find an audience for their work. And failing to consider your audience isn't a sign of great artistry -- it's a sign of stupid pig-headedness.

63:

As usual, Charlie, you've only got it half right. Man, am I sick of writers proclaiming that their way is the right way. So your presumption of audience and the way you go about writing to it works for you. Maybe it doesn't work for somebody else. It's not an either-or proposition and it's not in the kind of black-or-white contrast you seem to want to paint it as. (The only alternative to your scenario is to be...mad? Geez.)

Basically, you took offense because you felt you were part of a group being pissed on by the person who posted. End of story. The rest is just heat lightning.

JeffV

64:

BTW--I appreciate the work of you technophiliac slashdotters as much as the next person, but it's not, in my opinion, the wave of the future. It's already consigned to the past, given the kind of problems facing this planet right now. In a sense, this kind of work is almost frivolous, certainly almost by definition becoming dated as we speak. It's difficult not to see much of it as escapist. Nothing wrong with that, but don't hold it up to be the future just 'cause you're part of it.

JeffV

65:

JeffV: heat lightning, sure ... but believe me, I've spent enough years writing in my spare time and doing shit I didn't care about to make ends meet that the opportunity to write full time is something I care about. Being implicitly told I'm a hack for making that choice is deeply annoying.

As for the wave of the future ... all our futures are sequentially obsolete. Including the two-fisted tales of steam-locomotive navigation, and ... ah hell, whatever else. And I reject the hobgoblin of consistency with my past and future selves. I've just finished a Mundane SF novel that doesn't use the words "singularity" or "computer", because I felt I needed to Do That, but I wouldn't necessarily advocate that everyone else follow my example, and I'm probably not going to do it ever again, either.

66:

Clifton Royston: "At no point does Moorcock say Tolkein writes badly"

Moorcock on Tolkien: "The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic."

Moorcock despises Tolkien's work and thinks it's very badly written indeed; he's said so repeatedly and explicitly. And this is explicitly because he thinks Tolkien's political and social views are bad.

67:

Charlie: I think the days of separate US and UK markets and editions are definitely numbered. It makes no business sense.

I've sold in Europe too, and compared to the US it's peanuts, beer-and-pretzel money. You don't get six-figure advances for European sales, or even high five-figure ones.

I'm actually rather sorry for someone who wants to write SF in, say, Danish. How does anyone make a living when there are only 5 million potential customers, including children?

68:

Generally speaking, nobody "writes to market" except for things like media tie-ins, which you generall do to keep the pot boiling.

I've never _met_ anyone who writes to market in his own books.

Marketability may be a secondary consideration, but writers write because they want to do it, and indeed can't not do it. They think about the business side because it lets them keep doing what they love -- writing.

Anyone with real business sense avoids fiction writing like the plague. As a profession, writing is like acting; it's grossly overcrowded, most practitioners actually make their living doing something else, a small minority make a reasonably comfortable income, and actually making a fortune has a probability not significantly different from winning a lottery.

A publishing house that prints say, 24 new SF titles a year may well get _sixty thousand_ unsolicited manuscripts.

Do the math.

69:

Dave Bell: "if election figures are any guide, Charlie's politics means he can write off half that market. They also suggest that somebody such as S.M. Stirling can write off half the market, but they're different halves."

-- This is a truly odd statement.

Where did you get the idea that either Charlie or I sell predominantly to people of one political persuasion?

I sell to everyone from the military (many fan letters from Iraq) to back-to-the-land Wiccans (ditto). And they read the SAME BOOKS.

Charlie probably has a similar range of readership. Hell, the same people often read Tolkien and Moorcock.

(I'm a moderat Democrat myself, if anyone wants to know -- not that it's relevant to my work.)

In a way, being a pro writer is like being a cop. There are certain things that only other writers really understand.

70:

And Charlie's right: ideas are cheap. They're _very_ cheap.

Even raw talent isn't that rare; there are literally millions of people with half a pretty good manuscript stuck in a drawer, or even a finished one.

As Baudelaire said, "Every little bourgeois feels inspired when he sees a sunset. It's application that makes an artist."

71:

Regarding political leanings of authors and readers, I think some readers are influenced by the politics of an author, but only if that author is really vocal about it and really on the fringe. Personally I'm pretty libertarian with market anarchist leanings. I know both Charlie and Steve think my politics are a bit naive and I disagree with parts of theirs, but I still love their works. I also like L. Neil Smith and China Mieville. And though Smith's politics are closer to mine, I find his writing inferior to Mieville's. I don't think politics of authors is very important.

Where it can become important is if the author injects them into the story without providing a context that allows even people who disagree to suspend their disbelief. If an author fails to do that, the writing just comes across as bad -- that's the reason I couldn't read Richard Morgan's "Market Forces". It just didn't make sense, it was poor world building.

72:

I can't believe we still have this argument over artist-vs-hack. It gives me hives. It's assinine, especially among PUBLISHED authors. What's the difference if one author considers an audience before/during writing and another considers an audience after writing? What's the difference between aiming for a specific market and finding a market after the work is done?

Nothing.

It's all words on paper in the end, and author's methodology in its composition has nothing to do with whether the work is good or not. Nor does it have anything to do with the discussion at hand.

*cough*

OK, cleared that out! Typing that was like popping a pimple.

SM (can I call you Steve?) Stirling said:

Moorcock on Tolkien: "The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an epic."

Moorcock despises Tolkien's work and thinks it's very badly written indeed; he's said so repeatedly and explicitly. And this is explicitly because he thinks Tolkien's political and social views are bad.

You're only half-right. Moorcock has repeatedly taken Tolkien to task for the *content* of LotR and specifically its underpining philosophy. At no point that I'm aware of has Moorcock criticized Tolkien's actual *writing*. Having an ideological disagreement with a work is perfectly acceptable and can be a legitimate criticism. Equating that argument with saying the work in question is "badly written" is unfair.

73:

Re: Moorcock vs. Tolkein, I think part of the reason Moorcock's so anti-Tolkien ties to what was happening when he was first published. His first Elric book was published in 1963, the same time that Tolkien's books were exploding in popularity.

Both books are very good, but the style, structure, and underpinning story are very different. In a way, they were competeing to shape the market and reader's views of Fantasy, and Tolkien won. The vast majority of High Fantasy follows the Tolkien model today.

74:

Andrew, it's hardly fair to blame Moorcock's dislike of Tolkien on what you suggest amounts to professional jealously.

And besides that, Elric was a response to REH, not Tolkien.

75:

Maybe it would be better if we just stopped using the word "art". I doubt we could get a consesus on what it means anyway, unless we were talking about patents (and, please, let's not). For too many people "art" conjures up visions of tortured souls in garrets getting syphilis in order to better perceive the nature of the universe and pass it on to the unwashed masses. (I wanted to put a smiley there, to indicate humor, but I realized that this isn't a joke, and I just can't find an emoticon with enough sarcasm in it to show what I really think of this notion).


Artists are craftspeople, much like cabinetmakers, machinists, and software engineers. They take raw materials and finished goods made by other craftspeople and create still other finished goods. It happens that artists make much more use of symbols of various sorts than most other crafts, and that it's often obvious to the users (the audience) that their work has more than one aspect or purpose to it. The same may be true for other crafts (for instance, a cabinet may make a statement about the proper proportions that will combine utility and beauty), but in many (not all!) current cultures the arts are held to be special in this regard.

As with any other craft, the criteria a craftsperson uses to judge their work and others' is not the same as that used by the audience (or, often, the critics). There's a change in perspective that comes when you've been a journeyman for a while and start to see just what it will require to become a master. The issue of how well something is done, how well it carries out its purpose becomes more important, and often aesthetics becomes less important than sound construction ("It won't look beautiful if it falls down"). And the issue of how to acquire the means to live and continue to work and get more of the tools and materials needed for the work is much more obvious to the worker than the onlooker.

76:

Re: Moorcock vs Tolkien.

I'm not sure that Moorcock is talking about either only politics or only writing craft when he puts Tolkien down. I made a nasty crack about the politics of art upthread, now that I think about it, it probably wasn't nasty enough. I may agree or disagree with what Moorcock said (I happen to agree in part that in many ways Tolkien was not good at crafting prose, but I still think his work was very good in other ways), but my reasons have nothing to do with either my politics or my membership in some clique that insists on acceptance or rejection of Tolkien's work.

I agree completely with SMS that politics has little to do with readership. For that matter, politics often doesn't have much to do with politics. I was raised as a Red Diaper kid in the '50s, and I'm still well left of center for the US, if that means anything these days, but that doesn't stop me from reading and enjoying military stories by Drake and Stirling, and it doesn't stop me from agreeing with a lot of things political conservatives say. Truth is not something that anyone has a monopoly on; if you think you do, you are part of the reason why homo sapiens might still not get any farther out of the caves before snuffing it.

77:

*cough* more *cough*

78:

I'm not sure I can recommend writing for any particular subcategory of the readership. For every writer who manages to hit some subculture dead on and find a loyal audience, there are probably dozens who try and fail.

I, for instance, have never quite figured out who my audience actually is. I meet so few it's hard to generalize. Certainly I regularly attend large SF conventions--- even large SF conventions where I'm the guest of honor--- where the number of people familiar with my work ranges from a handful to zero. (I've been interviewed in front of large audiences by people who haven't read a single word I've written, and I've come to appreciate this kind of interview as an art form, both for the interviewer and interviewee.)

In the end, all this means is that my audience doesn't consist of con fans. My audience isn't the kind who come to signings, either. Yet despite my never having actually encountered enough of my readers to be able to generalize about them, I seem to have developed a large enough audience to support a lengthy career.

Probably that's to my advantage in the long run. It means I get to write the sort of thing that enlightens and entertains me, and do so without having some hypothetical Reader looking over my shoulder and telling me that he'd rather be seeing something else.

But if you do know who your readers are, or who you're aiming at, there's one surefire way to increase your readership among that class. FLATTERY FLATTERY FLATTERY.

When you meet your prospective Reader, rip off his shorts and give him a sloppy French kiss right on his bunghole.

Steve Stirling didn't get his audience of pagans by telling them their religion was a delusion, their history a hallucination, and their scholarship execrable. He told them (and their friends in the SCA) that, if it weren't for all that nasty technology, they'd be running the world. Heroically, no less.

William Gibson didn't acquire an enthusiastic audience of digerati by pointing out that they were four-eyed geeks who couldn't get a date. He told them that they had incredible style sense and would make dangerous, chic criminals.

Likewise, Neal Stephenson told that same audience that they were the greatest swordfighters in cyberspace, and that back in 1944 or 1700 all the cool people thought and acted just like them.

The way to success is obvious, people.

Perhaps I'm lucky that I don't know who my readership is, because this way I keep my nose a healthy pink instead of, well, some other color.

79:

Walter, as one of the handful that has read and enjoyed all of your books, I gotta say that was the single funniest post I've read thus far. *MY* nose is suddenly, distinctly coffee-colored. On the inside, anyway.

80:

Gabe: SM (can I call you Steve?) Stirling said:

-- sure, Steve it is. Member in good standing of the Legion of Super-Steves... 8-).

>At no point that I'm aware of has Moorcock criticized Tolkien's actual *writing*.

-- no, he says the writing is bad too.

Here's a quote from "Epic Pooh":

"Unlike the tone of E.Nesbit (Five Children and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the 'William' books) Terry Pratchett or the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it [LOTR's prose] is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy.

The humour is often unconscious because, as with Tolkien, the authors take words seriously but without pleasure:

[Quotes from "Fellowship of the Ring"]

I have been told it is not fair to quote from the earlier parts of The Lord of the Rings, that I should look elsewhere to find much better stuff so, opening it entirely at random, I find some improvement in substance and writing, but that tone is still there:

[Quotes from "The Return of the King"]

Tolkien does, admittedly, rise above this sort of thing on occasions, in some key scenes, but often such a scene will be ruined by ghastly verse and it is remarkable how frequently he will draw back from the implications of the subject matter."

-- this is pretty unambiguous; according to Moorcock the writing is mostly bad, and where it's bad it's bad because of Tolkien's politics.

I might add in an aside that the reaction against sentimentality has been overdone. It was necessary to use a little acid to cut through the overdose of Victorian treacle, but it's gotten to the point of being covert propaganda for cruelty.

The Victorians got sentimental because they were reacting against a mind-set that just accepted massive cruelty without batting an eye. The Sentimental Revolution was a prolonged cultural struggle against a 'world without pity', as the early-modern period has been accurately described.

It's like that abolitionist image of a chained black kneeling and holding up his hands, saying "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" which was a staple in early Victorian times.

That's gross, vulgar, clunky, string-tugging Victorian sentimentality at its worst, using exactly the same visual tropes as those paintings of mournful spaniels with big eyes and equally neotenous girls in frocks.

It's also true.

81:

Bruce Cohen: Artists are craftspeople, much like cabinetmakers, machinists, and software engineers.

-- Words cannot express how much I agree with this, or how thoroughly I despise the rancid High Romantic Visionary concept of art, which has been flattering the vanity of blowhards for lo these 180 years now.

Bethoven could bring it off but it's like Joyce's prose style; inimitiable and you're wise not to try.

82:

It's understandable that Moorcock would be so anti-Tolkien. He was basically the guy who got the New Wave of Science Fiction off the ground, which sought to completely remake the genre. And, to a degree, he succeeded - the genre has benefited from that period, even the parts he doesn't like. On the fantasy side of the fence Tolkien's work was hugely popular at the time that the New Wave was changing SF, which has to be a thorn in his side since it represents almost the opposite of what the New Wave was about. I'm sure Moorcock would have liked to reconstruct Fantasy if he could.

It didn't mean to imply earlier that I thought Moorcock was righting in reaction to Tolkien when he wrote the Elric books, I was just pointing out that they overlapped with Tolkien's popularity. Elric has much more in common with Conan than he does with Frodo. Which ever way you look at it though, Tolkien has had much more influence on modern high fantasty than Moorcock or Howard, and high fantasy is the poster child of the whole genre.

83:

Walter: Steve Stirling didn't get his audience of pagans by telling them their religion was a delusion, their history a hallucination, and their scholarship execrable.

-- actually, the hilarious thing is that I _did_ do just that, in a very real sense.

In "Dies the Fire", Juniper Mackenzie (the Wiccan protagonist of the series) talks about Gerald Gardner (the real Wiccan founder) and his prelidiction for "skyclad" ceremonies. Some feel he was channeling the Goddess, but _her_ thoughts on the matter are:

"Then there's the school [which I belong to] which says that Gardner was a lecherous, voyeuristic, horny old he-goat who loved to prance through the woods with nekkid women, but since he was also an Englishman born in 1884, he had to come up with a religious justification for it."

And there's another in "The Protector's War" where Juniper's bunch meet a group of what hard-core Wiccans call "fluffy bunnies" who've been hiding in culverts when they weren't being robbed and raped and beaten to death by bandits, and find them insulin-shock twee nitwits.

Walter: "He told them (and their friends in the SCA) that, if it weren't for all that nasty technology, they'd be running the world. Heroically, no less."

-- well, that's a little unfair, given the cannibals and the Black Death and stuff that follows the Change. The technology isn't shown as nasy, it's shown as keeping most people alive, who then die when it's removed. Even the people who end up on the top of the heap miss it frequently.

And the post-Change existence is shown as (at best) a life of extremely hard work and higher risks, where "sixty" once again means _old_. And _some_ of the Wiccans and SCA types do well. Others die horribly along the way.

84:

-- Words cannot express how much I agree with this, or how thoroughly I despise the rancid High Romantic Visionary concept of art, which has been flattering the vanity of blowhards for lo these 180 years now.

That High Romantic Visionary concept has given us Guernica, the Bauhaus (working in the artist as craftsman mould), Kandinksy, etc, etc. Indeed, if you are using a Macintosh, I suspect it even gave you the very shape of my letters.

The High Romantic Visionary concept of Art often agreed with (a) the Artist as craftsman, and (b) the destruction of Art. Marinelli, Tatlin, and William Morris, as wel as the various Dadaisms.

85:

Um, not to be too pedantic, but Heinlein's birth was on July 7, 1907, Charlie. It was a 7/7/7 thing. He died in May 1988 (on the 8th).

86:

Well yeah, Steve, I was being unfair. Not just to you, but to the other authors I mentioned.

My point was rhetorical, not "fair and balanced."

But I think I was right about elements of those books that the audience reacts to. They see themselves in those characters, only cleaned up and with better posture.

Gabe>> You're a reader!!! Great!!! If I knew who you were I'd flatter the hell out of you!!!

87:

Carl: good, that suits my purposes (and deadlines) much better.

88:

Best quote in this comment thread:
"For too many people 'art' conjures up visions of tortured souls in garrets getting syphilis in order to better perceive the nature of the universe and pass it on to the unwashed masses."
(ROTFLMAO every time I read it... :))

While we're on the subject of Tolkien: So why did his brand of high fantasy catch on with the youth market of the early 1960s, anyway? Wasn't the 1960s a period of techno-optimism? Was it the Cold War that led to escapism? Or the Baby Boomers rehearsing hippiedom? What? What??

Is there a cultural explanation of the trends of yesterday that would make sense of the readerships of today?

89:

Huh.

Well, I'm 26. I read a lot of scifi. I write short stories, and have a long term interest in writing longer stuff.

The whole "definition of scifi" thing gives me a headache. I struggle with Heinlien beyond "Starship Troopers". I read mostly what appeals to me and is accessable - I've read a lot of the Baen...

(Accessable in a physical sense - I've read a lot of the older scifi in their ebooks I would never have seen otherwise, since my trauls arround second hand bookshops only take you so far)

90:

Yeah, us greys are dying every day. On the other hand, we have the cash or credit to take out a Waterstone's 3 for 2 offer maybe more than once a week, and are prepared to read them. Then, when we find someone new that we like - say, a certain Charles Stross - we go back into Waterstones (or go onto Amazon, or whatever) and use that credit worthiness to buy every single word he's published, right then.

As for the young not reading . . . what's all that stuff my kids have me use my credit to buy for them by the yard? Oh yes, books. Just not SF because the new stuff that I bring into the house bores them spitless. My daughter wants sex with it (have you seen some of those mangas?) while my son wants blood (hence his virtally comprehensive collection of Warhammer and Black Library titles) They're a market, just when they tried to speak to publishers at Interaction, nobody was interested. Of course, nobody from a US publisher's focus group would be at a GB Worldcon, would they.

If we're talking market oriented work here - and I see nothing amiss with that - how about some real market research rather than lemming like pursuit of the next big thing (remember, Harry Potter wasn't the first big thing to be laughed at. Remember a group called The Beatles? There's a lot of A&R men been autopsied to find that name carved on their heart) Of course, that's being hacked to death on Making Light, so I'll say no more on that subject.

Oh, but HP only sells to kids, the same as romance only sells to women, and who is interested in selling to them?

As for KKR . . . well, I guess I'm not her target market.

91:

Quoth Gabe:


I have a hard time believing writers are the ones who are going to discover those untapped markets.

Well, who else is going to? This is properly the job of publishers, but they're the ones hugging the status quo in the hope that they'll be able to make back their costs with as little a gamble as possible.

Let me ask the writers, Charlie in particular since I know he's tried some web distribution, if they think that new channels of distribution will help in finding new audiences.

92:

Bruce, the sad fact is, nothing sells like word of mouth. People you trust rave about some book or floor-wax product at you? Maybe you try it. Never heard of it? You can't try it. End of story.

Word of mouth shouldn't be confused with spam or ambient advertising. We're saturated in the stuff and we shrug it off. Buying attention time used to be a career track for courtiers in the age of monarchies: now we all have our train of corporate courtiers trying to distract us and grab our eyeballs for a moment, all the way from bedchamber to office, every day; and like the monarchs of old, we tend to ignore them unless they amuse us.

The free ebook thing is simply about reducing the cost of entry to this word-of-mouth chain. If your friend recommends a great book, but it's only published in a limited-edition of 500 personally letterpressed copies bound in the hide of a nearly-extinct species and sold by auction at Sotherby's in London, the odds are that you're not going to bother making the effort to acquire a copy. (And your friend certainly isn't going to loan you their copy to read on the bus to work.) On the other hand, if the author they keep pestering you to read has put some of her books online as free downloads, you might take the time to bounce on a button in a web browser. And if you really liked it, you might shell out for the sequel (letterpressed on ostrich-hide vellum, limited edition of 2000 copies auctioned via eBay) ....

93:

A. R. Yngve said:

While we're on the subject of Tolkien: So why did his brand of high fantasy catch on with the youth market of the early 1960s, anyway? Wasn't the 1960s a period of techno-optimism? Was it the Cold War that led to escapism? Or the Baby Boomers rehearsing hippiedom? What? What??
This is an excellent question, and the answer is not at all obvious. I was there, and I'm still rather bemused by it all.

But, no, the '60s were the beginning of the turn away from techno-optimism. It was gradual at first, but I think you could reasonably date the start to 1962 or '63, when the first cohort of the Boomers were nearing the end of secondary education and starting to take notice of the outside world. Certainly, a lot of people have tried to explain the '60s by talking about a reaction to the cold war, but I think that came later, especially after the males, at least, became likely to be drafted and sent to the war.

My personal theory is that the Lord of the Rings trilogy gave the sense of a noble battle for the cause of civilization that the Boomers wanted to believe in, but that many could not accept in the guise of the Vietnam war or anti-communism. Of course, your mileage may vary.

94:

Lots of interesting things in this post, and in the comments.

I've got an idea for you, Charlie. Maybe you should start a post, tell us what (scifi) books you would HAVE to take with you on a desert island, and invite us, your faithful readers to respond with OUR lists and our demographics. I think it would be interesting to read.

95:

Bruce Cohen says something very interesting here. A great war, particularly a lost one, may produce a period of pessimism about the future and "dashed hopes" in progress and technology.

i.e. after WWI, after WWII (in Britain, where WWII marked the final loss of the Empire), after the Vietnam War, and... ?

96:

I'd like to back up a step and ask if it is really true that the various markets are as disjoint as our discussion seems to imply. One of the reasons I'm not so insistent that the writers whose work I buy stay in a narrow groove is that I like many different kinds of writing in a number of genres. Several other posters on this thread have indicated they feel the same way. Could it be that this is true for a sizeable fraction of the total market? If so, could cross-genre advertising work?

97:

Bruce: my great hope is that my separate SF, fantasy, and Laundry [uncategorizable] markets cross over, so that folks who buy one of them will start buying the others.

At least one bookstore owner has told me that I seem to have three different customer bases. If they'd just bloody dip a toe in the water on the other side, that's my pension, right there. (Ahem, 'scuse me.)

98:

"That High Romantic Visionary concept has given us Guernica, the Bauhaus (working in the artist as craftsman mould)"

-- well, since I don't like Picasso (my favorite painters are Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton) and I consider Modernist architecture a devil's conspiracy of gouging plutocrats, cheapskate bureaucrats and arrogant architectural sods to render ordinary people's lives miserable...

99:

Walter: Steve Stirling didn't get his audience of pagans by telling them their religion was a delusion, their history a hallucination, and their scholarship execrable.

Steve Stirling: -- actually, the hilarious thing is that I _did_ do just that, in a very real sense....

You can get away with all manner of Jewish jokes if you're Jewish yourself, a Righteous Gentile, or at least a Shabbas Goy. The same humor will get you lambasted for anti-Semitism if you don't fit in one of those three categories.

100:

Demographics?
Well, there's "where the money is" -- who's buying.

There's also "where the interest is" -- that's different.

Do you all watch the newsgroups that include "e-book" in their names much?

The global s-f readership -- many of them sound very young and write as though English is their second language -- is interested enough to be scanning and proofreading y'all's books like crazy and distributing them worldwide.

On the one hand it's stealing; on the other, it's a grassroots public library. I don't see many other genres whose online readers are doing iterations improving the proofreading and adding new file types so fast.

I buy the books, I have since the 1950s, and I'm old enough to keep doing it almost as fast as most of you write them, and thank you for that -- but it's not uncommon nowadays to be able to get your new books online in pirate versions before they get to either the library or the bookstore -- and I'll buy the book and still download the pirate copy so I can put it on my PDA and read it wherever I am all day.

I wish y'all could show up on the newsgroups, acknowledge what's happening, and, I dunno, maybe promise a free signed copy to whoever produces the first completely accurate proofread scanned pirate file of your book. You know the publishers aren't going to do it for you anytime soon. And maybe your readers will send you something in return. One can hope.

Aside -- perambulatory reading is one of the very few things that worked out about my personal future. I carry a dozen different books with me in something half the size of a slice of bread, new every week, and read everywhere.

101:

Mr. Stirling, I concede the right of the matter to you. I was not aware of that other essay you cite. I'm prepared to agree with Moorcock to some extent as to the flaws in Tolkein's value system - though there's a lot to be said for common decency - but if Moorcock thinks Tolkein doesn't write good prose, he is just blindered.

Tolkein's prose is mostly fairly subtle, down to earth, understated, but nonetheless brilliant. Ursula LeGuin has written better appreciations of it than I could; it's interesting that Moorcock also condemns her prose in The Dispossessed as pedestrian or "journalistic" even while he lauds her values. Again, I think her prose is fantastically good while usually remaining understated. Maybe he just doesn't care for plain everyday language in SF & F.

102:

There are two kinds of people: people who divide people into two classes and, um...
So let's take two views of SF: Near-future and Far-future. Far-future *tends* toward the space opera (Bujold, Doc Smith, Brin) but doesn't have to -- and not that there's anything wrong with it (apologies to Seinfeld).

I'm currently fascinated by the near-future stuff. SF has taken a number of views on the quality of the near future. The pulp era mostly looked at the Optimistic Future. The New Wave swung somewhat the other way -- Dangerous Visions, indeed. I'm not sure there was a 70's movement that was more positive, but much of the 80's Cyberpunk swung even darker (maybe not Stephenson, but think Effinger). Lately, though, I think we're back on the upswing, thanks to Kurzweil's Singularity theory.

People complain about there being too much of the "good ol' SF's" future here already (but where's my flying car, dammit)... but in the 50's and even the 70's, we couldn't see the curve, that we're reaching the "boost point" in the accelerando curve.

I'm eating up the near-term SF -- I want that future, I want my brain wired up to *everything* (my head can evolve a spam filter better than software, I hope), I want the politics of scarcity to go away (which I pray doesn't yield a future as bland as Star Trek).

Keep up the good work, Mssrs Stross, Scalzi, Stirling, etc.

The ones worrying me are the Cyberpunk old guard, who do seem to have left the ghetto: Stephenson's Cryptonomicon took place yesterday (though I loved it). Sterling's Zenith Angle took place yesterday (and is a one-joke plot). Gibson's Pattern Recognition? Yup, yesterday (and a LOT of fun). They're still writing in the SF style, but they've given up on the future.

103:

-- well, since I don't like Picasso (my favorite painters are Alma-Tadema and Lord Leighton) and I consider Modernist architecture a devil's conspiracy of gouging plutocrats, cheapskate bureaucrats and arrogant architectural sods to render ordinary people's lives miserable...

A lamp, from the Bauhaus. Say what you like, I still think that that lamp is one of the best things to come out of Germany, ever.

Art is an important idea, and the Artist as a Visionary is an important character. Sometimes we don't need a Bouguereau, painting Madonnas and plaster Saints. Sometimes we need a Picasso or a Kandinsky, seeing new ways of seeing.

104:
*cough* more *cough*
Damn it, man, hold your breath after you toke and we'll give you more! (Sorry, I was compelled to do that).
105:

"You can get away with all manner of Jewish jokes if you're Jewish yourself, a Righteous Gentile, or at least a Shabbas Goy. The same humor will get you lambasted for anti-Semitism if you don't fit in one of those three categories."

-- I'm certainly not a pagan; I'm a materialistic monist, if you want to get technical. Very, very atheist.

106:

"Ursula LeGuin has written better appreciations of it than I could; it's interesting that Moorcock also condemns her prose in The Dispossessed as pedestrian or "journalistic" even while he lauds her values. Again, I think her prose is fantastically good while usually remaining understated. Maybe he just doesn't care for plain everyday language in SF & F."

-- well, could be, since his tends to be _very_ highly colored.

107:

Jonathan: Our grandparent's working world assumed that one stayed in a job a very long time, barring disasters, with mutual loyalty between Management and Labor.

-- ah... boy, this would have been news to anyone getting their skull busted by the company goons at Rouge River in the 30's!

"Bossman, bossman pay my rent
'cause a dollar I've earned
Is a dollar I've spent;
Company plan takes all I get
For breaking my back
And risking my neck."

108:

Joe Finkle: People complain about there being too much of the "good ol' SF's" future here already (but where's my flying car, dammit)... but in the 50's and even the 70's, we couldn't see the curve, that we're reaching the "boost point" in the accelerando curve.

-- actually, no. Technological progress is slowing down. Our lives have changed less than our grandparents'. Some individual technologies are progressing rapidly, but that's not the same thing at all.

109:

Kier: the Artist as a Visionary is an important character.

-- no, the Artist as Visionary is a self-important narcissistic twit.

Artists are producers of goods which give pleasure. They're essentially not much different from the people who make hand-crafted chocolate truffles, whether they admit it or not.

What artists need, first and foremost, is to cultivate humility. Conceit goes with the job; any ideological tendency (like Romanticism) which reinforces this natural tendency to inflated ego is pernicious.

Kier: sometimes we don't need a Bouguereau, painting Madonnas and plaster Saints. Sometimes we need a Picasso or a Kandinsky, seeing new ways of seeing.

-- no, we don't.

The artistic avant-guard of the 20th century accomplished absolutely nothing except to destroy the common post-Renaissance vocabulary of the visual arts in Western civilization, divorcing high culture from the people and rendering it an inaccessible esoteric cult, most of whose products are, to be blunt, crap.

Similar people did the same thing to poetry, and to classical music, and they tried hard with prose fiction but were (thank Ghu!) defeated by the power of the market.

The waves of "movements" have now exhausted themselves in idiocy like "art exhibits" featuring a light switch that turns on and off or sectioned frozen dead cows. It's a dead end.

It's no accident that the annual cash turnover on art created before 1914 exceeds that on all the stuff produced subsequently by about 16x. If anything, that underestimates the gap in real value.

People just don't like the art, music or buildings.

110:

Steve argues

... divorcing high culture from the people and rendering it an inaccessible esoteric cult, most of whose products are, to be blunt, crap.
In fact, I contend that a great deal of that crap was invented, not by artists, but by critics and teachers. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of blame to go around for the artists, but I'd fault critics and teachers even more, since it's at least nominally their job to help steer the artists in productive and creative directions.

There's something fundamentally dishonest about an artistic community that hails a new artistic genius, with a new "revolutionary" way of seeing things, every few months. In reality, we're lucky to get three or four in a generation, and may not get any. There's a great deal of prior "art" out there (and here I'm using the patent office's meaning of the term); it's not revolutionary to ignore it all and pretend that it isn't important.

If you really want to talk about artists who have looked for new ways of seeing, and may have found at least some new insights, I think you need to look at people with the discipline to study how human sense perception works, and how various media can be used to affect perception and the thinking behind it. For instance, Da Vinci, who studied the anatomy of the eye, or Maxfield Parrish, who spent a huge amount of time studying how to create color using the mass-production printing processes of the early 20th century.

Artistic revolutions work pretty much like scientific revolutions: they don't invalidate what was done before, rather they build on top of it.

111:

To Mr. Stirling:

For someone who has a writing style more in common with crude-and-modern Hemingway then Shakespeare ... well, let's just say you probably shouldn't be knocking modern art.

Moreover, if you think there was no crap made in the Renaissance, then you haven't looked hard enough. I'd suspect your views come from a combination of confirmation bias, and the fact that the art that people have found worth preserving for 500 years is predominantly the good stuff.

112:

I just wanted to squeeze in edgewise and suggest respectfully that y'all should just chilly down now.

Charlie, if I am right, I hear that you don't like people quoting you "out of context in such a way that it makes me look as if I'm issuing a manifesto".

Indeed, that's understandable. And for that reason alone, it should be understandable to you what is wrong with your statement:

"To try and paraphrase (or parody) her argument: SF is of declining interest (and has declining market share) to the general public because it's not true to its pulpy roots. So let's all go write media tie-in novels, because they attract readers, and if we attract lots of readers, we'll reinvigorate the ghetto."

If you ask me, perhaps it would be wise for residents of nanocrystalline houses not to lob sonic grenades.

Can we just get out a large rubber stamp and label everything "THIS IS NOT A MANIFESTO! DO NOT TAKE SERIOUSLY!" in big, bold type?

What this discussion is really missing, if you ask me, is the P.O.V. of Douglas Adams, who, with his longtime association with Doctor Who and the Beeb, clearly lived in the belly of the beast as far as serialized science fiction/fantasy, but who also clearly saw where the future was going, esp. as far as computer gaming, hypertext, software agents, etc., etc.

Had he been around today, he'd command the respect of everyone in the discussion, and would probably leave all sides involved feeling that they have a valid point-of-view on the matter. He'd then proceed to lift ideas from the conversation and incorporate them into his next novel. Stross would become a Golgafreechian, Rusch would be a Zangzafrachian, and each would become a source of unexpected amusement for millions.

If you ask me, more than anything else, the sci-fi genre needs to stop taking itself so seriously that it can't reach an audience. I mean, I truely, deeply respect a lot of the "geek/hard/Slashdot" science fiction that is being created nowadays. Indeed, I am your target audience... but at the same time, many of your subgenre's leading authors flat-out suck as far as integrating humor, character development, and a sense of heart or wonder into their works. And you know, last time I heard, these things matter, and indeed, help to sell books. Such basic ignorance of human nature was perhaps more understandable in '50s pulp novels, but hey, what's your excuse?

But if you don't care about how many books you sell, or if your goal is to write specialized books for a limited fan base, then by all means, keep doing what you're doing. I'll still read your books occasionally, but just don't expect me to remember the name of your characters.

This whole debate started out with a kettle of fish, and now, unsurprisingly, we have bouillabaisse. But personally, I'd rather call it gumbo. Or, indeed, stone soup.

It's what everyone brings to the table. The ingredients aren't just one single thing. Indeed, it's hard to tell where one ingredient ends and another begins... but I do know that if you mix it up a bit and stir in some Tabasco, it tastes pretty damn good.

(And yes, if you want to call any of the above a manifesto, fine, go ahead.)

113:

Mark: using words like "y'all" to address an audience in a blog's comments is frequently taken as a red flag; it implies a certain supercillious condescension. Cut it out, okay?

114:

Since Charlie doesn't want any of the points of view in his post to be taken as manifestos, I assume that turning them into oversimplistic slogans would annoy him even more.

Nevertheless I propose:

"Old stuff doesn't work - write something new and better!"

for the main thrust of the essay; and

"Old stuff works - write more but better!"

for the KKR/Charlie-writing-as-Heinlein part.

Tangentially, I read the Iliad at university (out of interest), lent it to a friend who read it and then the friend's flatmate borrowed it and never gave it back. Exactly the same thing happened to my copy of Hardwired (I also am one of the fans Mr Williams needs to flatter).

Sadly the stories of what happened to some of my copies of Stirling and Stross novels are even less interesting.

115:

-- ah... boy, this would have been news to anyone getting their skull busted by the company goons at Rouge River in the 30's!

Maybe it was different in the UK, but you're right as far as the US goes. The expectation of a lifelong job is really a product of the post-war boom, IMO. There's a reason my Grandfather was a staunch FDR Democrat, and that's because he was a big supporter of Organized Labor.

Well into the 30s there was violent labor-management struggles in the US, and after that being an active member of a Union raised suspicions that you were a Communist sympathizer.

For various reasons the US has never been as friendly towards Labor as European nations, nor has there be a reality of a lifelong job for most, except for a period from the 40s to 70s.

116:

-- actually, no. Technological progress is slowing down. Our lives have changed less than our grandparents'. Some individual technologies are progressing rapidly, but that's not the same thing at all.

I know you've said this many times, but I still disagree somewhat. I think it's not so much the rate of technological progress that's slowing but the rate of technological impact. We've easily made more advances and discoveries in the last 20 years of the 20th century than in the first 20 years. However, the impact of these advances has been much less. Widespread adoption of computers and cellphones has had less affect on our society than the spread of telephones and cars. What is noteable is that the adoption has been faster, however.

117:

People just don't like the art, music or buildings.

I wouldn't lump all the art together, there is certainly some that's enjoyable -- I rather like surrealism even though most of my taste trends towarsd the Dutch masters otherwise. Or are you thinking more of late modernism and postmodernist art? (In which case I completely agree)

Regarding architechture, I have the misfortune to live in a city with many examples of the "brutalist" movement of the 60s and 70s. It's odd to see it juxtaposed with the city's victorian, colonial, federalist, and collegiate gothic buildings. By seeing all the different architectural movements together it's easy to see just how horrible the architecture of the 50s-70s really was. The more modern stuff isn't so bad -- generic glass skyscrapers from the 80s and 90s. The new stuff they're building seems to be an attempt to return to the federalist and colonial roots of the town, but I'm not sure how widespread that is.

Buildings seem to go through periods where they're despised and considered old and ugly before being loved by yet later generations. In the 30s in New Haven most people tore off the victorian-gothic accents on their homes, and it's only now that they're being restored. People then just found victorian buildings to be hideous. It's possible that in another 20 years people will be raving about the massive concrete slabs of the brutalist movement.

Then again, maybe not. The movement was an attempt to dehumanize buildings and remove all ornamentation, after all...

For an example of what I'm taling about, look at:
http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/rudolph/rudolph.html

Not all of them are bad though, I kinda like the Ingalls Hockey Rink, done in an expressionist style:
http://libraries.mit.edu/rvc/kidder/photos/CT22.html
http://libraries.mit.edu/rvc/kidder/kjpegs/C0752-024.jpg

118:

One aspect of the architecture of the 50s and 60s, in the UK and Europe, was putting things back together after the war. It was an explosion of opportunity which built on ideas floating around in the 30s, and often did them dirt cheap.

As for Art, I have a feeling that a lot of what happened from the Impressionists onward is a reaction to the photograph.

Books didn't change in the same way because there wasn't the same effect from technology. Unless, perhaps, you want to point at comics and pulps, but they didn't replace a whole chunk of the business of the painter, as the photograph did (and then enlarged that business segment).

Film and TV did some of the same thing to the theatre (including opera), in making it possible to widely distribute artistic works, but they didn't change the initial creation process in the way that the photograph replaced the painter.

But, while a realistic painting of a person still has a value from being unique, it competes with a photograph. A painting such as Picasso's Guernica does something else, not photographic, but few have the genius of Picasso, few can paint the scream of anguish, rather than the mere aftermath of rubble. Much of what we hear of the language of modern art is the babbling of babies.

119:

I remember reading Asimov, Mr.Utopic Galactic civilization populated by white people himself, as a youngster.
Reading the Foundation series, it was hard not to picture the characters as a stable of Star Trek actors: an asian, an african american, and a mandatory majority of white people. I recognized that he was obsolete even at my age. His huge galaxy moving toward utopia was populated by people who all spoke the same way and colonized planets of stultifying uniformity.

Why did I keep reading? Not because the concepts were captivating or because it led my mind in directions that never occured to me. The space travel, the concept of a telepathic union of all people, the omniscient robots, I'd encountered all the concepts on TV before. It was because of the escapism. In other words, I read it as fantasy, like the idiosyncratic works of Tolkien, a world that I couldn't ever see happening in real life.
And yet, even reading each year's current crop of sci-fi award winners, I could still see the ghosts of that weird assumption that the future is going to be populated by detached people with European sounding names in jumpsuits and that all or most tech innovations will come from singular, maverick inventors. Yes, that is all cute, but it should be in the same category as Laser guns'n'boobs pulp sci-fi, an obsolete form.

In my early years, I even presumed that this narrow view, DEFINED sci-fi, to the point where I wrote my first stories as an eleven year old with that same Asimovian flavor. I won a school writing award, but deep down I felt I didn't deserve it because what I'd written wasn't really sci-fi, but a fanciful imitation, as if I'd taken snatches of Beethoven and Wagner themes, spliced them together, changed the intervals a bit, and won a composition award.

120:
People just don't like the art, music or buildings.
It's not just about liking or not liking, especially for buildings. Take Frank Lloyd Wright as an example. I have yet to see one of the homes he designed that I could live in for any length of time. They were designed to be looked at, not lived in.

The "Falling Water" house in western Pennsylvania has two major problems (aside from the problems of trying to have a real family live in the interior spaces he put in). The first is the water running through it. Very picturesque, but have you ever lived in a building with a constant high humidity? My wife and I spent our first few months of living together in a cottage on the estate of the man who supplied concrete for the Empire State building (who says you couldn't make money during the Depression?). There was a lovely, babbling brook running right by it. Unfortunately, scraping the mold off the toaster cord every morning before breakfast gets old really fast.

The second problem is actually a lot worse. Falling Water fails one of my criteria for good art: "It's not beautiful if it falls down." And it is falling down. Wright neglected to do the engineering work to ensure that his design was reliable. He used steel beams to support the part of the house that's cantilevered over the falls, and the beams are not strong enough to hold the weight of the house. Consequently there's been a very expensive and in the long term possibly futile effort to reinforce the supports.

If Wright had been an architect in the Roman Republic there would be some excuse for these faults, since they did not have either the much longer experience with construction, or the formal mathematical and physical tools for design that we have. But we do have these tools, and not using them is not evidence of genius; it's evidence of intellectual laziness.

121:

I think we *have& seen a great deal of change in society in the past 50 years. But, whereas the changes in the first half of the 20th Century were technologically driven, the changes in the last half of the century were socially driven.

In the first half of the 20th Century you have mass communications and modern transportation -- the telephone, television, radio, automobile, and airplane -- tying together whole continents. You have the phone, TV, radio, car, and plane, combining with other technology, leading to world wars and wholesale slaughter. You might even argue that the rise of the great authoritarian regimes of the U.S.S.R. and Communist China were permitted by the phone, TV, radio, car, and airplane.

Plus: Widespread medical advances extend the average human lifespan by decades.

In the last half of the 20th Century, what are the big technological changes? Well, the Internet, of course; but it's arguable that, even though the net has had huge impact, it's far less than the other things. Other changes are refinements of what has gone before: Cars go faster, they're safer, and cheaper. Cell phones are just phones. Airplanes are faster and cheaper.

But the social changes we've seen in the past 50 years are huge. Here in the U.S., we've seen huge changes. Races and sexes are more equal than not -- in 1956, we still had Jim Crow firmly entrenched in the American South, and a woman's place was to be a helpmeet to her husband, who was permitted to slap her around if she got out of line. And all sorts of romantic and sexual changes have occurred: Premarital sex, homosexuality, and interracial relationships were all taboo 50 years ago, now they're routine. Homosexuality was practiced secretly and shamefully and not spoken of in 1956, now we have major corporations recognizing same-sex partners for marital benefits, and millions of people publicly advocating same-sex marriage. And now you're considered odd if you're a virgin on your wedding day.

Most of those changes have had nothing to do with technology. Oh, The Pill helped push the Sexual Revolution along, but there were prophylactics before The Pill.

Does all this have anything to do with why sf is less popular? I don't know. This month, I'm leaning toward the idea that sf is less popular for no particular reason, it's just the flavor of the month. It's like American TV: One year, Westerns are big, another year, it's all cop shows and doctor shows. Sitcoms were hot for a while, now they're almost dead, but I expect they'll be back in some form or another. It's all just fashion.

122:

Hmmm, I see Mitch posted some of the thoughts I was going to respond with. Yes, there have been a bewildering lot of social changes, lacking obvious technological connection. That's not to say there aren't connections.

Some have argued that widespread car ownership in the U.S. was a major factor in the sexual revolution of the late '50s and '60s; finally teenagers and early 20s could easily go somewhere away from families and other snoops.

Most of the change in the sexual attitudes has happened in the last 30 years; when I was in high school in the mid '70s, there were dark whispers that one of the seniors was a "faggot". It was such a shocking idea that nobody dared to say anything openly about it. Thirty years on, both my teenagers have had best friends in high-school who were openly gay or lesbian; nobody thinks twice about it. Was there a technological factor in these changes settling in? Cable TV? Or just social sea change? I don't know.

Remember the mid '80s Wall Street scenes where Gordon Gekko using a big clunky cellphone was a cue to indicate that he was incredibly rich? Now 10 year old kids have them. Practical cellphones are only about 20 years old, and widespread use is only about 10 years old, yet they're already doing odd things to social mores. We have not yet begun to see how they will affect society in the less obvious and indirect ways. Cell-phone cameras are even newer and (I suspect) may alter life even more.

Computers likewise weren't affecting life that much 20 years ago because so few people had them. (This group was probably an anomaly in that regard.) Etc.

123:

Andrew G.: _Buildings seem to go through periods where they're despised and considered old and ugly before being loved by yet later generations._

That's exactly true -- architectural historians, the kinds of people who get buildings designated historical sites by governments, have commented on it.

Thirty years or so seems to be the cut-off point. Anything built sooner than that is relatively new. Anything older than that is an Architectural Landmark That Must Be Preserved. But anything 30 years old is a piece of crap crackerbox that was built in the 1970s.

Dave Bell:

>As for Art, I have a feeling that a lot of what happened from the Impressionists onward is a reaction to the photograph.

>Books didn't change in the same way because there wasn't the same effect from technology. Unless, perhaps, you want to point at comics and pulps, but they didn't replace a whole chunk of the business of the painter, as the photograph did (and then enlarged that business segment).

>Film and TV did some of the same thing to the theatre (including opera), in making it possible to widely distribute artistic works, but they didn't change the initial creation process in the way that the photograph replaced the painter.

Oh, but that's just not true! Movies, radio drama and comedy, and TV, allowed for powerful storytelling about action, which drove mainstream prose fiction to concentrate more on characters' inward lives: Their thoughts, emotions, psychological and philosophical state. (Science-fiction fans then dismissed mainstream literature as a whole bunch of thumbsucking, but that's a whole 'nother argument.)

Maybe _that's_ the reason for the decline of written science fiction. Thirty years ago, George Lucas had to found a multi-million-dollar company and invent new technologies in order to portray a space battle; he used elaborate miniatures and computer-controlled, stop-motion photography. Now, you can do the same thing in a PC that costs a couple of thousands of dollars. People don't need to pick up a book to get their dose of space opera, they can turn on the TV and watch _Battlestar: Galactica._

Clifton Royston: "Some have argued that widespread car ownership in the U.S. was a major factor in the sexual revolution of the late '50s and '60s; finally teenagers and early 20s could easily _go somewhere_ away from families and other snoops."

The telephone, which started spreading in the late 19th Century, had a lot to do with those those changes as well. If you read the newspapers and magazines of that period, you see a constant litany of complaints and humor about how the phone allowed young ladies to communicate with their beaux _without the supervision of their fathers._ This would, said the pundits of the day, _destroy the American family._

And they were right. It did. It takes a moment to realize that, because of course we, our parents, and our grandparents, grew up in the world where the American family had already been destroyed.

Still, when I was a teen-ager, everybody but the wealthy had only one phone line into the house, and two phones, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. The parent of a teen-aged girl could pick up the phone and hear if their daughter was talking to someone, and who. If you tried to go off and talk to somebody in private, there was that big ol' white cord literally marking a path to where you were.

Nowadays, a kid could be in his bedroom doing who-knows-what with who-knows-who on the computer. Some parents don't let their kids have computers in their bedroom, for that reason. But how do you control kids' cell phone use? Parents of teen-agers now fight with kids about cell phones they way, 30 years ago, they fought with girls about wearing make-up.

124:

I'm not going to get into an argument over the value of Modernism, either in the $-sense, or in the cultural sense. I've better things to do than defend a hundred years of culture, especially given that that hundred years of culture can do it better than I can.

Modernism was, however, a raging success, and it owed it all to a group of real, actual, visionaries.

You've your great Medical Advances the wrong half of the twentieth century, I think. I think that most of the big work was very late forties, fifties, and sixties. Steroids -- 1949; 1950 -- the Clinical Trial; 1955 -- open heart surgery, etc.

125:

Neil Willcox>>> That was truly a profound insight. It was one of the best posts I've read in ages. I'm now looking at the matter through a completely new prism.

You, sir, may be a genius.

126:

S.M. - Artists are producers of goods which give pleasure.

If you really want to reduce it to this, then artists are like prostitutes -- give one a few bucks and he'll jerk you off for a while.

127:
f you really want to reduce it to this, then artists are like prostitutes -- give one a few bucks and he'll jerk you off for a while.
So you're saying that cabinet-makers, weavers, and game designers are all like prostitutes? They also make goods that give pleasure.
128:
Neil Willcox>>> That was truly a profound insight. It was one of the best posts I've read in ages. I'm now looking at the matter through a completely new prism.

You, sir, may be a genius.


Excellent, Walter. That ought to be worth a couple of harcbacks, at least. Kiss, kiss :-)
129:

I find it surprising that this late in the discussion nobody has mentioned Frank Herbert. Though I love the work of so many the authors mentioned above (including Tolkien AND Moorcock), nothing I have ever read has changed my way of thinking more than parts of the Dune books. The impact of Dune could be arguably be rated as important as any literature of the genre.

Much of the discussion of the fate of SF (which has sometimes been de-acronymed as Speculative Fiction) revolves around the bulk of the genre which, moreso in the early years, extrapolated technological trends into the future. And of course, Dune had it's share of this, but what truly worked for me was the understanding it brought me of the present and the past. I never groked (sorry) the relationship between religion and government until I read Herbert. Not only Dune, but The Godmakers and others. I feel that it is this kind of insight that makes the genre important, even immortal.

It is instructive to consider the career of Van Gogh: he barely sold a painting in whole life, being so far ahead of his time. Yet he was able, on occasion, to turn out two or three masterpieces a day. Nothing about audiences or markets or labels has anything to do with the quality of the work.

The best Science Fiction is the most accessible revelatory medium of our time and should be appreciated as such. And the sex is great.

130:

It is instructive to consider the career of Van Gogh: he barely sold a painting in whole life, being so far ahead of his time. Yet he was able, on occasion, to turn out two or three masterpieces a day. Nothing about audiences or markets or labels has anything to do with the quality of the work.

He was, however, in close contact with the rest of the French avant-garde. He didn't make a lot of money, but he had an audience. It just wasn't one with deep pockets.

131:

I agree with the comment made way above me regarding the book sellers classification of scifi. Shouldn't crighton be included? Tom clancy future musings with future weapons technology? 'Fraid not. It's scifi if the book cover has a space ship, robot or someone encased in leather sitting on a rock with a barren background.
So i suggest having a close up of a womans mouth slightly parted in anticipation for your next cover. Can't hurt.
Yom

132:

Walter - I'm flattered to be the subject of your irony, and all my friends will be getting copies of The Praxis for Christmas.

I'm fairly sure Anonymous didn't mean to start me thinking about prostitution as an artform. It's an idea that meshes uncannily well with my latest attempt to add to my collection of rejection slips.

133:

You're right, Mitch, about the changes in how stories can be told. Text and drama have been around for a long time, and stories have bounced back and forth between them. Film and TV let you do things differently to the way they can be done in a stage, and while text can deal with the same settings, the results are different.

But the new technology didn't take away the actor. Because you could get the camera up close, it allowed new ways of acting, but it was still acting.

But the pre-photography painter was trying to represent reality, maybe with a particular symbolic arrangement of things, and suddenly anyone with a camera could do the same.

Well, no, they couldn't quite do it as a mechanical process, but the skills involved, the creative judgements of the photographic process, are different.

Expect some really weird stuff when this generation's Damien Hearsts realise what computer art can do. Not because of what it lets them do, but because of what it lets the rest of use do. These days, there isn't even a need to find a young lady willing to take her clothes off, so where can Art retreat to?

And yet, almost invisible, the artists who produce the usually commercial realism seem to have leapt on computers as a tool to replace the paintbrush.

134:

Frankly, I think you have it entirely wrong. I'm 25. I read /. I build my own computers. I whine to my friends about how on earth am I going to ever get my husband to enjoy video games half as much as I do. I run a MUSH in these days of MMOs, for goodness sakes! And I hated Accelerando with a fiery passion and will probably never pick up another book of yours or anything else that resembles cyberpunk.

I don't think writing stuff like that will not bring a whole new world of readership to the genere or reinvent it, it will simply drive more people away from SF. It's inaccessible and it doesn't give even most geeks (at least the ones I know personally, and most of my friend would get that label by the mainstream) something to grasp onto. Aside from the major character issues I had, the book was so steeped in lingo that even when I understood much of it, it was so hard to get to that point that it wasn't worth the effort.

While I probably couldn't qualify for Jason Fox's "uber-geek" title, I'm certainly not mainstream or a technological idiot, and I was left cold by the book (except for the fiery rage that I wasted my time reading the whole thing because of stubbornness when I could have read something I'd enjoy). On the other hand, I can see many general audiences enjoying Old Man's War. It's something that my little brother would probably enjoy reading (if he enjoyed reading) for the sex and the violence while still being something that I can enjoy even more than Starship Troopers because of the human qualities (and The Ghost Brigade manages this even better).

The people who are trying to reinvent the genre by making it more accessible, even if they are taking inspiration from the old masters, are the ones that have it right. I also think those who have managed to sidestep the SF label are lucky and their publishers smart, because if Accelerando is the way SF is going, the market is simply going to continue to shrink because you're going to get few new readers and drive away many of the old. I mean, if I hated Accelerando, it doesn't even describe how my parents, who were the ones who got me into SF, would react, particularly my mother.

135:

Well, as an older reader who happenes to be a libertarian, anti-socialist radical, I actually LIKE early Heinlien, and Poul Anderson, and despise people like Harlan Ellison. so, if you're throwing your hat in with creeps and cretins who believe that people deserve anything just for existing, then I suppose there is no hope for you.

I think SF is losing not because it needs to change, but because it did change. vonnegut wrote playful stories, Niven wrote stories that could be identified with. The idea that the Hero should be identifiably similar to the reader and that that Hero should prevail - basic to an enjoyable read - seems to be too simple. Sure, you can write SF that will get lauds and honor form the SFWA, the Hugo nomination from the fanbase core of 15000 or so who bother to pay the cash to be able to vote, and then you get to plaster a nice glitter of your cover. But I'd rather be a staphen King bestselling SF (labeled Horror) author than a Hugo winner, any day of the week. Because, frankly, King's "The White Plague" is a more engaging story than 90% of the SF I've seen on shelves.

I'm not sure that really matters, but I am sure that people don't want radicalism, and won't pay for radicalism.

136:

Cool! Nice to hear from you, Firebyrd. Parenthetically speaking, it's not often that writers get feedback like that -- there's a distinct tendency on the part of people who don't like a book to shrug and move on rather than explain what they didn't like, and why.

Speaking of the why of it, would you care to expand a little ...?

137:

Jonathan: wasn't "The White Plague" by Frank Herbert?

(Incidentally, where are you guys coming in from? Did someone post a link to my blog somewhere?)

138:

In the past few days, I've almost commented several times, then decided that it was futile and closed my browser without posting. I'm still not sure if I can cut through the noise and express myself effectively, but I'll give it a shot.

Several good points have been raised, but they seem to be the ones getting lost in the shuffle.

The idea of a new Geek class of potential readers sounds to me much like the discovery of a primate that at first is classified in the human evolutionary line, then later is discovered to be an offshoot that lead to a dead end.

The original readers of Golden Age SF were in large part technology professionals who enjoyed stories that they could relate to with characters that they identified with. After a long day at the cyclotron/punchcard stack/slide rule, you could either try to explain to your family and friends exactly what it was you did and what excited you about it, or you could read some nice SF by people who could geek out on the same stuff you liked.

Now we have the "self-identifying" geeks and the assumption seems to be that they are the inheritors of the legacy of the Golden Age SF reader. They are not.

The new Geek is more of a NeoGeek. They like to use new technology, but that's not the same as being involved in the fields that create it. They work with computers and may even think they are programming when using MS Word, but they aren't the same people that were soldering breadboards in the 50s. "Modding" your computer case with neon lights doesn't make you the successor to the jackleg scientists who used to make rockets in their garage.

This leads me to the debate on making SF more accessible, and to addressing Firebyrd's comments. I can definitely see where you would dislike Charlie's writing. While I've enjoyed some of Larry Niven's writing, much of it sounds more like a white paper with some characters thrown in to meet the definition of fiction. Firebyrd seems to have the same reaction to Mr. Stross and I see why. If you aren't part of the clique that knows what they mean by Singularity, you don't have to vocabulary or context to appreciate Stross.

The same was true in the past. If you didn't know what fission, fusion, and anti-matter were, then you probably didn't like fiction that relied on these concepts. Of course in the GA (Golden Age), an author could briefly explain these concepts. That doesn't work in an age of spin foam and q-bits. Relativity was bad enough for GA authors to explain in an entertaining way. Quantum mechanics just can't be explained the same way due to the non-intuitiveness the concepts and also the number of competing theories.

While Firebyrd may very well enjoy an author like Scalzi to a Stross, that does not mean that Stross has lost the direction that SF is taking. It actually means that authors like Scalzi have identified a whole new market: People who want to be geeks, but don't want to learn the science. That's the perfect field for authors that love Heinlein, but without the explanations, politics, or unusual sexual relationships. Personally, I don't think there's much left but nostalgia and kitch, but apparently that appeals to many people. It's light stuff that looks good on your coffee table, doesn't threaten you with new ideas, and lets you claim geek-cred.

My point is that SF has always been driven by a small group of leading edge thinkers. It's a logical paradox to try to include more than a small percentage of people in the leading edge. Half of all people will always be below average, no matter what you do.

The bottom line is that writing like Charlie's is never going to be beloved by the masses, which I am sure he knows. That's not going to change unless he starts writing more palatable, less challenging books. I'm sure he's capable of doing so, but is that what he really wants. I'm sure he could make decent money writing Dragonlance or Star Wars books if that's all he was after.

To summarize:

- There's nothing wrong with writing specialized fiction to a small market.

- People with the same personality types are still reading SF. The difference is that there are so many people working in technology fields in "support" positions that it's much harder to identify the SF reader with what they do.

- You can definitely sell more books by identifying the things about an author or genre that give the audience a warm-fuzzy, then ditching any controversial or complex elements. There are plenty of people who don't like math who still want to be geeks.

- If you like the new scienceless SF, you have nothing to worry about. If you like the old SF but want a newer version, ask yourself what the newest SF novel is that challenged your conception of what defines humanity, our relationships, our morals, or our ethics. One thing about Heinlein was that he forced you to examine your assumptions about sexual orientation, incest, individual and group rights, and so on.

With a few exceptions, I'm seeing plenty of new "Fun" SF that doesn't address any really new science or social issues, "Hard" SF that reads like a white paper, has plenty of science but little relevant social commentary, and "mainstream" non-SF using SF settings, making some social commentary (along with some thumb sucking and pop psychology), but not much science.

I think that we're definitly in the middle of a split between Hard SF and Soft SF where the soft stuff will join the "Giant Snake/Alligator/Moth" movies and outright fantasy on the "Sci-Fi" channel. The question is which side of the split will keep the name SF and what the other will be called.

139:

Warren Ellis posted a link to this specific article, yeah. (Along with an admonition to not read the comments section. Heh.)

(Now you come to mention it, I have no idea how I came to follow your blog. As a BoingBoing reader, I think it may have been via Unwirer. Then I read A Colder War -- which, despite getting Gardner Dozois' anthology regularly, I'd managed to miss somehow -- and stuck around to see what else was coming down the pipe...)

140:

I'll address both Charlie Stross and Stephen A. Russell's responses to my comment here.

I didn't like Accelerando first and foremost because of the characters. I found them entirely unlikeable, self-centered, nasty people who make me weep for the future of humanity if that's what people actually are like (which I don't think they are. I'm a libertarian, meaning despite some of my cynicism, I must be an eternal optimist ;). The character I liked the most, which is saying very little, was AINeko. You know, the character who manipulated and ruined the lives of the people who had the misfortunate to encounter her. I'm trying desperately to think of a good quality that any of the characters had that came across to me and nothing is coming to mind. Even when people did seemingly selfless things (such as releasing the Sony BMG library to the wild before assigning it to Pam as a divorce settlement or trying to give S-whatever his name was a better life), it was for selfish motivations that ultimately hurt the people characters should have cared about. Without good things to balance this, I hated the characters and the book became a big ball of negativity and pessimism to me.

I can work with unfamiliar ideas, I don't have a problem with that, I've certainly done it before. I cannot work with characters that I find despicable. The same thing happened when I tried to read the first book about Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In fact, I stopped reading and got rid of the book after the first 100 pages or so, not even caring to finish, let alone read the rest of the series. And I still haven't managed to finish Final Fantasy VIII because I hate the characters.

I also found the structure to be sloppy. Frankly, while not milking an idea to the last drop over the course of two dozen books can certainly be admirable, I think there was simply too much information for a single book. The various characters didn't have a chance to even become likeable, because after a chapter, whoops, here we are a dozen or more years in the future and the character has changed a great deal anyway due to age, circumstances, and experiences, and there wasn't a chance to lead up to any of it. It also didn't give the ideas in the book a chance to shine and really be expanded upon, because again, here in one chapter we have an idea that might be cool about how a character can make a living without actually making any money, and then, whoops, a few chapters later we have AI corporations eating the entire solar system. Related, perhaps, but with the jarring jumps in time, poorly executed in my opinion.

141:

Just as an added aside to Stephen A. Russell: you're making a lot of assumptions about me and what I like. Just because I didn't like Accelerando doesn't mean I want "scienceless SF." When health and finances permit, I'm going to be finishing up my degree in Zoology. I'm not unfamiliar with science, and strangely enough, I even love it and want to devote my life to it. While I'm certainly not about to hop on the bus to an alternate dimensions, it's not like I know nothing about Schrodinger's cat.

I shouldn't have to pull out a full listing of my so-called geek credentials for me to say, "Look, I'm part of the demographic Charlie Stross is trying to write for, and it doesn't work for me and I think you're heading in the wrong direction." I do think Scalzi is going to open up a new market, which is why I think his direction is more useful than Stross's, but I read your comment to be assuming I'm part of that new market, which is entirely wrong. I grew up thinking that if you read, you read SF and there were a few people that read mysteries or romances too, because all I read and all my family read was SF.

SF is my subculture and I truly think the direction the stuff that's being hailed as so wonderful is what's fueling the crisis, if there is indeed one. The data we have really isn't enough to tell, as other people have already pointed out quite well. I can tell you that both of my parents, though, who grew up with SF and read lots of it well into midlife are both retreating from the genre, because they don't like the kind of stuff that's being written. My dad? He subscribed to Analog for decades, but now mostly reads Tom Clancy, W.E.B Griffin, and Harry Turtledove. My mom, who was introduced by her mother to SF (so we're talking a female thing in my family that goes back generations to when it was almost unheard of for a woman to read this sort of thing) reads a wider variety than he does now, but just doesn't like a lot of it. Accelerando would turn her off completely, but I think she'd enjoy Old Man's War, and probably a lot more than she liked anything she ever read by Heinlein.

Probably some of that dislike is from unfamiliarity about the science (though my dad dives into his Discover and Popular Science and all that most months and once he gets started on quantum mechanics, he will /not/ shut up), but the inaccessible way it's written is far worse, I think. I'm going to restate my position earlier a little better: I definitely want science in at least some of my science fiction. However, I want to be able to have it without having to have a PhD in all fields imaginable. I don't think that's asking for too much, especially since I think the popularization of science is an extremely important goal to be working towards given the increasing hostility and misunderstanding there is of science, at least here in the U.S.

142:

Firebyrd,

I'm sure Charlie will have a response of his own. :) As for me, I know what you mean about characters like Thomas Covenant. I think it really depends on the presentation, and the individual. I'm sure that there are some characters that you like that have negative traits. I believe the key is that if you can understand the character's flaw and feel some sympathy for the fact that they have to live with that flaw and the consequences and/or guilt that comes with it, you can appreciate a less-than-perfect character.

If a writer just doesn't make you sympathetic to the character, then you won't care if they suffer with their flaw(s) and probably will think they're getting what they deserve. A good example of this being done well is Louis in Anne Rice's vampire novels. You're basically talking about a murderer with some existential issues, but she makes you feel the character's pain and see that it arises from their own flaw. You may hate that character too, but it works for me. In some cases the reader just doesn't see the character the same way as the author. A reader who's never been poor enough to steal might not sympathize with a character that steals to feed his family. I chalk that up to personal experience and tastes so it's not really relevant to this discussion about the direction of SF. At least I assume that Charlie isn't advocation unsympathetic characters as a model for the next SF wave.

As for the volume of info in a Hard SF book, the best thing I can say is that it's just not your kind of book. You do sound a little pissed at Charlie for writing Accelerando. I just think that that one book doesn't appeal to you. I don't think you can really say that Charlie's writing is poor, but rather that it just isn't for you. There are definitely readers out there though who do want a deluge of new ideas and even readers who think the characters are there to fly the ship, hold the ray-gun, etc.

I think you might want to read one of Charlie's Hidden Family series. Definitely easier to wrap one's brain around than Accelerando.

143:

Firebyrd,

I didn't see your last post until after my last one, so please keep that in mind as you read it.

To clarify, I'm mixing my comments to you with my comments on SF in general, so it's my fault if it sounds to you as if I'm, "making a lot of assumptions about me and what I like".

The fact that you mentioned Accelerando having too much densely packed information got me to thinking about the SF fans who aren't really into science. I didn't mean to assume that you were in that category. I have a decent science background and have had some difficutly following Mr. Stross too.

I still think that there's a market of people who don't mind looking things up while they're reading. I personally don't mind having a running list in my head of things I need to look up later but if that list gets too long to maintain mentally, that's where I start losing interest in a book. Then again there are guys who will do the math to see if Niven's Ringworld would really work. I'm not one of those guys.

Again, I didn't mean to imply that you lacked education or appreciation of science, or to exclude you from the SF subculture. I just meant to say that not all SF is for all SF readers. The fact that you're not in Charlie's audience doesn't mean you are in Scalzi's audience. In fact I think we can agree that SF needs a happy middle-ground between the two.

144:

Firebyrd,

I can understand your issues with Accelerando. My own reaction to that was "Well, I understand almost all of it, but it's unlikely that most readers will, which could be a problem for Charlie." His problem is exactly that I understand what he was talking about because he and I have very similar backgrounds in professional software development. This does not mean that the average well-read non-web-software-development-professional is likely to have the necessary background. And many people react with annoyance or indignation to jargon they do not understand.

Now I'm probably about your parents' age, and I've been reading SF (whatever that has meant at the time I was reading it) since I was 8 years old. One of the things that I've been pleasantly surprised by is that despite the great changes in content and style over the last 50 years, I have always been able to find something to read that I find both enjoyable and sufficiently challenging to keep me engaged. The result is that I really liked "Old Man's War", but I also very much like Charlie's "Singularity Sky" and "Atrocity Archives" series, which don't have the jargon problem, and do have much more sympathetic characters than Accelerando (No Charlie, that doesn't mean I dislike Accelerando. It just means I don't like it as much as Singularity Sky. I just loved the Festival) What they all share that I enjoy is the sense of peeking into a much larger and more complicated universe than I inhabit on a day-by-day basis. I think (or at least hope) that this, dare I call it sense of wonder, is something that resonates for other readers as well.

To be honest, I doubt that it makes sense to extrapolate from my case. How many readers out there are as turned on by Lois Bujold's SF Romance novels, as by Greg Bear's "Eon" stories, Charlie's novels, and Joe Haldeman's short fiction? There has been an unfortunate tendency in this thread for all us, me included, to do just that: extrapolate from ourselves to some definition of a larger, or perhaps more accessible readership than we know to be there.

145:

Stephen,

You're absolutely right. I have to have or even want perfect characters, but as I noted, I found the ones in Accelerando did not synch with me at all. I'm sure people who don't feel so negatively about them or the book could find positive traits in each of them, but for whatever reason, my life, my circumstances, whatever, they did not click for me one little bit. To go along the same lines, I know people who think the main character of Final Fantasy VIII is the best guy ever and personifies them, whereas I think he's a whiny, obnoxious little wanker who needs to be strangled.

I'm not trying to personally attack Charlie, but I feel so strongly in a negative sense about the book, I can't say I'm surprised if some of my hostility seems to be leaking over. Not my intention, as I was actually quite gratified that he was interested in hearing why I didn't like it, but I really, really hated the book. I honestly can't think of another book I've disliked so much that I've actually finished, and I read a lot, as I'm sure is the norm in this thread.

I do stand by my opinion that trying to put so much stuff into one book is a bad idea. I think it does a disservice to the ideas that could be better explored otherwise if more space was devoted to them individually. I'm not suggesting there needs to be 1,000 page treatments of each little thing, but I don't think doing the cliff notes version so you can put in as many as possible is the way to go either. I do think the more in depth characterization can be skipped in at least some instances (I love me my Asimov, but we all know how well he did character), but where I already disliked these characters immensely, it's possible that could have been fixed if there had been more. I'd like to hope they could have been somewhat redeemed in my eyes, at least.

I definitely agree there needs to be more of a middle ground and more acceptance from all sides. If someone likes to read such and such, even if you think it's kind of silly, who cares? At least they're reading, which is more than most people do nowadays.

146:

Bruce,

I appreciate your comment. I normally try to read at least two books from an author before I come to a final conclusion, because I know there will always be books that won't click with me as much as others. I tend to break that rule when I dislike the first book so much, but I think you've persuaded me to give Charlie another chance.

I think you're right about the extrapolation problem we're having in this thread, but I think I know where it comes from. We're all very enthusiastic about this subject that we love and, given that starting point and a place to talk about it freely, I think it's easy to say "X and Y both apply to everyone here, so surely, since I think Z, the same must apply to everyone." I know it's always rather jarring when I begin to extole the virtues of a book only to find that my best friend, whose reading preferences are usually quite close to mind, hated it. Hard to believe we're really not all part of a hive mind Borg thing! ;)

147:

I had problems with the characters in Accelerando, but not because they were bad people. I just didn't like their _style_.

I can take a morally unsympathetic character if they're interesting; hell, I've -written- a lot of morally bad or ambiguous characters.

The Accelerando characters are good portrayals -- Charlie is never _less_ than a solid professional -- but they're not the kind of people I find it interesting to hang out with, even in fiction.

It's not that they're selfish or evil; more that they're conceited, self-obsessed, whiny, immature and petulant.

They're the sort who _deserved_ to have their lunch money stolen and their faces held in the toilet bowl in high school.

The ones who were _even more_ annoying than the jocks ('hearties', in Old High Britspeak).

As adults they don't seem to be interested in the things that human beings typically are concerned with -- having children, for example.(*)

Mind you, this is a statement of personal preference, not a judgement on the book. That I didn't enjoy it doesn't mean it's a bad work of art -- a distinction one should always keep in mind when critiquing a work, given the temptation to elide "I like it" with "it's high quality", and vice versa.

It's a very good book in terms of the skill with which it's made; it just isn't the sort of book I like.

(*) interestingly, Poul Anderson made the same observation about Conan; that he isn't interested in starting a family until well into middle age, which is untypical of people in general and barbarians in particular.

148:

Conan's mother gave him an earful about that every time he came to visit. And Conan would roll his eyes and say, "Oh, Ma!"

149:

And because it was Howard, there were pre-Trojans around for Conan to use.

150:
Conan's mother gave him an earful about that every time he came to visit. And Conan would roll his eyes and say, "Oh, Ma!"
No, it was Howard who said that to his Ma. ;-s

{ I need better emoticons; that's supposed to be very wry and slightly shamefaced amusement }

151:

Steve said:

Mind you, this is a statement of personal preference, not a judgement on the book. That I didn't enjoy it doesn't mean it's a bad work of art -- a distinction one should always keep in mind when critiquing a work, given the temptation to elide "I like it" with "it's high quality", and vice versa.

A natural temptation for us mortals, but one that most critics, who should know better, also fall into. Every artist and writer should read James Agee's film reviews to see how it could be done by someone who scrupulously avoided the temptation, by always calling what he wrote his opinion, rather than artistic criticism. It can almost make you feel that there is hope for the human race if one person can state his views with such grace.

152:

Roger Ebert also does a good job of identifying his own tastes and reactions in a review. He also seems to try to put himself in the place of the intended audience and generally does well at predicting the reactions of people who's taste he doesn't share.

153:

So much good discussion already that I'll just start with skeletal facts, fwiw.

Demographic: techno-literate three-time grandfather who owns Astounding/Analogs from 1946-2003, likes most of the "Golden Age" stuff, and really enjoyed most of Accelerando. Also big Stephenson and Egan fan. After reading some Accelerando online, grabbed a copy when I saw it in the PDX Powells.

But I think there's a lot of overanalysis and selective interpretation going on here (and by Moorcock). Way oversimplified viewpoints.

Sure, what has been said about Heinlein and Campbell rings true, but it's far from the whole truth. Oversimplifying to prove a point does anything but. Lots of the best post-WWII Astounding stories dealt with the challenge of coping with or destroying tyrannical centralized governments - bureaucracies and overlarge corporations.

One of the freedom-preserving answers was Williamson's "equalizer," free energy gave power to the decentralized so they could leave urban areas and tell the men in uniform where to go.

How about Eric Frank Russell's "And Then There Were None" - the story of a giant space dreadnought full of soldiers that tries to re-take a bucolic forgotten world of empire and ends up fleeing while it still has enough crew to take it aloft. Most deserted when they saw the better way of life on the planet. "Freedom, I won't (do what you say)" and "Mind your own business" summarize the dominant attitudes of the locals. Short of mass murder, there was no way to conquer the place, which had no central government. Russell couldn't talk about the dangers of memetic contamination then for lack of the background vocabulary, but he sure wrote a story about it.

And even the good things aren't perfect in any era.

I started Accelerando enjoying it immensely and feeling it was right up with the best (though I echo some of Firebyrds criticisms). But about halfway through I thought that it had completely fallen apart and almost put it down - continuity and momentum lost. Up until then I was enjoying it a lot, but also wondering how much Stross had limited his audience by relying so heavily on readers having encyclopedic and up-to-the-minute knowledge in so many areas. Hell, the only two people I know in RL who know enough to enjoy it are my sons-in-law. But past that midpoint low it regained structural readability and I finished it with some enjoyment, though I think some of the central dilemmas could have been handled better.

For me, Accelerando ran into the same problem as much of Egan's work. Who the hell cares about a world full of entities as inhuman as computer uploads? They share (almost) none of our limitations and challenges; none of the things that make us human, precisely because they aren't. Mass eradication by the forces of evil? Darn, reboot and stick in the backup disk. What a nuisance.

Any pleasures that we have in common with them are simply as-yet-unshed old bio-baggage for an upload, who/which would quicky tend to morph into a being more alien to us than any real claw-and-chitin lobster.

I think that both Egan and Stross fail to deal with the extent to which our motivations become irrelevant along with our fundamental biology and physical limitations after uploading. Egan nods to the difficulty, but doesn't convince me, though I have great respect for him as a writer and a savvy person.

And yet Accelerando did a superb job of making the transition credible, at least as far as the cyborg stage, by showing (not telling) the progression so we can recognize ourselves as already being at step one: helpless without google as a memory aid, and with a lot of ourselves invested in a created world in silico.

And Accelerando eventually gets around to the intelligence spectrum and the problems associated with one's place on it, though too little and too late, imo. That's the kind of thing that Manfred should have been thinking about clear back in 2010.

But I'll certainly be buying a few more by Charles Stross.

And I'll be re-reading both old classics and old clunkers, of which I have many hundreds. There's a lot to be learned from how different a zwilnik and a Lensman look in today's post-acid world than in 1948. Now we can see the battle between drug suppliers and governments as a simple power struggle: gang warfare rather than a moral issue.

PS - I also can't stand Thomas Covenant, nor his creator. Not just because he's a nasty guy, but because he's a stupid and insensitive nasty guy, and I think Donaldson must be also. Leprosy and doubts about reality can both be dealt with better than that. And how many books can you foist on people with the basic "and it was all just a dream" or "woops, it wasn't *all* just a dream after all, the sheets are clammy". Yuck!

154:

Note for readers: polite discourse only, please.

(Inarticulate flamer junked.)

155:

I think targeting GEEK culture for one's readership is a mistake, mainly because I don't think they're really readers to begin with. Sure, they'll digest tiny, bite sized pieces of text off the internet for days on end, but sitting down and investing the time it takes to consume a novel is asking too much of a geek's attention. They need to multitask at all times, which is why their preferred media for story delivery is TV and movies. You can watch TV or a DVD at the same time you're surfing the net or IM'ing your friends. Try doing that while reading a book. You can't really. Reading demands all of your focused attention, and today it's all about continuous partial attention.

156:

I really liked Accelerando, I had trouble putting it down. I thought the characters were flawed, moreso than in other of Charlie's books, but that made them more endearing somehow. They reminded me in ways of a lot of 20 & 30-somethings I know.

I like Accelerando considerably more than the Family Trade series, and I'm an Alternate History junkie.

The most enjoyable character was definitely the cat, it's interesting that it remained the most "human" of all the AIs, even as it became more powerful. Maybe it was all the dead kittens. :)

157:

Coltrane, I disagree. Perhaps we have a terminology problem wrt. the definition of 'geek', but most geeks I know watch very little TV, and are either quite capable of sustained focussed attention, or else are so multitasking, they're quite happy to read while IMing.
What really competes for geekly attention, is doing things, as opposed to passively consuming things.
As someone who tries to fill their time with doing, reading is one of the passive activities I make time for, though (typically on public transport, or late at night when I can't stand to look at emissive displays any more).

158:

Put me down as another person who found Accelerando un-put-downable.

Were the characters unsympathetic? It seemed to me to partake of a lot of Arthur C. Clarke's best work, in that the characters and even the storylines were just platforms to allow the reader to move around the world and look at the wonders that the author was showing us. The characters and storyline were irrelevant, the worldbuilding was what mattered. It was a theme park ride like "Pirates of the Caribbean" where you sit in the cart, which is decorated to look like a boat or a car or an airplane or spaceship, and get trundled along a track, where the car stops in position so you can examine something wonderful for a couple of minutes, and then you move on.

In other words: Characters? There are characters in Accelerando? I didn't notice.

This sounds like a criticism, but it's not. It's a perfectly respectable way to structure a novel.

159:

Interesting discussion on which science fiction/fantasy authors the readers do not ever want to read again, at a web site custom-engineered for hard-core Math/Computer Science geeks:

The Cranky Book Meme, thread of "Good Math, Bad Math".

See also:

Republican New Math, thread of "Good Math, Bad Math".

MR. ROVE: Yeah. Look, I'm looking at all these Robert and adding them up. And I add up to a Republican Senate and a Republican House. You may end up with a different math, but you're entitled to your math. I'm entitled to "the" math.

MR. SIEGEL: I don't know if you're entitled to a different math, but you're certainly entitled to --

MR. ROVE: I said you were entitled to yours.

160:

Very interesting and well-said, Charles.
Thought-provoking and I'll ponder.

And yet...

...the lamest/weakest part is to posit that modernism has driven SF for anything like four decades. C'mon. Modernism is - and has been - the total underdog for all that time. Put aside libertarian putzes in rebel space colonies and militarySF dildoes. Once you've done that, exactly WHO is exploring the ramifications of real progress?

Not cyberpunk, which you extoll so well. It is Keats and Shelley, raging against the world of uppity tradesmen and farmers and tinkering blacksmiths. EXACTLY Shelley and Byron... techno romanticism that despises democracy and the whole notion of progress.

Solipsistic to the core -- (though jolly great fun, because of that!) -- cyberpunk certainly does deserve its rep as the genre FOR solipsists. (Or fellows like, me, who on occasion love slumming in well-rought cynical poesy.) But, dear fellow, can you actually point to any of its crit that has been original for 20 years? Count the number of guys who preen, every decade and proclaim that THEY invented black leather!

Feh.

Now Kim Stanley Robinson, old fart that he is, at least explores. The good and bad and yin and yang of this or that technological extrapolation.

Pause for a quotation that stabs better at the heart of the problem:
"Scholar and author Judith Berman, in a much-discussed 2001 study, showed how this trend has penetrated the very center of SF. Focusing on the flagship Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, her landmark analysis revealed that almost none of the stories published during a two year-long period had anything to do with exploring interesting futures. Even plausible "dark warnings" were avoided in favor of pieces about nostalgia, alternate pasts or presents, or feature characters who wallow loathing toward technology or progress."

So, whence your repetition of the old (yawn) song that SF is technocratic? Or has been for 40 years? Please. Be a man and show us the stats. You cannot, alas.

Naw, you miss the point, I 'fraid. The problem with SF is that most of it currently despises the future. Despises the common woman and man. Despises their ambition and the civilization they have built - over generations - with their own hands. Most authors see themselves as Shelley, standing on a cliff shouting at God! It ain't no fun seeing yourself as a MEMBER of a civilization. Pity.

---
What fun! Come on over and visit my playground some time. Yours is fun.

david brin
http://www.davidbrin.com

-------

PS for yanks:


1)  I'll be on the PBS science show NOVA Tuesday, October 31. The halloween topic: "Monsters in Space!" (black holes.)


2) The very next day, my new History Channel show - “The ArchiTechs��? - hits Prime Time: November 1 at 8 PM. (Wednesday!)

161:

A Drive-By Pimping!
OR
I'll be here all week. Try the veal!

162:

I shouldn't get into tangentals such as this, but...

Stephen A. Russell is wrong to denigrate David Brin and/or his presence in this thread of this blog. David Brin and Charles Stross have several things in common, and their readerships have several things in common.

Both have geek credentials (Charles was a very good programmer, David went to Caltech and has an Astrophysics PhD).

Both deeply know and respect literature, and genre literature.

Both have written award-winning fiction.

Both have cinematic potential, though David had a head start with "The Postman."

Both have written Hard SF, and Fantasy, and strange transgenre thingies.

Both put great emphasis on good story telling, with characterization, drama, and humor.

Both make a serious attempt to explore futures.

Both set events out there in Space.

Both have taken Politics seriously, and made sufficiently complex sociological analyses.

Both take Business seriously, and how money and corporations and governments really work.

Both take War seriously, and know more than most people suspect.

Both are techno-optimists with a careful eye on possible civilization-ending disasters.

Both are wonderful guests at a party, Science Fiction Convention, or science/engineering conference.

Both have extraordinarily clever and sophisticated Significant Others.

Both have a large and growing Web presence, and really REALLY get what the web is about -- and will evolve into.

I could go on, but the bottom line is, there is great benefit in dialogue between them, and between their readers.

Peace.

163:

"Denigrate" is a pretty strong word. I'm sure Mr. Brin has much to bring to the conversation. I still think it's funny that he ends with a link to his site and mention of two TV appearances. I'm sure it takes more than a little joke from me to make David Brin feel denigrated.

164:

Hey, nothing wrong with some good old fashioned blogwhoring. Especially when one can criticize Brin on stronger grounds.

(Lousy Yoda-hating bastard, he is. String him up by the unmentionables, we should.)

Not much to be added to this fascinating discussion, except that there hasn't been much exploration of Charlie's point that there IS an audience for SF out there, but it's being sated by other media.

Gaming, for example, is absolutely drenched in science fictional settings, tropes, and technology, whether you're talking about video and computer games, old-style role playing games, or those expensive little Warhammer models. It's not like it isn't competent either; while hardly up to the level of Stross and Brin's work, the "fluff" for Warhammer 30K alone makes for some surprisingly good pulpy reading, and you get to have fun with all the little toys, too.

In fact, the biggest problem with modern gaming is that there's almost too much SF and fantasy- modern day settings are less popular and less noticable than their counterparts in many genres. Look at MMORPGs, for example- fantasy and SF, the lot of 'em. Most first person shooters include science fictional elements, and many are pretty straight up science fiction. Almost all Square RPGs (such as the Final Fantasy series) are a blending of SF and fantasy, others simply don't blend it.

Plus, comics of all origins are very much full of SF.

So with these other media, you don't get the depth of reading good SF, but you do get that sense of amazement and wonder- and with something like gaming, you get personal immersion through various avatars. I think that has far more to do with the lack of SF readership than arcane battles over Heinlein pastiches and Neo-Cyberpunk jargon. The audience will simply look that over, shrug, and go back to flying their cool steampunk airships. Romance readers, on the other hand, only have one (readily available and legendarily accessable) option, so they go with that option.

By the by, Firebyrd, the characters in FFVIII do become more sympathetic after a while. The first disc is pretty hard going because Squall is such a blank slate, but the characters do go through a surprising amount of development.

165:

Tangent to a tangent. But the disagreement over David Brin's posting is actually indicative of some of the points that Charles Stross addressed originally.

(1) "a book (titled 'Star Wars on Trial')" -- if you check on Amazon, you'll see:
"David Brin (Editor), Matthew Woodring Stover (Editor)"
and thus Dr. Brin's was not a drive-by, but an editor of a book trying to engage in conversation with fans debating the premise of the book, in context.

(2) "let's all go write media tie-in novels" -- the issue was raised as to the relationship between movies/TV/games and printed science fiction. Hence Dr. Brin pointing out his appearance in 2 TV shows is not entirely off-topic.

(3) Wonder if Verne and Wells would have done TV if they could have; I think so, but that's a counterfactual. Stross has touched on the economics of small press, ebooks, marketing, viral marketing, and self-promotion. Brin and I have both offended people by being openly self-promotional, which is hard to distinguish from rampant egotism. But there IS a difference between promoting one's writing (to make a living) and promoting one's person. Even a non-SF TV appearance contributes to branding onse's self, since celebrity greatly enhances marketability.

(4) "trying to inject some quality into the stuff our dreams are made of" -- the question of quality in movies/TV/games is as hotly debated as in genre fiction, fo related and distinct reasons. I enjoy the new TV series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" where that is a key issue in the characters and plot. TV shows and movies about TV shows and movies are not necessarily a sign of postmodernism or of terminal decadence. Science Fiction varies in the extent that it is overtly about Science Fiction. One extreme is "Galaxy Quest" or "Trekkies" which would not exist without wide awareness of the topic being spoofed. I said, earlier, "Both deeply know and respect literature, and genre literature." Specifically, Brin and Stross write some works which take a stance of meta-fiction commenting on the history, tropes, and stylistic attributes of the genre. One of the strengths of Charles Stross is that he can do a Lovecraftian or James Bondian book which is not a mere spoof, but an enlightening and delightful exploration of the roots of the field. An example by a 3rd author is "The Death of Captain Future" by Allen Steele. The 1996 Hugo-winning novella was ()quoting Wikipedia) "given to a psychologically and socially complex pastiche of Hamilton's space opera" which is topical here because "In 1978, one year after Hamilton's death, Toei Animation of Japan produced a Captain Future TV anime series of 52 episodes, based on 13 original Hamilton stories." Also, "For the German version, which was cut by about a quarter of the original length, a completely new soundtrack was created by Christian Bruhn. To this day the soundtrack is considered cult and the theme song can be heard as background music in many magazines and other shows. A soundtrack CD was released in 1995, and a remix called 'The Final' by Phil Fuldner entered the top ten of the German and Swiss single charts in 1998. Also, the German Bastei Verlag publishing house released a Captain Future comic series with original adventures." So the relationship between pulp, comics, TV, and pop music is entangled with Science Fiction that explores its own roots.

(5) "the exclusionary origins of SF as a literary field injects a powerful side-order of identity politics" -- an I see Dave Brin as an unreconstructed Dukakis-Mondale Democrat, but also a feminist (he edited an abortion anthology), and technocrat, and Jew. Both Brin and Stross have deconstructed identity politics, in part by undermining assumptions about identity, is with Brin's "Kiln People" and Stross' examination of human/strong AI/simulation and human/robot and human/alien and human/demon relationships.

(6) "we don't want to go the way of the Western genre" which was on every TV channel every day when Brin and I were kids in the 1950s. The connection between Westerns and Science Fiction is something about which I have presented papers at, for instance, the annual meeting of the SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association). But, more to the point, look at "Firefly" and "Serenity."

(7) "John Barnes' discourses on memory and regret and alienation" -- remember Brin's fine story about people destroyed by a drug which gives you 100% perfect memory of periods in one's past. The viewpoint character's life is destroyed, but eagerly awaits the time when he remembers the first time that he remembered his formerly happy life.

(8) "If we start re-writing Heinlein's 1950s novels, we will appeal to Heinlein's 1950s readers" -- and Brin was obviously influenced by Heinlein (recall the hero of "Glory Road" saving the universe, and then going to Caltech?). Brin is of the generation that, conservatively, kept the best of heinlein, but radically modernized their style and content.

(9) "we read fiction for pleasure, not to be clubbed over the head with a fistful of insights" -- Brin writes decent first drafts, then beta-tests them extensively, and is one of the best at rewrite of any novelist I know. He learned that from his newspaper publisher father. Brin can get very didactic indeed -- he does want to change the world -- but ruthlessly redpencils his way down to the story which is the most pleasurable.

(10) "the vision of technology that was prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s has changed" -- and I appreciate the insight of Brin, who actually did scientific research, then started making enough money to quit searching for a professorship, and become a full-time enetertainer and family man. In many novels, particularly "Earth" (set in 2030, in a society radically changed by the trauma of a world war against Switzerland), he explores the impact of the Web, Global Warming, and other topics on technology impact. But Earth predicted the web.
"In Earth, the net is the primary means of communication -- mail, education, publication, entertainment, and most forms of social interaction. Traditional publishing has completely ceased, to the point where one of the characters, confronted with the need to read a book for the first time in his life, finds the experience difficult:
'If only it were a modern document, with a smart index and hyper links stretching all through the world data net. It was terribly frustrating having to flip back and forth between the pages and crude, flat illustrations that never even moved! Nor were there animated arrows or zoom-ins. It completely lacked a tap for sound.
'... in a normal text you'd only have to touch an unfamiliar word and the definition would pop up just below. Not here though. The paper simply lay there, inert and uncooperative.'"
David Brin, Earth. (New York: Bantam, 1991). p.199.
clipped from:
http://www.cni.org/pub/LITA/Think/Fladland.html


I could go on, but I hope that I've made my point: there is MUCH of common interest between Brin and Stross, and between Brin fans and Stross fans, and this thread is a particularly appropriate place for First Contact. In my opinion, of course, this being a Stross blog and not a Post blog. Brin wrote "The Postman." I am not trying to be Post writing "The Brinman."

166:

I find the notion of looking at a relatively untapped market like the New Age crowd as ripe for the picking to be potentially very problematic and even disingenuous, eerily reminiscient of 80s-mentality economics. First of all, you're going to distance a lot folks by calling any who shop at New Age bookstores as "neo-Pagans," which is really just an outsider descriptive sub-category with pejorative edge (you might as well throw in Light-n-Luvvies, neo-Buddhists, neo-Anythingists, etc).

The majority of people who go to New Age bookstores go there because they have serious questions about life, because they want to figure out what the hell is going on, who they are, why they are here, etc. Sure, there is posturing and superficiality like any sub-culture, but at its core there is an authentic search for meaning. You can't ape that; you can't "target that market" unless that inquiry is genuine and alive within you.

So yeah, the New Age scene is an untapped marketplace. But don't write books with Gothic faux-witches and crystal-wearing fatimas; write books that question reality, that explore who and what the frick we are, and don't fill it with stuff that only your techie friends would understand, then you might reach that market (along with some savvy marketing by your publisher).

In truth, this is where New Age and Science Fiction are distant--but not too distant--relatives: the search for meaning.

167:

I think New Age/Pagan fiction is a valid market to aim for. In may ways it's like the Christian fiction market, with different subject matter obviously. It's not uncommon to go to a Christian section in a bookstore or a dedicated Christian Bookstore and find a great deal of fiction there aimed specifically at that market. Some of it even has a great deal of crossover appeal.

So if you're writing something that will appeal to the group, why not market it to them. Stirling's "Dies the Fire" was reviewed well in Wiccan/Pagan publications. It's worth persuing more than just the SF/F publications when sending out materials to reviewers.

168:

This has all been enormously interesting and entertaining, but it occurs to me as I read that this is an extension of the discussion I've seen everywhere in our little world for the last ten or twelve years. I've seen and participated in this discussion in bars, at con panels, over dinners with editors, in online forums, and in huddled groups with my friends.

And the subject of the conversation is, How do we save that which we love? Which is made more complicated by the fact that, for professionals, what we love is also what defines us.

And the bottom line of the conversation is, How the hell do we save our careers?

And the answer to that one is, You can't.

You can't because publishing in the US is completely broken.

And if you ask why that is, it has to do with a whole lot of institutional stuff that goes back to the 1940s, and is basically unfixable unless you postulate an omnibenevolent billionaire who will buy all of publishing, restructure it, then sell it off bit by bit.

Here's how bad it is. You can't even maintain a career with steady sales of 100,000 copies. If those sales remain steady, or God forbid decline even for a single volume--- if they do anything other than rise--- then you're over. Your career is done. You won't be blacklisted by publishers, because they don't need to do that. Your sales figures will do the blacklisting for you.

And the figures, of course, don't give excuses. They can't say, "Well, that space opera tanked because the editor got fired and the editor's successor got fired and the science fiction line got canceled and what they had in inventory was published as mainstream literary fiction and was sent to the wrong audience." (I am not making this situation up.)

Publishers are now incompetent to do anything other than ruin the careers of writers.

So a lot of energy and vision has gone into trying to work out ways to bypass the toxic publishing supply chain. POD? Too expensive, too specialized. Ebooks? Waiting for a cheaper, better reader that you can drop in the bathrub without losing a major investment. Small press? Advances small to tiny, often delayed, difficult to maintain a career. Online book sales? A drop in the bucket.

And of course it's difficult for casual browsers to find any books published by those means.

You can't win. You can't break even. Over time, you can only lose.

So what's the way out of this hideous trap?

Be Susanna Clarke or JK Rowling. Your first piece of fiction has to be a mega-international-award-winning bestseller.

Otherwise it's death by a thousand paper cuts, over a long space of time.

169:

Blog entries by two rather different SF people sent me over to your non-manifesto and this discussion: Suzette Haden Elgin and Christopher East. That probably explains the major traffic.

As for your general thesis, I came up with a shorthand version of it at a con panel last year, when one of the panelists suggested that channeling Golden Age of SF authors was the way to reinvigorate the field: "We're living in the future the Golden Age predicted."

Post cyberpunk does strike me as one reasonable version of hard SF for our time, but I suspect there are all kinds of things people at our end of the spectrum can write without going backwards and writing the tried and true (that won't sell well anyway). Getting read and getting paid are more difficult questions and if I had good answers to them, I'd quit my day job.

170:

Dunno if the hopelessness of publishing is anything new, Mr. Williams. I've only published a little non-fiction, but I've thought and read considerable of what published authors had to say about the fiction market.

What your post reminded me of was Madeleine L'Engle's story of feeling equally hopeless. IIRC, as an unpublished author she had shopped "Arm of the Starfish" to every major publisher and some minors, and heard the same response everywhere: You simply cannot deal with death in the juvenile market.

She gave up and wrote only for herself. Years later, at a party, she met someone from a higher level at a publishing house, who was interested enough to look at the ms. He liked it, and it was awards and big sales all the way from then on. But only because of a chance social contact.

The taboos may be a bit different today, but the difficulty of entry even for the talented, the catch-22s, and the need for a lottery winner's luck seem similar.

171:

Tom Parsons > PS - I also can't stand Thomas Covenant, nor his creator. Not just because he's a nasty guy, but because he's a stupid and insensitive nasty guy, and I think Donaldson must be also.

I met Donaldson about 20 years ago or so (between the Covenant trilogies) and he was a very shy, softspoken man, who appeared to be very kind. He grew up all over the world as a child of missionaries.

S.M. Stirling > Our lives have changed less than our grandparents'

Really? Do you have children? My children's lives are nothing like mine, let alone my grandparents: constant communication via cell phone and IM, interactive gaming, indoctrination since birth about the evils of alchohol, cigarettes and drugs, "Nature Deficiency Disorder"... it's a very different world, and none of it what my teenage SF reading predicted.

172:

My apologies to Covenant, then, for a too-hasty character assessment. I still feel as tortured by the books as if they had been written by Gene Wolfe, but I suppose that if someone from that background wants to write about a stupid and nasty unbeliever who could make everything good if he only accepted the power that faith would give him, it is understandable. Just not good fiction, by my standards.

Give me ideas, like Accelerando or Snow Crash, not propaganda.

All the agonizing about science fiction here is accurate enough, but reminds me of the similar agonizing that would periodically rack the world of popular music in its various incarnations over the past 55 years. Some agonize, some try to adjust, and others just keep on doing what they like while the fads come and go and their stuck-in-time fans keep on supporting them. Some write to keep to a nice 3:05 length for radio play, etc etc etc

Meanwhile, new waves keep on coming, the landscape changes, and Darwin rules.

173:

Whoops. I meant apologies to Donaldson, not Covenant. Illustrative of my problem in separating the work from the author, I suppose.

174:

Whoops. My apologies to Donaldson, I mean, not Covenant. Illustrative, I suppose, of my difficulty in separating the work fron the author.

Whoops again. The robot has decided I'm monopolizing the conversation and won't let me post this, so I don't know just when I'll get it past the guardian.

175:

Ideas are one thing. Bring me satire. Perhaps the real purpose of SF is to reverse the polarity of Lyell's maxim that the key to the past is in the present: the key to the present is in the future.

176:

Tom, it has been years since I read Covenant but I remember it differently: not as much of a not-so-subtle fundy conversion metaphor as a commentary on modernization and the resulting alientation and dissociationit had to do with dissociation (and Covenant's unwillingness or inability to really engage the world as real). If Donaldson is a diehard Christian, I stand corrected.

But of course any truly good book can be read in different ways, interpreted on different levels. This is why I don't get it when people like Moorcock get so hung up on Tolkien's politics and moral outlook; it speaks more of Moorcock's inability to surrender his own interpretive filters, which is common among radicals of any stripe.

Andrew, I find you your Christian comparison is apt, but probably not in the way you meant it. It is another market that you can't really "target" unless you are within it, unless it is authentic to you (i.e. you are Christian), otherwise you come off as either condescending or extremely manipulative or worse yet, both.

Let's turn it around. Imagine a fundamentalist Christian writing novels for Heathens. To make it work the author has to be extremely clever and manipulative; and thus it becomes more of an economic strategy completely divorced from any deeper sort of motivation.

177:

Whoops, annoying typos. Next time I'll preview it first.

178:

Johnny Bardo: Imagine a fundamentalist Christian writing novels for Heathens. To make it work the author has to be extremely clever and manipulative ... which explains why the works of C. S. Lewis inspire a gut-deep revulsion in me.

(I'm not simply an agnostic but an antitheist, like Richard Dawkins. Unlike Dawkins, I don't believe in calling religious people idiots, because very often they are no such thing -- but the doctrines they follow are another matter, and attempts to wrap nonsensical beliefs in a sugar coating of fiction to make them easier to swallow just results in more nonsense.)

179:

whew!
I got into this late (i.e., subjective yesterday - it took that long to get through the comments. Hi, Walter. Hi Jonathon. Hi, David.), So I've accumulate a lot of side comments.

My worry as I got to the bottom of the list was how to organize the posting of everything I wanted to do, and then I ran into Walter Jon Williams' last post.

He's right, we're in front of a mile wide bulldozer which has almost caught up with us, and I wish I had an idea. As for the comment way back there about science ficiton bookstores, they're dying like everything else in the way of the big boxes. The 1 (one) in the Chicago metro area (population 7 million) threw in the towel a couple of years ago.

OK --

I read Kris Rusch' piece in _Asimov's_ with great shock and discomfort. That someone so smart, so multi-competent, so experienced should be so totally clueless was very upsetting.
It is well-known that tie-in customers are unlikely to be customers for anything "broader". They want their K/S (or whatever), not sf. What Kris seems not to have the first clue about is the polarity between neophobes ("take me just where you took me last time") and neophiles ("take me somewhere I've never been"). Obviously, there's overlap in artifacts acquired, and many neophiles also take comfort from some neophobic repetitive comforts.
But people buying Star Trek novels aren't buying science fiction. They're buying Star Trek novels.

The other sort of relationship involved is the relationship with the "community". A couple of years ago, I had a ringside seat at the Donnybrook when an unsustainably large can tried to downsize. The volcanic passions of the people who declared themselves "excluded" were unquenchable. There was a conversation I had several times, with otherwise unconnected people: "How does all this look to you?" "You old farts hate all us young people!" "Excuse me, I don't even know you. The odds are against it, but I might hate you if I got to know you, but I haven't yet; and anyway, it's my decision. What I'm trying to ask is, what's your take on all this. I want to know how it looks from your perspective." "There! That proves you old farts have hated us all along!"
So I still don't clearly know what they are identifying with (it's not the fandom I know, though they are livid about such assertion), but there's some sort of deep feeling there.

OK, now for the tangents . . .

(A) Ons Size Fits All Doesn't
If I have "core values", that's one of them. You can generalize only weakly. On one hand, van Gogh never sold a single painting in his life, while he's lifted the lives of hundreds of millions of people since. On the other hand, to pick an example, there was Benvenuto Cellini, master artist and a guy who lived very nicely, thank you. (He comes to mind because he was my first-to-mind counter example in a Real Artists Gotta Suffer argument. Unfortunately, I was arguing with someone with a degree in Art History, and she'd never heard of him.)

I'm a Bauhaus fan generally, but their architecture sucked big time. I'm a native Chicagoan, so I get to be in line ahead of most of the rest of you to hate Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.


(B)
The comment about the biggest changes now being social is very interesting. I took it as a turning point in the nature of "America" in 1980 when the census said that 50.1% of the population now lived in suburbs . . . EVERYTHING else together is the minority.
In the 1900 census, 2/3 of households had children. In the 2000 census, 1/4 of households have children . . .
And we just crossed over to a society where MOST (multi-person) households are unmarried.


(C)
quickly --
"creeps and cretins who believe that people deserve anything just for existing"
False
They are entitled to, including but not limited to, civility, human decency, & until proven otherwise, respect.


(D)
One of the all-time greats at writing both to the patrons and the cheap seats both and always was Shakespeare. The consummate hack.
e.g., there's a new King. Well, there's been a century of turbulence over the succession, so a historical about the King's great ancestors, implicitly showing how totally he deserves to be king is cool. And he's into all sort of occult rubbish, so how about three Witches prophesy that his ancestor will sire a line of kings!


(E)
One of my mid-range critical rules of thumb is that while Heinlein may have been many things, he was not simplistic. So I rule out any comment or interpretation which is simple or overly reductive.
It was pretty funny -- back when the Stranger in a Strange Land fad was real big, I'd tell people, "Hey, there's this other award-winning book he wrote at the same time he was writing Stranger, called Starship Troopers. Check it out."
Then, later, when "transgressive" began to be so unbearably chic, I Will Fear No Evil was trendy with some of that crowd. So I got to say, "Hey, there's this other award-winning book he wrote called Starship Troopers. Check it out."

Incidentally, a detail I caught the last time I re-read Starship Troopers is that somewhere 2/3 of the way through, there's a little fast, get behind enemy lines and get back out alive class of ship which is named for guerilla resistance heroes. Like, one is the Francis Marion. And one is the Sandino. Yeah, written in the late 50's . . .


(F)
"polite discourse only"? shucks
The greatest line I've picked up lately is, "If you aren't permitted to say fuck, you aren't permitted to say Fuck the government."


(g)
"neo-geek"
I like it.

180:

Neil: "polite discourse only"? shucks

For values of "polite discourse" that excludes content-free flamage ("you fucking idiot, what do you know? Go to hell" -- paraphrased loosely).

I have no fucking problem with swearing, only with a lack of discourse.

181:

Incidentally, after some consideration ... Walter's partly right about the brokenness of the publishing industry, and in particular the supply chain, which can completely screw an author's career for no fault of their own.

(But he's also partially wrong: and I present to you, as supporting evidence, exhibit A: myself.)

182:

Hi, Neil. Brief responses to your points, and the response of Mr. Stross. Brief, because I tend to go on at too great a length.

(A)(i) The destructive Romantic myth that it's GOOD for your Art as a Writer to starve in a garret was, itself, exacerbated by the hostile literary excutor of Poe who spread disinformation that Poe was a drug addict. Then further mutated by Poe fandom led by Rimbaud and Baudelaire, to the modern notion that you SHOULD be a syphilitic junkie throwing yourself off the cliff into the abyss, for your Art as a Writer. I'm a libertarian on drugs, and think Psychiatry is over-rated, but I believe that writers do better if healthy, sane, and paid.
(A)(ii) My mother's father spent hideous months in the trenches near Aix-la-Chappelle in WWI, watching troops catch and barbecue rats to survive. Before shipping home, he had the one great moment of the war, stepping into a room where there was a (captured from Nazis) Benvenuto Cellini bowl. "It lit up the room more than the Sun," he told me.

(B) Demographics are correct. Remember how intellectual writer Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democrat of New York, was pilloried for warning decades ago that child-out-of-wedlock was becoming the norm, at least in the African American sector, and that America was (nice alliteration) "Defining Deviancy Down" -- American Scholar (Winter 1993)?

(C) "'creeps and cretins who believe that people deserve anything just for existing' False." Our Science Fiction community is supposed to set a standard for tolerence. Our position is that androids, robots, mutants, and extraterrestrials are to be treated by the Golden Rule, at least unless and until they try to enslave or destroy us.

(D) Shakespeare was arguably the first Pro Writer. I had a long discussion with Dr. George Hockney about whether there was, in his day, a Shakespeare fandom. See also groundlings, courtiers, Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Was the assassination of Christopher Marlowe by Frizer a fan feud that got out of hand?

(E) It make take another century before Heinlein is part of mainstream English language canon, where he belongs. His take on Revolution is deep indeed, not just when center stage as in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" either.

(F) The most insidious censorship is self-censorship.

(G) Neo-geek. Hope that the parallelogram in semantic space is NOT: Neo-geek is to Geek as Neocon is to Con.

(H) Stross/WJW as two datapoints on the supply chain rocks versus the supply chain kills. Do not try to fit a straight line through those two points. True, argument from 2 anecdotes trumps argument from 1 anecdote, but I can't in such a short space give my take (influenced by there having been at least 10 professional writers and/or editors in my family, and SFWA, and MWA, and NWU) take on how thoroughly the Publishing Industry is broken. Skipping to my conclusion: it is so broken, that BY DEFAULT an average novel is designed to fail. As a side effect, many better than average novels also fail. We fix this mess, or (professionally speaking) die.

183:

"Even raw talent isn't that rare; there are literally millions of people with half a pretty good manuscript stuck in a drawer, or even a finished one."

This is entirely true. The ability to write a novel is an entirely different skill-set to the one required to sell one.

Case in point: I have a completed manuscript for a near-future SF thriller (much like Charlie's, in as much as big chunks of it seem imminently about to come true) which has now been critted by more than twenty people. Less than half of them are friends, the remainder are random strangers who have been kind enough to offer their services via the medium of teh interweb.

Everyone likes it. Hell, even James Nicoll likes it. People who don't like SF like it, which was precisely what I intended when I wrote it. Two of the three main protagonists are women and, if the feedback from non-SF-liking-women-readers is to be believed, are a fair approximation of real women rather than the blokes-with-tits that tend to pass for female characters in the majority of SF.

Can I sell the bastard? Can I fuck. The reason why is obvious to me -- I can't write a one-page synopsis of it that even I want to read. Either it doesn't lend itself to synopsis, or I lack the necessary skills to write a passable synopsis.

Either way, there appears to be nothing substantially wrong with the manuscript, only in my ability to sell the fucking thing.

Having completed my first novel, my admiration for professional novelists is only increased by my new-found appreciation for all the other crap they have to go through just to get the bloody thing into print.

Cheers!

Jim

184:

Charlie, I've actually never heard of antitheism, its a fun term and inspires all sorts of story ideas. Having not read any of your books (yet), do you include any kind of antitheistic protagonist against the theistic evil empire, or some variant thereof?

If I have to narrow my outlook to a Wikipedia-derived "ism," it would be open agnostic with panentheistic leanings, or in other words, agnostic spiritualist. If that is confusing, just ask ;)

185:

...but the doctrines they follow are another matter, and attempts to wrap nonsensical beliefs in a sugar coating of fiction to make them easier to swallow just results in more nonsense.

I've sometimes wondered that even if a particular religion were literally true and everyone knew it (say Evangelical Christianity), would that mean that we had to follow it? I think it would be interesting to have the idea of theophobia explored in a book, the rejection of god and religion not because they aren't true but because they aren't desireable.

A sort of, "so what if God says being gay is a sin and sex before marriage is evil -- God's wrong." :)

Not gnosticism, which really just says that god is false and there's a better god.

186:

Andrew G: sort of, "so what if God says being gay is a sin and sex before marriage is evil -- God's wrong." :)

-- in that context, God puts you in a torture chamber for all eternity if you disagree. This is a _strong incentive_.

And Mrs. Stirling didn't raise any "gallant last stand" types -- not with the odds that bad.

Show me proof that there's an omnipotent God and that He, She or It cares about our sexual habits or whatever, and you'll find me conforming (and praying and repenting) like a shot.

"Lay on, MacDuff
Lay on with the soup
And the Haggis and stuff;
For tho' 'tis said
You are the foe
What side my bread's buttered on
You _bet_ I know!"

187:

That of course raises the interesting question of whether or not simply refraining from sin really counts as being a good person -- is it actions that matter, or intent. If it's intent, I suspect most of us would be screwed no matter what. :(

188:

"Stirling's "Dies the Fire" was reviewed well in Wiccan/Pagan publications. It's worth persuing more than just the SF/F publications when sending out materials to reviewers."

-- not least because I got a couple of Wiccan first readers and did a _lot_ of research.

You'll never get anything but a cartoon version of a religion in your fiction if you can't look at it 'from the inside' for writing purposes, employing the conditional hypothetical.

189:

Walter: yeah, the SF publishing industry has treated you, to put it mildly, badly. You're at least as good as I am, writing-wise, but you've had a lot less good fortune (and mine could vanish tomorrow -- pardon me while I pound my knuckles bloody on the nearest piece of wood).

It's a merciless crapshoot with a short memory.

OTOH, it's not _quite_ bad enough to say that it's hopelessly broken, and it was never very pleasant for anyone but the tiny minority of superstars, like George.

Of my last 8 books, not all were on an ascending curve -- 5 were, 3 sold reasonably well but a little worse than the one before. The -overall graph- was up, and the editors were willing to give me another shot.

There's a substantial element of sheer dumb random luck involved; getting the right editor, hitting the market at just the right point, not getting caught in publishing-house meltdown, and so forth.

And these things were always there. The unpleasant fact of the matter is that there are far more would-be writers than there is space for them, and that there are even more _reasonably good_ would-be writers than there is space on the shelves.

We're always looking over our shoulders at hungry newcomers willing to take our jobs and work for less.

190:

It is completely unanswerable--and a question that has been asked of other media--but I've always been curious how many great novels--not just good, not even just very good, but truly great, like Dune-great or Hyperion-great--are out there, finished and un-published, accumulating dust mites in some desk drawer.

A story could be (and probably has been) written about it: what happened to Mozart's equally talented peer that had worse luck, or whatever factors combine to assist one to "making it"?

On the other hand, I think it was Holly Lisle that said (in paraphrase) that if you were a pretty good writer you will eventually be published, IF you are persistent enough, extraordinarily persistent (as in Stephen-my-first-book-was-rejected-40-odd-times-Donaldson persistent). From what I've heard of published writers, here and elsewhere--even ones that from my point of view seem well-established, are always there on the shelf when I go on my weekly run to Powell's--staying published after the first few books might even be harder than getting published initially. I read somewhere that Brian Stableford can't get his recent work published, so he's going to POD (!!!). In other words, even Names just shy of total immortality aren't exempt from the bottom line.

Profit margin.

191:

SMS: We're always looking over our shoulders at hungry newcomers willing to take our jobs and work for less.

Trying desperately to look on the bright side, we're in a mature field. The old folks are dying of old age, and as they're the ones who've been around long enough to acquire large sales, there's room for other folk to move up the ladder. The publishers know damn well that Robert A. Heinlein hasn't been terribly prolific in the past decade, and neither has that Asimov fellow. Doubtless Bob Silverberg's output will fall off some time after, say, 2056. Even that Dick guy has mostly taken to writing movie scripts these days.

I've got no problem with hungry newcomers taking my job and working for less ... as long as I'm retired and/or dead before it happens.

Jonny Bardo: I try not to preach, at least in my fiction. Preaching in fiction (be it political or religious) is liable to severely irritate those readers who don't agree with you, won't change anything for those who do agree with you, and holds up the story. About the one form of preaching in fiction that's less pernicious is the kind you get by taking some political or religious idea as axiomatic and working through the consequences. And even then, it's usually irritating to the readers if you don't take opposing ideologies and give them a fair shake of the stick.

About the only idea I am willing to preach in fiction is one that ought to be central to the SF enterprise; that there are lots of people out there who are not American, do not think like Americans, and don't want to be American -- and if you want to understand the world around you, you owe it to yourself to try and walk a mile in their shoes. (But as I'm one of those pesky alien not-Americans, you can read that as self-interest if you like.)

How many great novels are out there, finished and un-published, accumulating dust mites in some desk drawer?

Good question. (I keep reminding myself of it, whenever I get too full of myself.) Do I need to point to Franz Kafka or Vincent van Gough at this point?

192:

Charlie, the publishing problem isn't really much to do with puiblishing. It's about marketing, and general management of big businesses. It's about things like stock-market short-termism, and such things as power-distribution companies cutting back on maintenace until the customers start screaming about the failures.

I remember, in the days before the Pinochet coup, how there was talk of being able to use computers to change the way things could be managed: a different way of doing things with more reliable information. (Ah, Stafford Beer--it's longer ago than I thought.)

It's also been argued that modern capitalism is essentially psychopathic in it's nature, but that may be the inevitable failure mode of any human system of organisation as the size increases.

Anyway, take it from me, if you're the individual, the small guy, you are going to get shafted by the corporate world. It's not because you're a writer, it's because business management is about numbers.

Charlie, we have working AIs now: we're all dealing with them. They're called "corporations", and if it wasn't for the humans implementing the rules they impose, moderating the idiocies, the world would grind to a stop.

193:

Dave: you're right to some extent. The publishing houses -- the ones that specialize in books, anyway, not necessarily the big conglomerates -- don't seem to be part of the problem other than in the role of victims at the next level up from us small fry; if you ever get the chance, ask Tom Doherty about why he sold Tor to St Martin's Press -- it's as hair-raising as any sob story I've heard from a writer.

But I'm somewhat interested by stuff I'm hearing from the SF small press in the US. A small press in the States can shift some serious numbers of books -- more than a major publisher in the UK, in fact -- and those numbers are close to adding up to a living. The internet is now allowing them to reach customers that they were previously locked away from by the distribution chain: it's part of that "long tail" phenomenon the WIRED crowd keep wittering about. Add the same stuff happening in all the diverse foreign translation markets, and if this goes on then pretty soon it will be possible for a midlist writer to earn a reasonable living outside the mainstream publication stream.

194:

As for self-publishing ...

Self-publishing is like law: "a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client". I'd strongly recommend not even thinking about self-publishing unless you've already sold several books via the traditional publishing industry and have a grasp on how the business works.

But. I've seen a number of experiments in online self-publishing recently, by people who do have a track-record -- naming names: Lawrence Watt-Evans, Diane Duane -- and I'm led to believe that the sales results of these experiments startled the experimenters (and in a good way).

I'm doing okay with Ace, Tor, and Orbit at present. I've got no need to experiment in self-publishing. But the cost of entry has undoubtedly fallen over the past decade, if you want to do it properly and know what publishing a book entails. And I make a point of keeping informed on that side of the business, just in case the traditional publishing industry hits a brick wall and collapses, the way that the pulps did in 1958. Not that I expect it to, you understand, but it's a bit easier to prepare for than World War Three: and if it happens, I intend to still be selling stories afterwards.

(Looks at ammo supplies: copy editor, check. Typesetter, check. Book designer, check. Amazon API, check ...)

195:

I think there's still a big "respectability gap" between self publishing and traditional publishing methods. There's still too much association with the vanity presses and a lingering feeling that the writing couldn't cut it and the author is a hack. It's sort of like internet dating services 10 years back.

196:

"But the cost of entry has undoubtedly fallen over the past decade, if you want to do it properly and know what publishing a book entails."

Hmm ...

[Casts glance over CV, lingering on the ten-year stint in design and print production. A large chunk of it setting type.]

Hmm ...

[Scurries off to do some research on book distribution.]

Cheers

Jim

197:

Isn't it obvious what is needed to ensure more people read SF? Sex sells.

Laurel K Hamilton is currently making a fortune from a series which is pure fantasy - an elven princess who is also a private detective - and another which is pure horror - a vampire hunter and zombie raiser who does consulting for the police. Both get marketed as "romance" because she writes good, mildly BDSM, sex scenes - even though without the sex each would stand well in its true genre.

If you want a defining characteristic of SF, it's a lack of actual sex. Heinlein, even at his most fetishistic, steers clear of the nitty-gritty and the rest of the genre seems to have a "Doc" Smith puritanical streak a mile wide. Even Gibson. Even Stephenson. Even you, Charlie. Part of the Technocrats subtext was always that the sins of the flesh would become uneccessary in the future. It was well parodied in film by Woody Allen and by Stalone (Demolition Man).

That has meant a situation where, if it has good sex scenes, it almost can't be marketed as SF.

Don't tell me you couldn't write those scenes convincingly - I wouldn't believe you. Neither, I'm betting, would Feorag. It doesn't have to be porn, it just has to be there as a huge part of the future because it is there as a huge part of the present. Web-porn, teledildonics, virtual chatroom sex, S/M with a cyberpunk or Goth twist...

Who wants to read about a future or fantasy world that is so unrealistic as to not have good, old-fashioned, sweaty, messy, kinky sex?

Regards, Cernig

198:

Actually, Steve, on the whole I've been treated well by the publishing industry. I've had a professional career nearly thirty years long, I have an audience that follows me from book to book, reviewers have on the whole been kind, I've won awards, and I'm reasonably confident that someone, somewhere, will publish anything I write, even if that person isn't a major publisher.

And I had about fifteen years there when I could write any damn thing I wanted and get it published and earn a good living. 99% of writers can't say that.

What vexes me is that the Invisible Hand of the Totally Broken Marketplace started squeezing my throat right at the time at which I was getting really good at what I do. But there's no reason for anyone else to shed tears over that.

Charlie, no offense, but you're not the counterexample . . . yet. Your career is too new. Sales figures haven't yet had the chance to strip the gloss off you. It'll be another three to five years before that happens, so make the most of it while you can.

Steve Stirling is a counterexample. Jane Lindskold is another. But, as Steve says, luck plays a huge factor in all of this. You have to find the right editor at the right line at the right publishing house and then hit the right audience. And then all that has to stay in place for the next thirty years.

Good luck with that, by the way.

199:

Jonathan Schattke: "Well, as an older reader who happenes to be a libertarian, anti-socialist radical, I actually LIKE early Heinlien, and Poul Anderson, and despise people like Harlan Ellison. so, if you're throwing your hat in with creeps and cretins who believe that people deserve anything just for existing, then I suppose there is no hope for you."

Put me down as a creep and cretin then -- when I see the homeless in the streets, I say, "That's just plain _wrong."_ Especially in a world where Paris Hilton is a billionaire.

My point is not to knock Paris Hilton, who, for all I know, is a reasonably nice kid. My point is that many of those homeless people are reasonably nice, too -- and so why do they sleep in the gutters, while Paris Hilton sleeps in a mansion? Because Paris Hilton didn't work for what she has, she was just lucky in her choice of parents.

Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the political system invented, except for all the others. Maybe that seemed brave and insightful at the time he said it, but now we know better. Now it's kind of obvious we know that democracy is great, but it also resulted in the election of all the great despots of the 20th Century: Hitler, Mao, the Soviet leadership, all elected fair and square.

I'm a capitalist myself, but I also see that it's a drunk driver that runs good people over and leaves their mangled bodies in the road without looking back. And the worst part of it is that many of those people are good people who played by the rules: They worked hard, were honest, came to work early and stayed late, and gave their employers exactly what they asked for. Doesn't matter. Capitalism doesn't care.

By the way, I like all Heinlein, the early stuff the best, and I like Anderson, and Ellison too.

200:

Cemig, you make a point I can't dismiss out of hand, but there's a lot of successful fiction that doesn't contain a sex scene. There's a place for one in Halting State, but the mechanical element doesn't need to be there to tell the story.

Writing good sex scenes is harder than it looks.

Writing about anything that most people know something about is harder than it looks. When the subject is as essentially ridiculous as sexual intercourse...

201:

"My point is that many of those homeless people are reasonably nice, too -- and so why do they sleep in the gutters, while Paris Hilton sleeps in a mansion?"

-- because in a developed country "the homeless" are almost invariably either alcoholics, drug addicts, or clinically mentally ill, including sub-80 IQ's as qualifying for that.

Or all of the above. I dealt with 'em when I was in law ,(firm's pro bono work) and them's the facts.

"Foul Ole Ron", in other words.

The number of "ordinary unlucky people" who end up sleeping on steam grates is miniscule; it's approximately as likely as getting hit by lightning. There are too many ways to avoid it for it to happen much to people with a functioning central nervous system.

In point of fact, the most accurate predictive factor for economic status is IQ. The next most accurate one is your parent's status, but IQ trumps it.

That is, you're more likely to end up affluent if you're born into a poor family but have a high IQ, than if you're born into an affluent one but have an IQ much below 100.

Of course, class and IQ positively correlate, which is inevitable given that (a) some social mobility exists, and (b) intelligence is largely genetic, other things being equal.

That's one of the reasons attacks on the IQ concept are so constant; it's the "shoot the bearer of unwelcome news" factor, the urge to shut up people who say things that are unmentionable but which we all know, deep down, are true.

202:

Me: "My point is that many of those homeless people are reasonably nice, too -- and so why do they sleep in the gutters, while Paris Hilton sleeps in a mansion?"

S.M. Stirling: -- because in a developed country "the homeless" are almost invariably either alcoholics, drug addicts, or clinically mentally ill, including sub-80 IQ's as qualifying for that.

Or all of the above. I dealt with 'em when I was in law ,(firm's pro bono work) and them's the facts.

_... _

The number of "ordinary unlucky people" who end up sleeping on steam grates is miniscule; it's approximately as likely as getting hit by lightning. There are too many ways to avoid it for it to happen much to people with a functioning central nervous system.

Well, that wasn't my experience when working in a homeless shelter -- oh, we certainly had quite a few addicts and mentally ill, but we also had a lot of ordinary people who'd fallen on bad luck. Even more when the boom of the 1990s went south.

But even if what you say is true -- so what? It simply reenforces the point I'm making. It's a flaw in Western society and the capitalist system that what we do for the severely addicted and mentally ill is -- literally -- kick them to the curb. And it's a badge of shame that a large portion of the population thinks of that as just and right.

203:

Regarding homeless people, it's been my experience & what I've heard from others (social workers), that the chronically homeless are those like Steve mentions. These people have severe problems and there's little that can be done from them apart from institutionalizing them at great expense.

There are, however, a large number of people who are temporarily homeless at one time or another. I have an uncle by marriage that was homeless for a year or so before getting back on his feel. There may be drugs or alchohol invovled, most of these people have gone through something that's caused them to loose their jobs and homes. Sometimes it's just bad luck and they have no savings to fall back on -- people who live paycheck to paycheck getting laid off and not getting another job quick enough. These people end up in a shelter until they've saved up enough money to get a new place to live.

I've dealt with a number of these people since I work in human resources. There are nonprofit groups in a lot of place to help people get jobs who are in this situation. Other times, people are just doing it themselves. Usually it's not something we would even find out about if it wasn't that the contact information on their resume was a homeless shelter or agency. These are people with decent resumes too -- good experience and good references. They just couldn't pay the rent once their savings ran out and have been looking for a job for a couple months.

The point I'm trying to get at though is that these people don't stay homeless.

204:

Charlie: I try not to preach, at least in my fiction. Preaching in fiction (be it political or religious) is liable to severely irritate those readers who don't agree with you, won't change anything for those who do agree with you, and holds up the story. About the one form of preaching in fiction that's less pernicious is the kind you get by taking some political or religious idea as axiomatic and working through the consequences. And even then, it's usually irritating to the readers if you don't take opposing ideologies and give them a fair shake of the stick.

But is it preaching to play with a hypothetical scenario like I briefly described? It seems a fine line. An antitheist protagonist in a theistic empire doesn't have to be preachy, even if the protag is "good" and the empire is "evil." It could be a pathological religion without the implication that all religion is inherently pathological (although it seems antitheism would imply that). Personally I don't have a problem if the writer lets some of his or her views out through the story--in inevitably happens anyways.

But yeah, preaching--if it is too blatant--sucks, if only because it causes a "glitch in the matrix" (of Story). This is something that I continue to run into while writing the novel I am working on: how to philosophize without preaching it? This relates to the broader question of meaning in story: how to imbue story with meaning without making it too obvious? I tend to think that, for the most part at least, one just has to focus on the story itself and allow "meaningful situations" to arise naturally. Anytime a writer intentionally injects meaning or philosophy it runs the risk of preachiness.

On the other hand, if a novel is largely about the search for meaning, then it becomes a matter of skillful presentation, and making sure that the meanings are of the world of the story, not of the Real World in drag...but I ramble.

205:

That's one of the reasons attacks on the IQ concept are so constant; it's the "shoot the bearer of unwelcome news" factor, the urge to shut up people who say things that are unmentionable but which we all know, deep down, are true.

This is a very tricky thing, S.M. I personally find the IQ concept to be rather unsophisticated because it measures a very narrow bandwidth of intelligence, and yes, a kind of intelligence that is at least related to "societal competence." But there are many kinds of intelligences, and different cultures nourish and honor different kinds.

I agree with the Howard Gardners of the world, who posit multiple intelligences, IQ being a kind of gestalt of "how good you are at thinking along the lines of modern Western economic-scientific society." But it says nothing about musical intelligence, or emotional, imaginative, social, etc.

In the same sense that our society economically rewards specialists, not as much generalists. IQ is a specialization. Bill Gates is the wealthiest man in the world; if Leonardo da Vinci lived today, he might end up homeless! (Well, probably not, but you get my point).

I tend to agree with Mitch Wagner that this points to a flaw--actually, a severe pathology--in Western (especially American) society. A narrowness of what we value, and an enormous over-emphasis on material wealth. Materialism, iow.

Which all relates to the conversation on the publishing industry, where profit margin trumps all.

206:

"It's a flaw in Western society and the capitalist system that what we do for the severely addicted and mentally ill is -- literally -- kick them to the curb."

-- if you don't institutionalize such people, then they will end up in the gutter.

Institutionalizing means jail for life -- and State mental hospitals were pretty ghastly places, warehouses for the drugged-out. Or you can leave them wandering around talking to demons. I favor institutionalization because it's neat and tidy and I like neat and tidy.

Until we learn how to actually fix their brains, that's about it. Repining won't change the situation. If your feeling of generalized guilt requires assuaging with applications of money, use your own, not mine... 8-).

207:

"But there are many kinds of intelligences, and different cultures nourish and honor different kinds."

-- actually, what most cultures nourish and honor is "ability to knife, intrigue and scheme your way up the greasy pole".(*)

All human beings compete for status and power, which are 'positional goods'; the more one person has, the less everyone else has. The precise methods and status symbols differ from culture to culture (tho' good old ultraviolence is always popular) but the process is reasonably constant across human societies and not all that different from the way chimps operate.

We don't know what IQ is; we do know that it exists, and is very important.

(*) I call this the "Moulay Ismail" factor. MI was an 18th-century sultan of Morocco, a contemporary of Louis XIV. He was famous for his vast building projects, and for the accompanying aggressive zero-tolerance fault program -- setting fire to the beards of slaves who didn't meet their quota. He was also famous for having thousands and thousands of children -- his hareem worked on an assembly-line basis.

We are all the children of Moulay Ismail and his ilk. In fact, recent DNA investigation has confirmed this -- the great monster-monarchs of history like Genghis Khan have had a wholly disproportionate impact on the genetic makeup of subsequent generations.

208:

Until we learn how to actually fix their brains, that's about it. Repining won't change the situation.

"Fixing their brains" is only part of the picture, and more akin to alliopathic (symptomatic) treatment. We also need to look at root causes and approach the problem from both angles (both use symptomatic treatments, such as institutionalization, and causative treatments, such as social and educational change).

So we need to evolve society, not simply "fix" the people that don't fit in or excel.

-- actually, what most cultures nourish and honor is "ability to knife, intrigue and scheme your way up the greasy pole".(*)

There are layers, and that is a relatively surface one--and a gross reductionism, to boot (sort of like saying, "everything is ultimately about getting laid"; there is truth to that, but only partial truth). Even within umbrella cultures you have wide variation; e.g. compare Muslim extremists and Sufis.

All human beings compete for status and power, which are 'positional goods'; the more one person has, the less everyone else has. The precise methods and status symbols differ from culture to culture (tho' good old ultraviolence is always popular) but the process is reasonably constant across human societies and not all that different from the way chimps operate.

A lot of people disagree with this, including developmental psychologists, who posit an array of different motivations. A good example of this is Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. What you are describing, in Maslow's framework, is only what is going on at the lower levels, mainly just the monopolization of Physiological and Safety needs, and their relevant resources. But it has less to do with belongness and esteem, and almost nothing to do with the higher needs of actualization and transcendence.

We are all the children of Moulay Ismail and his ilk. In fact, recent DNA investigation has confirmed this -- the great monster-monarchs of history like Genghis Khan have had a wholly disproportionate impact on the genetic makeup of subsequent generations.

That's very interesting--too bad Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, and others of similar ilk didn't have more, or any, kids! But this is sort of a genetic variant of the "100th Monkey" metaphor (and related to the Butterfly Effect), and in a broader sense points to how interconnected we all are--and how pretty much everything "matters."

It is strange, because on one hand something like the internet is such a chaotic array and it seems that anything one might write will be like whispering into a tornado. But on the other hand, look what happens when a pebble rolls down a snowy slope: eventually you get an enormous snowball.

If nothing else, what you say gives genetically-gifted, intelligent, wise and kind men a good rationalization to build a harem.

209:

HTML doesn't work for hyperlinks? Here is the Wikipedia entry to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hierarchy_of_needs

210:

Dave,

Of course it is possible to write good fiction that has no sex scenes - but that wasn't my argument.

My argument is that a defining hallmark of the SF genre is a lack of sex - not just as sex scenes perse but as a believable background. Consider how pervasive sex is in the real world then consider how little it appears even in post-Gibson distopian work as a pervasive backdrop (in advertising, the net, the media, day-to-day life and conversation). SF, even cyberpunk and its offspring, is essentially puritanical and always has been. That cultural dissonance, I maintain, limits its appeal.

Therefore, if you're looking for a way to break out of the genre's limited market, Laurel K. Hamilton gives an expert lesson. If it is sexy, it won't be published and marketed as SF (maybe as romance, general fiction or even, the horrors, technothriller but not as SF)
and you have a whole new realm of readers. If Charlie's "family trade" stuff had a seamy underbelly to go with its oh-so-proper surface culture (and such cultures always do - the Victorians being the defining case) then he would have had bestsellers on his hands.

Regards, Cernig

211:

"My argument is that a defining hallmark of the SF genre is a lack of sex"

This caused a mostly unrelated thought to pop into my head. The lack of Parents also seems to be a hallmark of SF. Not universal, but it does seem like most SF protagonists are orphans.

212:

... and are not, themselves, parents.

As one writer of epic fantasy, herself a mother of three rambunctious kids, put it: It's hard to go off and have Adventures if you have to pick up the kids at soccer practice at 2:30.

213:

Well said Charlie, though you can't beat a bit of pulp now and again. I'd keep you eye on this man who wrote this and this.
Cernig, have you read 'The Time Traveller's Wife'? Is that the kind of thing you're talking about? It is very definitley SF but is not marketed as such. But the main issue is not disguising SF as something else so that it sits on the shelf with the Da Vinci Code and other dross but by making it good enough for publishers to pump money into marketing it.

214:

It would sound a bit too much like the Spy Kids movies, and doesn't one of them involve a VR environment already?

Thinking, sci-fi and fantasy with juvenile heroes aren't that unusual, but they're usually written for the teenage market.

And, The Mummy Returns.

I vaguely recall one semi-B movie where the vampire, female, needs virgins, and is stalking a US High School. Two obvious jokes: first, she gets very frustrated. Second, the clean-living hero turns 18 just in time for the climactic scene, thus causing the vampire to be even more frustrated.

Oh, and Merry and Pippin.

But, yeah, you don't often get both the kids and their parents active in the plot.

215:

An interesting debate.

I'd like to offer my two cents as a long-time science fiction reader. I'm the wrong age (52), but I buy 40 or 50 science fiction books a year.

Here are some things I like to see:

(1) Shorter novels. Like everyone else, I'm busy. 600 page novels and 5-book series are difficult to reconcile with my schedule unless I am very certain that it's worth my time. Would Heinlein's Hugo-award winning "Double Star" even be considered a novel these days?

(2) More standalone books, or at least series books in which each book can stand more independently. Again, this is related to the first point. I don't have time to read novels broken up into 4 or 5 books unless each book can stand on its own.

(3) Fewer main characters unless the author really knows how to carry this off. If I'm reading the book as a serial, a little bit each night, with interruptions when my work takes me out of town, and the author isn't excellent at keeping the characters and interweaving plots clear, then a book with numerous characters and interweaving plots might get dropped.

(4) Some optimism is nice, without being Pollyannaish. It's nice if a book thinks that it is possible to discover the truth and solve problems, even if this is difficult.

(5) A willingness of the author to critique his or her own prejudices. For example, Iain Banks's Culture is clearly a utopia, but hardly a perfect one. Ursula K. LeGuin loves her utopian anarchist moon, but she's willing to create a utopia with flawed people.

(6) A good idea. SF is the literature of ideas, right? Characters are good, too, but the ideas are what really makes the field distinctive. Each one of Ted Chiang's short stories has more good ideas than many much longer novels.

(7) A sense of humor. For example, Banks's ship names and drone attitudes, or Connie Willis's book "To Say Nothing of the Dog".

(8) Some reasonable entry point. I'm an experienced SF reader, and even I find some current books must too convoluted in the worlds they create, without an easy way to break in. I'm not sure Lord of the Rings and Dune are good models for most writers.

(9) A plot that moves along. Description is nice, character development is nice, but there is this MacGuffin of the plot that you need to move along. Some authors seem to have forgotten this.

But then, what do I know? I'm an American reader who thinks Iain M. Banks is one of our greatest SF writers, but apparently the American SF public doesn't agree. And I'm not sure Banks follows all of the above "rules" consistently.

216:

I agree with most of your points Tim, though I usually finding myself wishing books were longer rather than shorter. Charlie's Merchant Family series annoys me because each book is so short. I'd prefer it if two or three were combined into one book. My ideal book length is about 600 pages. Longer than that and it should really be a series or else cut down.

I'd also like to see more stand alone books, even if they are set in the same "universe". I like the way the Discworld series is done, with each book standing on its own, as opposed to Turtledove or Jordan's style. I also like what Steve's done with his series -- Draka, Dies the Fire, and Island in the Sea of Time. Each of the Draka books can stand alone but they draw on characters and events of the earlier books to build the setting. And in the other two series the first books stand alone and the second and third go together.

The Jennifer Morgue looks to be another good example.

217:

Coming to the party late (having only remembered, as I do periodically, to check Paul's blog whereupon I found the link to the Rausch piece)but Charlie, many thanks for the good word at the end, and for the employment of the title.

If I remember right Rausch was making that argument sixteen years ago, when I was first exploring what field I'd landed in, three books along. It was one of several things that instilled in me that fabled sense of wonder.

218:

I go away for a few of days to visit relatives, sure that this thread was winding down, and look what happens. OK, on-topic for this message then off to the political discussion in further messages,

What vexes me is that the Invisible Hand of the Totally Broken Marketplace started squeezing my throat right at the time at which I was getting really good at what I do. But there's no reason for anyone else to shed tears over that.

Not true, Walter, there are others who care. I've been reading your work since, hmmm, "Knight Moves" in 1985. I thought you were getting better and better over time, and I was looking forward with a great deal of anticipation to the 3rd book in the Metropolitan series. Then things changed, and I didn't know why, and it did upset me some. Now, I do like the Sundering books. They're much more than formula space opera or military SF, and I enjoy the characters you've created a lot. I bought "Conventions of War" several weeks ago, and saved it for this plane trip so I could have more concentrated reading time for it. But I still want another Metropolitan book, or something equally engaging. Yes, we don't suffer in the way or as much as writers do, but readers are hurt by the publishing system too.

Which brings me to a couple of suggestions. It seems to me that the key activities that are needed to bypass the big corporations are not the technical tasks involved in printing or packaging, important as they are. The critical need is for either the money to front enough production to demonstrate the saleability of a book, or the commitment of some entity to that first printing which has the money or a publishing channel of its own .

In both cases, the way to achieve the goal involves some form of organization, and this kind of organization has been done before in similar situations. The second case is what happened when TriStar was created to go around the studio system in Hollywood to make movies the creative people were interested in but couldn't convince the bankers who ran the studios to get behind. TriStar was a limited partnership of a few people who had a lot of clout, and therefore an extreme example, but a similar effect can be gotten from a cooperative venture, much like a grange, in which all partners contribute skills, work, and/or money as available. Granted that the power is largely contained in the large corporations, but couldn't a cooperative of writers, editors and printers lever something out of the system? Or suppose (sorry for the Lefty proposal, I am as I was made), all the members of SFWA banded together to make recommendations to the publishers? Yes, there are a lot of potential problems with this suggestion; how might they be ameliorated or prevented?

One way to deal with gaining money for the first case, at least for already published writers, is to ask the readers to pay what amounts to a subscription in advance for the next book, to help convince the publisher there is an audience. If Walter had told me that was the only way to get another book of the kind I've become accustomed to from him, I'd be on it like a shot. I'm talking about the time frame of advances here, not a few months of pre-order time.

OK, these ideas are skeletal, and probably can't work without major work; can they be made to work somehow, or can some other scheme that works bottom-up instead of top-down be devised?

219:

Interesting comment from Bruce,

In the boardgames world, publishers have a system called p500 where a summary of a game is placed online and individuals can place an early purchase request where they get a discounted price. Once 500 orders are received the publishers can go ahead with the game knowing their basic costs will be covered...

-- Andrew

220:
Show me proof that there's an omnipotent God and that He, She or It cares about our sexual habits or whatever, and you'll find me conforming (and praying and repenting) like a shot.
Steve, I for one would find it very hard to believe any such proposition, and I really can't think of how it could be proved sufficiently to me short of a (literal) bolt from on high. And even then, I'd have to ask myself, "Is this a real message from the Allmighty, or something sent from a superhuman, but not omnipotent entity?"

It makes a difference, I think. Consider the position of a person like you or me who is opposed to some tyranny (let's take Nazi Germany as the usual tired example, because it takes less setup than something less familiar). The Third Reich was clearly more powerful than any single human being, and more than most groups or nations. Does that mean we should not oppose it? This is a personal decision, but many have made it, in many situations, and enough of them chose the hard path that Nazi Germany is no more.

And sometimes the tiger really is made of paper or at least something other than armor steel. The best description I've seen of how I hope I would feel in this situation is in Greg Bear's story, "Dead Run". God stepped out and left the policy-making in the hands of the bureacrats; are they worth fearing as you would God?

221:

I'm probably going to regret getting into this, but ...

Until we learn how to actually fix their brains, that's about it. Repining won't change the situation. If your feeling of generalized guilt requires assuaging with applications of money, use your own, not mine... 8-).

I understand the sentiment, but I think it's misapplied. As far as I can tell, the cost to society (and its taxpayers) is greater for letting at least the mentally ill and the mentally retarded fall into the gutter, than for providing to as many as possible some form of positive assistance. The cost of leaving them alone comes as

1) A major load on the justice systems of all cities in the US (and I would bet in any other country that has the same policies). Mentally ill in particular are apt to act in ways that are offensive, threatening, or injurious to other citizens, and so need to be arrested and held for trial, then tried. This costs jail beds and trial time, and in seriously-loaded places (I live in one), the fact that these people are, or are perceived to be, violent and dangerous often means that other criminals are released on bail, to then escape, or not be tried at all.

2) A major load on the prison system if they're convicted and incarcerated. The prisons (at least in the US) are simply not set up to deal with these people; neither the guards nor the other prisoners know what to do with them, they increase the level of confrontation in the prisons, which can't be a good thing, and they drain a large portion of the medical resources.

3) If not incarcerated, they're a serious drain on the health-care systems in the cities; they are a large part of the emergency-room load, and they don't pay the bills. Yes, we could just decline to treat them and let them die, usually slowly and in significant pain, but I for one am not at all happy with this alternative.

OK, but can we actually help them? True, we can't cure most of them, but we can treat some of them in ways that at least will (usually) keep them out of the justice system, and make them sufficiently responsible for themselves that their need for emergency medicine is reduced. But at present almost none of them are so treated. This doesn't make sense to me.

222:

Here in New Zealand there's not much doubt that 'most anyone who needs and wants it can get mental health help, a survival income and a place to live. However, TV news has repeatedly gone out on the street to show that most of the homeless (many of whom are indeed in need of mental help) simply don't want the help. Some forget to take meds, others actively refuse.

How can a necessarily bureaucratic system give help where it's not wanted, without also forcing free (but simply eccentric) people into the bondage of treatment they don't want? Since a line must be drawn somewhere on the voluntary-compulsory spectrum, I'd rather see it drawn to allow some to perish in the streets rather than confining others against their will.

We don't even need to refer to science fiction for examples of an intrusive and coercive mental health system being used as a political weapon. But I suppose that finding a techno-fix for this problem would make part of a good plot. How do you know you're sane? How do you convince the social worker who only wants to help you overcome your antisocial tendencies and be happy?

223:

Bruce, Andrew - I commented on this over on Making Light this past spring:

The recent Top Shelf Comics publication of Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls was funded entirely by advance subscriptions. They sold both a signed/numbered edition (at twice the price) and a "regular" edition at the planned list price. This particular book had both very high production costs - really lavish full color artwork, high quality paper and binding, etc. - and a high level of market risk. Judging by the periodic email updates from Top Shelf, I don't think either the authors or the publisher had any idea until they released it what the level of demand would be for very high quality, literate, extremely lush (and louche) pornography. It turned out there was a huge market for it; Amazon sold out the entire first publication run the first day.

Would this translate to a model for new Walter Jon Williams novels? Maybe... I think it was a small pressthat got P.C. Hodgell's further Kencyr novels into print, again funding it partly via deluxe editions. (I don't think they tried a pre-sale model though.)

224:

Bruce: "Or suppose all the members of SFWA banded together to make recommendations to the publishers?"

There speaks the touching naivete of someone who's never seen what goes on inside SFWA!

(Trust me, it wouldn't be pretty :)

225:
In the boardgames world, publishers have a system called p500 where a summary of a game is placed online and individuals can place an early purchase request where they get a discounted price.
Some Role-playing Game designers are experimenting with this as well. Dennis Detwiller (www.detwillerdesign.com) calls it the 'ransom model' and it has been fairly successful for him. It only really works for someone with a track record however - DD did some excellent work on games like 'Delta Green' and 'Unknown Armies' before he started ransoming his writing projects.

Regards
Luke

226:
There speaks the touching naivete of someone who's never seen what goes on inside SFWA!
Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, I did mention that I was into radical politics as a callow youth? I doubt SFWA can hold a candle to a roomful of Leninists and Trotskyists trying to do each other down (I've often wondered if the concept of production rules came from an observation that it's Trotskyist to one side and Trotskyite to the other, i.e., "Trotsky_Follower -> Trotskyite | Trotskyist." , though your notation may vary).

That's why I added that disclaimer that the idea needs a lot more thought. It seems to most of the posters on this thread that we're discussing a real problem that we would like to see solved; it further seems like this large a group of very bright people with experience in many different fields ought to be able to find at least the rough outlines of a candidate solution. The first step should be to brainstorm for awhile, exploring the space of solutions before worrying about the details. I do take your point, however; I would class an outraged chairperson as roughly equivalent to a Green Dragon, striking with at least 6d6 damage points per turn.

227:

Bruce, the Trots are probably a whole lot less confused than the SFWA members. At least they know what they stand for (no we don't! Splittist!).

228:

What we need is a publishing industry (I'd settle of a publisher that's in it because they want to publish and isn't beholden to a corporation. An old family-run company would be ideal.

In the software industry, the unspoken goal of small companies is to be bought out by someone like Microsoft. This thought pattern has now spread to other areas, including media companies. We need a publisher that will continue to publish according to their own judgement and willing to forgo the Walmart bonanza and do the work necessary to cobble the smaller markets into a base that can hold it's own. The profit motive will always lead to choosing a guaranteed small slice of the huge market over the riskier path of specialization.

Until a publisher chooses to avoid the lure of basing their whole model on finding the next Rowling, and does so successfully, market forces will be in control.

229:

Until a publisher chooses to avoid the lure of basing their whole model on finding the next Rowling, and does so successfully ... that would be most of them, in point of fact.

Real publishing folks will freely admit that "finding the next Rowling" is basically like winning the lottery; nice to daydream about, but it's no way to run a business.

The problem isn't "publishing people" -- it's "warehousing and stock control people who don't understand that you can't sell books effectively if you manage your inventory of them the same way you manage your inventory of toilet paper."

230:

Charlie:
'The problem isn't "publishing people"'

I didn't really mean to identify publishers as the problem, but couldn't a publisher who has goals other than profit choose to avoid selling to
"...people who..manage your inventory of them the same way you manage your inventory of toilet paper."

I could easily be way off base, but wouldn't cultivating smaller booksellers allow publisher more control over the market? Publishers may not be the problem, but they might still be part of the solution.

I wonder how the sales numbers for independently owned book stores combined compare to those of Walmart.

231:

The comment on lack of parents in Science Fiction is interesting, as there is some correlation between sex and parents. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I recall that Bruce Sterling's *Islands in the Net* (1988) had some wonderful change-the-baby's-diapers in mid chase scene. And Rudy Rucker has had "normal" family relationships mutated by by 4-dimensional or brain-downloading incursions. Axiomatically, one never sees parents in "Peanuts." Parents in Heinlein juveniles differ from parents in his later fiction, in enlightening ways.

The toilet paper comments can be seen another way. The book and magazine industry (which I've said is broken beyond patching) is a smaller segment than toilet paper of the paper and paper pulp group of industries. See also Roger Penrose having to sue to stop copyright infringement on unauthorized (Penrose 5-fold symmetry tiling) on toilet paper. Not exactly Open Source toilet paper. Gives new slant to "download" and "garbage collection."

SFWA contends that Nebula Awards ARE recommendations to the Publishing Industry, but winning a Nebula (or Hugo) is no guarantee that one's next work will get published at all. In fact, if it gets you "too big" an advance, then you're again by default almost guaranteed NOT to sell through, and it becomes even harder to publish work(n+2). SFWA would get into a flame war on whether to have a Nebula Award category for "Best Toilet Paper."

232:

So the only way to sell more SF lit is to print it on rolls of toilet paper?

"Dinner, dear! Come out of the bathroom!"

"Give me five more minutes! I'm on the last chapter of UBIK -- and I'm constipated!"

;-P

233:

Dear Charles Stross,

I've read your most interesting comment »Let's put the future behind us« in your blog and I agree with you that science fiction should try to improve itself and get ready for the 21st century and should not just adapt its old ideas for the next generation of readers.

There’s a similar discussion going on in the German science fiction community and, therefore, I’d like to ask for your permission to translate your text into German and present it on our website SF-Fan.de (www.sf-fan.de), which is one of the major German SF websites for fans and authors. Would this be okay with you?

Thank you very much!

234:

Florian: yes.

235:

Cernig: Therefore, if you're looking for a way to break out of the genre's limited market, Laurel K. Hamilton gives an expert lesson. If it is sexy, it won't be published and marketed as SF (maybe as romance, general fiction or even, the horrors, technothriller but not as SF)

I'm not sure this is a good example, given the widely accepted notion that LKH's books have morphed from fantasy/spec. fic with some sex to bad pr0n with occasional interludes of fantasy held together by less cloth than her protagonist's lingerie.

236:
Cernig: Therefore, if you're looking for a way to break out of the genre's limited market, Laurel K. Hamilton gives an expert lesson. If it is sexy, it won't be published and marketed as SF (maybe as romance, general fiction or even, the horrors, technothriller but not as SF)

ice_weasel: I'm not sure this is a good example, given the widely accepted notion that LKH's books have morphed from fantasy/spec. fic with some sex to bad pr0n with occasional interludes of fantasy held together by less cloth than her protagonist's lingerie.

And so the discussion of SF's future swings inexorably back to late Heinlein.

(Sorry, all. Couldn't resist.)

237:

"Sir, I'm am in the smallest room of my house. Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me."
[A letter from Max Reeger (1873-1916) to a critic]

The proposal has been made that the Hugo Award for Best Toilet Paper (as opposed to the Nebula Award) be split into: (1) Best Fan Toilet Paper; (2) Best Semipro Toilet Paper; (3) Best Pro Toilet Paper; (4) Best Dramatic Toilet Paper, Short Form; (5) Best Dramatic Toilet Paper, Long Form Form. After a brief but heated discussion on how hard it is to read Cyberpunk Toilet Paper printed on simulated Black Leather, through mirrorshades, and a tangential discussion of a Toilet Paper Retro-Hugo from when there was Science Fiction printed in newspapers, the motion was called, with a friendly amendment to address at the follow year's Worldcon, the issue that Toilet Paper is edited, and that the editor should be considered for a Hugo.

238:

Jonathon,

What, no Toilet Paper Art, not even semi-pro?

239:

Feck me JvP you managed a non self-referential post...

240:

"This sentence contains ten words, eighteen syllables, and sixty-four letters."

242:

Cernig:If you want a defining characteristic of SF, it's a lack of actual sex
Hmm.. in the 70's when I was just getting to the grownups section of the library, I remember the Nebula-Winners and Best SF anthologies were peppered with some pretty explicit stuff (Castaneda, Silverberg and Sheckley come to mind)... but perhaps it died down after a period where most of that kind of stories were tied up in The Last Dangerous Visions not getting published. ;^)

To some degree there may be an attitude that SF comes just after Comic Books in the evolution of a reader -- so keeping the sex to a PG-13 level may be a side effect of the long history of juvenile SF. Stranger in a Strange Land was barely PG-13, except for all the nudity.

Cyberpunk, with its attitudes towards transgression, has always had a sexier streak, but the R rating might come more from the other activities (drugs, violence, etc).

But truly, if there's a reason why sex isn't explicit in SF, it's the thought that sex and nudity in the future (a) isn't dirty, (b) isn't likely to cause unwanted children, (c) isn't likely to cause incurable disesases, and (d) is a normal part of life! (Examples over several decades: Varley's Eight Worlds stories, Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers, Stross' Glasshouse)

243:

Legit comments have tapered off, and meanwhile the spammers have discovered this thread, so I'm closing it. Hasta la vista ...

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