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!)