This is not the blog entry you are expecting.
Science Fiction literature is unusual in that much of the work within the field exists in constant dialog with other works. Author A writes something; Author B reads it and writes something else by way of an oblique rejoinder. (For example: you won't get all the jokes and references in "Saturn's Children" unless you've read Heinlein's "Friday", to which it is in part a response. Again: Jo Walton's Among Others—on the Hugo shortlist this year, and I'm voting for it—contains numerous references and discussions of the sort of SF/F that a bright, bookish child growing up in the UK in the 1970s would be familiar with: and indeed, it spoke to me, because I was reading many of those works at the same age and time ...)
Authors responding to one another isn't unusual. But in SF/F it's particularly visible. It got started in the pages of the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s and continues today, both in short fiction (we're unusual insofar as we still have a vibrant short fiction ecosystem) and at novel length.
So you probably began reading this blog essay expecting a cunning reference to Elizabeth Bear's essay in Clarkesworld, Dear speculative fiction, I'm glad we had this talk ... or to Abi Sutherland's response in "Making Light", on talking it over. Both well worth reading, I should add: Bear's conceit is that SF is reified into personhood and is of course having one of those annoying mid-life crises, wanting to be taken seriously and consequently dressing in black and reading too much bad goth poetry while hanging out outside the doors of literary award bashes thrown by that cool kid, Mainstream.
Well, that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about something much more concrete: the likelihood that within another decade, two at most, science fiction as a literary genre category may well die.
What, you ask, is the problem?
Well, the process has already begun (indeed, is well under way) in some other media: in film, for example, around 30% of the big budget movies to come out of Hollywood each year are recognizably science fiction. I mean, aliens: that's a pretty obvious signifier, isn't it? And Hollywood feels no need to market these movies as SF; they just are, big budget glossy special-effects beanfests featuring aliens. They're grown-up, quite capable of finding their own audiences. But something is missing upstairs. They're the sixty-foot-tall armoured cyborg idiot children of our genre. All fire and tantrums and no cerebral context whatsoever. There's no internal genre dialog going on, and precious little introspection. (Yes, you can name exceptions like "GATACA"; the fact that you have to note the exceptions is itself a warning sign.)
I am not sure it is possible to write introspective, complex SF as a screen medium. The natural length of a feature movie is around 120 minutes; the traditional movie script runs at one page per minute, with 250 words per page—that buys you, in literary terms, a novella. Add in the expectations of studio executives and the dumbing-down effects of editing by committee you end up with huge pressure to make the script commercial rather than complex. Some director/scriptwriters have the clout to get what they want: but then you end up, as often as now, with George Lucas. Nor is there much scope for a dialog in which directors build on someone else's ideas. So a large chunk of cinematic SF is stuck, spinning its wheels, mistaking ever better special effects and ever bigger first weekend box-office draws for progress.
Written SF harbours a much more complex ecosystem in part because the works are potentially bigger (big enough to encompass big ideas) and in part because it's still, to some extent, ghettoised.
Well, let's look for a moment at the semiotics of book cover design, and what it says about the contents, and the effect it has on what we choose to read.
A book cover is a promotional vehicle intended to achieve two goals:
a) To make a reader who is unfamiliar with the author and/or the book pick the book up in a bookstore (because retail psychology teaches us that customers who handle the produce in a shop are more likely to buy it),
b) To tell the book store staff where in their curated produce display they shold place the item, for best sales impact.
Point (a) eludes many readers (and authors). The cover isn't meant to accurately depict the content of the novel; it's meant to make someone who doesn't know the author of their work handle the product. The fans already know what they want; you could market the book in a brown paper bag and they'd buy it. So the goal is to reach out to the vast majority of potential customers who don't know they're customers yet.
Point (b) is less obvious, and it is a function of the economics of retail. Shops cost money to run. In particular, floor space costs. You have to rent it. And books, physical books, are bulky. I reckon you can cram about 50 paperbacks onto a one meter wide shelf. And you can have as many as ten shelves stacked above one another. You need another eight centimetres in front of the shelves for the poor bewildered customer to stand in, so that's a square metre of retail floorspace that you can't use for any other purpose, eaten by a scant 500 paperbacks, some of which will be duplicates (because the top-selling titles need to be available to multiple customers coming in on the same day). A typical bookstore can only carry single or low-double digit thousands of titles; this is why the long tail effect works so well for Amazon. Regular bookstores have to rely on churn, to attempt to provide a customer who returns every month to buy a couple of books with a fresh selection, to provide the illusion of something wider than the choice dictated by the rent they pay on floor space.
But suppose you're a reader looking for a new novel by your favourite author in a shop with thousands or tens of thousands of titles! You need some sort of indexing system. Consequently, books are filed by category—which in fiction means by genre—and then, hopefully, alphabetically within their category.
The book store clerk, then, has to be able to rapidly identify the category to which a book (coming in one of several cartons, along with hundreds of other books) belongs. And that's where the rocket ship logo on the spine, or the headless woman with a stake (back turned to reveal the tramp stamp) comes in. It tells the store clerk that this is a work of SF, or a work of paranormal romance. Which in turn tells them where to shelve the book.
And this is where our genre ghetto comes from.
Why is it going away?
The answer is both simple and non-obvious: ebooks.
Back in 2007, ebooks accounted for less than 1% of sales of fiction. By the end of 2012 they'll be up to 40%, and they're on course to hit 60% in the next few years—probably by 2015.
Now, the people who write ebooks are the same people who write p-books. The ebook is just an alternative distribution channel, like the mass market paperback or the hardcover or the cuneiform clay tablet. And for the most part, the people who read ebooks with a given type of genre content are the same as those who read p-books in that genre. But there is a key difference: the distribution channel has changed.
You do not buy ebooks in a physical bookstore. You buy them online. It doesn't matter whether you buy them directly from a publisher like O'Reilly & Associates or Baen or a huge retailer like Amazon; it is still an online purchase.
And the curation of soft goods delivered online is fundamentally different from the curation of physical lumps of paper on shelves in rented retail premises. By "curation" I'm talking about how the digital goods—the ebooks—are organized and made accessible to the customers. No longer do we have harried clerks unpacking cartons of stuff and shoveling them onto shelves, looking for visual cues to remind them which particular category the book goes under. Instead, we have tags—metadata identifying the work as being by a given author, part of a series, of interest to readers who want SF, police procedural, near-future, virtual reality, dragons, MMOs. (That's a plausible tag set for "Halting State".) We still have a pictorial cover, but it has to be legible when shrunk to roughly 160 pixels: and this includes the author's name and the title. (Look at your recent book acquisitions. Have you noticed anything about the title length, or the typeface, or the font size on the cover? Have they changed in the past year, relative to five years ago?)
Ebooks are going to be simultaneously easier to find and buy—and much harder.
We are in the position, as readers, of being stranded in an infinitely large bookstore. There are millions of items on the shelves. Many of them are junk, the incoherent ramblings of schizophrenics with hypergraphia, who hitherto merely clogged up publishers' slushpiles but which are now flowed through into virtual print because of the ease of access to the virtual storefront. Many more are generated by spambots: this, for example, or this (don't buy them! They're overpriced rip-offs of my wikipedia entry, assembled and published by web scraping robots). There are translations of books you have already read in foreign languages, often with confusingly changed titles ("Halting State" in Germany is "Du Bist Todt"—a great title, but likely to excite and then disappoint English-reading readers searching for my name on Amazon.com).
Getting readers to tag their recent purchases and rate them is a great way of collecting data, and it permits new types of marketing: Amazon's recommendation system is eerily prescient, except when it isn't. (Ask anyone who has bought a book as a present for a friend what it did to their reader recommendations!)
The infinite bookshelf is already a problem for us. To add to the fun, once we enter the world of ebooks, nothing ever goes out of print. So works going back many years or decades are presented with equal priority to the latest new titles.
Upshot: we badly need better curation. Amazon and their competitors could present the results of author searches pre-sorted by time since publication and by language and by series. But that's barely a start.
Genre, in the ebook space, is a ball and chain. It stops you reaching new audiences who might like your work. You are an editor, presented with "Rule 34": do you choose to market it as SF, as crime/police procedural, or as mainstream literary fiction? Wouldn't it be better to market it as all three, with different cover designs and cover blurbs and marketing pitches and reader recommendations and reviews for each bookstore category? We've seen this in microcosm with Harry Potter: the use of adult-friendly covers allowed parents to buy the books and read them during their commute to work, for example.
On paper, that's very expensive/hard to organize: in electronic media it is simply a matter of commissioning as many cover designs as your book design budget will stretch to, and then convincing the big retailers to associate a different cover image with the results of each search by genre category.
We already see ebooks being tagged as multiple categories. It's only a matter of time before publishers and authors develop more sophisticated electronic marketing strategies that either micro-target a specific audience, or that target multiple readerships in parallel.
(Length is also a ball and chain. I've previously blogged about how the length of a story may be dictated by physical printing constraints—the cost of binding a big fat book turns big fat books into the domain of best-sellers (at least in the USA), while the exigencies of selling mass market paperbacks to fill supermarket wire racks during the 1970s and 1980s forced publishes to increase their page counts (to justify price increases during a period of inflation). In electronic form there's nothing stopping us from selling novelettes and million-word blockbusters on an equal logistical footing.)
But anyway, to summarize: my point is that our genre sits uneasily within boundaries delineated by the machinery of sales. And that creaking steam-age machinery is currently in the process of being swapped out for some kind of irridescent, gleaming post-modern intrusion from the planet internet. New marketing strategies become possible, indeed, become essential. And the utility of the old signifiers—the rocket ship logo on the spine of the paperback—diminish in the face of the new (tagging, reader recommendations, "if you liked X you'll love Y" cross-product correlations by sales engines, custom genre-specific cover illustrations, and so on).
This is going to drastically affect the quality and content of the internal dialog within our genre—the subject matter of the imaginary conversations by Elizabeth Bear and Abi Sutherland to which I linked up top.
I don't know what it means, yet. Jo Walton opined that the conversation will go on, and I'm sure it will ... among those of us who are already aware of it.
But there was so much less SF in the 1970s that it was quite possible for those of us who grew up reading the field back then to acquire a comprehensive coverage of it. Today, there's far more stuff out there: but without the clear signifiers, the tags saying "queue here to join the ongoing conversation", it may become increasingly hard for new readers to recognize what's going on and join in.
What is to be done?