Well then. I thought as much: some of you got what I was saying, a good chunk of you didn’t. Some of you liked what I said, many didn’t. But I’m surprised it was so civilised – I had expected people to go on forums and do whatever is the forum equivalent of using my face as toilet paper.
Some took the time for smart rebuttals on their own sites. SF author Philip Palmer took a stand. Mark Chadbourn asked who let the dogs out, and added some cheerful thoughts. And Wert thought it was all down to trend, and mentioned the state of the industry a few decades ago (a good read). But that’s not where the crux of my argument lies, and avoids the core issue, as I’ll explain later.
Point One: Some Clarification.
There was a lot of naming of good SF authors in the comments section – fantastic, this is one of the good aspects of such a discussion. I’m all for enhancing genre diversity.
But, just because you can name a few strong selling SF authors doesn’t mean a genre is surviving in the long term. Think how many books that makes a year. Your, say, ten authors – if they all write a good book a year, that’s ten good new SF books a year. Is that what you really think will save a genre? Less than one a month? Is ten good books each year enough to sustain such sales in an environment where bookstores have to compete with supermarkets, and sales margins are being throttled out of the industry by ever-powerful chain buyers?
Go into a bookstore and look at the table displays (and buy some books). That’s the frontline of the industry. Mark Chitty did. Too far away from a store? Look through Amazon bestsellers and see how many more Fantasy novels there are compared to SF. Whilst I would never dismiss discussion of art – I love it, and indulge in it often – sometimes we need a reality check.
Forget what has happened forty years ago – the book industry doesn’t give much of a shit about that. All it cares about is frontlist sales – that’s what’s selling at the moment.
An explanation: if novels don’t sell, bookstores don’t want much more like that. Stores have to compete with supermarkets at one end, and Amazon at the other (who can afford to discount more because they don’t have walls). This discount on new titles means that new titles are cheap to buy, which means that more people buy them, fewer buy backlist stuff (old classics), which means that they sell less of those. And bookstores want to focus more and more on frontlist, and so on.
Oh, and by the way, money crosses palms in order for those select few books to be featured in table promotions. A lot of money. You think the booksellers put them out there on a whim? That’d be lovely, wouldn’t it. But no. These days, some stores even charge simply for books to go on the shelf, not even in a promotion. So that’s why these days it’s all about frontlist. Big money is shaping the industry. It’s an immensely difficult environment for publishers to do their thing. Stores, of course, want to make money, and this means sticking with the profitable books where possible.
That’s why talking about what sold forty years ago is a redundant argument.
What we have is a vicious circle. If there are only a few SF books selling well each year, that isn’t enough room for it to acquire significant market share/nurture a culture. It attracts fewer new readers. And as Dark Fantasy rises, this will only squeeze SF out further.
Neal Asher said:
I just have to wonder if the same argument was propounded when the bookshelves turned black with horror titles a while back (70-80s?). I think all forms of fiction go through a lulls then resurgence as they update themselves, and I feel SF is one of the best at doing it, because the writers themselves (usually) are interested in current science and its implications.
Simon (Spanton) said:
Exactly. Sort of. I’ve been thinking about the collapse of the horror market that followed that 80s glut in realtion to all this.
Over publishing led to the bottom falling out of the horror market and various people prophesied the death of the genre (and we all looked at horror film on video as the new way for horror fans to get their fix) and we all nodded our heads and said ‘Yes! Afterall look what happened to Westerns.’ But now the horror genre is making a strong return on the shelves.
I really don’t think this is same as what happened to horror – that was a case of publishing more authors than the fanbase could sustain, much in the same way as is happening to celebrity memoirs at the moment.
What is happening to SF is a negative feedback loop, reinforced by the way modern publishing works, as well as some potential cultural problems. And what were those cultural problems?
Point Two: Interesting Tangents / Questions Raised.
There were some really interesting points raised in the comments section. Richard Morgan was astute in pointing out:
The big zeitgeist shift that’s really coming into play here, as far as I can see, is the infantilisation of consumer society, and the death of challenge. There’s not enough space here to get into the many and massive ways in which modern consumer culture goes about this infantilisation, but suffice it to say that where the SF/F genre is concerned,the message has gone out, loud and clear, that in order to make successful artefacts of mass entertainment, you must not challenge your audience with anything that a 14 year old American mid-western teenager can’t instantly relate to. Exhibit A – the last Star Trek movie: the future and all it has to offer, crushed down in conceptual terms to fit inside the comprehension gap of a teenage boy from Iowa. What are the challenges facing this vast multi-species star-faring culture? Well, bullying from your class-mates, getting caught cheating on tests, sassy girls who won’t give it up, adults who doooooon’t understaaaaaand your teen pain, and big, stroppy guys with tattoos.
Actually, I think his entire comment does need to be looked at, since there’s some brilliant points for debate there. Risk – now that’s an interesting topic. Is fantasy too risk-free? I could certainly believe that, but I’d go on to say that risk isn’t everything to casual readers. I’m certainly glad Richard took risks when he came over to the fantasy genre, since it adds to diversity. How many other fantasy novels took risks, and what exactly does it take for something to be a risk, a challenge? And does risk-taking translate to poor sales performance?
And Laura said:
It is a boy’s club, indeed. Women in those stories are not exactly the way women look at ourselves today. There are too many sexist books in SF in some way, more than in Fantasy, where some women are capable to be witches or princesses or queens.
A simple enough statement, but could this be true?
When I said initially that more women read books, this is really, really important. They’re the one spending most money on books. It is as simple as that. I hate making a gender issue out of it, but If the majority readership isn’t interested, in a climate where there are said to be fewer and fewer readers, you need that majority to be spending money on the stuff you write or read.
EDIT: Photo Evidence.
The thing with 40k is – it’s the setting and the IP which gets people excited at first. It’s by far the most complex and tough SF setting in which games and novels are set. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it out-classes nearly anything an original SF author can do, simply because of the way it’s been constructed over the decades, and authors have expanded upon the background.
But let’s not get carried away – one franchise alone can’t save a genre, especially when the genre itself, and many in it, look down their noses upon it. Dan Abnett has sold a million novels, for example, but doesn’t get the coverage of original SF. And I’ve debated that on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog.
There are some questions that need asking, though. Does it matter if, say, Dr Who tie-in readers don’t buy other SF? Because it’s still sales, right? Warhammer alone can’t save it, but tie-in fiction as a sub-genre can certainly prolong things. And even when the original SF section does go, the media tie-ins will proudly have their own bay in the store.
firstly all fiction is subject to changing tastes and fashions. there maybe little you can do about it.
I’m of the opinion that fiction shouldnt be classified into genres for sale and it ghettoizes fiction and allows the flourishing of genre trash that is dull derivative (here is looking at you 90% of sci-fi/fantasy/crime writers) and not worth being published. this impositon is often down to publishers, look how easily they take something out of sci-fi/fantasy section when theythink its got a large chance of success (examples like the road or jonathan strane andmr norrell, t mararet atwood etc look outside the sci fi shelves hopefully not for the first time and you’ll see a surprising amount of it)
the genre lets all be tarred with the same brush rather than judged on its own merits and as the late, great Kurt Vonnegut said
“I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file-drawer labeled ”science- fiction” ever since, and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a tall white fixture in a comfort station.”
if you are going force classification on something i think sci-fi/fantasy/alt history all that sort of thing is better classified as the more encompassing conceptual fiction. which is being increasingly used by academics.
I guess 40K is a separate entity. From what you say it’s a tie-in that’s aimed solely at fans of the game in that it’s probably inaccessible (or merely not as rewarding) to people without the vast knowledge of the game. It sounds eerily familiar of american comics – although i guess 40K has a steady input of new gamers, unlike the ageing comic-crowd.
Not at all inaccessible, in fact. Or rather, no more inaccessible than any other fantasy or sf novel, in which you have to learn something about a world.
Mark the sheer depth of the 40K universe is such that you cannot compare it to any other fantasy or sf novel as you yourself noted above. Yes you can write a 40K story that sort of skims the surface and could therefore be shifted to another sci fi world with little effort but then it wouldn’t be 40K. The devil is in the very details that make it so loved. I’m struggling with this issue at the moment while writing a 40K short story that I want to be accessible to those not intimately familiar with 40K’sville while still trying to deliver an authentic flavour. It’s a real bugger.
I think people want a novel that they can pick up and read with little or no effort necessary to understand the world it’s written in.
I think this may be why sales are down, readers are getting lazier and the publishing houses are catering to it. That may be a little harsh but it rings true.
Hey Phillip – yeah, absolutely. That’s the classic issue I guess for writers of any kind of tie-in fiction, but it’s especially true for something of the complexity of 40k. Don’t let it deter you, though! 🙂
Phillip raises a good point with regards to accessibility but thinking about it, Fantasy actually thrives on “inaccessibility”. Fantasy is prone to spanning many volumes and this is known to actually help sales rather than diminish them. I get the impression that sci-fi still tends to work best as a stand-alone or 2-3 books. Maybe that’s because sci-fi is often more about the ideas rather than the characters/quest?
Mark: I entered the Black library xmas giveaway, so if I’m lucky I may be giving the 40K verse a whirl soon 🙂
I think the popularity of tie-in fiction in SF points to homogenization of the genre but I don’t mean that in a particularly crude or pejorative way. I just think that tie-ins work precisely because people like reading what is set in familiar settings with familiar characters. Experimentation and risk are negated when you see Luke Skywalker or a Space Marine on the cover. I’m not saying that all tie-in fiction is the same or formulaic either – I’m just pointing out that tie-in fiction succeeds because of its reoccurring elements giving readers a sense of comfort at the outset.
Tie-ins always have that advantage over original SF and I’m sure that’s no small part of their appeal.
I’m not sure that I’m as optimistic about the business implications for SF writers though. If tie-ins become the only game in town, that means SF writers have to either go it alone (eg. Cerebus the Aardvark) or stick to the pre-established canons (eg. Superman, Batman) and stop owning what they write. The words are theirs to some degree but the characters, the setting, maybe even their original ideas are not.
Maybe this is my own ignorance at how this works but I’m pretty sure Dan Abnett doesn’t own his individual contributions to 40k because the franchise as a whole is owned by Games Workshop. Isn’t it stipulated in the contract that he’s more or less getting the canon on loan in much the same way that comic book writers and illustrators don’t own the characters they create for? Is this a mistake on my part?
If this is the future relationship between SF publishers and writers, the comics industry’s sordid history should serve as a warning for how hostile this environment is to creators.
For those talking about new young blood – in this future scenario, they too will be increasingly sticking to tie-ins if comics are anything to gauge by. Because tie-ins will have better sales and better marketing resources by nature of their size. (Maybe they already do to some degree… Is Games Workshop out-marketing Tor or Gollancz for example? Or outspending them? Once again Mark, can you elaborate?)
If comic books are anything to go by, essentially new SF authors will have to confront the hard choice between selling 4,000 copies of their original debut or writing a Star Wars novel and selling a guaranteed 20,000. Once again, maybe this is already the case seeing as how tie-ins sell extremely well? I don’t know…
I personally find this forecast of tie-in fiction’s rise both gloomy and accurate – it has been successfully growing faster than SF if I recall and I don’t think it shows any signs of slowing. Perhaps I’m overly pessimistic or the tie-in publishers are much more generous than their comic book equivalents but, with respect to creator’s rights, new voices, and fresh ideas I think this future looks a bit dystopian.
(Tie-in authors: Please don’t take any of this as a slight to you or the effort you put into your work. I’m trying to phrase this post in a way that talks about the business realities of tie-ins, not their artistic merit!)
“Isn’t it stipulated in the contract that he’s more or less getting the canon on loan in much the same way that comic book writers and illustrators don’t own the characters they create for?” – Although a lot of this was before my time, to my knowledge, he’s actually contributed towards the canon. That’s the thing with 40k; it’s organic, and growing. Of course, he doesn’t own it, but backlist still earns for many tie-in writers, such as original fiction.
“Is Games Workshop out-marketing Tor or Gollancz for example? Or outspending them? ” Whilst I wouldn’t like to go into any detail or speculation, the short answer is probably a very big “No” in monetary spend. Black Library has got a very loyal fanbase; much to the envy of others, I’d guess.
As an aside, check out my guest post on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/11/11/genre-fiction-and-tie-in-fiction-%E2%80%93-a-conversation-between-mark-charan-newton-and-dan-abnett/
Really interesting discussion. Chiming in here to say that I agree that overall socio-economic trends have more impact than originally accounted for in this analysis. SF and fantasy are both escapist, but at a time when technology, progress, and science seem unable to conquer the challenges of the day, I find it unsurprising that fantasy literature (with magic, of course) to be more popular.
Also, while many mainstream literary authors have published science fiction, as has been pointed out (Cormac McCarthy, Doris Lessing, Mark Helprin, et. al.), I can’t think of one fantasy novel marketed as mainstream literary fiction. At a time when science fiction is becoming less popular, at least it’s more respected.
As anyone who looked at the io9 coverage on this topic will be aware, I’m of the opinion this is as more of a cultural issue than one that simply has to do with a changing marketplace.
And the same forces of technological zeitgeist that are responsible for changing the marketplace are the ones “killing SF” culturally.
Over the last 20 years technology has changed from being focused on massive, top-down, “great wonders of the world type projects” to things that are very personal and individualized.
Our machines are no longer about looking upward and forward as much as they are about looking inward, and satisfying our needs. We have a genuine relationship our devices that has involves a great deal more emotions then they once did. Advances in interface also make them more dynamic and innately metaphorical and mythological.
I think that all heavily favors fantasy for a number of reasons, although I personally still enjoy a good speculative story that can challenge my assumptions about the future.
But you can’t unravel the same kinds of narratives about about an iPhone as you did a rocket-ship, and climate change creates very different apocalyptic visions than the atomic bomb.
That said, someone will create something that will cause a resurgence of science fiction, it just won’t be SF as we know it.
Nate: I think there’s plenty of fantasy in literary fiction, but once it passes over that portal it becomes “magical realism”.
In terms of fantasy sold as literary, Strange and Norell was sold as a lit book in the UK, while I would be open to an argument for at least parts of Salman Rushdie’s magical realsm pieces being fantasy.
My 2 cents worth from a reader’s perspective.
I have been an avid reader of SF / Fantasy books for the last 20 years, averaging about 30 books a year. Over the years, I have noticed that my mix of the genre has moved from 50:50 to 75:25 in favour of fantasy.
The reason for this, I speculate, is that my reading demands have evolved over the years. Aside from an interesting plotline, I now look for better characterisation in the books and a grittier / darker tone. Definitely has to do with age!
What I have found is that fantasy books are able to satisfy these demands better. One possibility is that SF books spend so much time on shouting out the ‘big ideas’ in your face that they often rely on superficial characters. I find the most effective books not those that keep harping on a big idea but interweave messages through an engaging story.
Given that, my favourite authors (recently) are Erikson, GRRM, Mieville, Bakker, Jordan. There are still very interesting SF writers such as Morgan, Stephenson and Robert Charles Wilson. Oddly, I found that I liked Donaldson’s SF series more than his Covenant one! However, my ‘must-read’ fantasy author list is definitely longer than the SF one.
Although I am not female, I speculate that the deeper characterisations in fantasy may be what attracts women readers more…
Just an anecdotal observation here: over at the book cataloguing site LibraryThing, a year or so ago a “Top 1000 Fantasy Books You Must Read Before You Die” list was created. Nominations were taken, votes were cast, numerous books were cut, and the list was finalized.
A few months ago, a sci-fi counterpart list was begun. The problem? Members could only come up with a fraction of the nominations that they did for the fantasy list. (Granted, some of this was caused by the fact that some nominally sci-fi works made it onto the Fantasy list–Hitchhiker’s Guide, Book of the New Sun, etc.–but this only accounts for some of the difference.)
Anyway, this doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the ongoing debate, but it is interesting to observe how much more prevalent the fantasy genre is.
I want to chime in on the tie-in issue, first. I’ve read many Star Trek novels, an enormous number of Star Wars novels, and a few W40k novels. There’s not really an accessibility issue, and the level of these novels in general tends to be in the middle of the SFF range, although it’s the lower-middle.
That said, I don’t read very many tie-in novels anymore because I enjoy new and unfamiliar settings. Challenge is not dead yet!
I’m a young male reader, as well, which apparently puts me in the minority? Maybe so, maybe no. I have only my own experience, and none of those there fancy statistics to back me up, so I won’t argue about it.
I have to admit that a great deal more of my bookshelves are covered in fantasy than science fiction, but even so, I don’t consider myself as liking fantasy more. The problem is that there’s more fantasy on the shelves in bookstores. Way more. It’s actually pretty hard to go to the science fiction/fantasy section of my local Borders here in the US and find SF that isn’t tie-in fiction.
This is very sad, because I desperately want more good science fiction to read. (Or any at all, for that matter.) From where I sit as a reader, it’s the supply that’s lacking, not the demand.
I would like to address the use of the term “dark fantasy” on this blog. I understand that you have given your own definition, Mark, but the truth is, the definition of dark fantasy I am familiar with is not all that much in line with the UF now on the shelves. The current form of UF has to an extent sanitized the tropes and conventions it has borrowed from horror, and tends more towards the paranormal romance/noir side of the continuum. Yes, there are vampires and werewolves and such, but as unfortunate as it is, most non-human creatures in UF are more commonly used as love interests than threats.
Now, I have nothing against the current trends in UF, and I am quite aware I am simplifying the genre to an extent. But I write (with the goal of publishing) fiction that falls into the more traditional brand of dark fantasy/urban fantasy (eg, Child of Fire), as opposed to the PR/UF brand common now. “Dark fantasy” as I know it is not remotely like the UF now, although it gets squeezed in next to it, which means the UF readers don’t like it, and the other readers aren’t motivated to try it. Part of that is due to reader prejudice. Both genres have something to offer, and I enjoy both; but considering the focused, genre-splitter marketing that goes on nowadays, it’s just not healthy to be lumped into the same category.
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
My major problem with your articles is that it’s doing the usual thing of blaming external factors for the demise of SF, rather than looking at flaws in the subgenre itself.
A true analysis of the problems SF is facing these days has to, in addition to considering social factors look at the following problematic areas:
1) SF is generally badly written. This has been a problem for decades (see Asimov and Clark), where the “literature of ideas” label is used as sleight of hand to try to divert the audience from poor characterization, awkward grammar and composition, inferior use of conventions and voice, and a lack of humanist interest. In short, an excuse for a lack of the qualities that make good literature. And if you lose the “literature” portion of “literature of ideas”, you are left with ideas that are either quickly obsoleted by advancing knowledge, or are not that interesting in the first place.
2) SF Is still a haven of “Boys Club” reactionary ideas. Classic SF is about as unwelcoming to women as a strip club, and it’s attitude toward people who are non-white males is little better. After all, the classic SF story is one where the Great White Male lands on an alien planet, fixes the problems with that society through his superior intellect, and marries or at least schtupps the beautiful girl. If you look at modern SF output, one really has to come to the conclusion that things haven’t changed, and now SF is alarmingly behind the times in a more gender-neutral, multicultural society.
Or, as Alastair Reynolds put it succinctly, “Much of it is rightwing, reactionary crap.” Fix that, and you may fix many of the problems with SFs popularity.
It seems *so* counterintuitive that SF appeals to women (is less misogynistic) than Fantasy. One would expect that a future society would showcase gender equality, whereas the medieval hierarchy system fantasy glorifies almost never does. So, so strange.
But gender and science itself have an interesting relationship, as women are much less likely to pursue science careers and less likely to succeed in them when they do. (For *whatever* reason, this is a fact.)
Nate: that is indeed a contradiction, if the issue was really one of future vs. past societies. But then again, very little of either SF or fantasy is about academic worldbuilding. SF and fantasy cultures are actually ones that reflect the desires of their creators, so in SF you have an overabundance of male-oriented empires (How many actual emperesses are there in SF?) while the ostensibly feudal societies in fantasy are often more egalitarian than in real life. And of course the arguments for these cases tend to be based on the personal attitudes of the authors and fans as well, so you have SF fans arguing that it’s only a matter of natural science that men should continue to dominate future militaries and governments, while the fantasy writers justify themselves (assuming they don’t just say “I wanted it that way”) with saying that magic is a great equalizer.
Science fiction is dying because interest in science continues to be rare and seems to be fading among women. I have no statistics for women in science, or women reading science fiction, but as one (that is, I have a science major in college and read–and try to write–science fiction), I can say that I find few like myself, fewer still among the young bright women i encounter in my work. They are interested in making money for their families, and content with business and related degrees because that is where the money is. They aren’t interested in the question “why?” which is at the core of all scientific development.
I will caveate the whole argument: in America, perhaps in the west. I am assured (mostly by authors speaking at cons) that science fiction continues to sell phenomenally well: in translation, especially in China and the east where a population is discovering the wonders of the world, and where interest in science and interest in science fiction remain hand-in-hand persuits.
More in question for the future of the genre is: who is doing the publishing, and what markets can we science fiction writers still reach? I have been told often that the prospect, possibility, and hope of movies and other forums besides books ultimately determines what gets published in the book industry: Are the movie makers targetting China? Or are they looking for what sells in America and the west for the big box office hits?
The other question is more a statement of nerves. What does the lack of interest in science, and “why” mean outside the world of science fiction? I fear our genre may be the frog of economics and scientific advancement; the predictor of the future, and that future isn’t encouraging me to hope for publication of my science fiction novels.
Honestly? I don’t think interest in science has much at all to do with the decline in SF, especially so since actual science has usually been tangential to Science Fiction.
The real issue is that science fiction has been the domain of by and for white males of a particular political and social bent. As such, it’s no wonder relatively few women are interested in a subgenre of fantasy where they are generally treated as trophies or badly written stereotypes- assuming they are even present at all.
As for other countries, there’s enough differences in style that I doubt any general lessons could be applied. Planetes for example, would be unlikely to be published as an American novel since it doesn’t meet the Analog test (Slice of life in space? No guns? A woman without huge breasts who isn’t sleeping with the main character? Government agencies as *gasp* positive things? No way!). Nausicaa on the other hand, quite possibly could get published — as a fantasy novel.
As a woman who started reading science fiction and fantasy more than two decades ago, and who over the last decade has pretty much stopped reading science fiction, I can say definitively that my reasoning had nothing to do with disdaining order or reason and everything to do with finding a good story.
I read a lot of fantasy novels that are crap. A lot of them start off good and end up vaguely disappointing or downright terrible. Ah, but there were gems. Characters I related to, worlds that amazed me. I realized a long time ago that I got a lot more gems from reading fantasy than from science fiction.
Part of the issue, to my mind, is that science fiction is a genre written almost entirely by men. And as such, it is a vehicle for men’s ‘fantasies’ (not as in the fantasy genre). As often as not, what was on the shelves under covers of alien landscapes and space blasters 5-10 years ago was nothing more than misogynistic bullshit. As a strong woman in today’s world, I got over the two piece space bikini a long time ago. I don’t disdain technology. I work in both the IT and health care field with technology that would amaze the average person. I do disdain being told that even in space a woman’s place is between the sheets.
I realize not every work of science fiction depicts that bent, but enough do that it no longer seemed worth my efforts to wade through them to find something decent or even realistic in its portrayal of women.
Eric, Emmalyn, Arizela: you’re right on all your points. Many self-labeled “progressive” communities (not just SF writers/readers) show embedded biases towards Others that would make a Wahhabist cringe. Brief discussions of the disease, the first general, the second specific:
Is It Something in the Water? Or, Me Tarzan, You Ape
SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle
Well, the return of science fiction to infantile levels which a pimply youth can relate to: isn’t that how it all begun, with the pulp magazines from before Campbell changed the scene and kick-started the golden age through sheer willpower?
Yes, today, we are seeing a circle end its revolution and starting a new one. It must always go through the sexually frustrated payig customer: the teen, the ordirnary joe, the ordirnary jane.
Re the newest trends in clit lit books covers: the sadomasochistic eroticism, the high heels, swords and other phallic symbols which the heroines wield: is this not an absorbtion by the fair sex of the very same male pulp aesthetics from the start of the 20th century? The roles are reversed, true. Perhaps soon we will see a chick in a high heels holding a sword above her head, with two beefy males cowering at her feet, looking at a brain-squid the chick is defending them from, hahaha, illustrated by Francine Frazetta.