discussions genre stuff

Why Science Fiction Is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is The Future.

There is no Schadenfreude; I take no pleasure in holding this viewpoint: the Science Fiction genre is dying.

Don’t spit your coffee at the computer screen just yet. I’m talking predominantly in terms of sales over time. I know all you belle-lettristic types don’t like to think about anything but Art, but units-shifted is a factor that matters. It is what shapes the literature industry.

If you speak to a buyer at a book chain, they’ll most likely explain that sales of of SF are declining significantly, year on year, whereas fantasy fiction is doing very well. There are fewer SF bestsellers. As the old wave of SF writers move on, there are few able to take their place. There are more fantasy successes, and a constant wave of new writers who are being heralded as the next big thing. It seems readers can’t get enough of fantasy fiction.

So here are a few points of interest on why this may be the case. (Note: when I say SF, I’m talking about Space Opera, Hard-SF etc – the core genre.)

1) More women than men read books. Women tend to read much more Fantasy fiction (especially Dark Fantasy) than SF. Without wanting to appear syllogistic, these two facts can’t be ignored. They are driving forces behind sales of literature, and it is shaping the genre landscape. Women matter.

2) Culture has caught up with our imagination. Where SF used to speculate, we can now read more amazing things in New Scientist. There is as much sensawonder in an Apple conference as there is in a novel. Major industry figures declare the next decade will see massive rates of change in science and technology. So how is it even possible for a novelist writing near-future SF to stay relevant and ahead of the real world?

3) Literary fiction is eating up SF. Mainstream fiction possesses a parasitic attitude to SF, whilst contributing very little to the celebration of the genre. Jeanette Winterson, Toby Litt, Margaret Atwood – the ‘literary’ brigade are taking SF ideas, recycling them as something new, packaging them for mainstream tastes. And more importantly, dragging the ideas to a section of the bookstore or readership that aren’t likely to visit the SF section. Those sales don’t get categorised as SF sales – just general fiction. So mainstream fiction is leaching sales, and the latter is just as important in terms of the genre’s sustainability. Without sales, there is little long-term backing from bookstores, and eventually publishers. (Publishing is a business, and imprints must react to patterns in sales – else they go bust.)

4) Modern Fantasy readers have grown up on the films of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings – two massive culture-shaking franchises. This younger audience has taken to the blogosphere with aplomb, and run with it. The community grows daily. Just look how many more fantasy blogs and forums exist over those for SF. SF has not received anything like this monumental influence in culture; it hasn’t received that huge burst of media to create a ferocious hunger in the masses for more. There are SF films by the bucket load, of course, but they’ve not had the same impact on genre literature.

Yes there are SF authors who are doing well – of course. Scalzi is doing a wonderful trade at the moment, and taking over the world. Alastair Reynolds has recently signed a million pound book deal (though in reality, over ten books, and for World rights which can be sold on to numerous territories, this isn’t as reckless as you’d first think). And good on him, he’s a great writer. But try not to focus on the few – I’m talking about the genre as a whole, about sales year on year – over a vast period of time. Don’t react immediately and give a list of great authors – I’m sure there are loads, and I hope there are more – but have a think about the wider, gradual changes.

Other authors, such as Richard Morgan, have come over to the fantasy genre (a move which I whole-heartedly welcome) and I wonder whether this was to expand his fanbase; was there knowledge of a glass ceiling to SF sales? I’d be interested to know.

So there you go. I’ve said it. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that Science Fiction is dying slowly – but just how long it takes to go is anyone’s guess.

UPDATE: My response to some of the comments.

UPDATE: Photo Evidence.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

145 replies on “Why Science Fiction Is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is The Future.”

If you’re speaking of SF as a marketing category (which it seems to me you were, in your post), Ian’s comment that Fantasy is a younger -marketing- genre is bang on. It -is- post Tolkien, and in terms of the marketing and shelf-space awareness, if it had only been Tolkien, fantasy would probably have remained in the general fiction section.

But… Terry Brooks. Del Rey put that book on the map by printing it in Trade Paperback (which, for fiction, was extremely unusual), where it was #1 forever. It was the Terry Brooks post-Tolkien pastiche that created the secondary-world fantasy category as a publishing category/bookstore cateogry.

And I would argue as well that there -is- a second wave of secondary-world fantasy writers: Abercrombie, Lynch, Erikson, but that this sub-genre is still identifiable, as Ian pointed out, and still well-defined in those marketing terms. I think the only reason he pointed this out is because you were at pains in your original post to clearly define SF as a publishing/money category, not as a literary/historical designation. So for the purposes of -comparison-, calling fantasy as a category more homogenous and post-tolkien is, vis a vis marketing, correct; defending it as a literary/historical category, given the way you framed the original thesis, doesn’t make much sense.

I would, however, say that the Dark Fantasy designation, which is also distinct from the TF designation, is very, very large in the US at the moment.

That said, ANATHEM hit #1 on the NYT list as well, and it’s clearly SF. Where would that figure in your diagnosis? My sense, as a North American bookseller, is that UK SF is alive, well, and very interesting. NA SF has a harder time finding a publishing home in comparison.

I would really quickly point out that the major reasons for concluding that Science Fiction is out and Fantasy is in is due to the rabid followings that movies such as Twilight, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter currently have. While it is true that in the bookstore, there are more fantasy books than science fiction, that was true in the 90’s and I assume the 80’s, yet we didn’t consider that to be the death of Science Fiction. In that case, blaming the death of a genre on the advent of a few major authors (Rowling and Meyers) seems premature, especially since they have only become prominent within the last decade.
In the 60’s and 70’s, the situation was essentially reversed, with Asimov and Heinlein dominating the speculative fiction scene and no one writing popular fantasy. Is it possible that rather than Science fiction dying it might be on the lower end of a cycle? Meaning that rather than it dying, it is simply waiting for a champion, someone who can write popular novels the way Heinlein, Asimove, Bradbury and Clarke used to; the way Rowling, Meyers and Martin are currently championing fantasy.

Or is there an actual problem, caused by a change in the zeitgeist? Is there now a generation who doesn’t believe in rationality, and both prefers and believes in myth?

Shit like this is another reason sf is struggling. Saying people who don’t read science fiction don’t “believe in rationality” is not the way to win them to your side.

And fantasy readers believe in myth? Please.

Self-aggrandizing, socially-clueless remarks like these drive people away from the genre. Not kidding. It’s time for sf writers and readers to stop acting as though reading RAH or John Scalzi makes them a Paragon of Rationality and a Hero of Cultural Progress.

Hi Mark,
Interesting article, and I’m wondering if eventually those folks who love pure Sci-Fi will end up with the same reading group as those who love Westerns.
Of course, I’m saying this as a born-again western lover. I’m a teacher who’s noticed less and less boys reading in high school and more and more girls.
More girls read fantasy in my classrooms than boys, and neither read Sci Fi. This is not just an anecdotal one shot understanding, but a continued questionnaire I’ve given to students from Grades 10-12 in five different high schools over almost ten years now.
Boys, that do read, are reading more about criminals, sports, and modern day violence.
For now at least, Science Fiction is most definitely in decline. Those who say differently are attempting to ignoring the obvious.

“Who are the up and coming Science Fiction writers that we should be reading/supporting/exploring? Who are the next hot things in SF?”

Jaine Fenn and Gary Gibson have both gotten off to a great start to their careers. The Gollancz team are very excited about Finnish author Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut SF work, due in a few months. Tony Ballantyne and David Louis Edeleman are both new enough (2004 and 2007) I think to qualify as good new authors in the field.

Thanks for the welcome, Mark 🙂 Much appreciated. Not sure how long my visa here is good for, but just to echo Simon, yes, I’m definitely planning to write some more SF once I’m done with the two sequels to The Steel Remains.

And come to that, I’ve been told (rather shirtily in some quarters) that I’m still writing SF, that The Steel Remains isn’t fantasy at all. Which I think speaks rather pertinently to the question of where exactly this divide lies (if it exists at all), and if it’s quite as clear cut as you’re suggesting.

Some off-the-wall points about sales:

1) It’s true the Fantasy market is larger than that of SF as a whole, but that’s a sweeping glance at the situation. Once you get down to a more granular level, you’ll see plenty of smaller selling practitioners working in fantasy whose sales are probably very similar to those of your average SF writer. Certainly, I know a number of very fine fantasy writers who aren’t exactly largeing it on their royalties.

2) It’s probably no coincidence that said authors are more often than not working in the (for me, anyway) more edgy and interesting corners of the fantasy field. Big Fat Mainstream Fantasy trilogies sell a shit-load, sure – but so do Big Fat Mainstream Space Opera sequences. You have to compare like with like, I think. And while established fantasy brands like Tolkien or Brooks may shift more than equivalent SF brands like Dune or Star Wars, that doesn’t mean that both sets of brands are not in rude health, relative to their market size.

3) Mainstream literary writers (on average) have pretty low sales, especially when compared with a genre like crime or romance – but no-one thinks literary fiction is dying as a result.

But back to this divide, which frankly I’ve never been able to make much real sense of. Is Moorcock’s High History of the Runestaff – with its flame lances and intelligent machines – fantasy? Is Dan Simmons’ Ilium – with its honest to goodness Greek gods – SF? Is The Steel Remains either? Fucked if I know.

Which is not to rubbish the original point. I do think you’ve spotted a real enough dynamic here – but the dynamic isn’t about the ebb of (nominal) SF against the flow of (nominal) Fantasy. It’s just the rise of a Widescreen Blockbuster tendency in the whole SF/F domain, and a great lurch towards Branded Repetitive Product – which, let’s face it, is really no different in any genre or field of entertainment these days.

I was in my closest Waterstones today and while looking at the SFF shelfs (which, as I mentioned earlier, where mostly dominated by fantasy in all its various sub-genres) I had a good look at what authors were on show and how the fantasy/sci-fi authors compared.

The first thing to say is that there are many more new fantasy authors on the shelves than sci-fi authors, and fantasy was generally represented better. Of the sci-fi books that were noticable were the Star Wars/Warhammer 40K/Doctor Who/Torchwood tie-in novels that took up about 15% of the total shelf space. After that the authors that had the most representation were Douglas Adams and Peter Hamilton, while Neal Asher and Gary Gibson had the most new books on show.

As for fantasy, the were at least two or three books for all the popular newer authors (like Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss, Newton) while there were plenty of fantasy books from more established names.

I think that fantasy has generally had a lot more rising stars and higher profile releases over that last few years compared to sci-fi. There are usually three or four fantasy novels touted each year as being the new one to look out for, while in sci-fi I can’t actually tell you which new author has had the same hype (at least online).

Gary Gibson is one author to breakthrough more recently, although only after a couple of novels, Neal Asher is becoming more popular and getting more attention and Jaine Fenn has had good things said about her two recent books. However, it’s the bigger authors that still get more attention when their new novels come out – Peter Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M Banks.

Personally I think that there is a lot of sci-fi to enjoy out there – Eric Brown, Marianne de Pierres, John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell to name a few – but these are from more established authors. Where are the new generation of sci-fi writers? Fantasy seems to have hit the nail on the head with getting plenty of new authors published, but no such luck for sci-fi. I think this is the major reason in the apparent reduction in sci-fi on the shelf and the reason that fantasy appears to be doing so well.

I am looking forward to a breakthrough sci-fi author that gets both advanced publisher support and positive internet discussion like fantasy authors of late have received. Will that day come in 2010? Who knows…

Nice post, great comments. As a sci-fi writer about to have my first novel published, I just want to add a couple of things.

I think the suggestion that science has become too hard has legs. Boldly going in starships to fight killer robots is much more fun to read than plots around weird quantum effects (cf Gregory Benford’s ‘Great Sky River’ books compared to ‘Cosm’). But the problem here isn’t entirely that SF readers aren’t willing to go along with the Greg Eagans of the world, but also that publishers and agents are becoming increasingly scientifically illiterate and cut off from ideas at the leading edge. For Pete’s sake, many of them still insist on paper-based submissions and workflows!

In trying to sell my books to agents and publishers, I’ve found they are very focused on classification into genres. Reactions I’ve had include publishers trying to steer me away from writing sci-fi and pressing me to re-write sci-fi books so that they could be re-classified as thrillers or literature. If this is widespread, it could easily account for why there don’t seem to be many great new SF writers emerging.

@ Mark Chitty, yes fantasy has much more shelf space than science fiction, but then this has always been the case, at least going back to the emergence of the modern fantasy ‘market’ in the late 1970s. Starting from a few years later the multi-volume likes of Brooks, Donaldson, Feist and Eddings were seizing shelf space at the expense of the SF authors, and the bulk of what SF could be found on the shelves was tie-ins (back in those days, mostly Star Trek novels; Doctor Who books were in the kids section).

Today the situation is pretty much identical, save that there is now the encroachment of urban fantasy seizing shelf space from both (fortunately, a lot of UF can be classified as horror, which in Waterstones anyway has its own separate section, otherwise this problem would be much worse).

Seriously, I would like to know when this golden age when the shelves in bookshops were brimming with original SF novels took place, because I have no recollection of it. The only difference between now and when I started buying SF&F books as a teenager in the early nineties is that the quality of the fantasy fiction now taking up the majority of the shelves is actually somewhat higher, which is also good news.

What we need then is a Harry Potter or Twilight phenomenon in Science Fiction. We need a child character in an adventure story that is clean for children but also entertaining for adults, where the charcters start young and grow throgh a series of books, alongside the readers.

Or something like that.

Those scientific advances you speak of can be used to trigger a whole new geneation of cultural and scientific projections like the one that started the SciFi genre in the first place.

Sorry to get Harry Connolly riled…of course I love fantasy and respect its sophisticated readership. I couldn’t resist mentioning the Twlight story, because it’s so shocking, but perhaps it was a mistake to do so in this context.

I agree with Richard that the divide between SF and fantasy isn’t clear cut; and that big fat space operas (Dreaming Void!) sell just like big fat fantasy epics.

But I guess what intrigues me is whether we can judge anything about the changing zeitgeist from what people read. (Answer: yes we can, though it’s a difficult process.) Westerns were once a dominant genre, and they embodied a whole set of moral values that weren’t necessarily all valid. Then – the Western genre died. Why? Is it because no one believes in ‘white hats’ and not drawing first any more?

And in the days of Asimov and Heinlein there was an excitement about science, and about space, that empowered the genre. But that ‘space fever’ has, I think, gone, or dimmed, in society as a whole.

Now – what is the prevailing zeitgeist? Is science trusted as it once was? Do people CARE? Is science the solution, or the problem? Why, in our reading, do we hanker after medieval-type societies with magic, but without iPods?

Gee I don’t know, but it sure intrigues me.

Myth resonates far longer and far deeper than does technology in the human psyche. Fantasy is made up of the stuff of myth. SF speculates on future technology and and or an alternative present. Dawkins and his ilk are doing their best to eradicate it from the human psyche but you can’t. One can talk of synapses and chemical reactions in this area of the brain etc etc but the imagination remains a Dr. Who tardis in a human skull of incomprehensible complexity, multi-dimensional expansiveness and of light and shade.

Blame Dawkins and the scientists in general, the most prominent of whom will insist on making it seem they have figured everything out. To some science has answers. To a scientist as fundametalist as Dawkins there are no other answers. When a fundamemtalist like Dawkins insists that science has the only answers I am inclined, like Keats, to drink to his destruction, as Keats drank to the destruction of Newton for explaining the rainbow. Wilful Dark Ages ignorance perhaps? Nah, we have fundamentalist growth in religion and science for that. Keats likely had his tongue partly in cheek, while it wasn’t tasting glorious poetic beaded bubbles winking at the brim of that cup, and one must remember Newton spent much of his latter life in the pursuit of alchemy and spiritual revelations thereby. Bet that doesn’t go down very well with Dicky D. But it is precisely because Newton speculated on such fantastical things that makes of him one of the greatest scientists of any age. He tapped into the imagination in a way that science has so far failed to label and bottle in dogmatic ideological formaldehyde.

We live in an age in which anything sniffing of the spiritual is mocked (in the UK, while belief in anything religious in the US is doubly mocked) as the pursuit of fairies in the garden. As a fantasist myself (in more ways than one) but not a dogmatic beleiver this almost philosophical scientific fascism compels me not to turn away from but to run towards those fantasy faeries in the garden of imagination of all kind and to the pursuit of creating them.

Maybe it’s a zeitgeist thing. And also maybe where Martin went in the 90s others have followed. (it happened to horror which has enjoyed a marginal revival of late but much of that, a large part in fact blurred by it being driven by urban fantasy being seen as horror too). Martin himself does maintain that be it SF/Horror or Fantasy as a tag it is all fantasy or fantastic lit to him as it was in his childhood mind when he read and was inspired by the mags he bought.

Science insists on repeated verifiable data and fact, SF does not (other than the internal consistencies it creates in its speculative world). As long as the imagination has not been explained as the mere workings of chemicals and electrical impulses to help propogate the human being because that’s what species simply do, things like love etc are mere chimeras to keep that going, as long as it hasn’t come to that, labelled, filed and boxed, SF will be around a while yet. But SF has taken a rather big knock. Sometimes it turns out that advances in technology are not necessarily a good thing for human beings. Scientists will argue that this is simply all part of the ongoing process of human evolution, that certain avenues are tried and processes will be rejected or advanced upon dependent on their efficacy for the species. All that other stuff, including this debate is meaningless in the face of that, an elaboration of atoms and electrical impusles and synapses. As technology expands in the communication realm human communication on a personal level seems to contract in inverse proportion. When kindle etc reduce fiction, literature, poetry to text (the DS 100 novels thing has some Shakespeare and will find you selected passages of a book to suit your mood, this reduces choice and quirkiness, not expands it – unless you are a virtual illiterate, what next shuffle play novel titles on your kindle – it ceases to be an intellectual pursuit and becomes one more kind of human distraction in text form, no longer the fiery imaginative focus it has provided the human mind/psyche for a couple of millennium) we will just about be done. Become one with the worshipped slurry of data and technological mammon we all swim in now.

Getting back to myth. Fantasy thrives on it in a way that SF primarily does not, it is a component not the primary core. Is there anything in that myth? Is it a link with something beyond us or merely an erroneous interpretation of awe-inspiring natural phenomena? Like a child I cling to the belief that if we finally settle on the latter we are a dodo as a species. Ultimately I don’t want to know because if I ever do it will be the day I stop writing, I suspect. That fantastical play cavorting with fairies in the garden and a grown man, too!

this growth in the Science is God movement may have a seeping effect upon human consciousness. That we are/have figured most stuff out, the compulsion to immerse ourselves in speculation in that realm lessens, SF suffers. Concurrent with this is the slurge of recent technological advances in the communications realm. Not perhaps coincidental to each other. Clever stuff mankind. Clever stuff indeed. Quite an advance. You Dodo.

Where are the new generation of sci-fi writers

First, let’s just be clear that this is an unhealthy obsession. Second, it would probably help if you were a bit clearer about what you mean by “new generation” and “established authors”; you group Eric Brown (first novel 1992) and Tobias Buckell (first novel 2006) together in the latter category, for instance. (And from Adam’s earlier comment, Tony Ballantyne was publishing well-received short fiction from the mid-nineties onwards.) Third, if you really want a list, lists exist.

In fact a series of appalling typos in that long post. Clearly I am wilfully unlearning these new fangled communication skills as I type…

And I ought to add that if the writers in any genre are good enough then the genre is going to perpetuate itself. It is talent and vision that keep fiction alive, like any art form. If the vision is there then the form will survive. That doesn’t mean it won’t be struggling constantly to keep its head above the slurry line while swimming in a swamp of text shite, though.

Philip’s zeitgeist point is well-made (and Harry’s reaction a bit OTT obtuse to say the least) – but I don’t think this has very much to do with a disenchantment with science or the rise in the levels of complexity in current scientific advance (except maybe as minor secondary factors in a more general malaise).

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.

Now there’s no actual reason why this dynamic should put fantasy out ahead of SF, but sadly it does seem to. I’ve lost count of the reviews I’ve had for The Steel Remains, bad ones and good, that have contained the solemn warning this book is not suitable for children. Well, true dat – but I can’t once recall anyone thinking such a warning was necessary when I was writing SF. So somewhere out there is a demographic (or a marketer’s fantasy of one at least) that seems to think the default setting for fantasy is that it’s, you know, f’kids! And increasingly, our entertainment overlords seem to think that we are all – or at least ought to behave like – kids. Thus what can be sold to kids as well as adults is privileged over what makes serious adult demands on the consumer. Everyone’s looking for the next J K Rowling. No-one (or no-one who matters at the million dollar threshold anyway) is really looking for the next Tim Powers. Ian Macdonald, Peter Watts, Jeff Vandermeer – shit, you got to be a grown up to get with those guys. Let’s stick with the hobbits and teenage vampires, eh…..

Actually the more I think about it the more I’m inclined to refute (with due respect) everything Mark has posited with his first post.

I think he is overplaying the significance of certain market trends (which undoubtedly exist but which, by definition, effect only temporary declines or prosperities) and ignoring other market data (the relative success of most SF novelists compared to the relative success of most literary novelists).

And then at a much more visceral, emotional and anecdotal level I look around me at (variously, at random and in no particular order and by no means exclusively and duly aware of Mark’s request not to come back at him with a list of authors) Morgan, Stephenson, Stross, Hamilton, Smith, McAuley, Brett, Robson, Harrison, Fenn, Asher, Ballantyne, Palmer, Reynolds, Roberts, Gibson and so on and so forth) and simply cannot parse this as a dying genre.

What Richard said. In other words dumbing down, but you can’t call it that because you might damage someone psychologically. I’m with him on the Star Trek film, too. Rebooting my arse. And then there is 2012. $250,000,000 but they still couldn’t afford a decent story writer and some decent dialogue. Atrocious. The people who are producing books in the genre realm seem intent on the bulk of them replicating the infantile concept of those types of films.

This starts slightly on the latter topics here (apologies, but I think that threads that mutate are always more fun!)

I think that the point latterly made about the relentless dig for the lowest common denominator is well made.

In my early teens I was reading stuff like Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Iain Banks and Huxley. I do accept that there may be a certain level of gittish precociousness within that (and, having rather foolishly poured boiling water on my hand whilst making tea, I make no claim to intellectual superiority) but I do despair for the horizons of many of my reading colleagues. The point about the stuff listed there is that it is all adult and I don’t feel embarrassed to read it now.

My deeply unscientific study of 20 to 30 somethings reading habits does lead me to some rather sickening conclusions. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations which have essentially happened thusly: “z0mg!!!111 Have you read the new Stephanie Meyer? Best book EVAAARRRR!!!11” (until recently it was Harry Potter.)

Now, there is nothing wrong per se with reading and enjoying that stuff, but, HP is emphatically a kids book and the Twilight books are penned by a twee and prudish 30 something. Buggered if they constitute the pinnacle of English letters.

Now if it is this market that we’re (not me, I can’t write!) trying to break into…why, and who cares?! I’m sorry, for now, whilst Adam Roberts, PAul McAuley, Ian Mcleod, Richard Morgan and Kim Stanley Robinson are publishing (to pull some names from my bookshelf) I have plenty to keep me SF’d up for now. Hell, I’m sure pre-Gibson, the genre was considered moribund.

Sick to the back teeth of genre chat anyway (for one the end of “genre” would stop me having to defend SF to people who are actually less well read than me, but have a quaint middlebrow disdain for it.)

I’m with Michael Chabon when he suggested that if he had a bookshop he’d have two genres: “good” and “shite”; in fact, forget the “shite”. Pretty sure he put it better than that, but you get the idea.

Wow, I go away for a weekend and this is what happens.

I’ll try to absorb it all before I get into some of these comments. I dare say it’ll need a follow-up post. Anyway – thanks for stopping by so far, everyone.

I guess no one here is aware of the fact that plenty of women watch (and love) shows like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Firefly, etc, but won’t touch a SF book if their lives depended on it, unless it comes with such a high recommendation from someone we trust and respect that we reluctantly give it a shot. I read a lot of SF in high school and stopped when I got to college, and have never really gone back. (In fairness, you couldn’t pay me to read fantasy in the elves/wizards/etc vein, either, though I’ll give more modern varieties a shot.)

In my case, I think I just outgrew/overloaded myself on the stuff in high school, but I can only speak for myself. Regardless, there’s either a gap in what’s actually on offer in the current SF book world and what we get on TV, or there’s a gap in our perception of what’s on offer, and nobody seems to be addressing it. As a result, at least from where my friends and I sit, SF on paper remains largely a boys’ club, and no one seems all that interested in bringing us into the fold.

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.

Now, I do not think is a matter of growing up. Many grown-ups are reading SF and Fantasy, because there are more adult books in those genres in our days than before. If people like Saphira does not read SF anymore is maybe they think is a teenager-thing to do that, which is false, of course, but believable.

On the other hand, Fantasy has a lot of female writers with the ability to connect with female readers, maybe… It is just a perception.

Actually there is one other thing. Until recently the only Sci Fi I read was…well, anything written by Dan Abnett and co at the Black Library. Since I started to write I’ve expanded my horizons and am discovering all sorts of good, and awful, sci fi writing. The point about it being a boys club is well made, however, Laura’s observation that female characters in Sci Fi are outdated is one that I feel Black Library challenges regularly. Their books set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe are full of inspiring, strong female characters. Unfortunately the nature of tie-in fiction makes them somewhat inaccessible. A shame really as I’ve always felt that aforementioned world is worth the effort to understand. Games Workshop need to market their work to a broader audience. In my recent experience the standard of writing is remarkably high.

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.


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.

And, as you say, all the while SF was there. (As was fantasy)

Hi Neal, Simon.

I’m not sure Horror is the best comparison. I feel that was simply a case of the traditional over-publishing for the demand, perhaps in the same way celeb biogs are going at the moment. For SF, it’s been around for decades, and there are many other subtle forces at work.

I’ll mention in the follow-up post that my original thoughts were not to do with past trends at all; my thoughts were very much about the way the book industry operates today, perhaps even the way buying decisions get made.

All part of a cycle, Simon.

I do wonder, when people talk about the death of SF, what they think happens to all the readers of that genre? Hopefully I’m going to be around for another 20 or 30 years and I’ll want my genre fix. And there are plenty of people younger than me reading it. I’d agree with the contention above if I thought everyone reading SF nowadays was a coffin-dodger, they’re not, and SF is not dying.

Actually, Laura, that’s an interesting question. And the problem is that as, nominally anyway, a man I’m not sure of what could (or should) be done about it.

Most of the stuff I read (in all genres) is written by other men and I get on fine with that. Mind you, I don’t always feel that I need identify with the main characters, it’s enough that the characters don’t feel one-dimensional. This isn’t to say that I deliberately exclude female authors, it’s just there don’t seem to be a lot of authors in any genre that I am interested in reading.(although Margaret Atwood has been persona non-grata for me since I read her claim not to write SF in an attempt to distance herself from the genre – please see Michael Chabon “quote” in my comment above, in spite of the fact that she clearly does. This is a shame as I enjoyed the extremely SFnal The Handmaid’s Tale.) I should also point out that this isn’t because I’m some emotionally underdeveloped man-boy, my tastes in, well, anything don’t tend to run to the hyper-blokish at all.

So, I think the question I’m asking is: does it matter that SF tends to appeal to men? It would be interesting, certainly, if there were more Ursula Le Guins or another Joanna Russ writing but should we worry overly much? Wild stab in the dark here: I’m going to stick my neck out and suggest that romantic fiction is written and read overwhelmingly by women, but are there posts on the Internets worrying that not enough men are catered for…?

I suspect – I don’t know, not being a woman – that many of the female characters in books by men that I’ve enjoyed could be considered, to greater or lesser extents, to be sexist. I wonder if they actually are, or not? Are they perhaps just written by men? Hell, it’s hard enough to put oneself in another mans shoes…how hard is it to reflect accurately what women think? And then there is the issue that, just as not all men are emotionally stunted buffoons (Jeremy Clarkson does not represent us…OK?!), not all women are the same.

Shorter question…would a man be happy with the representation of men in romantic fiction and does it matter? So, is the portrayal of every women in SF well done, and how much does it really matter?

I wish I knew!

Surely there is no finer sport than ramming sharpened stakes into the cages of the SF community!

And yet, there *is* an SF community, with reasonably definable boundaries and consumption patterns. In its natural habitat, the SF reader will graze easily across hard SF, space opera, military SF, literary SF, wherever both science and fiction combine.

There is no fantasy community, and this, I think, is where your initial premise breaks down, Mark.

There is NO connective tissue between what has been branded as urban fantasy and secondary world fantasy, anecdotally little crossover in readership, and generally very little love lost between the two camps. Urban Fantasy has more in common with the romance genre (always a big seller) and the romantic fringes of 80s horror, and is a better fit under the Paranormal Romance banner. Yes, there are fantastic elements, but horror is a sub-genre of fantasy, but we don’t lump that in when we discuss this issue.

Strip out “urban fantasy” and there’s not such a great disparity in sales between fantasy and SF. But that still doesn’t leave a fantasy community. There are a lot of authors writing broadly tales of the fantastic outside the secondary world area – the majority are never likely to have big sales (the area they write in – the huge sweep of the imagination – is too unfocused to be branded), but they have a consistent readership. Many readers of secondary world fantasy aren’t hugely interested in them, and often see them as part of a different, unnamed genre too.

What we now call secondary world fantasy is the only true fantasy community. It’s the area where the biggest sales lie because it’s built on the twin foundations of Tolkien and gaming, which provides a constant stream of new readers through the gates. (There’s probably an academic paper to be written on how many authors in this field based their works on the teenage and twenty-something gaming inventions…) More importantly, it has boundaries defined by the community itself.

So really when we talk about SF vs fantasy, we’re talking about SF vs secondary world fantasy. That undercuts the initial argument even more, because I was told by a publisher very recently that sales of secondary world fantasy are also in decline – slow, certainly, at the moment, but consistent. Fewer secondary world fantasies are going to be bought. The argument then becomes, which is declining faster – “fantasy” or SF, and that’s not a very fun argument at all.

Hi Mark. I’m certainly new to the sport, but I’m not sure if I can make it a full-time hobby!

Surely the huge online community that discusses all facets of fantasy – just a quick look at bloggers denotes this – contradicts that. There is, to them, no distinction to be made between Secondary World fantasy and, uh, normal fantasy. 🙂 I don’t know one single blogger who merely blogs about Secondary World fantasy.

As for overall Secondary World sales, I suppose when you take out Giants like Pratchett and Rowling, who aren’t producing as many books, and the infrequent output of Feist etc., then yeah, it might appear like that – but that’s only because those sales are immense.
And knowing how many some of the recent new authors are selling – Abercrombie, Brent Weeks, etc. – which are very significant units being shifted, far greater than their SF counterparts – it seems so hard to believe.

It comes down to this..People are not as willing to sit down with a scifi book and have the patience to read it .They want an easy read and Fantasy (whether you fantasy authors like it or not) is easier to read than sci fi.People in general want quick and easy entertainment without really testing the ole brain matter.But sci fi films will alwayz generate more interest.Within those 2 hours there are strong deeper plotlines and so people can take all that in without losing interest.But saying this once a Sci Fi film comes along that generates the same sort of attention that LOTR did then maybe sci fi book sales will increase.Fantasy nowdays is really directedat a female audience where women dont tend to want too deep a read.Lord of the Rings ( the film) was disectedinto pieces and made into a romance film.When Avata comes out Sci Fi sales will be up.Whatever is the trend at that time dictates.

Laura seems to have misunderstood my comments, so let me clarify.

I did not say that I stopped reading SF because “I grew up.” I said I suspect I just overloaded on it in high school and had had my fill by the time I got to college. Sort of like my friend who ate way too many olives in one sitting and now can’t eat them anymore. I’m not making a judgment call, certainly not saying SF is “a teenaged-thing” (I’m not even sure what that means!). And as I said before, I can tell you that none of my female friends are reading SF, but I can only speak for my own reasons why.

Thinking about it some more, I think that my general feeling is that SF I see on a screen is more accessible to me than what’s in print. On screen, you have Kara Thrace and Zoe Washburne, which present me with images of women who kick ass just as well as the guys and aren’t afraid to admit it. You have Laura Roslin, who’d easily lose to Starbuck in a fight but is able to go toe-to-toe with Bill Adama. You have a sweet girl like Kaylee who is naive about many things but also knows more about an engine than most guys would. You have Aeryn Sun, who I sure wouldn’t want to cross under any circumstances whatsoever.

If the same sort of characters are routinely appearing in print SF these days, my point is simply that nobody is pointing that out to women who buy books. I know there are some female SF authors out there, but I also couldn’t tell you who they are. As I said before, at the very least, there is a perception gap between what many women think of when they think of SF and the reality of the modern SF world.

I admit that my idea of SF is almost certainly outdated because it’s been so long since I read any, but who has made an effort to keep me up to speed? And why aren’t my friends reading the stuff either? It may just be because you don’t get to look at Jamie Bamber or Nathan Fillion in a book, but I think that it’s more than that. I think that publishers (and to some extent, authors) are perfectly content to keep the boys’ club image in place, and that they do so to their own detriment.

To Saphira: Maybe it is time to update your readings 😉 In general, I agree with you regardig the “boy’s club”. Richard Palmer asks if it does matter to consider the way SF attracts female readers. I think it is matter, if you think this way would increase SF sales (because “women read more than men”). In this sense, SF books would have to change the way famale characters are developed, the way they are inserted in the plot, and if they are really important for it. Female characters in SF books are usually too plain. We need more complex psicology, more multi-level personalities, more… interesting characters. Saphira talks about the way female characters act in modern SF films. They are modern, more interesting characters for us as women.
Lucy, I do not think women are more interested in “easy” plots and I do not think modern Fantasy is “easier” than SF. That is an easy prejudice. In fact, most readers, male or female, are interested in plots including romance, action, violence, sex, etc. (in different levels) and any writer has the challenge to attract them. If a “science” plot has the elements to attract a wide audience, will succeed. If not… well, will be forgotten. That’s all.


I can definitely say that there are strong female characters in both the scifi that I have been reading and writing. Shadow of the Giant in the the Ender series by Orson Scott Card has a couple. Some book I read fairly recently, that I can’t remember the name or author of has a strong woman character as the main (the cover has snow, a cashed spacecraft, and a woman helping an injured man). The Honor Harrington Series by David Weber has a stronger representation of woman in it than LOTR does.

I’m not trying to list exceptions, I’m just pointing out that the perception you speak of might not be entirely deserved.

I did get a chuckle when I read your post though. I remembered a line from that one female SGC soldier in Stargate Universe, “I can and will kick your ass.”

Mark, just got to say thanks for instigating such a fascinating discussion. Just having a quick browse I’ve been astonished to see so many authors whos work I’ve enjoyed chipping in to a discussion that is both serious, but also full of good natured ribbing. Superb!

Regarding SF/Fantasy in bookstores: Up until August this years I worked for the (sadly soon to be defunct) Borders UK. trying to strike the right balance between the two sub-genres so they got equal display space was always a challenge, but we had reasonably good sales across both. There was a slight trend over the last year to sell more Fantasy titles, but I put this down to a greater number of books being released in series as multi-buys. Brent Weeks ‘Night Angel’ trilogy is a perfect example. Despite this SF remained a strong sales presence from tie-ins. Who did well (particularly when a series was airing) and Black Library’s range of 40K novels sold spectacularly well. Especially their range of omnibus’ and Horusy Heresy line. If nothing else I would suggest that media tie-in books serve a valuable purpose of maintaining the interest of those who want to read SF that they are familiar with, and in engaging younger readers who may be encouraged to try some more varied SF. The Halo books do this nicely as well.

So SF is perhaps not dying, more suffereing a mild case of sniffles.



I never said I was up-to-date on current SF. I’m just explaining why I haven’t been. And don’t you think it matters not for sales but because we do have women who kick ass in daily life and they should be represented in current fiction? Don’t you think the teenage boys who devour SF to the exclusion of all else should be presented with realistic female characters?

Bill, I take your point, but isn’t it interesting that you are mostly pulling out a few examples, saying a book has “a couple” strong female characters? Wow. I’m overwhelmed. 😉

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