8Dec

Why SF Is Dying: The Follow-up Post (In Which The Author Defends Himself)

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.

But anyway.

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.

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About Mark Newton

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

82 comments

  1. Interesting points again but I’m still not sure your argument stacks up.

    If SF is dying how do you account for the fact that most SF authors sell more than most literary fiction authors? No-one is predicting the death of literary fiction. The proportion of literary novelists that make it into the sunlit uplands of the Amazon bestseller lists and Offer of the Week tables to those that dont is, I would bet, smaller than the proportion of SF novelists who make it into their own promotions and their own scale of success.

    Yes of course you can usually sell more of a successful literary (and as always I continue to use the term advisedly) or fantasy author than you can of an SF author but that’s about the size of the relative markets not a function of a dying genre.

    The fact remains that you can operate an SF list on a secure financial model based on respectable sales for most of the titles, strong sales for some and great sales for a few. In some ways its a model that reflects how publishing operated 20 years ago. And that’s simply because we don’t stand or fall by the latest supermarket deal or whether WHS have made one of our books Offer of the Week (we never get either) – we build our sales via Amazon who always give your long tail room to wag, Waterstones who have dedicated sections, retailers like Forbidden Planet who are ardent supporters of the genre and a fan base who are informed and can talk to each other like ever before. This is a support network that most mainstream lists would kill for (and are trying to emulate). And it is a support network that is, by and large, equally supportive of SF as it is of Fantasy.

  2. That’s a different comparison entirely; and I wouldn’t like to think that a lit imprint had the same sales expectations of a mass market publisher, and neither would their CEOs. And what exactly would you define as a “literary” novel?

    I think that’s my point again – that the model of twenty years ago: will that stand up against the massive changes in recent years? Abercrombie was certainly well-supported in WHS, and discounted well on Amazon. I know that my own publisher must have splashed cash for the £-off in Waterstone’s and Amazon. We all know those rate cards aren’t getting any cheaper.

    Yes their are technologies that do support backlist – Print on Demand, ebooks, and of course retailers like Amazon can support range – but how much air-time will backlist get as frontlist takes precedence, and the fees they charge publishers increase over time as their grip on the market increases. Or rather, in the future, will that long-tail economic theory be sustainable in a front-list obsessed culture?

    My only question is, in a book-world that has leant shockingly towards this frontlist culture (it is a different world to my days in bookselling), and given all the other pressures SF faces, how long can it last into the future?

  3. Oy.

    I strongly believe that what you have termed a ‘dying genre’ is not really anything more than a symptom of a changing industry (publishing).

    I predict that (whether SF is dying now or not) it will be at the forefront of the new paradigm of publishing, whatever form that takes.

    More “old” SF is available now than it ever has been before; more classic SF is being transformed and ‘mashed’ than it ever has been before. Relatively new authors on the scene are experimenting more than they have ever been able to before. Some are literally on the verge of leaving the entire publishing system behind.

    It may look like death, but is actually a transformation.

  4. 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.

    You don’t think the exact same thing is going to happen to Paranormal Romance (which is what I take you mean by Dark Fantasy)?

  5. Three small words to cure (or stroke) your angst, Mark, along with everyone else’s:

    Science Fiction Romance.

    Now for the necessary defining clause. As an reader and reviewer of sf, and a writer of fiction that cheerfully crosses boundaries, I define romance as 1) strong characters of both genders and 2) a large universe that doesn’t register as an intensive care unit or a prison. Think McDevitt, whose Talent for War may be one of the best science fiction romances ever written.

    However, whereas terminally boring and paper-thin cyberpunk and derivatives flood the bookshelves slated for syfy, SFR is considered the lowest of the low because it’s simply efflorescent with girl cooties.

    So try it, boys. You might end up liking it. Alpha males may get the admiration of other men — but beta males get the love of women. And if women buy and read 80% of fiction, their love is not disposable any more.

  6. Mark, aren’t the pressures exerted by the current bookselling model issues for all kinds of underselling book? If so, I’d suggest this aspect at least is a systemic problem, and not one best considered at the genre level.

  7. On an RPG forum I started a thread asking why fantasy is more popular than sci-fi. One of the posters directed me here.

    One of the reasons, mirrored by Richard Morgan, is that fantasy is simple. Magic is a MacGuffin. Anything you need to make your setting and story work, magic will provide. It doesn’t even have to be consistent the way science is. Which leads me to the next point.

    There is a growing anti-science attitude here in the US (I’m not sure how it is in the UK). Science today is most known for things like evolution and climate change, things many people don’t want to be true and the growing evidence in favor of scientific claims has caused a backlash against science itself and to a lesser extent science-fiction. Science is also complicated which can turn people off in favor of “bumper sticker logic” fantasy.

    I do want to separate science from technology. We love our technology and it’s advancing faster than sci-fi can cope. Remember the holo-cameras in Star Wars Empire? It’s conceivable that in a few decades we can have something better. The tech devices we have in the real world are better than what we’re dreaming up in sci-fi.

    I don’t think this trend will continue. There are always cycles. Fantasy may have hold for the near future but it too will ebb and sci-fi will rise again.

  8. Alverant, there’s a backlash against science within SF as well, illustrated by this statement from one of the commentators on a blog owned and frequented by SF reviewers:

    “There seems to be a common feeling with people coming into SF that you need to know real science to write good SF. Which is of course rubbish.”

    Hence, either fantasy (where, as you say, everything goes without need of thought or consistency) or lousy SF that doesn’t even stick to the rules that the author creates.

  9. Martin – worryingly, I think it’ll go the other way. There’s a lot of growth yet for that in the UK – and much of the audience is crossing over from standard romance fiction, which is why you’ll see them shelved next to romance in many Waterstone’s stores. Dark Fantasy is something different – I’m using it in the context of Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Magic Detectives and whatnot. They’re finding their niche together, and it’s pretty large.

    Athena – well, when you say SF Romance, which novels do you mean? I’m all for trying new things… But are you really saying that alpha males are of no interest to girls, in literature? What about Twilight?

    David – yes, of course, this is a problem for the rest of the industry as well. But I’d suggest that genre is perfect for this, because it has a heritage of loyal readers, and not transient ones which affect celeb biogs etc. It’s often said it’s recession-proof, for example, so I’d say it’s of particular importance here.

    Alverant – whilst I think you’re being rather simplistic about fantasy, I’d say it’s true for certain books in the genre. Yeah, there’s shit everywhere though. But anyone suggesting magic is a MacGuffin probably hasn’t even heard of Steven Erikson. And they should.

    But again, I stress this is something that’s outside of trends. It’s not about ebb and flow.

  10. Athena – “Hence, either fantasy (where, as you say, everything goes without need of thought or consistency)” – you’re kidding, right?

    I don’t know a single fantasy novel that isn’t internally consistent. The rules are set up at the start of the story, have to be abided by, and take *a great deal of thought* to create a system that is alien to what we experience in the world around us.

    I usually hear this from people who never read fantasy – the suggestion being that deus ex machina magic is continually utilised to solve story problems. That’s not usually the case.

  11. Athena, I don’t think that quote is a backlash against science. You don’t have to know science to respect it or to write good science fiction. What I’m talking about an anti-science backlash where science and scientists are treated like the enemy of all that’s good and descent. Yes, that does exist in SF (as CS Lewis Space Triology demonstrates), but sci-fi as a whole is more accepting of science and considers it a good thing.

  12. Mark Chadbourn – “I don’t know a single fantasy novel that isn’t internally consistent.”– you’re kidding, right?

    Lord of the Rings http://www.howitshouldhaveended.com/videos

    Harry Potter

    Robert Asprin’s Myth series

    Any D&D book

    I’d be more surprised to find a fantasy book that IS consistent.

  13. And here I am thinking that science has become a religion. It really has you know.

  14. Since I can’t word it more eloquently than he has I’ll just say that Steve Davidson has it spot on! The industry is changing not dying. I recently downloaded a sci-fi book to my Kindle that skipped out the publishers entirely. It is exceptionally well written and I think the author’s (Michael E Marks) mode of delivery to his audience is reflective of a possible future for sci-fi writing.
    The short stories that I have started to write are intended for “publication” on one of my blogs in a way loosely modelled on the webcomics concept. Sci-Fi in print may be on the decline and we may be living in a world where science fiction is slowly becoming science fact but I don’t think this spells the end of science fiction. It points to its metamorphosis. My hopes for the genre remain high.

  15. To all who replied to my comments: I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since the mid-sixties, as soon as my English became good enough to support the habit. So I know my SFF history and have written a slew of essays on the topics touched in this discussion — hence my occasional use of shorthand.

    As a practicing research scientist who’s also a published writer, I can state with conviction backed by evidence that science fiction and science are spiritual and literal partners. Most youngsters decide to become scientistts not after reading textbooks, but after reading SF (and/or biographies of scientists that fit epic and/or quest models). The last phrase of my award-winning essay, The Double Helix is “And though science will build the starships, it’s science fiction that will make us want to board them”.

    Which brings us to romance. Romance, by definition, means mystery and excitement. It can be exploring people or planets, weaving a tapestry or splicing a gene. Almost all of Roger Zelazny and much of Poul Anderson was romance and cross-genre, to give two older examples. Romance is a powerful undercurrent in speculative fiction, and a major reason why people read it. This is what I mean by “knowing science” — it’s the questing, curious mindset that matters, not the details which often change as our knowledge increases and paradigms shift. Reducing the word “romance” solely to reading about males with outsized pectorals is a disservice to all readers. Women don’t like alpha males much, by the way. They like rogues, rebels, outsiders. Which, you will note, fits Edward of Twilight as well as it did Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff.

    Regarding hard science, it’s interesting that the examples brought up against writing hard science in SF because readers (don’t) want to understand it — Higgs bosons, cosmic strings, multiverses — ignore the fastest-growing scientific domain which, incidentally, has always been the core of not just SF but all literature: biology, broadly defined (which includes psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc).

    SF/F is changing, as any vital concern does to remain viable artistically and economically. But it needlessly ghettoizes itself and its practitioners and devotees by insisting on every minuter subgenre divisions, and then asking who’s winning.

  16. Phillip raises an interesting point. How are sci-fi sales doing in the electronic market? It may stand to reason that young sci-fi readers are checking books out electronically. Even worse, they could be pirating it – which isn’t too far fetched. Maybe the young male market is undercover?

    As for the rise of “Dark Fantasy”, it’s only been the last 5-10 years that has really taken off. The fantasy genre was relativiely “stale” before that. Maybe sci-fi is just waiting for that (although going darker has been done)?
    Where does steam/clock punk fall? That’s a strong mesh of sci-fi and fantasy.

    Maybe we need to look to other cultures too. In Japan sci-fi and fantasy seem to do equally well – although it often appears everything sells well in Japan.

  17. So Science Fiction is all about alpha males and it ignores biology (which is apparently growing faster than any other scientific discipline).

    …okay.

  18. Jonathan, I would re-read those paragraphs more slowly if I were you.

  19. Fair comment, I apologise.

    Can you define the term “Romance” though? At least in the sense that you are using it. As It’s not a category that springs to mind when thinking about Zelazny and I wonder if you’re using it not in the sense of the modern genre but more in the sense that, say, Lancelot is a ‘romantic’ addition to the Arthurian mythos.

  20. The original definition of romance was a heroic quest — and the oral and written literature that described such undertakings. Among such quests was courtship of an unavailable woman, which became the focus of troubadour lays and later was channeled (confined?) into what we call today “romantic fiction”. So romance is a much larger domain than courtship, just as fairy tales used to be primarily stories for adults before becoming sanitized for children. The Icelandic sagas, which inspired both Wagner and Tolkien, are considered romances — and they influenced Anderson quite obviously.

    Interestingly enough in connection to your comment, Zelazny wrote a story titled “The Last Defender of Camelot”, whose hero is Lancelot. As a contemporary example, I consider much of Gaiman’s Sandman romance, by the old, original definition.

  21. So what would be an example of a non-romantic plot then? Would you say that modern SF was more prone to that kind of writing?

  22. Jonathan, I’m enjoying our exchange but I don’t want to hijack this thread by shifting the focus of the discussion. I’ll answer you briefly and if you wish to continue we can go offlist. As I said earlier, I’d rather we had no categories — or that we kept them broad enough that people didn’t feel pressured to write to fit increasingly narrow slots (“We’re interested only in stories of left-handed harp-playing vampire dentists in Edwardian London — but the approach must be FRESH!”).

    Much lit and genre fiction is non-romantic: for example, slice-of-life (The Forsyte Saga) or stream-of-consciousness (Mrs. Dalloway) novels. In my opinion, this applies to any SFF work in which worldbuilding trumps plot and/or that deliberately avoids larger-than-life characters or situations. Some Le Guin stories fall in this category, as well as more recent works, including cyberpunk ones.

  23. Athena –

    I was just trying to tease out some of the things you were saying further up, so thank you for bearing with me.

    While I may quibble with a lot of what you say, I think your underlying message is pretty much correct : The audience for genre literature punishes stylistic experimentation and rewards an adherence to traditional forms of story-telling.

  24. No-one is predicting the death of literary fiction.

    Actually, the death of literary fiction has been fodder for cocktail parties, breathless essays in magazines, and hand-wringing at symposiums for decades.

  25. I honestly enjoyed the exchange. The timidity and rigidity that you mention are rewarded not only by readers, but also by agents, editors and publishers, creating a lowest-common-denominator feeback loop (we need more Twilights! da Vinci Codes!…).

    A related problem is that an increasing proportion of writers and readers of speculative fiction read nothing but their own sub/genre. That kind of mental inbreeding doesn’t help inventiveness of either style or content. As for the selling side, surely there’s a middle ground between starry-eyed idealism and sole concern with the bottom line — which is shifting, courtesy of electronic media.

  26. Athena,

    Thank you for your responses. I understand about not wanting to thread-jack but if you go offlist (which I’m not 100% sure what it means) with Jonathan, I would like to observe.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “knowing science”. I was under the impression it meant having your stories correlate with what hard science says is possible or else it isn’t good fiction. I see the initial impression was wrong, but I don’t understand the way you’re using the phrase.

    There also was a bit of confusion in using the word “romance”. There’s the original definition you listed, the modern meaning (love), and the “romance” when you idealize something; like romanticizing pirates or other criminals. I wish there were better ways to separate the three definitions. Would you say that the space opera, sense of wonder, and world building aspects of SF are part of adding romance to the story?

    I agree with Jonathan about how sticking to formula is rewarded and trying new things are punished. It could be part of why SF is on the decline, it has fewer formula and universal concepts than fantasy. If a fantasy story includes elves, dwarves, etc there is the expectation of what those characters are. SF doesn’t really have that, at least not to the same extent. So it has to explain more which may turn off the reader.

  27. Alverant, going offlist means continuing the conversation by e-mail or private messaging. I agree with you about semantic clarity: romance is indeed a large tent as terms go!

    Space opera is almost always (original meaning) romance — quests, larger-than-life characters, life-and-death struggles… Scientific research is strongly romantic, especially at its forefront. Hence my shorthand “knowing science”, which corresponds to your “sense of wonder”. To know science means to know and be able to articulate/narrate its mindset — the curiosity, the sense of possibility and awe — not necessarily the minutiae that may change.

    However, just as it’s sheer sloppiness to have people going about in tennis shoes in a historical novel set in Medici-era Florence, it’s equally unpardonable to have a planet circling within the habitable zone of red dwarf sun and not have a tidally locked orbit.

    There are actually two overlapping definitions of hard SF. One is emphasis on technical/scientific details (aka geekery, also known as “How does this work, oh pectorally gifted Captain/Mission Leader?”); the other is scientific accuracy. Accuracy is a very relative term, though: almost all hard SF has at least one postulate that violates an intrinsic limitation — whether it’s space travel via stable wormholes or the ability to upload human minds into surrogate bodies (the premise of Richard Morgan’s Kovacs trilogy).

    So hard SF is less hard than it likes to appear, no matter how loud its protestations. Which, again, is less important than its devotees think. The quality of the imagination and of the writing craft in a work trumps all.

  28. Hmm…I think your insight into the industry is strong Mark, but actually I think you are over complicating the problem facing SF.

    I pin it on something much simpler…the Michael Jordan effect.

    That is the effect that one or a handful of ‘superstar’ figures can have on a cultural activity. Jordan’s superstar status pulled the whole sport into mass popularity. You get the same effect in all kinds of areas. maybe the best example in fiction is J K Rowling, who pulled the entire YA section from minow to giant in the publishing industry.

    The bottom line for SF is that it has been a while since it had a superstar. Gibson and Banks in the 90’s were the last ones to really reach star status, and most of the cyberpunk / space opera stuff on the shelves today is really just riding the wave they created. There have been a lot of authors mentioned in these responses (and many commenting) but I don’t see any who are threatening to go nova and take the genre with them. There are some good writers out there, but none of them seem to have that real star quality.

    Fantasy on the other hand has had some real stars in recent years. Neil Gaiman of course. China Mieville. Susanna Clarke and quite a few others. People whose work does something that genuinely excites people, and that excitement then spreads out to the rest of the genre they work in.

    One thing that tends to connect those superstar writers is that their work often redefines the genre they emerge from. It’s my feeling that most of the science fiction I’ve read recently has been more concerned with fulfilling genre expectations than redefining them. Maybe thats why the genre is flagging.

  29. Athena, going offlist between 3 people may be a bit much. But thanks for informing me.

    What you said about the planet and the red dwarf reminds me of something I read in a D&D worldbuilding book. If you want to have a campaign world with a methane atmosphere, any adventurers would need a breathing mask. But no one would go adventuring and risk damaging their mask. If they could breathe methane normally and there’s no risk involved, why have a methane atmosphere in the first place. Which brings me to my question, is it sloppier to have a planet around a red dwarf that isn’t tidally locked or have a planet around a red dwarf without justification?

    To what degree does an author have to abide by the physical laws? There’s this BBC sci-fi/comedy series called Red Dwarf where they just don’t care about the science. Technology can do anything if it helps the plot or gets a laugh. At what point should the science in sci-fi take a back seat and not be considered bad writing?

  30. Alverant, Jonathan and I haven’t continued the conversation offlist — so you aren’t missing anything!

    I don’t know which of the two red dwarf options is sloppier; it would depend on the focus and “timbre” of the story. Also, a fired-up explorer (or a fugitive on the run) would venture in a methane atmosphere with a mask, potential death be damned.

    I think that if you stop abiding by physical laws altogether, you’re really writing fantasy. Science is never the dominant partner in fiction, which is as it should be. Hewing as close to accuracy as possible and adding the occasional detail actually helps the story by adding vividness (“be specific”, as the writing workshop instructors intone) and that extra whiff of authenticity. When science gets sloppy to the point of endangering the reader’s immersion in the story, we’ve definitely entered the domain of bad writing.

  31. Damien – that’s a very interesting point actually. You probably work closer with those who are influenced by such things – do you think that’s the case with a lot of new writers, to have these heroes/icons? Is it a significant proportion of the readership that buys purely because someone is an icon?

  32. For validation of that idea (if not direct confirmation) then look no further than the Hugo awards. They’re now pretty much entirely defined by the status of the authors.

    I’d question Athena’s selection of superstars though. Banks in big in the UK but I was under the impression that he’d never really cracked the US and the same for Mieville. Laurel K. Hamilton could probably quite happily pay China Mieville’s annual income and keep him around as a butler.

  33. I think David H nailed it. The problems you point to are symptomatic of the entire industry and SF, as you seem to acknowledge at one point, is better equipped to weather these storms than many genre (because of the specialists, because of the fan network, because of ebooks etc etc).

    Why then is its death inevitable?

  34. This is a different storm entirely, however. It’s the first time in a long time that a safe niche is being eroded – precisely because this isn’t down to recessions and trends, it’s about how publishing now functions, the way buyers make decisions, the way books are sold to consumers. That combination, which dozens of more subtle forces.

    It’s a slow death, aye, and would obviously take years. But still a death.

  35. Hello all,

    I turn my back for five minutes, Mark and you start a rucus! 🙂
    I am a Joe Bloggs-middle of the road-bookstore buying- general public member. A dubious honour. Life at the moment is hard for us masses. No money, no jobs, the media constantly bombarding us with fear and portents of doom. SF as most people see it consists of what we see on TV. Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Stargate. SF for the masses. Even old school 60’s and 70’s SF, patterns begin to emerge. Ignore Star wars – different universe. But the others are all taking place in a time frame that we can all relate to. With gadgets that we could use (with a little training) and most have moral stories written in and modern feeling problems. All of which we the people see as unalien, too familiar, too close to home. We see all of this, and our own stresses in real life and most retreat a mile. Fantasy allows people to escape to a “simplier” time, with no morgages or other such problems. Something else SF does a lot of is focus on the wrong thing. Grand scale, the fate of a race or planet or society and huge wars. In our culture today, the individual is KING. Celebrity is everything. How much air time has been taken up by Tiger Woods compared to humanitarian problems? Fantasy gives the public heroes and villians. Individual characters. Some are quest novels. Fantasy breaks it down to the basic units. Tells the stories of the few not the broad brush strokes of SF. Fantasy allows the reader to escape, to analyse someone else’s flaws for a change whilst conveniently ignoring the readers own.

    This, like global warming, is a trend. Long term is always hard to predict, but nothing stays the same forever. SF will bounce back, in what form is up to the next batch of authors, but at the moment Fantasy is giving the public what it wants. Is it so strange that that would out stretch SF?

  36. Would it be fair to say, Mark, that you think “SF is dying” for reasons that don’t primarily have to do with the content of the genre itself?

  37. But Mark, there are quotes from the publishers in the 1930s bemoaning the fact that all the bookshops are interested in are frontlist bigsellers and that they fear for their wider lists.

    For sure the pressures now are even greater but the SF genre is better equipped to cope with this than, for example, Chatto, Cape, Bodley Head, W&N etc etc.

    If you really think that in the future we will only be reading Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and, if we’re lucky, Joe Abercrombie and Brent Weeks alongside our celebrity cookbooks and memoirs (though they’ve taken a massive dip of late) then yes I’ll concede SF’s days may be numbered (along with many other genres and areas of niche publishing). You really think this is going to happen?

    Because if you do you better turn off the lights now and make a head start for the hills. 🙂

  38. Hey Graeme! Some interesting points there, and I think you have it bang on about character-centric qualities of fantasy. (The whole character on the cover issue was debated heavily…)

    David H – it appears on this thread, I am, but in general, there’s a whole bunch of things also related to content which I’ll explain in a sec.

    Simon – No I don’t think that – but that’s because I think fantasy is pretty safe, as if dark fantasy. SF, as a category in the store, will die, but there will be SF elements in thrillers, mainstream fiction etc.

    Okay, to clarify some more, I’ll use an example from my uni days, when we looked at pollutants on plant growth.

    S02 has a negative impact on growth. So does NO2. But there’s no point studying them in isolation because the real world isn’t like that. The combined effects of the pollutants provided a huge impact on plant growth, in excess of the sum of the individual impacts. There was an interaction of both pollutants that produced, say, some emergent property.

    And that’s what’s happening to SF. Each of the individual elements are bad, but it’s the way they combine.

  39. I had a quick look at some UK based publishers that have both SF and Fantasy as part of their lists. Out of the three I quickly browsed, Angry Robot has released 8 books this year, while only two are SF; Orbit have released something like 75 books while only around 13 were SF; Tor UK released about 32 books but bucks the trend and has 18 SF books in there. Of course, these include both new releases and mass market releases, but the general trend is there: publishers publish more fantasy.

    Two that I haven’t got around to looking into yet are Gollancz (the biggest UK publisher of SF & F?) and Black Library (who take up a good percentage of shelf space in stores).

    Without new authors coming into SF and with publishers releasing such a smaller percentage of SF books compared to Fantasy, it will look like SF is outnumbered and shrinking.

    I still don’t thinkit will die though, because the SF releases from the publishers mentioned 80% is good/great SF, with only a few mediocre novels. There will always be good stuff to read, and if big named SF authors continue to have the sales they’re having there will always be hope for new and younger writers to break through and have huge success, just like fantasy has seen in recent years.

  40. Internetz ate my first try at this…

    “the SF releases from the publishers mentioned 80% is good/great SF, with only a few mediocre novels.”

    0_o

    You don’t really believe that do you Mark?

    My feeling is that, as the SACCAs suggest, a lot of the interesting goings on in genre are going on in the smaller imprints or outside of genre imprints entirely.

    Sure you might be able to cobble together half a dozen good and occasionally great works a year from the big genre imprints but it’s nowhere near 80% of their output.

  41. I doubt that SF as a bookshop category is going anywhere – in that context, ‘science fiction’ is welded to ‘fantasy’, and it would take a big cultural shift to decouple that pairing.

    If the science fiction classification did disappear from bookshops, though, I can imagine two main consequences: SF would come to be found on the general fiction shelves; and there would be less of a consensus over what the term ‘science fiction’ meant. However, both of these situations exist to an extent already, and would do so even without the current bookselling model.

    SF is not defined by its categorisation in bookshops; it will always be there, even if not in a section labelled as such. In that case, of course, it would need people to talk about it and point others towards works they may be interested in – but that much is needed anyway.

  42. I wouldn’t be too sure. There’s long been murmurs about splitting the section where it is into SF and Fantasy, and in crude marketing terms it’s a pretty simple split.

    If SF is reborn in the Buddhist sense, and lost in various other departments, then so be it. It would still have to die to get there in the first place.

    Of course it’s not defined like that anywhere else, but in book industry terms – in relevant, crude, basic terms – the terms (and classifications) that exist in order to connect with customers and sell more books, it matters.

  43. Oh, and Mark, interesting you mention Black Library… 🙂 I’m delighted you don’t have a snobbery to tie-in fiction. BL is rare in that it has the opposite balance of SF and Fantasy compared to the rest of the market. The 40k books outsell the fantasy setting, but this is largely down to the popularity of each of the games. 40k is more popular, simple as that.

    As for the Heresy books, they’re huge sellers – one was the 8th bestselling SFF title in the UK last year.

    Now here’s a thought: what does the rest of the publishing world (Simon?) think to tie-in fiction being the saviour of Science Fiction?

  44. Jonathan – I was only referring to the imprints I had looked at: Tor UK, Orbit & Angry Robot. I can say quite honestly that the SF books released by Tor UK are enjoyable to me personally, while I’ve only read one of Angry Robot’s two offerings (Winter Song – it was quite good), and about half of Orbits, all but one I’ve been more than happy with.

    There may very well be interesting stuff going on outside the major imprints, but you don’t see them on the shelf in a bookstore for your average book buyer to see. I’m trying to follow the point that Mark has made about presence in book stores, and if it’s not there (or easily accesible on sites like Amazon) then the chances are they won’t have that much success in the marketplace.

    The point I am trying to make is that, in my humble opinion, the quality of sci-fi novels is there for the casual reader to enjoy. The problem again comes back to the % of SF books in relation to fantasy and urban fantasy that is on the shelves and the fact that publishers will want to publish what sells, so SF’s presence will more than likely shrink before it grows again (which I am certain it will).

  45. Mark – I definitely don’t have a snobbery towards tie-in fiction, in fact what I’ve read this year has shwon that it can be just as good (and often better) than original fiction. And I don’t just mean BL (although the W40K books are just immense), I’ve also read some Torchwood, Dr Who and Star Wars novels that have opened my eyes to what is on offer.

    And it’s good to hear that W40K is the more popular of the two lines – but how can that readership have their eyes opened to other SF? If that can be done then it could very well boost SF sales across the board.

  46. I’m really pleased that you’ve brought up Black Library. I dared not mention it for fear of triggering someone’s snobbery over tie-in fiction. I do believe that Black Library will go a good way towards preserving the genre. As a fledgling writer I am inspired by the 40K universe. Because of the setting? Yes, but primarily because of writers like Dan Abnett (‘the master’ in my estimation) who bring that whole universe to coruscating life. They also frequently challenge Sci Fi stereotypes and to my mind take real risks that challenge their readers. Before I started writing I only read Black Library books but was advised to read elsewhere for inspiration and to broaden my horizons. I’ve got to say that my experience of other sci fi is a pretty mixed bag. I think that Black Library puts out such quality that I’ve gotten a little spoiled and, believe it or not, become a bit of a snob about non tie-in fiction! Tie in fiction offers a, generally, highly developed setting within which to work. I admit that this is a two edged sword but there’s no substitute for the depth of achieved over many years and many authors explorations.

  47. Perhaps an interesting development is how SF seems to be merging with lots of other genres. At one end you have books like The Road which is SF masquerading as literary fiction, and then you have fantasy novels like Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains and Ken Scholes’ Canticle which blur the boundaries of SF and Fantasy.

    Is it that SF has become so popular in our culture that it’s hiding in plain sight and that the general public is willing to accept SF in all types of fiction so long as you don’t mention it by name?

  48. Aren’t you involved in Black library, Mark? It seems odd/fatalistic how you preach the death of sci-fi when the company you are associated with prroves to be the exception to your rule (although I know you said that space opera doesn’t count).
    Other posters made a very valid point of whether the WH40K market could be hijacked. I wonder if that market reads non 4oK books too?

    Also, while I think Dark fantasy is great – I don’t see it as safe. It basically only has two fates 1) The market becomes flooded and Dark fantasy becomes as generic as “traditional” fantasy has. 2) It has to become increasingly darker in order to be perceived as “Dark” becoming an increasingly specialist market, unless people’s tastes become darker. Judging by the response to “The steel remains” (which i enjoyed), Darker fantasy will shrink the readership.

    Lastly, I have to commend Mark for using plant ecology/chemistry as an example to defend his argument. The scientist in you lives on!

  49. A handful of points in no particular order…

    * Westerns have come up several times here. It’s worth pointing out that there’s still a Western section in most US chain stores. Will it be there in ten years? No idea. Probably not. But its presence goes a way toward demonstrating how very niche an audience major bookstores can and do cater to even today.

    * Tangential, but relevant: those looking for an SF writer doing something new and getting buzz for it might want to check out Time’s Top 10 Books of 2009.

    * Given that we’re debating the likely fallout of a merciless publishing environment, I find it a bit odd that this conversation is so framed by brick-and-mortar bookstores, with only passing reference to Amazon as a sort of external pressure. (I mean, hell, a lot of people would argue that the bookstore itself isn’t long for this world.) You don’t have to jostle for shelf-space online. And this can have a positive impact on an author and even a genre’s in-store presence; it gives riskier, niche-ier books a more relaxed public environment in which they can slowly (or quickly!) garner attention. The hardcover of The Windup Girl didn’t sit on too many bookstore shelves, but the paperback will. You’ll see Bacigalupi’s forthcoming YA SF novel on some of those table displays. The internet makes it easier for the market and ultimately bookstores to support a given niche, and its role in the market is only going to expand.

    * For all its fans’ whining, SF enjoys a comfortable amount of play in college courses. This is perhaps more relevant than it seems at first: it’s another point of exposure for new readers, and it means substantial and semi-regular sales for certain titles. You’re not going to cultivate a healthy genre on college courses alone (though entire continents of the book industry sustain themselves there), but it’s another thread in the weave.

    * We’ve not even touched on genre’s place elsewhere in the world. This is huge. Manga is the most popular section in one US chain. There’s a hell of a lot of SF (and fantasy!) in manga, and there’s a hell of a lot of crossover, both potential and actual, between its audience and SF/Fantasy’s. China’s SF market is absolutely staggering. We may not be reading Chinese SF right now, and we may never read much of it, but few would have predicted that manga would carve out its present market share ten or fifteen years ago.

    * I say this playfully, but one might use most of your arguments to suggest that secondary-world epic fantasy is slowly dying. Just have a look at the Amazon listings! Of the top ten bestselling fantasy novels, only one is epic fantasy, and that’s the Jordan/Sanderson. Even into the top fifty, all you really get is Butcher, Goodkind, and Tolkien. Just because you can name a few strong-selling authors–two of them dead!–doesn’t mean the genre is surviving in the long term. The last few epic fantasy films dramatically underperformed, failing to earn sequels, suggesting that we’ve shifted out of that morally duotone Lord of the Rings war-era zeitgeist–I don’t think there’s been even one epic fantasy film this year, and I’m not aware of any on the horizon. The wild popularity of Twilight, Charlaine Harris, etc signals that the audiences who matter are interested in idealized versions of themselves living in a fantastic version of this world, not pseudo-medieval mythworlds. With the cultural landscape shifted and contemporary/urban fantasy on the rise, epic fantasy is in a death spiral.

    And, you know, that’s all rubbish…

  50. I’m not entirely sure that the decline of westerns is a fair comparison. It’s glib, I know, but the “wild west” no longer exists and hasn’t done for a long time a d anybody that had even an indirect link to that time is long dead, meaning western tropes no longer strike much of a chord with readers. Science, however, continues and has a much broader range (being abstract – surely what is depicted in SF is the technological results of science?)

    SF may be losing its way just now, but to predict its death based upon the now troubles me. We could, for example start developing powerful technologies based on bio-engineering and, in the same way that the nascent network revolution was described (with a similar, pleasing feedback loop) by Gibson lead to an equally important author writing the first identifiable “biopunk” book leading to a new explosion in SF.

    Also…your timescale is understandaly vague. Slowing sales won’t necessarily mean no-one is writing SF. I realise you are talking about the commercial prospects for SF. Who is to say that a growth in ebooks won’t effectively kill all publishing in the mid to long term? Text is easy to copy…