So I caused a bit of a stir. My editor called me enfant terrible, though only because I’m disappointed no one has said it yet! But to those of you who think I’m just some upstart only trying to hurt Science Fiction for publicity – well, if, according to my stats, a few thousand people are now talking or thinking about Science Fiction books in more detail, then that’s not bad at all, right? Right. Maybe you went away and spread the discussion further. Maybe you went out an bought some more SF novels – because hey, publishing is a business, and needs your hard cash to survive.
Did you think it was a useful debate?
No one has really said anything significant to sway me from my original thoughts, but here’s a a round-up of what some folk have saying. I’ll not comment any further, but send you over to their online districts.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many similar articles came out at the time, some decades ago, when the shelves were seemingly wholly populated by horror books with generic black covers. So often I’ve heard the claim that science fiction is dying, or dead but, every time, an attempt to nail down the coffin lid fails.
Science Fiction is not dying! Fantasy Fiction is not the future! And I can prove the fallacious error of Mark’s thesis with two compelling arguments. Firstly, I don’t want this to be the case. Secondly…. Actually there is no secondly. I don’t want this to be the case – but Mark is quite right. SF sales are diminishing – not by much, but they’re certainly not growing. And fantasy sales are booming. And hence, the genre I love so much is shrinking, and becoming less ‘cool’. Damn, I appear to have punched myself on my own jaw, and am now reeling and blinking.
I personally love Fantasy, and tend to read more of it than hard Sci Fi so this read pretty true to me. I think that in some circles of Sci Fi purists my blog would be really more about Fantasy and Hollywood versions of Sci Fi action than about Hard Sci Fi writing. I just write about what interests me and the other fans in my life. I don’t really bother worrying about labels – if I like it I like it. However, labels are pretty key in terms of where in the bookstore items are displayed, what kind of cover art is employed, and what the chances are that any given person is going to pick up that book to flip through. From a marketing perspective its pretty powerful stuff. And well worth reading about and considering.
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.
But if we’re looking at sales (which Mark says is the way to look at it, it being a business and all) and publishing schedules and space on those bookshop shelves, then I am inclined to agree with him, at least on my experience in the UK. Adding to that the point that magazine subscriptions are declining, and that the Sf crowd (for books) generally are aging, then (reluctantly) I can see Mark’s point.
I think that Morgan is right in blaming a zeitgeist shift but wrong in picking the one he does: lots of old timey SF reads like it was written for not particularly bright teens with very basic tastes in fiction and anger management problems (specifically, the kind that lead one to fly into a rage when presented with fiction that requires any kind of effort from the reader). I think there are two (related) problems: the future people used to imagine 50 years ago was wrong and the ones people, particularly Americans, can conceive of today are not ones readers find particularly interesting to spend a few hours in. We can tell this is true because readers are in general not choosing to spend a few hours in those futures.
Outward appearances would suggest that Mr. Newton is correct. Fantasy is the future, and SF is in a dieback. I do think that we are in a cycle where fantasy (especially urban fantasy is ascendant. I am not convinced that this is a permanent state of affairs. In addition, I think there will always be a market for science fiction, a significant market. Granted, the types of SF may change, just as fantasy has shifted significantly toward urban fantasy, but I suspect that authors like Stross, Bear, and many others will have sufficient readers to keep the fire alive.
Fantasy author Mark Charan Newton has some ideas about why sales for sf is flagging while fantasy is still going strong. He comes across as the extra who had to nod and duck out of frame when Claude Rains said “Round up the usual suspects.” We have literary types and Hollywood and “We’re living in the future!” and, er, women. (Because “Women matter” which I guess is supposed to suggest that women as a group read very little science fiction, or that sf doesn’t appeal to women. Or something. The author doesn’t make it entirely clear, stating that sf readership is falling and citing “More women than men read books” as a reason, leaving the reader to draw the conclusion. I know there are many, many women who read sf, but I wonder whether the percentages match the percentage of the reading public as a whole.)
These days, I suspect it’s wrong to even call sf a genre. It’s more of a culture set. Its styles and tropes, anything which might readily identify it, have been picked up by other genres, have been spun out to create yet other genres, have become in many respects a significant part of our cultural landscape.
The first point to make is that SF has never done as well sales-wise as the other subgenres of speculative fiction, namely fantasy and horror, certainly not since the rise of those two fields as distinctive sales categories in the 1970s. Dune is the biggest-selling single SF novel of all time, selling 10 million copies since its publication in 1965. Lord of the Rings, which didn’t hit the bestseller lists until around the same time, has outsold it by something like twenty times. The number of SF writers capable of hitting the bestseller lists, even in the ‘good old days’, has always been vanishingly small, and vastly outnumbered by those in fantasy and horror. This has not changed at all. This is of course related to the other point: since the emergency of fantasy and horror as separate fields, the number of authors in those fields and the number of books they write has almost always outstripped those of SF massively. In any given year the number of SF titles published will be a fraction of fantasy and horror, particularly urban fantasy at this time.
Now let me start by saying that I agree with Mark, except that I don’t think the disease that is afflicting printed SciFi is terminal. Seasons change, and so do the markets for any product. I am a firm believer that science fiction will reinvent itself in some way and rebound. I don’t see any product that can fully replace it for its cult following. One of the things that such a recovery will require however will be for those who write and promote it to understand the causes of the current slump.
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.
Also, the most recent prediction that SF is dying comes from Mark Charan Newton. Hasn’t SF been dying (because of women’s predominance in the book-buying marketplace/accelerating technological change/the rise of fantasy/the usurpation of central SF tropes by literary writers/whatever else) for decades now? Like, since the 50s? I remember once having a conversation with a professor of mine at the University of Denver. I mentioned doing some writing about SF and he said, “Huh. Science fiction. Is that still a going thing?” Not in a dismissive way–we talked afterward about some SF that he liked–but in the way of someone convinced that SF had once been interesting and now wasn’t any more.
There are likely more I’ve missed, but these were the first ones I came to.