But that’ll be up to us.
I tend to read both science fiction and fantasy from the opposite ends of the spectrum. I love new, avant garde, experimental (whatever you want to call it) literary SF and fantasy by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Iain Banks, Catherynne M. Valente, and J.M. McDermott. But I also love the classic pulp SF and fantasy of the Weird Tales/Amazing Stories era. I have a collection of Ace Doubles, and a small collection of pulp magazines from the 40s and 50s (and would love to be able to afford more). I read and love Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and A.E. van Vogt.
This week, let’s talk a bit about the latter group, and specifically in regards to science fiction as opposed to fantasy.
I’ve been hearing for more than a decade now about the lack of audience for science fiction. Fantasy in its various forms from Rowling to Tolkien has taken over entirely, and the average SF title sells a slim fraction of what any given imprint’s fantasy titles sell. If you ask the publishing world, science fiction is dead as fried chicken.
But what happens if you ask Hollywood?
Time and again any given year’s breakout blockbuster is a science fiction movie. What was The Avengers if not science fiction? How’s Gravity doing at the box office? And this is hardly a new thing. Some of Hollywood’s biggest money makers have been science fiction movies—the Star Wars franchise, anyone? The Matrix? Alien?
So what’s with the disconnect? Why aren’t science fiction titles leaping from the bookstore shelves?
I think I have the answer:
With very few exceptions, the contemporary science fiction novel simply isn’t fun to read. I’m as fond of the “big idea” SF novel as anyone. I did just identify myself as an Iain Banks fan. But I’m honestly having trouble thinking of a contemporary science fiction author who’s writing SF adventure, space opera, etc.
The Avengers was fun as all get out to watch. Are the SF novels being published this year anywhere near as fun?
And consider, too, that Hollywood often tries its hand at “serious” SF and there are some indie SF movies that I think are among the best ever, like Primer and Moon. But The Matrix got a much bigger audience than either of those movies. Why?
The Matrix had an underlying philosophical stance. It had a very Philip K. Dick-inspired sense of reality breaking down, that everything you thought was true was all an illusion. It was, on some level, “serious.” And it also had kung fu and Bullet Time and a really cool helicopter crash and robotic squids attacking an anti-gravity hovercraft, and all sorts of running around and jumping and shooting. It had action, romance, and humor aplenty.
One thing I don’t do is publically criticize other authors, so I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks in terms of the authors I might be referring to as having forgotten those three important elements to entertaining storytelling. But please stop asking me to choose between a compelling idea and an entertaining experience. Frank Herbert had an awful lot to say about the dangers of a single-resource economy in Dune and managed to make that case against the backdrop of a terrific adventure story with wildly evil villains, knife fights, and giant monsters. In the mid-80s William Gibson all but saved the even-then flagging genre with Neuromancer, which, like Dune, is a book to be taken seriously, but is also a hell of a ride.
If they can do it, why can’t we?
So here I am, out here shouting in the wilderness, hoping that not just authors but agents and editors too will hear the clarion call:
We want science fiction, just not the science fiction you keep trying to sell to us.
Don’t be jaded. Don’t think that a good story, well told, is silly or frivolous, or that no one can have something interesting to say while also actually having a plot, conflict, a protagonist, and other things that team up to make not a recitation of scientific or philosophical or political discourse, but a story.
I’ve been writing some science fiction like that, and some smaller publishers, like Tommy Hancock at Pro Se Productions, have been publishing it. Their anthology Six Guns and Spaceships, as well as the Hurricane Sandy relief anthology Triumph Over Tragedy, includes SF stories I wrote featuring space mercenary Dexter Willis—my very own space opera hero.
I’ve also seen some really fun stuff in the indie e-book arena, obviously set aside by those jaded old editors. The material is out there. If certain people stop ignoring it, and the reality of the marketplace, there’ll be hope for the old genre yet.