Publishers say they have a hard time selling Science Fiction to the general public. These same people, the public not the publishers, might go to the cinema and watch the latest SF blockbuster but this doesn’t translate into buying SF books, mostly because they think it’ll be too highbrow or with too much scientific make-believe or even, gosh, real science in them. It’s either that or the belief that it would be very similar to the films that use the same label and rarely the two, outside of novelisations, will match.
As pointed out in last month’s editorial, there’s 14 sub-genres within Science Fiction at least and short of giving them all separate shelf space in bookshops, an inquiring reader might well find one sub-genre they like and never look at the rest. You can see the problem. That’s a wide divergence which also means there’s no precise audience. In other words, even SF fans don’t fit their own label, hence my comments last month that labels are far too imprecise.
Reading the late Frank McConnell’s book, ‘The Science Of Fiction And The Fiction Of Science’ last month, he made several points that sank into my head. The principle one being the difference between fantasy and Science Fiction is that the former is regarded as a ‘safe’ genre and the latter…er…unsafe or rather less predictable. This is a subject that I have raised before I read him but his time, there’s a different angle to be aware, especially now, when there’s fewer SF books being released.
Y’see, from my perspective, this makes me think that publishers are likely to re-think their strategies to get their audience, which is you reading here. In recent years, there’s been a sub-genre of romance mixed with Science Fiction to attract more of the fairer sex or rather so they could be put on the romance shelves as a sneaky way to introduce them to SF. I’ll let you decide the success of that regime as I haven’t seen many of those lately neither. Combine this with fewer bookshops out there and you have to either depend on reviewers who look beyond the names like we do or know what you’re looking for on the Net. It wasn’t sustained as far as I can see.
With an accent on more space opera, which by its very predictability tends to come over as ‘safe’, even the other dozen sub-genres are suffering a lack of new blood, let alone innovation, at the moment to attract the readers it attracted in the first place. How does one become a ‘name’ without developing a following in the first place? Innovation is going to vanish without it.
Even so, there is a need for the type of material that would appeal to the kind of people Science Fiction, including all its sub-genres, is designed for. That’s still you reading this. There are many aspects of SF that appeals to us but one thing you can be certain that doesn’t appeal is predictability. We like the twists in the stories we read that give unexpected turns. Science Fiction has a history of metaphor and reflection on our society which is often not seen as much as it used to be. It is reactionary and rebellious and the social demons it attacks. It might follow similar paths as earlier writers, but in this hyper-media world, there are certainly more options to explore. What does that tell you? We don’t like our Science Fiction to be safe. We like it on the edge. We like it unsafe! We like unpredictability and be surprised.
That surely must be the clue to further strategies. Science Fiction has to be shown to being unpredictable to leave readers unsure how stories will end. No safe happy endings although characters can be successful, which should still please some American publishers who actually prefer happy afters. To be unsafe has to be shown as a virtue and benefit than something to regularised. It’s something the other genres can’t provide. It makes SF different to other genres far more than starships and ray guns. Of course, we have some safe sub-genres but we can do far more and if even only some of the publishers read and take this to heart then we might again invigorate our genre.
Whether there are enough writers to do that without being deemed experimental is hard to say. It won’t happen overnight. For the paper publishers, it’ll probably take close to two years but it needs to be done.
If not that, what else? Science Fiction readers are very loyal to their genre but the turnover in writers and even major ‘stars’ developing as in the Golden Age hasn’t truly happened…yet! Then again, in the Golden Age, the works of these authors were often invariably short stories which were brought together into one author anthologies, something that rarely happens today.
What constitutes ‘unsafe’ is hard to say. It needs to be combined with the usual things like good plot and characters, whom you at least care about their fate. Not being predictable means looking at plot turns and not taking the predicted path. With all the fiction that has come and gone, there are still options open that can be pursued. The same can be said with the concepts. Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’ took the big dumb object to greater size. Anne McCaffrey’s telepathic dragons and Pern ecology took fantasy elements into the SF world. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ saga also played with people, ecology and empires. The appeal was their radical ideas. Some of this came out in the cyberpunk and steampunk genres but has never really sustained itself beyond the basic concept. It is the window-dressing for many stories than doing anything radical with developing better stories because they worked.
Writers need to push to do something different with the existing tropes. Originality still counts and will make you stand out from the crowd. Not all submissions are going to be successful but it will start the impetuousness and remind people Science Fiction is unpredictable. We need that ‘unsafe’ element back in our Science Fiction!
Being on the edge comes through a lot in our society these days. It comes out in the way people take to extreme sports. There is a place for it in fiction. None of the other genres can offer it the same way as Science Fiction can so maybe it’s time for the publishers to exploit this and make our genre unsafe once more. We certainly need it.
Thank you, take care, good night and seek the unsafe Science Fiction. It’s still out there.
Question: How do you make polka-dot paint?
Answer: You buy a tin of striped paint and dice up the contents to the desired size.
Question: Has water polo ever been called off for having a dry pitch?
A Zen thought: Is an addiction worth dying for?
Observation: Go back and watch the 1955 film ‘This Island Earth’ where the accredited scientist Cal Meacham receives the parts and instructions to build an Interositor. Even in the 1950s, it wouldn’t be that difficult to work out the functions of the device. After all, it has a TV screen and microphone and even solid state, couldn’t conceal that fact that it carried a pair of lasers and even the potential for self-destruct.
So, was it curiosity that made Mecham made it properly to see where it would lead rather than dismantle some functions so it wouldn’t be dangerous. With such an available option, it’s surprising no Hollywood studio has thought to re-work the film with modern day sensibilities. Even the Metalunan Exeter would be intrigued that he underestimated a human scientist but would have the right requirements for making a weapon suitable to defeat the Zagons
Don’t forget to check out the SFC Forum, from the links at the top of the main page, for where companies have their stands at this year’s conventions and for book signings. You don’t even have to sign in to get the information although it would be nice if you did, if only to express some opinion on the various surveys/polls that are there.
Beware Of Virus Attacks: December 2012, even though I hadn’t left an active link to my email address, it got solidly attacked and then blocked from everyone, including myself. By necessity, having a form of open contact to me comes as part of the editor’s job. I’m still seeking reviewers and new material so follow the paths through the website and go where no spam-bot dares. I’ve yet to see them write anything. Humans and aliens can apply, providing they live in the UK. Monsters need to prove they can read and write. We could do with some reviewers who like fantasy right now. Don’t be scared of the instructions, you’d be surprised how easy it is to learn. So, if you want to contact me, build these words into an email address: gfwillmetts at hotmail dot com I won’t bite, especially as I’m hunting for fantasy reviewers right now.