Fantasy vs SF: Who Let The Dogs Out?

Mark Charan Newton, actually.

Over on his blog, Mark has incited a firestorm with the posting “Why Science Fiction is dying and Fantasy Fiction is the future”, which has attracted fierce responses from Charles Stross, Richard Morgan, Adam Roberts and many others.

Here’s my response:

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 their 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.

Part of the sales decline is due to the intense, and accelerating, change in society, where communities are breaking down into increasingly small self-identifiable units. It’s something the music and TV industries have already wrestled with – there are no “rock” fans any more, but a vast number of tiny tribes that shelter under the rock banner. Viewing figures for TV shows plummet as the makers increasingly have to micro-target.

The challenge for the big publishers is how they’re going to build a business model that is acceptable to their shareholders when genres continue to fragment (in fantasy, say, to apocalyptic fantasy, heroic fantasy, magic-based fantasy, historical fantasy) with less and less boundary crossing and subsequently a lower ceiling of potential sales (ans: they can’t). It’s an issue that smaller publishers like Solaris and Angry Robot were specifically set up to tackle.

But in this area, I think, SF is better placed to thrive in the long term because its community is broader and more cohesive, and there is much more micro-boundary crossing to keep sales up.