Saving Science Fiction

Warren Ellis has contributed to the debate about the slow, sad decline of science fiction as a publishing powerhouse with an interesting notion: that we should stop building ‘castles in the air’, as he says – ie writing about wild and wacky futures – but concentrate on the world around us with an SF writer’s eye for detail and extrapolation…because we are living in a science fictional age. Read more here.

That is, essentially, the premise of the TV series I’ve been developing for the BBC. I think it’s bang on the nose as a way to pull science fiction back into mainstream consciousness. But quite what all those people who love stories about Big Machines will make of it is a different matter.

The Slow Death of Science Fiction

SF editor Lou Anders is talking about the sales decline of SF – from about one third of the mass market in the 70s to around 7 or 8 per cent now.

One of his readers suggests: “the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories.”

The thinking is that movies and TV have colonised the more populist form to such a degree that SF books need to move into more rareified territory.

To me, that is not the answer, but exactly the problem. It’s like saying, ‘Labour (or the Republicans or fill-in-political-party-here) has so successfully colonised the middle ground, we need to become more extreme’…

The real problem for SF, in my eyes, is that too much of it is failing in the art of communication. It’s written by scientists, for scientists. Every time this charge is levelled, the Big Machine Writers always talk about not wanting to do ‘dumbed-down fiction’ – SF is the genre of ideas, they say.

But they are confusing the art with the delivery of the art. If you have a fantastic idea, surely you want to communicate it to as wide an audience as possible. That means developing forms of communication – in this case, story, plot, and, most importantly, recognisably human characters with human concerns – that will piggy-back the idea into the minds of readers.

By becoming more esoteric, SF will only go the way of the Western genre: a tiny backwater for specialists and nostalgia lovers.

The Age of Heroes?

Fiction is not disconnected from the real world.  This might be stating the obvious, but some people seem to think that books just get written, published and sold at the whim of authors and publishers.  But it’s possible to map out a correlation between trends in publishing and real world events.  That’s just common sense – we are all at the mercy of what’s going on in the world, and we unconsciously adjust our perceptions and tastes accordingly.

Fantasy and science fiction are interesting cases in point.  Fantasy has always been published to discerning tastes, but the great ages of commercial fantasy were in the late sixties, (slightly shading into the early seventies) with the rediscovery of Lord of the Rings and the Weird Tales authors with Robert E Howard’s Conan in the forefront; and in the late-seventies, early-eighties with books like Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant stories.

The first of those coincided with the rise of the Hippie movement, the Vietnam War protests and mounting disillusionment with elected officials.  The second coincided with cynical right wing Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, great fear in the waning days of the Cold War and even more disillusionment with elected officials.

The superficial reading would be that these were both times when the general public fled from harsh reality into the comforting and conservative arms of fantasy.  I don’t think that stands up, as people were regularly confronting the powers they feared in wide-ranging protests, not running away.  The common thread, in my opinion, was the deep need for heroes, in the mythological sense.  Champions of right (not Right) who could help make sense of the world.

Which should, by all rights, put us on the brink of another golden age of commercial fantasy publishing.  Politicians of all stripes are generally despised across most of the west.  With the events in the Middle East – a massive failure of elected officials (again of all political positions) that has caused a devastating death toll – and the weak-kneed attempts of politicians to tackle issues that really concern the public, like climate change, there has never been more of a need for heroes.  Sales of fantasy novels have declined a little in recent times (partly due to more widspread problems in the book trade).  I reckon a few good marketing campaigns could turn that around nicely.

Conversely, I don’t believe this is a very good time for science fiction, which has seen quite significant falls in sales.  We’re living through another industrial revolution.  Techonological changes are increasing exponentially, with the accompanying societal and cultural transformations.  People are burned out by science or blase about it.  They see its effect in every aspect of their lives, 24/7.  They (and I’m talking here about the wider reading market, not the dedicated fan) don’t want to spend their time reading about it.  Of course, SF isn’t just about science, but unfortunately it’s that aspect that the non-hardcore fan focuses on.

This is in marked difference to the past ‘great ages’ of SF (for argument’s sake, let’s just say the thirties, the fifties, the seventies) when there were bursts of scientific advance that left the public exhiliarated and keen to know more.  Has the real world techno-advance left SF unable to create a sense of wonder any more?  I think that’s possible.

But if I were a canny publisher I’d put my money on a horror resurgence.  With that same techno burn-out people are fleeing rationalism to the realms of the unconscious.  And with the terrors and instability out in the world, they want the more manageable terrors of the supernatural.  Yet at the moment, no British publisher (and few US ones) have a horror list.  That has to change, surely?