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February 1999

Letters on this page:

  • John Ordover has a theory
  • Bob Sabella and Chris McClelland take issue with Victor Lieberman: they like the reviews
  • John Ordover responds to Kevin Lauderdale and invites further input
  • Aline Dubois needs to contact representatives for John Campbell, Lester del Rey, et al, for a French anthology
  • Victor Lieberman likes the ads in Locus better than the reviews
  • John Ordover responds to Doug McKinney about what SF readers want
  • Kevin Lauderdale responds to John Ordover about media tie-in novels

    Dear Locus,
         Okay, Iím doing a little outreach myself, and a friend of mine came up with an interesting theory on why the same people that are buying original fantasy and media tie-in books are shunning original SF.
         It has to do, he suggests, with suspension of disbelief. A certain demographic grew up watching TV SF and hearing fairy tales. They experienced the Trek and SW and swords-and-dragons worlds before their ďdisbeliefĒ motors really kicked in (if weíre honest, weíll admit that to many of us, Bugs Bunny and Kermit the Frog are ďrealĒ because we met them before we were really firm on what was real and what wasnít). But their Trek and SW connection doesnít flow over into other science fiction. When it comes to other SF, they have the same level of suspension of disbelief as someone who has never experienced SF before.
         If my friend is right, perhaps part of the sales problem is that too much science fiction today assumes that youíve already read lots of other science fiction and the authors and publishers arenít focusing enough on the ďsuspension of disbeliefĒ aspect.. Or perhaps authors are assuming, reasonably enough, that because of the popularity of Trek and SW, the same level of SoDB isnít necessary, and it turns out it is. Certainly if you look at books like Jurassic Park, the novel spends what strikes a long-term SF reader as a very old-fashioned amount of time on explaining the science behind the dinosaurs in a very old-fashioned expository way. But the result was a far greater accessibility to the general marketplace.
         Anyway, just food for thought and putting my money where my mouth is, outreach-wise. Your opinions may vary, but this is certainly worth thinking about, IMHO.

    --John Ordover
    18 Feb 1999
    (posted Fri 19 Feb 1999)

    Dear Locus,
         I've been a faithful reader of Locus for 29 years, since its second year of existence, and I've never written a congratulatory letter in all that time. I think the time has come.
         After reading Gary Wolfe's reviews for several years, I must tell you that I consider him one of the very best reviews in all sfdom -- perhaps THE best reviewer of all! He understands both science fiction and literature fully, both philosophically and nuts 'n bolts, and is able to examine SF stories from both points of view which, in my admittedly biased opinion, is the ONLY way a literary genre should be treated.
         As soon as I received the February "Year in Review" I flipped the pages to Wolfe's 5 best selections and immediately added their names to be "Books to be Read" list. Thanks, Gary, for several years of pleasure and enlightenment, and thanks, Locus, for continuing to be the most important publication in the SF field.
         If Charles Brown ever does plan to retire, he'd better find a replacement capable of continuing the long-standing tradition in the same high quality manner.

    --Bob Sabella
    13 Feb 1999

    Dear Locus,
         Itís nice to see someone at least addressing the question of ďWhy SF?,Ē but I donít think Kevin Lauderdale has hit the mark here. If the SF watchers are also readers, they would read other SF than what they what they see on TV, not just mediabooks. Also, if you track the demograhics, youíll see that the people who are buying SF media tie in novels are the same ones who buy Robert Jordan, David Eddings, and Terry Brooks fantasy novels in huge numbers. If they are buying, reading and enjoying original fantasy, why arenít they buying, reading, and enjoying original SF? Instead, as more than a few bookstore managers have told me, they come in, buy a Trek novel or SW novel, plus an original fantasy novel.
         Also, since my letters on this topic have appeared here, Iíve started hearing from a whole lot of people who said, in effect:

    ďIíve read and loved science fiction since I was a kid, but somewhere between 5 and 10 years ago I stopped because I stopped enjoying what I was reading both from old authors and new. I continue to read Trek and SW novels because I continue to enjoy them, as well as fantasy novels by the likes Jordan, Brooks, Eddings and others. But non-media SF doesnít work for me any more.Ē

         They havenít gone into detail about what they specificly donít like about recent straight SF. So let me suggest that itís time for an outreach program. We need to find out why those who used to read straight SF have stopped, and what is keeping SF from attracting new readers. I may have my opinions, you may have yours. But weíll both have stronger legs to stand on if we do a little research. So let me ask those reading this who have friends who used to read SF but have stopped to go ask them why, and let me know at Iíll be happy to co-ordinate the responses.

    --John Ordover
    10 Feb 1999

    Dear Locus,
         Iíve been a faithful reader of your magazine for well over a decade now. I enjoy your magazine for a variety of reasons. I find your News section(s) to be very informative and have found the Books Received sections to be the place to look for the odd small press title that I may have missed. And I live and die by your Forthcoming books articles. Without this section Iíd have no clue as to whatís coming and from whom. It is an invaluable resource to me. Please donít ever let it disappear! But all told, what really keeps me reading every issue are the reviews.
         It is this reason that I must take exception to the letter from Victor Lieberman that I saw on your online site. The reviews are what I really love best about your magazine. They are well written and have convinced me many a time to search out a book that Iíd never have bought on my own. I donít always agree with them but the world would be a boring place if everyone liked all of the same things. Gary Wolfe, Faren Miller, and Russell Letson are all to be commended for the excellent job they perform every month. Iím sorry that Mr. Liebermanís tastes are so different that he misses out on a lot of fabulous books.
         Keep up the good work. And thanks should go out to Mark Kelly for producing a wonderful web site for the magazine. I check it every day.

    --Chris McClelland
    Senior Software Engineer
    Sequoia Software Corporation
    9 Feb 1999

    Dear Locus,

    Jai Lu plans to publish an SF anthology, edited by Jacques Sadoul, in 2000. We are looking for the agents of some authors. Do you know by chance who represents the rights of:

    John Campbell
    Lester Del Rey
    Harl Vincent
    Raymond E. Banks
    Robert Abernathy
    Jack Lewis (author of Who's cribbing)

    --Aline Dubois
    12 Feb 1999

    Dear Locus,
         Look at your advertisers, guys! I learn more about the SF/Fantasy I enjoy from the advertisements in Locus than I ever get from your reviews! The two components of Locus I read regularly are the publisher's ads and announcements, and the Books Received section. I find that while I read a fair amount of Sci-Fi, I share almost no similar tastes in reading with reviewers, and find the reviews on the whole dense, meandering, and unpersuasive. And worse, the one book I was pursuaded to buy and read by your reviewer(s) (Graham Joyce's Tooth Fairy) was horrible. It was a disjointed, unnarative mishmash that just barely deserved the designation SF/Fantasy. Neurotic coming-of-age drivel more like it. It was not just poor sci-fi (yes), but poor writing. And you guys gushed over it.
         And another thing: what's with all the 1997s and 1996s on your 1998 lists?! The only way to demonstrate the paucity and poverty of annual SF/Fantasy material adequately is to honestly address the offerings of the year under review. And if that means that you can only recommend one or two titles in a category, maybe it will be the impetus to spur greater publishing efforts in the year to come.
         I give Locus high marks for keeping me informed of the offerings coming out in sci-fi/fantasy, but I find myself distrustful of your (corporate/editorial) appraisal of content and relative importance and appeal of new titles.

    --Victor Lieberman

    We'd certainly love to have more ads for you to look at!

    Dear Locus,
    "If I had to blame anyone for the continued proliferation of tie-ins and other sub par books throughout the genre, it would be the fans who are too lazy to try something different." -- Doug McKinney
         First off, reader bashing won't sell even one more copy of a straight SF book. Far as I can tell, it amounts to saying "Kids today! How can they waste their time on that crap? They should be expanding their minds reading good books!"
         That last sound familiar?
         Readers of SF media tie-ins aren't lazy. They aren't unwilling to try something different. They've sampled straight SF and found it not to their liking. Why? Bottom line, the majority of potential SF readers today want certain tropes in a certain context. They want:
    1) Robots
    2) Aliens
    3) Spaceships
    4) Psychic powers
    5) Advanced technology
    in the context of heroic action-adventure and a future where things got better, or where at least people are fighting to change things for the better.
         If you ignore media-tie-ins for a second, and track the sales of straight SF, you'll find almost unerringly that the books that provide the greatest number of these tropes against that background are the ones that sell best. Books like that aren't hurting -- Bujod and Weber are doing fine. What's hurting is everything that isn't that. Why? Because people don't like it.
         And may I ask when these tropes, in that context, weren't the core of science fiction? Let's pick Ringworld at random -- it contains 1) spaceships 2) aliens 3) advanced technology and 4) psychic powers. Pick the Foundation books - in the original trilogy there was advanced technology, psychic powers and spaceships -- and when the later books kicked in, we found out that robots were involved.
         Oh, I can think of a couple of exceptions -- I Will Fear No Evil, perhaps, and ''Nightfall'' maybe. But from ''Twilight'' to The Demolished Man, those tropes have formed the core of SF.
         Now, check out the two major SF media lines -- Star Wars and Star Trek. They wrap all those tropes into one package and include almost all of them in every book. Guess what? They sell well. They sell beyond their actual presence in the mass-media. Remember, SF is the only genre in which the straight novels are outsold by the media novels.
         No, on ''literary quality,'' let me point out that If the Holy Grail is brilliant prose, then sales don't matter. Your calling is art, after all, not money. Since selling well or reading a popular book is a sign that you've lowered your standards, well then, you should be pleased that so few people like your writing or your taste in books, since it's a sign of your sophistication to move only a couple of copies off the shelves or read something no one else likes.
         Conclusion: If you want better sales, stop bashing readers -- they are your customers, after all. If you want big sales, learn what customers like and provide that. If you have other goals, more power to you, but stop kvetching about sales.

    --John Ordover
    Sun 7 Feb 1999

    Dear Locus,
         In the January letters column John Ordover asked the essential question about media tie-in novels: "Why SF? What makes it vulnerable to the intrusion of media novels?" Why not Seinfeld novels and E.R. novels? I believe the answer is that this genre is made up primarily of readers. People who watch SF also read it. Millions more people watch lawyer TV shows than watch any episode of Star Trek: Voyager. And I'm sure that most of them are quite literate, and many of them probably read John Grisham and Scott Turow, but they are not "readers." They aren't the people who go out (or log-on) and buy a lot of books. Not all TV watchers are readers, but (nearly) all watchers of SF TV are.
         Many people who read SF came to it after first seeing the genre on television or in theaters. And what did they want next? Books. What people who watch SF television and movies want from them is more -- and in the form of books.

    --Kevin Lauderdale
    Fri 5 Feb 1999

    p.s. There's no point in writing letters protesting that you enjoy both Buffy the Vampire Slayer *and* Diagnosis Murder. Good for you. But you're a reader; you've picked up Locus.

    (Mon 8 Feb 99)

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