Paul Di Filippo
I find myself hard-pressed now to do more than nod sagely in total agreement with Gary’s insightful and elegant parsing of the situation.
Okay, I’ll add a small codicil: non-fannish, non-hardcore readers are now more savvy than ever about SF tropes–stargates, chimerical creatures, etc–so that they can easily score an A on a modest “entry exam”.
In other words, such a reader cannot immediately proceed to The Quantum Thief, but can easily master Jumper.
And here of course we are squarely in the territory covered by Judith Berman’s excellent essay, “Science Fiction without the Future.” I believe Kris Rusch also had a similar piece around the same time.
Another argument that I’ve heard made (though I don’t know that I agree with it) is that the reality of what we considered the stuff of science fiction–technology, computers, space travel, etc.–has so permeated everyday life that the average person doesn’t need to read the fiction to experience that imaginative leap that the fiction provides.
On the other hand, if you filter it enough that it’s not really SF anymore, you’re not solving the problem but rather avoiding it, whether it breaks out or not. I find it interesting that the most commercially successful SF books of the last couple of years, The Windup Girl and The Quantum Thief, are actually going in the opposite direction, and making their SF content MORE sophisticated. Greg Egan and Charles Stross had success doing the same thing.
I think one of the jobs of science fiction is to imagine viable human futures, futures that somebody might actually want to live in, or want to see their kids living in. SF’s track record with that in the last couple of decades has been spotty. I think extreme pessimism and gloom will only take you so far before the readers become tired of it. Once you read one bleak dystopian story or novel saying that everything’s hopeless and we’re all doomed, why bother to read another one? We’re all doomed, right? So what’s the point of reading another one, or writing it, for that matter? We’ve already reached that point with ecological disaster stories, and are beginning to see stories, from people like Paul McAuley and Carrie Vaughn which try to imagine how people can go on living and working and create a viable human future AFTER the disasters, in spite of them.
SF made a bad mistake as a genre in the 70s and 80s by virtually abandoning the Young Adult novel. There’s practically nothing after the Heinlein juveniles of the 50s and 60s to provide an entry-level SF reading experience (except, ironically enough, the much-hated “media novels” like Star Trek and Star Wars novels, that I think may have actually been keeping this function alive). The fantasy genre did not make this mistake–there’s entry-level and gateway fantasy stuff on all levels, from children’s books to YA, which carry readers on through to more sophisticated adult stuff. As a result, guess which genre sells better?
Gary K. Wolfe
I should admit that I’m far from the first person to compare SF to jazz–Kingsley Amis did it way back in 1959–but Jeff’s point is well taken that there’s a distinction between “breaking out” in the commercial sense and breaking out in the literary/artistic sense, though they’re not mutually exclusive. So by “suffering,” yeah, I was referring mostly to the popular market. As a mode, stream-of-consciousness never came close to “breaking out” commercially, but that doesn’t mean that Ulysses or To the Lighthouse are any less successful as novels, or that they “suffered” because of it.
As for sophistication: In this month’s Locus column, I had occasion to mention that, late in Charlie Parker’s career, a record producer had the idea of matching him up with arrangements for strings, which were still pretty popular in the 1950s. The idea, I suppose, was to make him more viable for the popular market. The records aren’t bad at all, and Parker’s solos are just about as sophisticated as they always had been–they were just packaged differently. I suspect we could all name dozens of SF novels from the last 50 years that, had they been presented differently, might have reached a wider audience.
But–again like jazz–SF has a devoted core of knowledgeable and passionate fans, and it’s very tempting to write and publish books for that smaller but more reliable market than to try to compete with teen vampires for the Walmart crowd. For myself, I have no problem with this. I still enjoy “sophisticated” high-concept SF, but if a talented and nuanced writer like Daryl Gregory wants to try his hand at a zombie novel, more power to him.
Precisely my point, too, Gary. More power to all of them, whichever manner or way they want to go — toward the center, away from it, where ever. We can only really talk about market trends to an extent and a demographic of readers that “theoretically” exist. Otherwise, every moment holds the potential for some young writer anywhere in the world to have a vision and write herself a novel that would change the entire game or start a new one.