Thursday, April 26, 2007

Is speculative literature an endangered species?

After RavenCon I got Rob Sawyer's permission to reprint the post below. I'd be very interested to hear what other folks have to say about this issue, because I think it's an immensely important question to anyone who loves the genre.

Is speculative literature an endangered species?

By Rob Sawyer

I'm quoted in an article on that topic. Author Mike Collins quotes part of what I said in response to his email question; here's my full response:

I don't think there is a decline in reading per se; more people are reading more books than ever before -- all the stats show that. However, they're reading fewer different titles; everyone is looking for a sense of community in our fragmented world, and so wants to read the things that others are reading. There simply weren't runaway bestsellers like HARRY POTTER and THE DA VINCI CODE in an earlier era; those books shattered all previous sales records.

It's pointless to talk about the decline in reading "speculative" fiction, because there's no section in the bookstore labeled that -- and, after all, HARRY POTTER and THE DA VINCI CODE, along with Michael Crichton, Audrey Niffenegger, Neil Gaiman, and Christopher Paolini are all broadly "speculative," and they're all doing just fine, thank you very much.

What we're talking about is the decline of the commercial publishing category known as science fiction, and the fault for that, by and large, lies with the publishers and the authors. SF has become increasingly self-referential, smug, and inaccessible to newcomers. Without bringing new readers in, and keeping them, the field is being whittled away by natural attrition of its established readership base -- the trend is a straight line, down into the toilet, and it's going to be very, very hard to turn it around at this point.

(from Rob's blog:


Jamie Rubin said...

Forgive me in advance for my rambling, but this struck a chord with me, and I have been thinking about this for quite some time.

I think there is some truth to what Rob says, and he knows that s.f. market place far better than I do, so I defer to him on that. One has to ask why this is the case. Or turn the question on it's head: what made science fiction successful, originally?

Start with science fiction in the early 1940s, when the genre started to emphaize science and realistic characters, and not just heroes. Stories predicted events that made science fiction writers seem precient. There were stories, like Clive Cartmill's "Dealine" which described an atom bomb a year before Hiroshima. There were stories of rocket travel and trips the moon decades before the actual event. After 1945, science fiction was "in fashion" because of it's many successful predictions.

Over time, there was a shift from speculation to stylism. In the 1960s and early 1970s, s.f. writers tried to cast away their labels and show that they could write "literary" stories with the best of them, albeit with a "speculative" element. Thus, groundbreaking books like Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, and Barry Malzberg's Beyond Apollo.

In the early 1980s, there was a resurgence of the Golden Age with authors like Isaac Asimov continuing series that were 30 years old. Heinlein and Clarke were just as popular. But at some point, science fiction hit a peak and headed downhill. Why?

Rob places the blame on publishers and s.f. writers. We are not doing enough to bring in new readers; we are too self-referential; we are not as successful at predicting future possibilities as we used to be. But I would argue that if one mapped the attention span of an potential s.f. reader in the 1940s and one today, one would find that a trendline similar to the one Rob describes, getting smaller and smaller and heading for the toilet. Why read a description of a space battle when you can see and hear it on TV or in the movies? What used to be an active audience of readers has, over the years, become a passive audience of watchers. Furthermore (as someone mentioned in one of Rob's sessions at Ravencon), science fiction implies some rudimentary knowledge of science. If you don't know science, at least the basics, you won't get science fiction. I'd guess that the readers simply don't know science today as well as they did 50 years ago.

I wonder if the same trend is true for fantasy? Rob refers to "speculative literature", but I suspect that fantasy (high fantasy, contemporary, etc.) is not suffering from the same problems, at least in part because you don't need the science background that you do for science fiction. Magic requires no technical explanation.

So how can we bring in new readers if the pool of readers out there has ever-diminishing skills or interest in science? Great story writers, regarless of the subject matter can always write great stories and people will read them. I think that s.f. writers have to go a step further. And I have three suggestions:

1. Encourage the use of science fiction stories in high school science classes. (Imagine reading Fantastic Voyage in biology or "The Cold Equations" in high school physics.) Science fiction can make science interesting, which in turn makes science fiction more interesting, until you reach critical mass and explode in another Golden Age. Okay, so I am an optimist. But I believe that the best apostles of science fiction are the fans and writers of science fiction.

2. We need more short science fiction, more magazines online or print. There are good s.f. novels being written today, but in my opinion, there is much better short s.f. being written today. We need more of that. It's a hook with which to trap new readers. A person that might not want to invest the time in a s.f. novel, might be willing to read a short story. If they like the stort story, they might decide to try the novel. Short stories don't make nearly as much money as novel; however, short stories become like the advertisement that sells the novel. The more of this we have, the more, I think our reader base grows.

3. Reintroduce new readers (and some older, disillusioned ones) to the classics. SCIFICTION, when it was operating, reprinted classic science fiction stories. We have great stories in the magazines today, but we have an incredibly rich history of amazing, astounding stories: "Nightfall", "Adam and No Eve", "Who Goes There?", "World of the Red Sun", "The Day is Done", "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", "The Rocket Man", I could go on and on and on. It would be nice to see one classic story in each issue of every science fiction magazine out there, as a way of hooking new readers and bragging about our rich past. This also helps to reduce the mystery and "self-referential" aspects that Rob refers to. If people can read the original material, they will be more familiar with the new stuff.

People point out all of the things that science fiction didn't predict (the Internet is the big one). What gets forgotten in all of this is that the predictive element of science fiction is only one aspect of it. To me, the most important aspect of science fiction is the sense of wonder it creates. There is not another genre out there that does this with the same effect. If that sense of wonder can be used in the classroom to illustrate scientific points; if it can draw people in to reading something that they might not have otherwise chosen to read; if it can be illustrated through the colorful history of science fiction, then I think the genre is safe.

But as Rob says, it is up to us.

Maria said...

Seems fairly healthy to me--that is to say that yes, books now compete with a phlethora of other entertainment venues, but there are a HUGE number of speculative magazines compared to mystery magazines. I assume this means not only are there more people interested in publishing it, but at least a few people reading it.

Sci/fi in particular may not be doing as well. I don't think it is because it is scientific or technical although I do have issues with pieces that go overboard (info dump in the technical area).