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25 September 2009 @ 12:25 pm
Science fiction literature is screwed  
I've been having a bit of fun watching Kim Stanley Robinson tell the Booker Prize judges and the world in general something they really needed to hear.  But I can't help thinking that, though this is a battle science fiction literature is well-qualified to win, I don't think it will.  The problem, you see, is that modern science fiction literature isn't what most people think it is, and isn't what possible target groups want it to be.

As Robinson mentions, and as should be obvious to most readers in the genre, modern SF writing is highly literate and aimed at the upper five percent or so of the IQ curve.  Not only must a potential science fiction reader be able to digest long sentences and words, (which eliminates most readers of blockbusters), they must also have a decent grasp of certain science concepts and have a mind capable of extrapolation (judging by the way science fiction is sometimes sneered at, this qualification seems to be eliminating most English majors).  Right now, the genre is much more sophisticated, cosmopolitan and literate than the more traditional "literary" fiction (which, let's face it, is not going through a golden age).

This is a good thing, right?

Well, no.

The problem is that readers do not want sophisticated, cosmopolitan and literate.  Readers want simple prose and hard-hitting adventure.  Most adults have not read anything from the Victorian era since high school, have never read Ulysses and are not interested in doing so. They want something easy to understand, something that will entertain them at the beach or on the daily commute.  Something that takes the place of Dancing with the Stars as a brain-off excercise.  So they turn to Mitch Albom or Robert Ludlum (TM) or James Patterson, writers who have turned the short-word, short-sentence, easy-to-understand concept into an art form, and who justly reap the rewards for having done so - these are all great writers in their way (even the not-so-recently deceased Ludlum) who know what their audience wants and give it to them. 

Adult readers who do come into the genre will be more attracted to the Young Adult section of the shelf, for the same reasons.  This is why the HP books sold so well, and it's why Stephanie Meyer is selling millions of copies.  The Keep It Sinple Rule.

There are lots of people who would love to see SF return to its pulp roots.  Back in the thirties and forties, SF mags gave the public its quick action fix, and people bought them in droves.  Soldiers took them to war in their packs (try doing that with a Kindle).  They were popular entertainment (you can tell because the moralists of the day would cry out against them).  Try asking an average two-book-a-year reader to read an Alastair Reynolds novel.  They'll hate it, not because it has no action (these things are full of stuff going on), but because the prose requires a certain amount of erudition and commitment.

So shouldn't the literati embrace the new, more mature science fiction genre?

No.  Well, they should, but they won't.  You see, most New York intellectuals (and countless wannabes in university towns everywhere) associate science fiction with Star Trek (and even those of us in the genre have to admit that it was fun but not particularly intellectual) and have no interest in reading mind-numbing tripe of the same type.  So they don't even bother (of course, they aren't very bright, so people like Margaret Atwood can fool them into thinking that The Handmaid's Tale isn't science fiction), and science fiction is excluded from the major awards which is a pity because most modern genre work would walk all over most modern literary work, at least from the point of view of the quality of the writing.

Perhaps it's time to be a little more assertive.  Most people in the genre read extensively outside of it.  I know I do.  And, to tell you the truth, I really don't see much out there that comes near the consistently high quality I see in the Year's Best Science Fiction collections, all I see are boring rehashings of thiings that have already been done, in ever more tortured prose.  The genre might have lost the casual reader, but we're certainly putting out better literature than the literary press - so why not go forth and sweep the awards?

It's time to leave the ghetto.
Terri-Lynne DeFinobogwitch64 on September 25th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
Well said. I have nothing to add but my hearty, "Here, here!"
bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I think the first step in solving this issue will be to get our collective heads around the fact that we actually are producing amazing literature!
ajjones on September 25th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
The irony of all this is there are always at least two blockbuster movies a year of a science fiction ilk.

I got irritated recently watching an interview with one of the cast members of Battlestar Galactica, who said "This show will please the science fiction fans, because things blow up and there are special effects. But there's also a really good story, so the non-scifi fans will like it too."

!!!!! Yes, because we science fiction fans don't care about something as complicated as a STORY. Thanks for giving us the explosions so our simple minds can relate.
bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
Well, part of it is our fault (mostly Hugo Gernsbeck and his covers). One of the arguments the Booker prize judges make is that publishers aren't subbing SF to the prize... That is partly (not completely - there are some things that are hard to influence) the author's responsibility.

Sadly, there will always be silly actors (I think its a job requirement) so that's another thing to fight against.
ajjones on September 25th, 2009 04:50 pm (UTC)
I read about the whole award thing the other day on a scifi site, but the stereotypes about science fiction run through society, not just in the literary circles. I've experienced it first hand when acquaintances have read my work and expressed amazement that they liked it, because they 'didn't expect to like it'. When I asked WHY they would prejudge like that, it's been 'I just don't normally read THAT STUFF'.
bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)
That's true. We've been hit hard by dumb shows and movies as well.

But if historical fiction can do it, SF can make a comeback (and it might be the perfect time, considering how hot fantasy is right now).
Marshall Payne: Audrey B&W 2 profilemarshallpayne1 on September 25th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC)
Great piece, Gustavo! Here's my two round pieces of copper :D

One problem with science fiction is that because it is a literature of ideas, having a new idea is very important. Unfortunately, most of the ideas have been mined out. And the ones that haven't are now so technically abstruse that very few can understand them. So that will guarantee a limited readership right there.

Another problem is that we're losing touch with our past. I don't mean the mindless space opera of the 30s and 40s, we have plenty of that. I'm talking about the seminal works by writers like Bester, Sturgeon, C.L. Moore. We have a whole new group of readers and writers who aren't even familiar with the names, let alone their work. Take time-travel. If one is going to write a time-travel story I think it's important to know what's already been done so you're not reinventing the wheel. I recently read a story in Strange Horizons about a time-traveler (a solder from the future like Terminator) who left himself as a baby on someone's doorstep. When you compare the baby being left on the doorstep theme to what Heinlein did with it in "All You Zombie's" it's weaknesses stand out. I was left wondering if this writer was even familiar with Heinlien's great story and only saw the Terminator movies. We've become a literature based on the films of SF and not the literature itself. I used to be like this too until I saw Dozois complaining about it, and realized I was guilty. So I systematically went back and started reading the classics. I still am. :-)

With some of the SF I like to write, I'm playing around more with the history of the genre and trying to give it a new twist. Even Philip K. Dick was doing this back in the 60s and slapping his mind-bending ideas on top of the old tropes. But with the stuff I like to read (and write) modern readers who are unfamiliar with the history of our genre won't know what's being winked at or built upon. This is different from fantasy where writers and readers are familiar with the myths, legends and fairy tales being cribbing off of. A retelling of Cinderella doesn't really work if the reader doesn't know it's a retelling of the classic and can see the allusions. But the history of SF is becoming lost, so much of the stuff is being reinvented in paler versions. I'm not talking about writers like Alastair Reynolds, of course. These writers are well aware of the traditions they're building upon.

So what's one to do? Write space opera for the masses? Or write technically challenging SF that few can read? Don't know. But I'm not sure I'm in favor of moving SF out of the ghetto. Every year fewer and fewer people in the ghetto even have a working knowledge of SF. How are we supposed to expect that from the masses?

Edited at 2009-09-25 06:13 pm (UTC)
bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)
This should be a post by itself! Your point about the people who don't know the roots of the genre are sadly quite apt. And though I know that sometimes the completely ignorant (those who think Van Vogt is some kind of painter, for example, or that "The Sound of Thunder" is just a bad movie, and have no idea where the title comes from) do get through and have their work published, most of them are eliminated in an early stage of the slush reading.

The clueless are still a minority among published SF writers.

Perhaps removing the stigma will allow the classics to be studied as they deserve and lower the number of clueless - for that reason alone, we need to leave the ghetto (and if you like beautiful books, I strongly recommend Easton Press' Masterpieces of Science Fiction series - they are pricey, but stunning, the only Easton Press books I've ever been interested in).
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bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 08:12 pm (UTC)
Re: Coup d'oeil
You make some great points, and in a certain way, I think we are in agreement: a lot of the genre's ghetto-dom comes from the lack of people within the genre taking corrective action.

The quality exists - although I agree that a quick scan at your local B&N is likely to make the casual observer think that the genre consists of Star Trek novellizations and military SF. The problem seems to lie in getting the high quality stuff front and center, and keeping the critically accepted (and / or popular) writers from shying away from the SF label. There is no doubt that Jurassic Park is science fiction, and yet it always seems to be found in the thriller section. Ditto Atwood. And there's even this ridiculous notion among certain sectors that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World aren't SF. That's what I call being wilfully ignorant.

So you're right. The genre has been unable to keep its most famous exponents correctly labeled as such, and this is no fault of anyone else.

Where I do disagree with you (and suspect you've read very little in the field after, say, 1960) is in the aseveration that SF writers need to work on the quality of their writing. I know it may not be immediately apparent from looking at covers, but I read a lot (and very widely in every genre but romance), and the prose behind those lurid illustrations is simply magnificent at times, especially when compared with the mundane, rehashed tripe in the hallowed (but stale) literary section. This is sad, because good litfic is a truly satisfying experience.

And as for that delusion... Well... I'd like to say something nice and non-confrontational here, but it just doesn't look like much of a delusion from my daily experience. Let's just say that in most cases, SF writers don't feel the need to dumb down their prose for their audiences, while the other genres you mentioned... Er.

I'm not saying that's a good thing. Maybe dumbing down the prose would make it more accessible and sales would explode. But in the current state of the ghetto, it isn't really necessary.
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bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Coup d'oeil
Precisely. I think almost any criticism can be aimed at the SF field right now (I would say that not knowing how to market a great product is chief among them). But that feeling of smug superiority, that feeling that the ghetto does have a higher (actually much higher) IQ than the norm is not among the things that can be criticized. The truth might hurt, but it shouldn't offend.

So I wouldn't say that that "delusion" has to be debunked. But I do think that we need to take a long hard look at it, and analyze whether maybe we might not want to attract readers of other genres, even if that means dumbing down.
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bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Coup d'oeil
Totally. For the record, I loved the HP books and was unable to get beyond the first chapter in Twilight. But both are examples of one of the possible roads to getting SF to respectability.

The other road, of course, and one I think we are better prepared for right now, is to force the world to understand that Gene Wolfe can write circles around every Booker and Nobel winner in the last 20 years. That is the current state of SF writing.
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bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Coup d'oeil
That's a valid point. Perhaps we can agree on the fact that there are different kinds of quality writing?

JK Rowling's prose is simple, easy to read and a commercial success - undoubtedly highly polished for its intended audience. Definitely quality writing.

But James Joyce (to pick someone outside the genre, just to be fair - Gene Wolfe is a good example within it) employed sentences that have to be read slowly, tortuously, with the mind actually taking part. In the end, this leads to an extremely satisfying reading experience, even if the instant gratificatiion isn't there. This is also quality writing.

Lovecraft used to write in a more archaic tone than was the norm for his time, just to give authenticity. This did not make his stories more intelligible, but it did make them better. This was also quality writing.

And so on. In the SF genre, right now, I believe that the second type is more prevalent: perhaps not simple prose or concepts, but a much more satisfying overall reading experience (unless yoou pick up the novellization of Tron, in which ccase it will be more lile HP - not a bad thing, but different).
peadarogpeadarog on September 25th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting the article. Really enjoyed it...
bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC)
I love the "special people" response from the Booker guy... Thinly veiled contempt there.
peadarogpeadarog on September 25th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
Yeah, good times ;)
bondo_babondo_ba on September 25th, 2009 08:52 pm (UTC)
So I wrote this just so the literati could vent their repressed anger my way! When bored, I enjoy irritating people.
peadarogpeadarog on September 25th, 2009 08:55 pm (UTC)
I also like people who are irritating ;)
southernweirdosouthernweirdo on September 26th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
My biggest peave has to be with the unending door-stop series books in the genres. If I pick up a book that is part IV of XII in the "Lost Solar Cycle" (aside -- hey... that's an interesting name, maybe I should write that...) I'll put it right back down on the shelf. The length thing annoys me to no end. The science fiction books I grew up and loved were typically short, fast, tight narratives. Look at Bradbury's books. Clark's books. Asimov's books. Even take "literary" examples: 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World. These were relatively short novels, almost novellas by today's standard. Now the average length is 100k + with an emphasis on the "+". Many of us who are the intended audience have lives that are simply too busy to invest in series of this length.

I do read some series (I love Gene Wolfe's books), and I do like big richly detailed books from time to time (Robert McCammon's recent historical mysteries and some of the twentieth century Russian authors, for example), but these are not all I read. I like to read multiple genres, I like to read classics, and I like to read the occassional work of post-modern experimental fiction.

I think if you're trying to attract new readers to the SF genre, series and huge novels are not the way to go. I'm more likely to pick up a slim stand-alone novel or novella to get a feel for an author rather than a door stop, simply because of the time commitment involved. My reading list is never-ending, always growing, and I'm unlikely to finish it in this lifetime as it is without tacking on another unending series that may or may not have a satisfying conclusion. For me to pick up a series, generally speaking, the only way I will attempt to read it is if someone whose taste I trust has read the entire series and enjoyed it before me.
bondo_babondo_ba on September 26th, 2009 06:42 pm (UTC)
Interesting take - you're right, of course. It's hard these days to find a nice short stand-alone novel. This isn't just a problem in SF, it's endemic to all genres, but it does seem to be hurting SF more than it hurts fantasy.
southernweirdosouthernweirdo on September 26th, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
You're right. The series thing is endemic to all genres. Even literary authors like Phillip Roth have their protagonists who show up in novel after novel. This is fine and all, but it works best when the individual parts stand alone. A planned trilogy with a defined beginning/middle/end structure can be fine and is one thing, but an unending series is another beast altogether. All the same the series phenomenon is a major reason why I personally spend more and more time in other sections of the bookstore. Those media tie-ins are fun, but do they really need to make up more than half of the SF/Fantasy section in my local big box bookstore?

Also, we need to keep in mind that SF/Fantasy may not really be suffering at all. It still may not be garnering the "critical" success some authors would like to see, but much of it is very successful from a commercial perspective. From what I've read, since the beginning of the economic downturn, SF/Fantasy sales have been on the rise while more and more "literary" authors are struggling to find an audience. And, honestly, it is getting more critical attention, too. The New Yorker, for example, has actually featured several SF/Fantasy stories this year. Stuff like "The Road" and "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" helped once again put speculative fiction on the critical radar.
bondo_babondo_ba on September 27th, 2009 03:32 am (UTC)
Well, that's also a good point. SF does sell considerably better than the hyperliterary prose we're all supposed to admire so much. Maybe aiming in that direction isn't the smartest move. But it IS tempting, though.
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bondo_babondo_ba on October 7th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
I agree with you 100% - and that's another reason I sometimes find the whole literary award thing frustrating. The books given the prizes are, in reality, not widely read at all.

Dickens was a purveyor of literature for the masses (although it is clear that he was not the lowest denominator by any means). His books are still widely read and hailed as classics despite not being what the elites wanted.

The only true measure of greatness is enduring popularity - which is why things like Dune are so good for the genre.