Science fiction: division versus diversity

Maybe all this talk about the superior longevity and marketability of one strand or another of the science fiction tradition is nothing more than a fear of diversity from both sides. Issue 207 of Interzone contains (among loads of other excellent stuff) my interviews with Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Anderson had something interesting to say, in the context of the recent debate over science fiction’s ‘route forward’.

I asked him what he felt was driving the perceived decline in sf readership. His reply:

“I think that a lot of the major sf novels currently being released are incomprehensible to the average reader. They are dense, full of jargon, intimately self-referential to the genre. Don’t get me wrong, these are some of the best works in current sf […] but the average man on the street can’t get through the first chapter without drowning in unfamiliar words and concepts.”

That echoes the ‘back to basics’ creed of the old-schoolers in the recent debate. However, Anderson takes pains to point out that he thinks very highly of the more involved sf and its writers, but believes it is that very involvement which excludes a potential audience.

Anderson is well-placed to make this point, too – his books are notably less concerned with the nuts and bolts of the sfnal tropes, instead relying on cinematic action and fast-moving plot. And the sales figures speak for themselves – compare the Amazon rankings for Anderson’s Seven Suns series with, for example, Charlie Stross’s Accelerando, and it’s pretty plain which writer shifts more units. That is a pretty arbitrary comparison, of course, and is meant to do no discredit to Stross (whose work I personally prefer greatly) – the two men write very different styles of fiction. Maybe it’s time to accept that the two approaches to the genre have already parted ways, and just get on with it?

After all, sales of books by the likes of Anderson enable publishers to take a chance on writers like Stross. But do ‘skiffy’* novels weaken the public perception of serious ‘literary’ science fiction? Perhaps. But probably not among the people who are most likely to take a step into the hard sf world. On a purely anecdotal level, most of the ‘serious’ sf fans I know (which I’ll admit is a rather small number, beyond the confines of the blogosphere at least) are the sort of people who seem to go out of their way to challenge themselves with what they read, sf or otherwise. Whereas most of the media tie-in/’skiffy’ readers seem to be driven far more by their interests outside the world of books – books aren’t their first and deepest love, they’re a bolt-on extra to their sfnal media diet.

So perhaps the issue isn’t one of a decline in science fiction readership alone, but of a decline in people who really care about reading fiction as anything other than simple escapism. Literature of all types has a huge amount of competition from other forms of media, and it’s probably no surprise that it is losing a bit of ground. But as I have remarked before, lengthening lifespans and general population increase may mean that the pool of serious readers (in real number terms) doesn’t shrink a great deal more than it already has.

Meanwhile, the ‘skiffy’ readers are more likely to be taken in by the competing media formats. They’re already consuming lots of material outside of the book world, and therefore books are more likely to be pushed aside to make time for spin-off content from their favourite TV and movies.

The hardcore book geeks, however, are going to stick with books – at least as long as there are books available of the type that they enjoy. Book publishing is (I assume) just as market-driven an industry as music is, and there has been a marked increase in the health of fringe music scenes (thanks to what may or may not be the Long Tail effect) assisted by a corresponding fall in production and distribution overheads. I’m not going to bang too heavily on the ebooks/P.O.D. drum here (because I’ve done that before), but suffice to say I’m sure science fiction imprints will move in a direction that allows them to continue supplying what their audience wants in whatever format is most convenient for the two parties concerned.

I’m assuming that, while there are a sufficient number of people who want to write serious and involved science fiction stories and novels, there will be a proportional number of people who want to read them too. Likewise, there’ll be plenty of people who want to read the more accessible material. Are we actually quibbling over personal preferences at the expense of diversity?

I’m too young and ignorant of the genre’s history to know for sure, but I have a suspicion it’s always been this way – the labels may have changed, but there were surely always divisions within the genre. It’s still living now, and I’m sure it’ll survive for another half-century, so that we’ll all get to shake our heads despairingly at the new generations of fans arguing about which clade is responsible for the scene’s impending demise (and then tell the whippersnappers how much better things were in our day).

Sf is frequently an apocalyptic genre, after all – maybe that’s why we see our own doom lurking in the shadows around every fork in the road.

*{In this post, neither ‘skiffy’ nor ‘serious’ nor ‘literary’ are meant as derogatory or laudatory adjectives; they simply function as convenient descriptors.}

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