By 1995 or so, it had become fairly evident that the science fiction market had begun to experience a significant shift, one that I have been struggling to put my finger on for quite some time now.
The genre, of course, has always been one for whom change at a certain level should be something of a constant. The Romance genre (not the chivalric or ancient. I mean the “girl picks one of two boys” sort.) has remained the same since 1921’s The Black Moth, but Science Fiction (not the current “girl picks one of two boys” sort, but the traditional “having something to do with phenomena”) necessarily must adapt to any new knowledge.
Great SF survives its own shortcomings. After all, Darwinian thought has been pounded so frequently by scientific adaptation so as to be downright unrecognizable from the quaint horror that H.P. Lovecraft described in The Rats In the Walls which made the rounds at about the same time that Heyer’s The Black Moth burst upon the scene.
Now, one can make the argument that science has made more innovations to romance since 1960 than biologists have made measurable advances toward understanding man’s origins or destiny, but the fact remains: despite the addition of a smutty wing to the romance genre, it isn’t the genre of change, and SF is.
In October of 1991, SF editor and reviewer, and senior editor at Omni, Robert J. Kilheffer did the world a favor by attempting a fairly comprehensive “State of the Genre” report in Publisher’s Weekly, titled Science Fiction: Expanding, Experimenting.
On the other side of the world the Soviet Union is dismantling itself as we watch, its individual republics bidding for recognition as independent nations in themselves.
In many ways, these events in the world at large resemble some of the trends in the world of science fiction publishing.
Kilheffer goes on to say that this era of change in the global dynamic seemed to mark the first major time in the genre since the rise and inclusion of fantasy, that the field was officially breaking down into individual genres. He fully acknowledges that fantasy, horror, science fiction, and other minor “weird” genres were always something of a patchwork, but the 1990s marked the first time that both the critical community began to fully separate them, while at the same time, editors began to more widely specialize.
“People are narrowing their focus,” says Jeanne Cavelos, associate editor in charge of Dell’s science fiction line and the Abyss horror program. “The field seems to be splitting up along some very narrow lines.”
Still, in 1991, there was still a market demand for including the general term “Science Fiction” as large collective category:
Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor of science fiction and fantasy at Tor Books, explains, “Science fiction has to a certain extent thrived in the past because the distribution apparatus and the non-specialty booksellers never quite grasped that there are subtle distinctions inside the field. I wonder sometimes just how much effort we should go to educate them.”
I found this quote to be very interesting, because, with the benefit of our time machine, we know all about the great distribution breakdowns of the 1990s in comics and paperback books: as Barnes & Noble’s and direct comic stores rose in prominence, the costly distribution to grocery stores and convenience stores was mostly removed from the system, never to return.
Kilheffer also makes note of the recent ascendancy of fantasy over science fiction following the dominance of science fiction less than a decade earlier:
“There seems to be a longer way for a particular kind of very accessible fantasy novel to go,” remarks Susan Allison, vice-president and editor-in-chief at Ace/Berkley. Fantasy writers such as David Eddings and Terry Brooks have been almost constant presences on hardcover and paperback lists in the past few years, with others, such as the team of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, Tad Williams and Robert Jordan not far behind. TSR’s Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms shared-universe fantasy series consistently dominate the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks trade bestseller lists.
He notes that the only dominant science fiction titles of any significance are both media tie-ins: Star Wars and Star Trek. Baen Books offered the only counter-balance to the “fantasy dominance” narrative of the day:
David Hartwell, a consulting editor for Tor Books, says, “On the average, in the midlist it is easier to market and package a competent but not exceptional fantasy than a competent but not exceptional science fiction novel.” On the other hand, Jim Baen, publisher and editor-in-chief of Baen Books, believes that “there may have been more breakout bestsellers in fantasy of late, but science fiction is still stronger in the under-100,000-copy bracket.”
The erosion of the market – both generally for hard science fiction as well as for the more broad inclusive category then known as Science Fiction – that I perceive occurred between 1995 and 2010 or so may have its first indicators in Kilheffer’s analysis:
“Science fiction requires a more specific and delimited way of reading,” says Patrick Nielsen Hayden. “One of its pleasures is the pleasure of figuring out an entire background from dropped hints and implications.” David Hartwell agrees: “Fantasy has a kind of immediate access that science fiction does not. Science fiction requires knowledge external to the text. The reading of science fiction is much more a learned skill.” Shelly Shapiro, executive editor at Del Rey, suggests that fantasy is easier to approach “because we have all grown up with fairy tales and mythic stories, so the mental leap to suspending disbelief is much easier to make.”
“The readership has developed from a largely male audience to a more balanced one, and my general impression is that women read a higher proportion of fantasy. As they have become a bigger portion of the audience, fantasy has grown.” Betsy Wollheim, co-publisher and president of DAW Books, notes that readers “want more escapism. A good work of science fiction is firmly grounded in our reality; it’s an extrapolation from our present circumstances. People don’t want to deal with a lot of the issues science fiction deals with.”
While he anticipates that “cross-overs” which “break and blur genre” could be the way forward in Science Fiction, by highlighting Kate Wilhelm’s Death Qualified – a nearly uncategorizable courtroom science fiction women’s novel -he also admits that such a strategy has not worked out in the past.
“We did a lot of crossover publishing in the mid-1980s,” Lou Aronica recalls, “and it was not terribly successful. We tended to miss both markets.”
Still, at least some were determined to persist in the pursuit:
“There’s a mixing of high art and low art,” notes Tor’s David Hartwell, “of pop culture and high culture materials. This leads to a very fruitful interplay between genre fiction and high literature, and it’s one of the places where the action is.” But the artistic interest of such experiments does not often translate into market success. “It’s not where the sales are, not at all, but it is where the evolution of the field is taking place.”
Of course, it probably helps to slip unprofitable moral nourishment onto an unsuspecting public by committing at least one or two minor sins of omission:
“I’m sometimes a little reluctant to let on that a given writer has ‘considerable literary quality,'” [Nielsen Hayden] explains. “The sales apparatus knows what that means: it means it doesn’t sell very many copies.”