Chatter Before the Coup – 1991 and The Future State of Science Fiction

Tuesday , 18, November 2014 12 Comments

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 Object of Her Heart’s Desire

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.

The Object of His Obsession

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.

He wrote:

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.”

12 Comments
  • Mike Tuggle says:

    Writing in Time Magazine, Lev Grossman said this about the growing popularity of fantasy:

    God knows, characters in fantasy worlds aren’t always happy: if anything the ambient levels of misery in Westeros are probably significantly higher than those in the real world. But they’re not distracted. They’re not disconnected. The world they live in isn’t alien to them, it’s a reflection of the worlds inside them, and they feel like an intimate part of it.

    I think Grossman’s on to something. Modern man inhabits a world that is increasingly alien to him. There is no sense of place, of history, of community. The nobility and purpose of the Fellowship of the Ring, and the family and community spirit that inspire Katniss in The Hunger Games awaken us to the possibility of a life enriched by interconnection and mutual concern. And then there’s that sense of wonder we can recall from childhood, and can feel again in imagined worlds.

  • SH says:

    Thanks for unearthing this. Its saddening that discussing the genre at this point is something between an autopsy and murder mystery. At least I can take heart in the fact that people are working to reverse the damage.

  • castaliahouse says:

    Amusing to see how Tor dove right into the embrace of “high art”, much to the detriment of their sales. Of course, they had their old catalog and their media tie-in novels to make up for their editorial lunacy.

  • Jill says:

    Perhaps not here, but I’ve talked before about how Gentlemen Broncos is one of my favorite movies of recent times. In general, it’s a movie about how the world corrupts the artistic vision (that’s why it appeals to me). But this film is more specifically about the sci fi/fan artistic vision. A young male writes a sci fi book, which is dedicated to his missing father. A popular sci fi writer plagiarizes the book almost verbatim, except that he feminizes it, turning the main protag into a trannie. Goodness–and masculinity–win out when the popular writer is exposed and the boy’s book becomes a bestseller. The movie has a really great soundtrack, too. I’ve watched it about a dozen times now. It was a complete flop in the box office, in part because it’s campy. But at the same time, I don’t think the world was ready for it.

    • Daniel says:

      It was pulled from the theaters because of alleged test audiences. Ebert gave it 2 stars, which would indicate that it was decent enough to go to the screen. I smell shenanigans, and now must see this movie as well.

      • Jill says:

        I hope you both like it–you and SH. There are only a handful of films I’ll watch multiple times, and that’s one of them, vomit scenes notwithstanding. I just watched it again tonight and realized I projected the end about him becoming a bestseller. Ah, well.

        • SH says:

          Don’t sweat it. The whole internet is one giant spoiler. If you still feel bad then Italy lost WW2 and Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time in that Shamamlam movie! Now we’re even!

          • Jill says:

            Actually, I did the opposite of give a spoiler; I added on my fantasy ending, LOL. Funny you should mention Shyamalan, though. I was just saying last night that I suspected Jared Hess would become the next Shyamalan–one hit movie, and then blacklisted by the critics. I love (most) Shyamalan films.

    • Steve says:

      Jill, I’ve been puzzled by the critical hate shown to “Gentleman Broncos” since it came out four or five years ago.

      It has its flaws, but it isn’t by any stretch a bad fil

      Jermaine Clement is hilarious as the self-important plagiarising SF author Ronald Chevalier. Sam Rockwell is – as usual – great fun to watch. Jennifer Coolidge gives an unexpectedly sweet and funny performance as the protagonist’s well-meaning but naive mother.

      Overall it’s a cut above most comedy films, and I’m glad I saw it. I’m glad you mentioned the retro-trippy soundtrack, I enjoyed that too.

  • SH says:

    I just watched the trailer. I have to see this film soon. Thank you, Jill!

  • CS says:

    Noted feminist and environmental activist Margaret Atwood won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1987 (also nominated for a Nebula and Prometheus award) for the Handmaiden’s Tale which even she herself claims was not a sci-fi book. I’m not well read enough in the genre and don’t know the ins and outs of the industry so it may have just been a case of weak competition but this victory seems to me to be tainted by pink bias. Being a Canadian I read the book a month or so ago and found it to be pretty blah. I kind of like Atwood’s terse and detached prose and I also liked the ending but in terms of world-building and ideas there is nothing there. The entirety of the book is “oh, poor girl / governments might become more oppressive to women”. I’m not sure if this win is significant enough to be included in this summary but you may want to note it

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