22 August 2010

Sci-Fi's Screwed-up Priorities

The popularity of science fiction these days can't be denied. At lest in media form. Look at how many major network TV shows have a sci-fi element to them. Look at the number of movies with sci-fi aspects released in the last few years.

Meanwhile, the sales of science fiction novels and short stories continue to shrink, with a few notable exceptions. For example, the circulation of Asimov's and Analog and been steadily declining for years. Can this contradiction be explained?

I think it can, but it is an explanation many people do not want to hear, especially those who are firmly entrenched in the industry. Science fiction in the written form has become so self-absorbed that it has lost touch with the larger population of readers. The majority of books that get lauded by sci-fi critics and win awards are inaccessible to the average reader. Yes, the world in the sci-fi novel might be original or the science might be detailed, but the plot is not absorbing, the characters are not sympathetic, and/or the style is dry. While the critic or dedicated sci-fi reader might extoll the fact that the book is either different that any book that has come before or is a clever "tribute" to a book that has come before, all of that is lost on a potential larger audience that might watch a sci-fi movie or TV show. Lost or bored, they'll put the book down after the fist chapter and go back to their steady diet of mysteries, thrillers, or even fantasy. Science fiction, they will conclude, lives up to its reputation as being something reserved for eggheads.

I recently joked with some of my friends about how the fiction reviews in Locus were useful: I avoid the books that the reviewers like and read the ones they don't. This is an oversimplification, but it does bring home a point. I've given up on many highly-lauded sci-fi books. Oftentimes, I'm impressed with the ideas but unimpressed with the story. On the other hand, some sci-fi books have gotten an unfairly bad rap because they were simply entertaining, rather than super enlightening.

In rendering this opinion, I realize I open myself to some standard responses, some of which can be downright nasty. For example, those who fail to understand or enjoy a sci-fi book that has received critical acclaim are not considered "sophisticated" sci-fi readers, or else they are just not on the same intellectual level as those who, for example, enjoy reading a twenty-page explanation about how a particular scientific gadget works. "Sorry, we're going to have to kick you out of the egghead group. You belong with the mouth breathers."

My response? Unite, fellow sci-fi mouth breathers! I know I'm not the only one out there who wants a solid story with his science.

12 comments:

Simon Kewin said...

Interesting post. I agree with a lot of what you say, although I'm sure there's room for all different sorts of SF, hardcore and popular, enlightening and "merely" entertaining.

I do agree, absolutely, that the story should come first : characters and plot are what make any book compelling. I think the problem is that, with SF, the big idea often comes first (I know it does with me) and then characters and plot etc. need to be bolted on afterwards. And that can be done with greater or lesser success.

But I think it's fine if people like to read books that are mainly about the ideas. So long as they don't complain if others think differently.

PS. slight typo : "fist" should be "first".

Edward W. Robertson said...

Hard, idea-driven SF that's undistinguished when it comes to characters or style or story is clearly something with no appeal to people who aren't fans of hard, idea-driven SF.

Then again, I follow a lot of markets who publish a lot of literary/SF fiction, which (wrongly, sure, but not that wrongly) doesn't reach any wider than standard literary short fiction.

I have nothing against editors expressing their personal editorial vision in their publication, but if you put me against the wall and asked me to choose between purity of art, idea, or entertainment, I'd go with entertainment.

Martin Willoughby said...

I think you are spot on. There's too much 'cleverness' and long scientific passages in some of these books.

Also, I find that the more they are hamstrung by our current knowledge, the less interesting the people and the stories.

Verne and Wells dared to dream and are still read today. What will become of today's SF authors in 100 years time?

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I don't resent the awards, etc, going to the most pure examples of a genre, though I often don't enjoy them, either.

I think a writer has to make a conscious decision about each story as to its accessibility. I was asked the other night what my latest project was (a future thriller) and she immediately said, "I don't like SF. I'm not that interested in science."

I blurted without thinking that the book is very accessible, that it's my intent to write a more mainstream story. I realized I wanted people like her to read and enjoy the book. Obviously, it might cut out some hardcore SF audience. Up to that point, I've been worrying the book wasn't high-brow SF enough. But you really probably can't have it both ways.

Annette Bowman said...

I think that there can be both interesting and entertaining science fiction. I think that science fiction and fantasy are very prevalent in various media and some really outstanding science fiction has come out in movies and in video games. The last time that I bought a copy of Analog it was very disappointing. The stories were boring although some were by "big" name authors, the format hasn't changed in decades, and the science commentary was out of date and not inspiring. Analog, Asimov's, and F&SF need a serious rehaul and upgrade and the editors need to be aiming for a younger audience and pick more engaging stories.

lesleylsmith said...

With all due respect to Editor Dave, I totally disagree with his premise that "sci-fi" has screwed up priorities. What I believe is going on is a common phenomenon: critics look for different things than audiences do. When was the last time you agreed with a movie critic, for example? A large variety of SF books continue to be published and are enjoyed by a large variety of readers. I hope this continues for a long, long time!

David E. Hughes said...

Glad I could spark a healthy discussion. I like the analogy above to literary short stories. Oftentimes they are far more inaccessible than the worst of SF. As to fantasy . . . that will be the subject of another post.

Charity Bradford said...

Hmmm, I wonder if this is why none of the contemporary sci-fi writers ring a bell with me. I read sci-fi, but it's all the classics, Asimov, Ben Bova, Bradbury, Heinlen, and so forth.

I am actually worried about labeling my novel sci-fi because it IS character driven and the science is light. Part of me was happy when one of my alpha readers said, "I never liked science fiction, but I like this!" That lasted a few months until I realized marketing to sci-fi might be a problem. LOL, who knew?

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

Charity, just call it "accessible SF" and "appeals to a wider audience". Turn it into a marketing ploy!! :)

writtenwyrdd said...

If the public doesn't understand it--and, let's face it, sf requires an acquired reader skill set--the reading feels too dry or too much like *work* for most readers out there.

As for Asimov's I rarely like the stories in it, and I love the genre. I think their sense of genre purity is damning the magazine.

I think, too, that fantasy is doing much better than sf because we are constantly barraged with tech and it feels like we're living a scifi life these days. So people go for where they can find mystery and magic.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

I've heard that fantasy is very popular in wartime and economic strife, too.

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