As we all know the ticket to fame, fortune and er… whatever it is we get from writing is to write fantasy. At least I was told as far back as the early nineties that science fiction didn’t sell. As well as being told as soon as I broke in that ladies wrote fantasy. (No use telling them I wasn’t a lady. At that I escaped only lightly insulted. My friend Rebecca Lickiss was told she had the heart of a fantasy writer. She says she has the keys to that drawer and she can’t figure out how her agent knew.)
My clue to why science fiction isn’t selling came both with a review that insisted there was nothing new and no big idea to Darkship Thieves and therefore it wasn’t “important” and when a reader at Mad Genius Club – Hi Synova! – told me that she liked Darkship Thieves because it was science fiction as it used to be “before we made ourselves small.”
Before I proceed – and because this isn’t about me – the big idea in Darkship Thieves is that laws can worsen the problem they’re trying to control. Yes, I know the idea of growing someone as a spare body or spare parts isn’t new. You think I’m stupid? But I got sick and tired onto nausea of this being portrayed as an evil of OPEN and free market societies and “there ought to be a law” being recommended as a remedy for it.
Quickly – I’ve been told by no smaller authority than my son that these posts run way too long – laws don’t stop things. They certainly don’t stop technology. They just make it go underground. And in an open, free market society growing a full human being for parts or as a replacement body is inane. Humans are EXPENSIVE to grow. No matter what you do, you still have to feed them, clothe them, educate them at least enough to control them. In a society that doesn’t restrict science with stupid laws, ways will be found to grow the needed organ. Probably a lot faster, too. And anyone trying to grow a whole human as a replacement body will at the very least get shunned. (It is still murder!) OTOH in a society in which the IDEA of cloning has been forbidden for so long it’s literally unthinkable, people with money and power can have an “heir” grown as a spare body.
Unfortunately science fiction – excepting Baen, of course, (though that gets dismissed as “mostly military sf”) and a few non baen books that managed to get through the gauntlet – has devolved to a state in which two types of science fiction are accepted: 1- Hard science fiction in which the “new idea” has to be something startling, different and never used (this btw, is insane when it comes to readers. Readers don’t demand that every fantasy novel come up with a new, startling, totally different form of magic. The exploration of tropes happens incrementally, not by startling, totally new, never before voiced ideas. All of us, as readers, like the familiar with a new twist.) And 2- sociological science fiction.
For some reason to count as the second you have to pile on some social “issue” or danger that has been discussed to death in liberal arts courses in the last forty years. The anomie of modern society say. Or the aching pain of gender differences. To my knowledge the only reason the heartbreak of psoriasis hasn’t been mentioned is that liberal arts professors have yet to take it up. (And why should day? Eczema is a much more achy breaky hearty thingy. I mean, I have it, and this is ALL about my belly button, right?)
So, how was it different, before we made ourselves small? Well… Heinlein wrote about slavery and its social consequences in Citizen of the Galaxy. You don’t get much bigger social issue than with a young man being sold at the very opening. Stripping it of the racial overtones it has mostly in the US allowed him to analyze the institution in its full peculiarity (and irrationality) as well as the conditions that allowed it to occur. Ditto in one of the stories in Green Hills of Earth, whose name escapes me now. Starman Jones? A society controlled by guilds and unions. Podkayne of Mars? Treat your children as commodities and see the results. Stranger? What the meaning of being human is. Is it genetic or inborn? The Lazarus Long cycle? What happens when our taboos meet life that’s prolonged beyond our wildest dreams.
Let’s take someone else – Clifford D Simak. They Walked Like Men. The big idea? Is fiat currency a good idea? City? What happens after Man and what is unique to Man? Way Station? Can a man live on out of his time? The werewolf principle? Can star travel change us to the point where we can’t be human on Earth anymore?
Other big idea books and series: A canticle for Leibowitz; the World of Tiers; anything A E Van Vogt wrote (the man threw out three big ideas per page,) Foundation and a ton others which I’d tell you if I weren’t too lazy to walk over to my science fiction bookcase this early in the morning.
What do all those have in common? Shout louder, I can’t hear you!
Oh, yeah, I KNOW! They were fun. People enjoyed reading them. They sold. The ideas were wrapped around an adventure, something that made it fun. And they were written in such a way that people in hopeless situations knew they could get out, if they worked hard enough and had just the right breaks.
Polyanish, you say? Oh, sure. It’s so much better to pound into people’s heads, over and over again that they’re victims, can’t escape and are ultimately doomed. What are you? The guardian of Hades? “Abandon all hope ye who enter here?” Or do you abrogate to yourself the power of pulling people out of their hopeless situation through your “art” or perhaps the power of “advocacy” so “government” can intervene and save them? (Flash – government is composed of people too. If the individual can do nothing, government can do nothing too – only they do it faster, harder and with somebody else’s money.)
At the end of this we’re seeing science fiction which SERIOUSLY advocates that all our destiny and actions on Earth are set by our genes (oh, I kid you not) and that this is a “good” thing, and science fiction in which good aliens come to save us from ourselves (because they have nothing better to do with their time? Save two humans and get an interest rate of a human per millenium.)
And then people are astounded – shocked, shocked, I tell you – that this stuff doesn’t sell well. Because you know, people are a) dying to hear again all the sad stories that were pounded into them in college. b) people like to be told they can’t do anything and are without the ability to save themselves. c) hard luck sob stories that don’t end well always are good sellers. This is why people stop to read the cardboard of beggars by the side of the road. “Homeless; parents died in a fire; dog got run over; have seizures; child has the gnats; can’t work.” Riveting stuff that. And totally plausible.
Will the future bring us big problems? I should hope so. The past had big problems too. Will we be able to solve them? I should hope so. After some truly horrible interregnums we have by and large solved the problems thrown at us.
To face the future we need to think about the future. (I have nothing against fantasy. I’ve been known to write fantasy. But a different muscle gets used for that. And it prepares for different things.) To have the confidence in what is right, we need to know what is right and not continuously berate ourselves and doubt our judgement because of what distant ancestors did before our grandparents were born. But to solve big problems, we need to be big.
Training a telescope on one’s own belly button will only reveal lint. You like that? You go right on staring at it. I prefer looking at galaxies.