Yesterday one of you reprobates called my attention to a post in Stacey McCain’s blog, by co-blogger Wombat-socho, about sci fi, mil sci fi, the attraction of sci fi authors to totalitarian philosophies, and the seeming monopoly Baen has on Mil SF.
And I realized it had been a long time since I did a post on the state of SF. Or the state of the state in SF. Or something.
I posted a comment with my human wave post, thinking it would answer at least some of it: I do talk about sf being taken over by grey goo and our chance to take it back. But I knew the post was at best tangential and his questions needed more explanation.
So, let’s start from the top – Wombat points out that we, the Odds, the Geeks, the kids who could quote from Star Trek in High School (yeah, I could too, though you’d have needed to use the iron maiden to get me to admit it. In public I’d tell you Star Trek wasn’t “real” Science Fiction. That was Simak and Heinlein and others.), the people who grew up able to debate for hours the comparative strengths of Heinlein and Asimov… We’ve won. I realized this when there were programs with battles of robots on TV. I realized that when things like Myth Busters became nation wide successes. I realized that when most new blockbuster movies drew on science fiction.
Wombat goes from that to the politics of non-Baen Sci Fi authors without ever touching a central question in this: possibly because he’s not aware there’s a question to be asked. He might not know that despite the phenomenal ratings of movies with sci fi or fantasy themes, despite the fact that sci fi and fantasy has leaked into everyday life, despite the fact that you can mention games and movies with a basis in sci fi and fantasy and every will understand… Science fiction and fantasy books almost don’t sell.
There are exceptions to this, of course. George R. R. Martin has a license to coin money, but only because of the TV series. However, almost every other sci fi or fantasy success has to lean heavily on another genre that does well on its own. Thus Harry Potter really leaned heavily on YA and on boarding school adventures (which used to be wildly popular in Europe in the twentieth century. I know, I grew up on them.) And – arguably – the most successful sub-genre in science fiction and fantasy, currently is the Urban-fantasy with various shadings of paranormal romance which leans heavily on romance and – at the other end – on erotica.
But by and large, your average science fiction and fantasy author going through conventional houses for the last twenty years was cautioned that he or she had in fact found a way to go broke slowly. We were told to have another job. I was strongly advised to get a job teaching in college to support my writing habit. I was told that print runs for science fiction and fantasy were small and getting smaller every year.
No one tells romance writers this. They do tell it to mystery writers and more on that later.
The exception to this is Baen. Baen makes its living on Sci fi and fantasy, and doesn’t seem to think we need either YA or insane amounts of sex to make it saleable. There is a reason for this too.
Part of the blame for this is Robert A. Heinlein’s. It pains me to say it, but there it is. You see, in the beginning there were the pulps. The pulps were written for those the glitterati hated: schoolboys, young men in manual professions, young women who’d never admit to reading them, anyone who wanted a sense of adventure. Great literature they were not – nor did they aspire to being. They were what comics used to be before they got all snooty and “graphic novelly.” If you were caught reading a pulp mag you were assumed to be no great intellectual shakes. However, there was a good chance that the people you went to school or worked with were reading them too.
They were entertainment for normal people.
It is part of the history of science fiction that Heinlein made the genre respectable, dragging it from magazines to the book shelves, and giving it respectability. Parents who scanned his YA were more likely than not to approve. The books dealt with serious themes in a serious manner, just projected to the future.
Unfortunately this made the genre respectable enough that the generation who came next – the new wavers – tried to get it a seat at the table of “respectable literary fiction.” This folly lead to a whole of lot of nonsense, mostly belly-button-gazing, dystopia, a heck of a lot of sex and a “I Hate Humanity” ethos. (At least Athos only hated women. Never mind.)
This happened because by the time SF/F tried to get taken seriously as Literature, Literature was going through its hysterical retreat phase. What I mean is that literature, like most other arts of the Western civilization went into a sort of denial of themselves after WWI. It is something I’ve mentioned before. The entire civilization is seriously shell shocked and kind of up its own behind, and the arts reflect that. Part of what Western Civ arts have become is a toy of the elites (aka status markers) and at the same time a way to deconstruct civilization. This is why we get “installations” of an author’s excretions acclaimed as art.
Literature got kind of like that too. I know. I have a degree in the stuff. I still remember – not fondly – the novel that tried to get away with “deconstructing the idea that something has to happen.” But the sad thing is that most modern novels try to do that too – and sci fi jumped immediately on the high literature bandwagon. A lot of novels that are taken seriously are literally about nothing. In fact having a lot of sex (because that proves you’re mature, doncha know) a lot of victimhood (particularly female victimhood, because we’ve run male readers off the genre in droves) and a lot of nihilistic despair passes for deep thought and philosophical maturity.
The problem is that science fiction lost its vast number of middle-of-the-road readers with this. The people only looking for fun. On the other hand, it failed to gain the high brow readers it craved. In the world of snobs, sci-fi origins in “bug eyed monsters” tainted it. People like Margaret Atwood writing – mediocre – science fiction refuse to admit it’s science fiction, because that would make them “non serious” and stop their award money.
Sci fi, in fact, resembles the high school girl who left her nerdy boyfriend to compete for the captain of the football team, and the more the jock rejects her, the more hysterically she tries to ape the cheerleaders and proved she’s worthy.
It is more like that than you think. Because the only people who remained behind in science fiction were those who were truly odd and who liked the themes so much that they’d endure everything to get their sci fi fix, the field started suffering from its own kind of “isolated culture” syndrome. They had to prove – to themselves, if not to anyone else – that the reason they were shunned and considered weird was that they were smarter, better, more “special” than the crowds.
So sci fi (and to some extent fantasy though that was almost always more popular, first by relying on Tolkien and producing an endless stream of quest fantasies, and then moving on to historical fantasies and others – fantasy was less part of the pulp culture and, I guess, had less to prove) became weirder and weirder. It also became further and further left, an effect of most of the gate keepers (editors, agents, publishing houses) being men (and women) of the left, and of sf wanting to earn “recognition” and “legitimacy.”
By the time I came in, the structures of what we’ll call “recognition reward” in SF were so far to the left that having a “young communists” club among sf writers is a given, and that people proudly proclaiming themselves communists at panels is also a given. However, I once was treated to a half an hour rant by an editor who thought libertarians were the devil incarnate, and also thought (!) they wanted to ban the internal combustion engine.
Whether the genre by itself also attracts statists is something completely different. I don’t think so. It did, early in the 20th century, but early in the 20th century people ASSUMED that the future was statist. It was part of the view of history then. It’s possible that the idea of creating a world and setting up how the future will go is, inherently, something that attracts people who think society should be planned. Again I don’t think so. I think the reason this happened was the gatekeepers and their twin drive for recognition and “improving message.”
If you refused to play that game, you were considered at best a light weight and at worst an enemy. And then your only chance to be published was Baen.
I said Baen was doing better with the public – if not with the critics – than most science fiction for a reason. The reason is that Baen does sci fi as the movies (and games) do sci fi. It is the pulps cleaned up and with real science (and history.) While the books can have a message (us SF folk are horribly opinionated. Part of it is that we read so much history) the message is not why the book is written. The book needs, most of all, to be about people who have exciting adventures in a future that can be wonderful or horrible (or in the case of my futures, yes) but which must be interesting.
And that is what makes Baen different. The fact that Baen also publishes every political color on the spectrum makes them a pariah with the con organizers, the award givers, and the layer upon layer of status seekers, but if one of my kids’ friends read sf at all, he was likely to read Baen – and I once got a huge discount on an appliance purchase because I wrote for Baen. (Turned out the entire staff of the store read Baen. You’re not going to find that for any other publisher.)
Now, is Baen a mega blockbuster selling house? No. But when you consider that until the last two years or so it was hard to find Baen in most stores (the store managers, too, and their bosses, were status seekers and knew Baen was “fascist” because it publishes writers of every political stripe, from communist to libertarian.)
As for Baen’s affinity for mil sf – part of this is because when you write the big stories, the important stories, in a future history, you’re going to end up with battles and wars and revolutions. Even I, who am not a mil-sf writer (not that I have anything against it, but I lack the background) have ended up writing a story about a revolution. Well, several novels. That’s why it’s called “the Earth Revolution.” I think it will be four books. Or maybe five. Could be six. The other part of it is that men as readers have been run off sf/f by men-as-wimps and men-as-villains. You literally couldn’t sell a novel with an heroic male except to Baen when I broke in. You might still nto be able to.
Part of the problem with the rest of SF is that it’s tied itself to such a fringe leftist philosophy that with few exceptions, they can’t even write mil sf or if they do it is to prove that “war never solved anything” which means the average person who has graduated Kindergarten is going to throw the book against the wall with gusto (and occasionally with disgust, too.)
Now… is Baen serving the entire market available for this? I don’t think so. Since the advent of indie I’ve seen the hunger out there for the old style, fun SF. Did you know that right now if you want to make a mega hit right off the gate in indie publishing, you’re better off writing mil sf or even space opera than Romance? And Romance, as a genre published by traditional publishing outsells science fiction more than ten to one.
But the hunger is there, and it’s unsatisfied. And it turns out the market for fun science fiction (and fantasy) was not dead, just sleeping. Men (and women, but men were the ones who walked away in droves) who thought they’d gotten over science fiction are coming back in droves and making some authors very happy.
It’s a great time to write science fiction and fantasy. We not only have a shelf of our own, but it’s an exploded shelf fitting for an expanded universe.
All those people who like sci fi movies and themes? They’re only waiting to enjoy books that are as much fun.
The critics and the status seekers won’t like us, but that don’t make no never mind. We’ll overwhelm them with a wave of human-positive, fun science fiction and fantasy. A Human Wave.