The Old Gray Genre Ain’t What She Used To Be

I just received an e-mail from a reader who tells me he has read through the Angel’s Luck trilogy about ten times (!). I don’t think I’ve been through those books that many times counting writing, rewriting, editing, proofreading, and correcting the galleys (I never read the books after they come out). In his letter, he asks me, “Do you have anything on the horizon?”

This put me in the position of telling him that, with the exception of one SF novel that I really want to finish, I’m not really writing Science Fiction anymore.

Part of this is by choice – I realized a couple of years ago that there were other genres where I could do quite well that have larger audiences than SF, and my agent agrees.

But there are also some factors at work that I don’t have much control over. For one, I think a Joe Clifford Faust SF novel would be a tough sell right now. I was dropped by Del Rey for disappointing sales – never mind that there was zero advertising or promotion, other than the fact that they were fired up over the book and pushed a copy into the hands of anyone who came into their office (this is how I ended up getting my first agent, which is a lengthy story for another post – if I haven’t already told it). When I asked about advertising before A Death of Honor came out, I was told “Our novels sell themselves.” Guess what, folks?

A few years later the Pembroke Hall novels landed at Bantam. They did advertise them, in Locus, the magazine of the SF trade. When I told them I had an idea for a promotion involving putting copies in the hands of the people most likely to appreciate the book – ad folk – I was given another line about how they knew how to sell their own books. Guess what, folks?

The month that Boddekker’s Demons came out was the same month that Ferman’s Devils was taken out of print. I got a call from Bantam asking, “Do you still have that marketing plan of yours?” I did a mental debate about the wisdom of marketing a book that was the second half of a duology, especially when the first one had been taken off of the shelves, but shrugged and sent it to them anyway. I don’t know if they did anything with it. Likely not. The two books were my two worst sellers of all time – the two books combined sold fewer copies than my previous underachiever, The Essence of Evil.

It’s not a cry in my beer kind of story, and I’m not looking for sympathy. It happens a lot to authors. Musicians, too. Ask Stan Ridgway why he didn’t stay with Geffen Records. The bright side is that, because of the movie deal that went nowhere, the Pembroke Hall novels were also my biggest moneymakers, making more for me than what I made on the other five novels combined.

However, editors don’t look at what books make for authors. If a new Faust SF novel lands on an editor’s desk, he’s going to look at what previous titles did for Bantam and Del Rey. And that sales record sticks to authors like a bad credit rating. Thus, that one SF novel I really want to finish will be a hard sell if and when it gets to that point.

Another factor is that SF just ain’t what it used to be. It’s been beaten back into a corner by Fantasy, and what’s left of the genre has been co-opted by franchises, the largest offenders being the Star Trek/Star Wars axis.

There are still SF authors publishing SF novels, but try to find them. Just try. Without going to a specialty store. If you go into a drugstore or grocery store and find any speculative fiction at all, you’ll find a couple of classic novels by old masters (Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke), a couple of StarWarsTrek novels, and the rest are fantasy. Go into a Waldenbooks or other mall store, and you’ll get the same mix, only more of them. If you’re lucky you might find an old William Gibson (whose current works are now considered mainstream) or, if the planets are aligned just right, a Lois McMaster Bujold. It’s even getting tougher to find new and proper SF at Borders. But maybe that’s because the titles sell out because it’s the only place where they can be found.

Why has all of this occurred? A couple of reasons. As far as the dominance of franchises goes, it’s because, heaven help us all, they sell. Slap “Wars” or “Trek” on the cover of a book and you’re guaranteed that your carefully calculated print run will more or less fly out the door. Publishers, not being stupid, put before the public what sells, and it’s not necessarily what is good for them.

(This brings to mind the notion of another unwanted government agency coming up with an ever-changing, increasingly incomprehensible chart of Daily Intellectual Nutrition Requirements – “Sorry, you’ve had enough Piers Anthony – time for some Phillip K. Dick!”)

The rise of fantasy is something else altogether. Around the time the Lord of the Rings film frenzy was in full swing, one of the Mainstream Media newsmags ran a sidebar article on why SF had been supplanted by Fantasy as the escapist literature of choice. Their theory – and to be honest, I can’t disagree with their thinking – is that science has let us down.

I love to look at magazines like Popular Science from the ’50’s and’60’s. You get visions of personal flying automobiles, undersea highways – that whole sense of optimism captured by Donald Fagen in his song I.G.Y.: On that train all graphite and glitter / Undersea by rail / Ninety minutes from New York to Paris / Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K.

Well, we might have the equivalent of Dick Tracy’s two way wrist radio now, but I still don’t have my own personal Gyrocopter. The underseaways and zeppelin routes never materialized. We did get longer life spans, but the antibiotics that did it for us are now creating superbugs that eat them (and us) for lunch. We used to go around in a peaceful oblivion, not knowing that a well-placed asteroid could End It All for us – now we’re setting up telescopes and satellite networks to warn us of things that we won’t have a chance to save ourselves from. We avoided the nuclear war bullet, but the waste management is another thing. We’re close to all being wired, and what does it bring us? Ads for Teen Slut web sites and prescription drugs without a prescription.

Sheesh. Compared to that, facing down a Balrog in a deep, dank mine, armed with nothing but a little mithril and a sword that glows when orcs are around is a picnic. A picnic, I tell you!

If SF is no longer the escapist literature it once was, it’s because science, in all actuality, is in the business of raising more questions than it answers. And, as I have alluded to before when writing about how to craft the genre, one thing you have to look out for is that An Answer science gives us always has some kind of unforeseen side effect. Nuclear power, si! Nuclear waste, nuclear weapons, hmmm…

There’s one last factor I suppose I should mention. I started out wanting to write mainstream thrillers to begin with. My big influence at the time was Michael Crichton, who had just blown me (and everyone else) away with The Andromeda Strain. Those were the kind of books I wanted to write. Adventures with cutting edge science. That I ended up in SF can, as well-chronicled elsewhere in these pages, be attributed to the fact that I got mononucleosis at an inopportune time in my college career and ended up writing what would become Desperate Measures just to prove a point.

So that’s where SF is, and where I’m not, and why. It makes me a little wistful thinking about it – it’s like leaving your small hometown and coming back to find they’ve built an Applebees. I will always like and respect the genre, but I don’t know that it’s home anymore.

Not to worry. My love of science is going with me. There are some science moments in and that’s the end of the news…, albeit in a more Crichtonesque vein. If you look at it that way, then perhaps I’m not so much leaving home as coming home.

Listening: Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless” (via iPod Shuffle)

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3 responses to “The Old Gray Genre Ain’t What She Used To Be

  1. Gabe Bergemann here Mr. Faust. Thank you very much for your response! I am looking forward to reading your upcoming work (even if it is not SF). Being a 34 year old nerd has had its ups and downs over the years, but I have to agree that SF has taken a turn for the worse, and although I appreciate literature other than SF, I look to that as an escape. I think that is why I re-read novels. I go through about two to four a week during my short bus ride to work, and over my lunch hour. I certainly hope your work in progress finds a publisher, and I can gaurantee you I will find it, and buy it. I remember being quite elated at Borders when Boddekker’s Demons came out, and reading it in two days, and then reading it again! I will most likely read the Angel’s Luck trilogy ten more times eventually, but I always have an eye out for something new.Thank you for providing me with untold hours of escape!

  2. Mad Russian the Natural Philosopher

    Mr. Faust,I have to disagree about your assessment of Science Fiction unless you are referring to Science Fiction writers in America. I just read four 600-800 page novels by Alastair Reynolds and plan to read more. Another writer I just discovered is Ken MacLeod. So if you think things are dim for Science Fiction, take a look at the British scene (perhaps the British may revitalize the genre).

  3. There is some great new SF coming out of the UK right now (don’t miss Gary Gibson, either).My point is that it’s not the writers – it’s the market. If publishers think that only Star Wars or Star Trek or Fantasy novels are going to sell, that’s where they’re going to spend their money – at the expense of SF as we knew it.There’s still good stuff out there, as you pointed out. It’s just getting harder to find.

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