Science Fiction – too geeky, doldrums or what?

I love science fiction. Although I read and write science fiction and fantasy, and a bit of mainstream (shh, don’t tell anyone), my heart is in science fiction. Therefore, it pains me when agent Kristin Nelson says:

I just wish the market was stronger in SF right now. I did just sell an SF novel a couple of months ago but that wasn’t an easy task.

And she’s right. I haven’t read or bought any fantasy for a while, because I’ve been catching up on SF. There is some good stuff out there, but… anything that’s recently published is likely to be a work of an established author, or a collection/reprint of older work. Why? Why aren’t as new science fiction writers getting a break as there are new fantasy writers?

Here are a few points to consider or discuss:

1. Science Fiction may be one of the last bastions of male dominance (see also this excellent post by Alisa Krasnostein). Since the reading audience is female-dominated (how much – reply if you can provide a link, I’ll put it up here), this implies a reduced market.

2. Science Fiction seems to suffer an identity crisis. While some purists would like to see science fiction limited to works which extend the boundaries of known science, in practice, science fiction includes all those works that involve futuristic technology and/or concepts, extra-terrestrial intelligence or space travel, whether any of these things are intended to reflect reality or not.

3. Hard science fiction has become too geeky. Science fiction that extends the boundaries of known science is becoming both harder to write and harder to understand. Since the boundaries of science have shifted into regions few people without degrees in quantum mechanics will understand, the audience for this type of science fiction is shrinking.

4. Science fiction has the reputation to be all about the ideas and not about the characters.

To a certain extent, I would say bollocks to all these points. There are good female science fiction writers. Not as many as men, though. Frankly, I’m disappointed that at this day and age, such a stupid point should matter. I don’t care about the gender of the author of a book I read. But apparently, men are less likely to read a book by a woman.

Science fiction is a very wide genre, and readers embrace that. To argue that a book that doesn’t adhere to strict realistic facts isn’t science fiction is just plain silly. Ditto the requirement that science fiction should somehow push the boundaries of science. Ow-come on! Readers love McMaster-Bujold’s Miles books. Do they push the boudaries of science? No. Does anyone care? No. Does that make the Miles books ‘not science fiction’? Tell me where else you’d classify them.

We do see character-based science fiction on the shelves. Again, the Miles books are a good example. Again, this falls in the sub-category some people would classify as inferior science fiction. Soft science fiction, space opera. Not real. By the same token, Star Wars isn’t science fiction.

Tell me, if part of the science fiction community disowns part of its own genre, what hope is there the genre will grow? Do we see epic fantasy writers try to exclude books written about vampires from their genre?

I would like to promote ALL science fiction. Frankly, I’m sick of vampires.

8 comments on “Science Fiction – too geeky, doldrums or what?

  1. Oh how can you be sick of vampires! 😉

    I’m not sure what my aversion to sci fi reading is, but I love and buy heaps of sci fi movies/series. Reading Dune was irriting because Herbert gave all the plot twists up to you on a platter about half the book before it became a mystery, and Irulan was a whinging, whiny little blonde princess rather than the strong character I loved her for in the Sci Fi channel series. I love the differences between the overly optimistic view of the future in Star Trek and the incredibly depressing and pessimisstic Battle Star Galactica. StarGate Sg:1 is always good fun, but didn’t really get into Atlantis because the characters were really lame IMO.

    But I agree with the ‘there’s not really that much sci fi coming out’. For the months (almost a year!) that I’ve been doing reviewing on my site, I think I’ve gotten four sci fi books. Three were from famous old writers, two being single author collections, the novel being co-written, and the fourth was Maria Quinn’s Gene Thieves which seemed more character and social based (more was talked about the societal impact of the technology rather than the technology itself. Most of the technology I think is already available these days, but it’s just made more so easy to access in this book).

    • I’m just wondering, if there was more SF out there by new writers, would you read it?
      Even the offworld SF has moved on a lot since Dune, but it’s all being written by established writers. As you might know, I’m a HUGE fan of C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series. Book #10 has just come out. But… book #1 was published in 1994. C.J. Cherryh has been writing for a long time before that, of course. Books of that series are always on the shelves in my local bookshops. Ditto McMaster Bujold’s Miles series. Why isn’t more of this soft-SF being published?

  2. Where do I begin, I could write thousands of words on this. Instead I will just rant. There is science-fiction being published, just ask KA Bedford, but not in Australia as his Aurealis winner Time Machines Repaired While U Wait is published in Canada. I enjoyed it, even though I prefer hard science-fiction, as I like time travel novels. I have been trying to read as much Australian science fiction as possible and, as with overseas authors, find that I read much more male authored sci-fi. I am yet to find a female author of sci-fi, except Margaret Atwood, who had me going back for seconds. (And people will argue that Margaret Atwood’s booker shortlisted Oryx and Crake and The Arthurs C Clarke Winner, The Handmaids Tale aren’t sci-fi. I even hear science fiction fans argue about the appropriateness of the term sci-fi. What a waste of time.) Anyway, it is interesting that in a world the supposedly disdains sci-fi that major literary writers like Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood choose the genre. For me, there does seem to be a difference with the sci-fi written by males and females. The few novels I have read by female writers like Michelle Marrquadt and Maxine McArthur seem to be somewhat inspired by Babylon 5 and be all about people conspiring against each other, they were full of a lot of talk. Whereas novels I have enjoyed are more about ideas and characters doing something. I also have the impression that male writers tend to go for the more apocalyptic, everything is not going to be fine in the end type stories that I enjoy. This is why I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s books. But I still have a few sci fi books to read written by Australian female authors so who is to know what I might find. If sci-fi is on the downer, why are literature writers dabbling in it? And I agree, bullocks to so called lack of characterisation in sci-fi, just read anything by George Turner. Perhaps readers concentrate on the characters in other genres because the books are about nothing.


    • Ranting is good!

      But doesn’t this just prove my point that SF is very diverse, and it doesn’t help that peoploe within the genre are trying to discredit other writers in the genre as ‘not-SF writers’. OK, you enjoy ideas-based SF, and find character-based SF ‘books about nothing’. Well, for me, I’m a bit in the middle, and there are books in both camps I’ve enjoyed. But I wouldn’t dream of claiming any part of SF outside the genre. The fact that you bring up Margaret Atwood illustrates the identiy crisis in the genre. And while we’re all trying to decide what books/movies can rightfully claim the title SF (Transformers anyone?), fantasy is running away with a lot of the sales.

      Fantasy writers don’t bicker over whether anything that includes werewolves is ‘proper’ fantasy.

  3. We’ve subscribed to the Science Fiction Book Club since forever, and I’ve noticed lately, that nearly the entire catalog consists of old books that have been repackaged. There are only a few new books offered each time. Sometimes these are by new authors, but mostly not. Then of course, there are pages and pages of vampire or porn (or vampire AND porn). Then more pages of old books they haven’t bothered to repackage – they’re just reminding us they are still for sale.

    As a SF writer who has yet to be published, it’s a discouraging world to live in. As a SF reader, it’s just as bad, because darn it – I want new books to read, and I want books that I LIKE to read. But most of what gets published is hyper-violent mind game-type stuff, with unappealing characters.

    As a reader, I’ve ended up in a demographic that likes space opera and soft science fiction. I like the “idea” stories, too – I grew up on Asimov and Heinlein, etc., but I want to read stories with characters that are people I’d like to know. And frankly, I’m trying to write novels that encompass both worlds.

    Because that’s what I’d like to read.

    • Totally! Walk into a bookshop with a decent SFF section, and almost all science fiction on the shelves is re-hashed, fan fiction (Star Wars, Star Trek etc) or by established authors. That is exactly what I mean. But why? Readers want it, but publishers are just not publishing it.

  4. WoW! I feel so enlightened after reading your post. I didn’t know this type of argument existed.

    I’m writing a science fiction or I think I am, heh, and it borderlines fantasy so much that I’m confused on if I can even call it science fiction. When I go back and edit I really plan on making a clearer distinction after reading this post.

    I’m honestly not big on science fiction myself, but just had a nagging concept for a novel that wouldn’t leave me alone. I know you wrote this piece some time back, but I couldn’t pass up complimenting you on the post. I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Pingback: SF/F Links: Starting Off July | The World in the Satin Bag

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