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The Death of Science Fiction
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Theodore Sturgeon's Law: 90% of science fiction is crap. Unfortunately, like
unemployment rates and average global temperatures, I think that
number is rising, too. And, as consumers of SF, I think we
should be aware of the market-oriented forces that are indeed
making it harder and harder to find quality SF. Among them:
- A tendency toward overly long books (because booksellers can put
a higher price on fatter books, and because the SF reviewing
community has come to equate authorial ambition with mere
- A tendency toward endless repetitions of what was once a good
idea. Foundation, Rama, and the Dune series are
- A tendency toward junior authors spending what are traditionally
one's most productive years turning out work in the mold of other
writers, instead of developing their own voices.
- A tendency toward the graying of the SF reading audience:
there's a lot of truth to the old saw that the golden age of SF
is when you were 13. There's also a lot of truth to Samuel R.
Delany's observation that if you don't start reading SF when
you're young, you can't start reading it when you're old. But
SF is failing to find significant numbers of new readers.
Part of that is the general decline in North American literacy,
and part of it is that the very people fascinated by high
technology and computers and strange worlds used to have nowhere
to go except SF books, but can now turn instead to computers
(gaming and hacking), to role-playing games, and to an endless
stream of SF movies. (This, of course, is reinforced in SF's
current nostalgia: the publishers are desperate for more
Clarke, and Heinlein, 'cause that's what their now-middle-aged
audience remembers fondly from when it was 13.)
Now, there definitely is some quality work out there. Indeed, I
don't even think quality material is that hard to get published I'm
sure the editors say, hey, this is pretty good, and it's been a
while since we printed anything that was, so, sure, why not?
But my fear is two-fold. First, a person who has become
interested in SF through the media, or because of vague childhood
memories, will pick up a book from the vast SF rack and be turned
off. He or she will be turned off because the work will almost
certainly be crap. You and I know how to find the good ones, but
someone new to the field won't have a clue. Yup, you could read
a good SF novel a week each week of the year, no doubt. But if
you read an SF novel a week picked at random from the rack, you'd
never come back for a second year of such torture.
The second is the big-three mentality. In the field, we know
that names like Mike Resnick and Lois McMaster Bujold and John E. Stith
and Walter Jon Williams are the stars of current SF. But, and I
mean no offense to these fine authors, the average reader has never heard
But every literate person within and without the field knows
Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. Asimov, who died recently having
done no major SF in the twenty years since The Gods Themselves;
Clarke, whose last truly major work was The Fountains of
Paradise in 1979; and Heinlein well, dead for years and
author in his later years of, um, unusual books.
So what do the publishers give us? Books with Asimov's name on
them that aren't by Asimov. Books with Clarke's name on them
that aren't by Clarke. And reissues of old Heinlein. Sure,
there are some other bestselling writers: Larry Niven, who is
sharecropped by Baen; Anne McCaffrey, who is sharecropped by Baen
and Ace. There are even authors that have done no significant
solo work who have become famous as one of multiple names on a
book spine: Jerry Pournelle is an example (his solo work amounts
to little more than a couple of Laser Books in the 1970s and the
novelization of Escape from the Planet of the Apes).
And yet, the publishers do whatever they can to continue to milk
the big three: Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein producing
packaged products such as Rama II and
Isaac Asimov's Robot City, which weren't even written
by the authors in question.
The problem with the publishers still emphasizing the big three
is that you can't go on doing false collaborations or works "in
the universe of" without eventually mining out the vein and
being left with nothing.
Here's an analogy for current SF publishing that most SF fans
will be familiar with: the Star Trek movies.
The Star Trek TV series was something a lot of people had fond,
nostalgic memories of. Rather than making a new big-budget SF
vision, Paramount decided, hey, let's play up to that nostalgia,
and re-do Star Trek. Guess what? It worked. Star Trek: The
Motion Picture, deeply flawed in many ways though it was, made
tons of money. Did Paramount go in other directions, giving us
new SF visions? It did not. Instead it said, hey, let's give
the public more of the same. Lo and behold, we got Trek II,
III, IV, V, and VI.
And what's happened? Boom. Crash. Trek VI was the last. The
old cast is simply too old to go on, say the reviewers, and
Paramount failed to develop and promote any younger talent during
the dozen years it cranked out Trek films. The big-screen cash
cow is dead. Sure, Paramount has the feature film Star Trek:
Generations in production, but they had a proven box-office
success on their hands, and killed it.
Consider all the characters introduced in the original Star
Trek movie series, though, every one of whom was ultimately
killed off, shoved to the background, or simply forgotten in the
mad rush to keep yanking the teats labeled Shatner, Nimoy, and
Kelley: Will Decker, Ilia, Saavik, Scotty's nephew Peter Preston,
Carol Marcus, Kirk's son David Marcus, Chrisopher Lloyd's Klingon
captain Kruge, Saavik #2, John Larroquette's Klingon officer Maltz
(who was taken prisoner by the Federation), marine biologist Gillian
Taylor, John Schuck's Klingon ambassador Kamarag, Admiral Cartwright,
Spock's brother Sybok, Romulan ambassador Caithlin Dar, Spock's protégée
Valeris, Klingon General Chang. Sure, some of these had to
be dispensed with for dramatic reasons, but if even a handful of
them had been developed over the years (heck, if even Sulu, Uhura, and
Chekov had been developed over the years), the movie series could
have continued, instead of grinding to a halt.
Likewise, you can only milk Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein so long
before (a) you run dry, (b) the public finally realizes that two
of them are dead, and the third, sad to say, won't be with us
much longer, and (c) the audience who grew up on Asimov, Clarke,
and Heinlein likewise begins to shuffle off this mortal coil. By
thinking only of the cash that can be grabbed today, instead of
developing for the future, the SF field might eventually collapse
the way the Star Trek movie series has.
Proof? I named a bunch of great SF writers at the beginning of
this article. Not one of them outsells the work by Gentry Lee
published as putative collaborations with Clarke. Gentry Lee is
the real super-bestseller SF author today. But will any readers
buy his solo books outside of Clarke's universe when they start
coming out? My bet is no, and that as Gentry Lee's career goes,
so, sadly will the field as a whole.
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