[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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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 length).
  • A tendency toward endless repetitions of what was once a good idea. Foundation, Rama, and the Dune series are examples.
  • 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 Asimov, 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 of them.

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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