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Genre Hothouse

(excerpted from Locus Magazine, December 1997)
Gardner Dozois
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

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Gardner Dozois is best known as the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, a position for which he has won numerous Hugo and Locus awards, and of the annual Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies. He also has a distinguished career as a writer. He won Nebulas two years in a row for best short story, for ''The Peacemaker'' (1983) and ''Morning Child'' (1984). He's published one solo novel, Strangers (1978), and three short story collections, most recently Geodesic Dreams (1992).

''People need story because our lives are sort of based on story. There's even some evidence that traditional narrative channels are hard-wired into our brains, that we actually can't think about things except in terms of story, and story is a lens through which we perceive the world. We're constantly making up stories, even if they never get down on paper. Walking toward the elevator or seeing people walk toward you, somewhere in the back of your mind, there's a little story-generating organ that is making up stories and scenarios about what you're doing. Some people just learn to train that and use it in a more conscious way, with higher craft, but everybody does it. ''

''The subset of people who read fiction for pleasure has never been large. We have this argument periodically, in various places, as to whether fewer people are reading fiction now than used to read fiction. I don't really think that's true, because remembering back when I was in grade school and high school, not that many people read fiction for pleasure then. When I was in high school, people mostly preferred to watch television or go to the movies. I think the percentage of people who read actively for pleasure was small then, and it always will be small. It still may be large enough to support a fiction industry, even if it is only 20% or less of the general population.''

''Though it's a small audience at present, I think there are a lot of people who would enjoy reading short fiction if they ever got into the habit, but somewhere over the last 30 years or so, even the reading audience seems to have lost that habit. I'm not sure why. I've had readers tell me they like to get a 400-page novel and settle into it for a long, cosy read, and they get a sense of comfort out of wallowing in hundreds of pages that are set in the same milieu and have the same characters. That's obviously not what you get out of short fiction. You can't settle comfortably into a 4,000-word story with a razor ending! I personally am bored with most of the big, 400- or 500-page novels. I get impatient with them. Still, the expanded story seems to be what the audience or what the publishers think the audience wants, which is not necessarily the same thing. ''

''I think science fiction is better than ever. There's more really good science fiction of all different kinds being published now than there has ever been. This is the golden age! There's far more good material, pound for pound, than was being published during any 'golden age' that people can point at. There's a very selective memory you only remember the good stuff from the 'golden ages'; you don't remember all the crap that was coming out at the same time. ''

''I'm leery of trends; by the time you notice one and define it, it's too late. But I'm beginning to see stuff that deals with complicated hard science issues such as quantum mechanics and the phenomenological nature of existence in interesting ways. You can't really get much more hard-science than that. And we're seeing some writers who are playing with these ideas in an exciting way. There's Greg Egan, of course, at the forefront, but there are others: Stephen Baxter, Brian Stableford, Paul McAuley, Michael Swanwick, Vernor Vinge.... ''

''Sometimes you see something every bit as scientifically grounded and based on real hard-science speculation as anything could be, and yet it doesn't seem to be accepted by the core hard-science audience, because it's the wrong flavor, aesthetically and stylistically. Greg Egan has this problem. Bruce Sterling has had this problem, but Bruce's stuff is as hard-science as anybody in the business, and often even deals with the nuts-and-bolts technology just down the road. Yet I don't think many people in the core hard-science audience would accept him as a hard-science writer, because his flavor is wrong. Stylistically, politically, and aesthetically, he just doesn't have the hard-science indicators in his work they would accept. Hard science doesn't have to be libertarian right-wing, or have space travel. But there is some of the audience for whom it does!! have to be, and that portion of the audience will not accept stuff that doesn't come with those aesthetic tags attached.''

''I do think that if the science fiction magazines were lost, particularly the traditional digest magazines, it would be a potentially fatal blow to the field. Science fiction would continue to be published for years, perhaps decades, in novel form, but eventually the genre as a genre would lose focus, and what continuity and cohesion there is would drift away and be dissapated. There are people who see this as a good thing, but I don't.''

''The short fiction markets almost by nature, appeal to I hesitate to say an 'elite' audience but they apply to a niche audience, an audience sophisticated in science fiction, who like reading short fiction, who want to see something new and different. That market is never going to be as large as the market for a bestselling popular novel, but without straining credulity, it could easily be two or three times larger than it is. ''

© 1997 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.