Mervius reacts to Spinrad interview
So I went out to the Campbell Award conference at the University of Kansas like I do every year. The conference is a free-form discussion on single topic with many of the leading mainstays of science fiction, including this year James Gunn, Joe Haldeman, George Zebrowski, Pam Sargent, Ted Chiang, Kij Johnson, Chris McKitterick, Cory Doctorow, and Yours Truly.
I was planning on giving the conference a miss this year because I'm getting married August 1st and I have plenty to do for the wedding. But the subject of this year's discussion was ''SF in movies and on television and its effect on book publishing.'' So as an editor whose main focus is Star Trek novels, I had to go.
There were several points I tried to make during the discussion that as a whole relate to what Norman Spinrad and others have been saying about the field:
1) I feel that straight SF has reached a point where, unless you've read the vast majority of the SF published over the last 50 years, the new material doesn't resonate well. This is because, in an obsessive drive for concept originality, authors are painting themselves into narrower and narrower corners.
Example: If you set out to write a time-travel story today, you are supposed to find a way to make your approach to time-travel distinct from all the other time-travel methods in all stories back to 1898. Since many if not all of the truly great concepts have been used, you will have less and less room to work with, and will have to get ever more esoteric. If you do find a totally new approach, long-time readers or those who've been able to go back and read all the early SF will be very pleased with you. Yet a new reader, just coming into the field, hasn't read all those other stories and is likely to wonder why you're splitting so many hairs on angels dancing on the heads of pins, and taking so long to get to the story.
2) Since so much straight SF now requires a knowledge of, and essentially a self-education in, the entire history of the field, straight SF isn't going to benefit from the explosion of media SF because no stepping-stones between media SF and ''high brow'' SF are provided. Lots of early SF was space opera often indistinguishable from Star Trek and Star Wars (Lensmen; Captain Future, etc.).
''Sophistication,'' if that's what it is, came on the field slowly, and each generation built on the one before. Right now you are asking readers to move from ''First Generation,'' essentially pre-Campbellian SF like Trek and SW to ''Fifth Generation'' SF in one jump. That won't happen. There is more than one step between ''Gray Lensman'' and ''The Sheep Look Up.''
3) Finally, if you want to convince the fans of media book SF to read straight SF novels, you have to stop calling those who at the moment read only or mostly media books idiots, and saying what they read isn't SF (it is -- anything with robots, aliens and spaceships is science fiction, at least until the saucers land and aliens join robots and spaceships in the mainstream. You can say it's science fiction done wrong, but you can't say it's not science fiction). You'll never make any converts that way, any more than your parents got you to stop reading SF by saying you were ruining your mind reading that stupid outer space stuff. Lamenting that ''kids today, they don't know what SF they should be reading'' won't do a bit of good. You have to phrase it as ''If you love Star Trek, you'll also love Larry Niven's Ringworld'' even if saying that makes your teeth hurt. And you have to make certain that ''Ringworld'' type books, what Kij Johnson began calling ''Light SF'' during the conference, are on the New Releases shelf for the readers to find.
Those were the points I tried to make at the conference, and I think they were on the whole well-received.
I'm more than open to discussion on the topic.
20 July 1999
(posted Wed 21 Jul 1999)
As Locus Online noted [here], Norman Spinrad & Paul Di Filippo were recently interviewed, via a series of e-mails, and the resulting article was posted (at FTL, the ''online magazine on space, science, and science fiction''). They talk about the future of literary science fiction. I've read the article (skimming the exceptionally dry parts). I agree that solid literary science fiction may be heading into commercial quicksand. But these guys (particularly Mr. Spinrad) seem to think we're already up to the edge of the cliff and teetering. I find Mr. Spinrad's perspective to be lacking in credibility, however. Just check out this contradiction. He says, ''I think this period is the worst crisis in the history of 'sf' as a literature, the end of it as a genre, the end of genre publishing. Mutate or die, for sure, but which it's going to be remains in doubt.'' He then adds, ''At the risk of being a bigger troublemaker than usual, I'd end with saying that anyone who cares about sf or its survival should make a strenuous attempt not to patronize any of the Star Wars enterprises. The Lucas empire is inimical to science fiction.'' Now, is it just me, or wouldn't you gather from that statement that Mr. Spinrad thinks that SF as a genre is a good thing, worthy of preservation? Yet earlier in the same article, he says this -- ''As far as I'm concerned the best stuff is the fiction written as if 'genre' didn't exist. Because genre shouldn't exist. Genre as genre is a recipe for schlock, the whole notion thought up by self-nominated elites to have something to look down on (on the one hand), and cynical schlockmeisters defining what they want to fit into their commercially defined marketing niche. It wouldn't be going all that far to say 'genre=schlock' and have done with it.'' Which is it, Mr. Spinrad, sf genre bad, or sf genre good?
18 July 1999
(posted Mon 19 Jul 1999)