Editorial – January 2014: How safe should Science Fiction be? (editorial).

Hello everyone

Publishers say they have a hard time selling Science Fiction to the general public. These same people, the public not the publishers, might go to the cinema and watch the latest SF blockbuster but this doesn’t translate into buying SF books, mostly because they think it’ll be too highbrow or with too much scientific make-believe or even, gosh, real science in them. It’s either that or the belief that it would be very similar to the films that use the same label and rarely the two, outside of novelisations, will match.

As pointed out in last month’s editorial, there’s 14 sub-genres within Science Fiction at least and short of giving them all separate shelf space in bookshops, an inquiring reader might well find one sub-genre they like and never look at the rest. You can see the problem. That’s a wide divergence which also means there’s no precise audience. In other words, even SF fans don’t fit their own label, hence my comments last month that labels are far too imprecise.

Reading the late Frank McConnell’s book, ‘The Science Of Fiction And The Fiction Of Science’ last month, he made several points that sank into my head. The principle one being the difference between fantasy and Science Fiction is that the former is regarded as a ‘safe’ genre and the latter…er…unsafe or rather less predictable. This is a subject that I have raised before I read him but his time, there’s a different angle to be aware, especially now, when there’s fewer SF books being released.

Y’see, from my perspective, this makes me think that publishers are likely to re-think their strategies to get their audience, which is you reading here. In recent years, there’s been a sub-genre of romance mixed with Science Fiction to attract more of the fairer sex or rather so they could be put on the romance shelves as a sneaky way to introduce them to SF. I’ll let you decide the success of that regime as I haven’t seen many of those lately neither. Combine this with fewer bookshops out there and you have to either depend on reviewers who look beyond the names like we do or know what you’re looking for on the Net. It wasn’t sustained as far as I can see.

With an accent on more space opera, which by its very predictability tends to come over as ‘safe’, even the other dozen sub-genres are suffering a lack of new blood, let alone innovation, at the moment to attract the readers it attracted in the first place. How does one become a ‘name’ without developing a following in the first place? Innovation is going to vanish without it.

Even so, there is a need for the type of material that would appeal to the kind of people Science Fiction, including all its sub-genres, is designed for. That’s still you reading this. There are many aspects of SF that appeals to us but one thing you can be certain that doesn’t appeal is predictability. We like the twists in the stories we read that give unexpected turns. Science Fiction has a history of metaphor and reflection on our society which is often not seen as much as it used to be. It is reactionary and rebellious and the social demons it attacks. It might follow similar paths as earlier writers, but in this hyper-media world, there are certainly more options to explore. What does that tell you? We don’t like our Science Fiction to be safe. We like it on the edge. We like it unsafe! We like unpredictability and be surprised.

That surely must be the clue to further strategies. Science Fiction has to be shown to being unpredictable to leave readers unsure how stories will end. No safe happy endings although characters can be successful, which should still please some American publishers who actually prefer happy afters. To be unsafe has to be shown as a virtue and benefit than something to regularised. It’s something the other genres can’t provide. It makes SF different to other genres far more than starships and ray guns. Of course, we have some safe sub-genres but we can do far more and if even only some of the publishers read and take this to heart then we might again invigorate our genre.

Whether there are enough writers to do that without being deemed experimental is hard to say. It won’t happen overnight. For the paper publishers, it’ll probably take close to two years but it needs to be done.

Let it snow, commands Trek's Picard (kind-of).
Let it snow, commands Trek’s Picard (kind-of).

If not that, what else? Science Fiction readers are very loyal to their genre but the turnover in writers and even major ‘stars’ developing as in the Golden Age hasn’t truly happened…yet! Then again, in the Golden Age, the works of these authors were often invariably short stories which were brought together into one author anthologies, something that rarely happens today.

What constitutes ‘unsafe’ is hard to say. It needs to be combined with the usual things like good plot and characters, whom you at least care about their fate. Not being predictable means looking at plot turns and not taking the predicted path. With all the fiction that has come and gone, there are still options open that can be pursued. The same can be said with the concepts. Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’ took the big dumb object to greater size. Anne McCaffrey’s telepathic dragons and Pern ecology took fantasy elements into the SF world. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ saga also played with people, ecology and empires. The appeal was their radical ideas. Some of this came out in the cyberpunk and steampunk genres but has never really sustained itself beyond the basic concept. It is the window-dressing for many stories than doing anything radical with developing better stories because they worked.

Writers need to push to do something different with the existing tropes. Originality still counts and will make you stand out from the crowd. Not all submissions are going to be successful but it will start the impetuousness and remind people Science Fiction is unpredictable. We need that ‘unsafe’ element back in our Science Fiction!

Being on the edge comes through a lot in our society these days. It comes out in the way people take to extreme sports. There is a place for it in fiction. None of the other genres can offer it the same way as Science Fiction can so maybe it’s time for the publishers to exploit this and make our genre unsafe once more. We certainly need it.


Thank you, take care, good night and seek the unsafe Science Fiction. It’s still out there.


Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk


Question:         How do you make polka-dot paint?

Answer:           You buy a tin of striped paint and dice up the contents to the desired size.


Question: Has water polo ever been called off for having a dry pitch?


A Zen thought: Is an addiction worth dying for?


Observation: Go back and watch the 1955 film ‘This Island Earth’ where the accredited scientist Cal Meacham receives the parts and instructions to build an Interositor. Even in the 1950s, it wouldn’t be that difficult to work out the functions of the device. After all, it has a TV screen and microphone and even solid state, couldn’t conceal that fact that it carried a pair of lasers and even the potential for self-destruct.

So, was it curiosity that made Mecham made it properly to see where it would lead rather than dismantle some functions so it wouldn’t be dangerous. With such an available option, it’s surprising no Hollywood studio has thought to re-work the film with modern day sensibilities. Even the Metalunan Exeter would be intrigued that he underestimated a human scientist but would have the right requirements for making a weapon suitable to defeat the Zagons


Don’t forget to check out the SFC Forum, from the links at the top of the main page, for where companies have their stands at this year’s conventions and for book signings. You don’t even have to sign in to get the information although it would be nice if you did, if only to express some opinion on the various surveys/polls that are there.


Beware Of Virus Attacks: December 2012, even though I hadn’t left an active link to my email address, it got solidly attacked and then blocked from everyone, including myself. By necessity, having a form of open contact to me comes as part of the editor’s job. I’m still seeking reviewers and new material so follow the paths through the website and go where no spam-bot dares. I’ve yet to see them write anything. Humans and aliens can apply, providing they live in the UK. Monsters need to prove they can read and write. We could do with some reviewers who like fantasy right now. Don’t be scared of the instructions, you’d be surprised how easy it is to learn. So, if you want to contact me, build these words into an email address: gfwillmetts at hotmail dot com  I won’t bite, especially as I’m hunting for fantasy reviewers right now.




Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

16 thoughts on “Editorial – January 2014: How safe should Science Fiction be? (editorial).

  • I _so_ disagree with you about this. Your summary (1) most readers like predictability (2) SF readers like unpredictability (3) let’s emphasise the unpredictability because .. well because then it will, er, attract those who like unpredictability, ie NOT “most readers”. Good luck with that! In fact, most SF readers like predictability too – any number of current SF authors have produced the same novel (with changed names) endless times in recent years. What puts off readers (and my late fiancee, though an avid reader in all genres, _really_ disliked SF) is nomenclature, unexplained terms, unmotivated actions, cryptic dialogue, scientific explanations, vague “zen” endings, aliens, space battles, and bad bookcovers. Why would _anyone_ pick up a book by Richard Morgan or Neal Asher just by the cover.. who is _in_ such a book? Men with guns, robots with guns, or just guns, and swords, and daggers. I don’t think it’s just familiarity which has bred contempt for “modern SF”, I think it’s boredom with its attitude and repetition. As for “let’s say we can’t predict a happy ending” (as if it was some kind of insult to have one), I can’t offhand think of many people who look forward to 300 difficult-to-read pages that end with the hero getting killed in the last paragraph (or even _several_ volumes that then end in the same way). The point about many SF books, and indeed many series, is that they don’t have an end, they just have the hero taking the next step in a war, or flaming off in a spaceship. We’ve also grown so frightened of actually _having_ an upbeat ending (too many critics immediately dismiss that as “wish fulfilment” or “unrealistic”) that we have no endings at all!

  • Hello Ian
    Considering that genres like romance have massive readerships for variations on the same basic plot speaks for itself. The term ‘most’ does not mean ‘all’. I was very non-specific on numbers as there will always be some, like us with SF, who don’t tend to go for such genres.
    The argument is for less predictable endings and not following predictable plot paths. Some of the 14 SF sub-genres, like space opera, will satisfy those who want safe. I’m prepping a small article as to which I would think are safer than others. SF has room for all types.
    I could run a straw poll on how many of us have bought a book purely because they liked the cover. Artist Chris Foss said that in the 70s, he painted something totally unrelated to the story and it was put on the cover of a book and it would sell like hotcakes. SF art sales or there wouldn’t be collected artbooks of same. If people read the book as well, then it’s a bonus.
    I’d like to see some recent examples of what you regard as not having an ‘upbeat ending’. Series books don’t really count as they need to string the reader along. In many respects, a ‘happy ending’ is probably the wrong term to use. Perhaps calling it a ‘rewarding ending’ in that there is a decent pay-off might sound better.

    • Not sure why you bring in “romance” – of course romance readers like romantic endings, and crime readers like the crime to be solved – my point was that SF is not different to this, the “we like unpredictable plots” is true of a minority (however large) of SF readers, if you’re saying that we should campaign for SF to be _seen_ as unpredictable, I am unclear what you want authors to do – a plot is a plot, its driving force is towards the solution of a problem or resolution of a conflict, the “unpredictable” would be _not_ to solve the problem, or to _not_ resolve the conflict, which, as I said, is actually the approach being taken by many modern authors, nothing gets _settled_, everything just sets up the next book.
      I am also puzzled by the reference to Chris Foss – I am indeed one of those who was attracted by covers [esp Boris, Rowena Morrill, and the like] but those are _not_ the prevalent covers today, and in any case, this is not about attracting those who are already attracted by SF tropes on covers (space ships, space soldiers, alien wars), it’s about re-branding SF as a literature-of-the-unexpected.
      Upbeat endings? Iain Banks, for one. Most Black Library books for another. Certainly the majority of books by Neal Asher, Alastair Reynolds, etc, had bleak and lonely endings (I have no idea if they’ve changed, it’s a long time since I attempted one). To say “series books don’t count” is to ignore the fact that the majority of SF is now _in_ series. There are exceptionally few singletons, and even they often acquire a second or third volume if they sell well enough (or the authors has to fulfil a contract). Plus, “..a decent pay-off..” goes beyond description, and “rewarding” is even more ambiguous; “happy”, “optimistic”, may be subjective, but they get to the nub of my argument with most recent SF – that it portrays the future as a place of pain, destruction, and disillusionment, where a meagre number of plots and outcomes has substituted for the wide-ranging possibilities of “classic SF”.

  • Hello Ian
    The reason I chose ‘romance’ is because it has the most basic plot and that most people across the world would know it. No sense using something so obscure that only a few people have heard of it, is there?? With crime fiction, their authors can play musical chairs as to who did it.
    In the past decade, publishers have been trying to widen the market for SF, mostly by not making it look like SF so booksellers will sneak it onto other shelves by not knowing where it should belong. There has also been general writers who have written books that are Science Fiction but flatly denying that it is so they don’t lose they core audience. When you consider that SF makes mega-bucks in the cinema and that it isn’t reflected in prose fiction, then something isn’t working. The whole point of this editorial is to point out a key strength of unpredictability back to the publishers and say that should be seen as a strength not a weakness. It doesn’t mean they all have to turn that way but it needs to be thought of than ignored.
    Established authors of any genre tend to do things that they know their publishers will like or fit in with how they sold their first novels. Often as not, publishers like a series of books because it means they can tag a core audience and have a reasonable idea of how many copies to print for each one. As such, you’re limiting the audience and more importantly, the writers from going off in different directions.
    I chose Chris Foss as an example that people across the world have heard of. Boris and Rowena’s book covers are rarely if at all used in British editions. A lot of 70s-80s SF rarely had covers that represented the content. Modern SF book covers still rarely do so and as much as I like the art, they’ve moved away from spaceships to mostly armed people.
    You cite three authors and then say you haven’t read any of them lately. Shouldn’t I be asking if you thought them too bleak to continue with them?? Three authors don’t make a genre.
    Many people site ‘Blade Runner’ as being the turning point to showing a dirty future and yet forget that it does actually have a happy ending and Deckard gets the girl.

    • I would suggest we are moving into a post-literate age – that the popularity of media SF, films and TV, will never spill over into books. That the attraction of such entertainment lies in spectacle, and surprise, and movement, and scale, and that the viewer _does not have to create it mentally_. As I said, the difficulty with most “normal” readers lies in “nomenclature, unexplained terms, unmotivated actions, cryptic dialogue, scientific explanations, vague “zen” endings, aliens, space battles, and bad bookcovers” .. all of which fall away when it is presented on screen – you can _see_ what is meant, and how it is meant, and who means it, you don’t have to derive it or decode it from convoluted prose, you _see_ it, _feel_ it.. our “modern society” is no longer taught how to appreciate prose, or style. I find this horrendously sad. I am one of those who adored van Vogt because I did _not_ understand everything in his stories, simply recognising that a “true” SF story should always leave a bit of magic or mystery.
      I suspect more people have heard of Boris Vallejo than Chris Foss.
      Yes. I stopped reading those authors because they were so damn bleak, that was my point. I could name another dozen (probably all UK) authors about whom I feel the same, and who I have also stopped reading. You asked for “recent examples” and they seemed a reasonable choice. The “new hard SF” is a very very bleak genre in the main (flagshipped, I believe, by Banks), and there are only a meagre few I would recommend to readers, whether fans or neophytes.
      ..and yes, Blade Runner ends “happily”, but (a) Scott didn’t want it to, and for many years denigrated what he had to do for commercial success, (b) the sequel series of books immediately killed off the girl (much as Niven killed off Harloprllar in the Ringworld sequel). I don’t think people dislike _hard_ adventure stories (conflict, problems, tension), but I do think they prefer that all those problems be resolved in a positive way – and not just by the hero’s survival.
      What I would ask you now is – what do _you_ think is a current SF book that is unpredictable? An author who turns out multiple works that are unpredictable?

  • Hello Ian
    As to the success of SF prose. It is confusing many of the bigger publishers, more so if you have access to their winter catalogues and realise they’ve cut back significantly in what they’re releasing and I don’t think that has anything to do with the global recession.
    I do think one of the problems is that we take so many SF tropes for granted that writers don’t incorporate enough explanation into the story. This doesn’t mean that the scientist has to explain to a novice, just a different means to explain something. ‘Do, NOT say’ is still the best way.
    There’s been a lot of badly written books in recent years where you learn more about the plot of the story from the cover than the content doesn’t help matters very much neither.
    Hey! Another Van Vogt fan. Mind you, I did understand his stories and learnt a lot about storytelling from him. His method was to give enough information to let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps.
    Re: Vallejo. Of course many people have heard of Boris but I was pointing out how we don’t see it on covers over here. Much of the time, we buy the artbooks containing his work.
    It’s often said that we British are pessimistic in how we end stories but American writers tend to be too optimistic all the time. There is some middle ground.
    I’ve got the boxset of all the ‘Blade Runner’ variants and they all still end with Deckard running away with the girl, not necessarily with the dialogue voice-over. If Ridley Scott had wanted anything different then Deckard would have had to shoot Rachael and that wasn’t shot (sic) so the overall direction is as I say.
    OK, let’s give an example of unpredictability. I should point out that any time one is done, it opens itself up for becoming cliché as others use a similar route. Let’s use Harlen Ellison’s ‘A Boy And His Dog’ – the story and film follow the same pattern so a lot of people have seen it in some way. Although it was written in 1969, it still shocks the unwary reader where (here be spoiler!) Vic kills Quilla so he and Blood can have a meal to survive. It’s not an expected ending but is true to the characters. No one has dared repeat it, no doubt to avoid a plagiarism suite, but it demonstrates something no one would have expected.
    In essence, the plot is really that of a romance. Boy and dog meets girl. They rescue each other and escape. Boy kills girl to feed dog. Essentially a twist on the plot for its unpredictability. It doesn’t follow the expected ‘safe’ pattern. I mean, if Ellison had wanted that, then they would have brought food to the surface during the rescue.
    I would be hard pushed to find a modern day story that is so unexpected as this. I should say that I’m using this as an example. There might well be others and if I was using this as the story to set the standard then I would possibly doing a disservice to them.

  • I agree with much of your reply, and just seem to be disagreeing with your proposed solution.
    Yes, too many writers assume the reader understands most if not all of the terms and references they use; this is fine for long-term or avid readers but if you are seeking to engage “new” readers almost from scratch, you should utilise a method that gets across the meaning _along_ with the term. (A study of bestsellers over the last century, mentioned on a grouplist, says that bestsellers tend to use plain prose even with high-concept ideas – multi-syllable words _do_ put off many readers)
    Yes, on covers and plots. I have major difficulties with some authors whose prose is so vague that it’s at times impossible to work out who’s talking, and almost as impossible to work out what’s happening. One example is Larry Niven, whose early books are almost startlingly clear in all aspects – but who by the 1980s was a model of how NOT to write well.
    van Vogt – oh I understood van Vogt, once you accept that his plots are logical in the sense that dreams are logical, everything makes “sense”, he still leaves “hooks” – eg, the “adenledicular force”, remember that? (I think it meant “intelligent molecules”) or “..This is the race that shall rule the Sevagram” – no explanation, but. I think I read every van Vogt story at least a dozen times – even the stuff from the 60s and 70s!! Those “gaps” are what drive “non-SF readers” crazy… indeed they’re what drive some SF readers crazy, readers who will never “get” van Vogt, and thus think he’s a bad writer.
    I think the optimism / pessimism can often be traced back to critical theories, or reviews of literature; “mainstream” UK critics too often declare that life is hard and earnest, that nothing lasts, that love is a trap or an illusion; I once tracked this back to our class system (those at the top telling those at the bottom that there was nothing to hope for, and why try anyway, you would always lose _something_) but no oubt was overstating.
    Blade Runner: indeed, but Scott was adamant (in the Director’s ending) that Rachael had a limited life and would “die” soon; he was also definite that Deckard was an android.
    Unpredictability – well, Boy and His Dog was 1969, which is a _little_ while ago [and Vic does _not_ share in the meal, even Ellison held back from that atrocity)… I could point out The Cold Equations (1954) is just as unpredictable to readers, and could continue to name singleton stories that set out some harsh circumstances, and then follow them through to the cruel end – it’s been done, but the question remains on whether many do it NOW (Mike Moorcock in BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS set out a series of moral choices in which each was as bad as the other – it was an interesting idea but it didn’t need to be followed through.. who wanted to read a book in which every choice was a bad one?)
    Personally, I don’t mind conflict or adversity in a story, but (as in Ballard, for example) when the drive is for the hero to fail or die or otherwise give up or be cut down just as he succeeds, I wouldn’t like the book and would probably not read any more books by the author. [Richard Laymon said THE CELLAR almost destroyed his career because of its ending]

  • Hello Ian
    I never said my solution was a final one, just one that the main publishers haven’t considered using.
    Rule of thumb for writing in any genre is never assume anything. If there’s any new novice SF readers out there reading these missives, will they contact me and tell me how you’re coping please.
    If you go back to the likes of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’, he threw everyone in at the deep end. Have you ever read Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’?? For the first few chapters I was referencing the Natstat translation at the back and then I grasped it and didn’t need to refer to it. I’m not disagreeing with you about using standard prose, just that a lot new authors are just writing badly.
    Van Vogt was an exceptional storyteller. From reading his small autobiography he was very geeky learning new subjects all the time.
    I don’t think we British are over pessimistic just that we don’t accept happy endings are the end of a story.
    Re: Blade Runner. Years ago, I took someone to task about why Deckard couldn’t be a Replicant. Basically, because in the opening, Deckard is seen using a Voight-Kampff device to determine Replicants by their lack of emotional response. If you have the same limitation, how would you recognise the answers?? Ridley Scott was trying to re-write what was established after the fact and just wanted to be a smartypants. As much as I like his films, he didn’t write them only interpreted them. As a secondary issue, if Deckard was a Replicant, wouldn’t he have a limited life-line or one at least equal to Rachael’s?? You wouldn’t want a Replicant licensed to kill other Replicants on Earth going rogue.
    Re: Unpredictability. ‘The Boy And His Dog’ in the film version did suggest he had some of the meat as well. I did an analysis of ‘The Cold Equation’ a few years back suggesting other options but I agree it was a novel twist. As to reading a book where every choice is wrong. Well, a lot of books do that forcing the reader to agree to the final choice selected. I did have a ponder on anything else with an unpredictable ending and thought of the Amicus 1972 film ‘Asylum’ as another one where you don’t expect that solution.
    I’m not denying that any writer should think twice about killing off their protagonists but equally, they should also show some development at the end of the story as well. Writers and publishers are falling into expected patterns far too much which is restricting creativity.

  • I am a bit puzzled by some of your comments, but, okay.. I don’t think your solution (final or not) is a good one because (a) British publishers in especial have for at least a decade produced increasingly nihilistic, bleak, despairing, and reader-unfriendly SF stories of violent bastards fighting other violent bastards for no reasonable reward – and the readership of SF has (relatively) “gone through the floor”, the slack being taken up by fantasy stories which often take on all the trappings of SF without its worst aspects (b) “rule of thumb for writing in any genre is never assume anything” – don’t get the point of that.
    Herbert – yes, like Tolkien, he created the world in all aspects (hence its VERY long appendices) and then wrote as if he lived there – Curme Gray did the same in MURDER IN MILLENNIUM VI, and I loved that book.
    Yes, read A CLOCKWORK ORANGE [and NOTHING LIKE THE SUN, and THE WANTING SEED, and THE EVE OF SAINT VENUS, etc; in fact almost every acknowledged Burgess book until about 1975]; I also read FINNEGANS WAKE and BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD and FEERSUM ENDJINN and RIDDLEY WALKER and John Godey and so on, and I declare that clear prose is good prose; “strange prose” can be used but certainly not for a neo reader – the concepts are already hard enough without hiding them behind a facade of complexity that’s mainly used to hide pretty dire plots.
    “I don’t think we British are over pessimistic just that we don’t accept happy endings are the end of a story.” — who is this “we”, kemo sabee? I certainly accept them, and welcome them.. but the fact you can say “we” without irony does show my point. It’s like “the British only like sex when it’s portrayed as funny” (eg, Carry On), which is as far from the truth as life can get.
    Blade Runner – which version have you watched? Deckard doesn’t administer the test at the start, he administers it to Rachael later on. There has been huge debate on whether Deckard is or is not a replicant, and what Scott intended; Scott himself said that he scattered clues through the film (the unicorn dream, the photographs, Deckard’s non-reply when Rachael asks if he’s taken the test himself, etc) and so far as he is concerned, Deckard was a replicant. Harrison Ford said he “tangled” with Scott on that point – that if it was “true”, then the whole film becomes meaningless for audiences because “there is no one to cheer for”. I think that’s correct – the film loses everything emotional if Deckard is also a machine. The “Do you love me.. Do you trust me..” questions are nullified.
    But, Fancher’s script:
    “I knew it on the roof that night. We were brothers, Roy Batty and I! Combat models of the highest order…{}..We were the new people… Roy and me and Rachael!”
    _A_ Boy and his Dog: I don’t remember any suggestion that Vic ate any of “the meat”, but it’s a foul film (like the story) and I’ve only “seen” it once (or suffered it, which is more accurate) so you’re probably right – L Q Jones went his own way at the end, and it certainly fits with the general tenor of hatred.
    I take your point about horror films like ASYLUM and so on (essentially extended versions of the 1950s EC Comics so loathed by Dr Wertham), a trend which continues up to today, with evil inevitably triumphing in the final minute (or even after it) of such films, and I think such endings are indeed exceptionally predictable – so the films which were meant to “overturn the expected happy ending” have themselves become the norm… and (I would add) have also become torture porn of the absolutely worst stripe in consequence.
    The thing is, if publishers should look to promote the idea “you can’t predict the ending”, that’s fine, and I as a reader reserve the right to stop reading authors whose endings are dismal, nihilistic, bleak, cruel, or ..let me admit it.. unhappy.

  • Hello Ian
    For years now, across the world, various main publishers have been trying to improve their SF sales and I’ve been watching the number of books they release drop. Have you a better solution that they haven’t tried yet??
    The reason I raised ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was because of its differentness. Even today, no one has gone totally that way, probably because Burgess was a linguist and knew what he was doing. It does make me wonder how many people who bought it after seeing the film actually read more than a few pages though.
    ‘We’ is the ‘royal we’. I’m using the term subjectively as the average reader.
    As to ‘Blade Runner’, I have the silver briefcase boxset which has the lot. Most of the versions vary in what was put back from the cutting room floor, not the ending where Deckard and Rachael flee. I watched an early cut last year showing Gaff arriving to pick up Deckard after Roy Batty’s death which surprised me as I thought he made his own way home and that it was only a few seconds different.
    In the books on the subject, specifically Paul Salmon’s ‘Future Noir’, Harrison Ford is very clear in that had Ridley Scott had told him Deckard was a Replicant then he would have played the part differently. Ergo, Scott was inventing after the fact with no help from the original writers. In many respects, the Replicant is an android not a robot so isn’t made of metal. Deckard certainly wouldn’t have had his fingers broken by Batty if he was his equal. After many ‘retirements’, if you were a Replicant then you would surely have spotted something different to normal humans. You can be brothers with anyone but it doesn’t mean you’re the same species but comparing it to something in an earlier script that was lost in the re-writes doesn’t mean much.
    Re: ‘A Boy And His Dog’. I never said I enjoyed it, just that it had a surprising ending. Back then, ‘Asylum’ was unexpected and I put that down to Geoffrey Bayldon’s acting.
    Well and truly, we need SF writers to up their game a lot right now and to do that, we also need the publishers to do so as well.

  • I don’t have a solution. I think SF is suffering from having come true. Its tropes of space travel, telepathy, psionic powers, invisibiity, armageddon, dystopian politics, time travel, super-soldiers, super-weapons, ultra-surveillance, clones, cryogenics, “alternative lifestyles”, and the like, have been taken up by the techno-thriller and even the “ordinary mainstream” book. “Cosmic concepts” have become everyday news items, and much of SF has been “revealed” as fantasy – moon visits turned out to be boring, space probes take decades just to pass and photograph planets. It is no surprise that some authors can use every SF trope and _still_ insist their work isn’t SF.. and what’s more, be believed! The sly COLD COMFORT FARM slipped its alternate-England background under the radar, but nowadays I doubt any “general” reader would anyway balk at an imaginary US president being replaced by an imaginary enemy clone in a world recognisably our own. Atlantis discovered in the Arctic? Aliens really are kept at Area 51? The military has invisibility capability? No problem. That is, the majority of elements which should make something SF, no longer make it SF. “True” SF writers must up the ante — radically different pasts and presents, and (im)possible futures; utterly strange aliens; scenarios set on pre-historic, post-apocalyptic, far future-seeming, or alien worlds. Designed to take any reader far outside the now-normal “SF” described above. To soften the strangeness / to engage “ordinary readers”, language should be plain, motives clear and transparent (unless the motive is intentionally unclear), the outcomes definite and the ending conclusive or (in a series) indicative of the next step. Hints of previous classic tales are welcome, as are subtle or overt references to current culture. Nomenclature should be recognisable, but can be marginally different.

    I’d say that was “the best” approach to reaching new readers, but you also need to keep “true” SF readers, and I have the heavy suspicion that both can’t be satisfied at the same time – writers are seen as “dumbing down” for an audience or alternatively writing at too high a level.


  • Hello Ian
    It is a proposed solution and mostly because it’s one that doesn’t appear to have been considered. With so many different outlets for an SF fix these days, the last thing we need is for books to fall by the way side.
    Whatever else is said about Van Vogt, he was a good storyteller. Wouldn’t you have liked to have been a Silkie or even my favourite, Gilbert Gosseyn?? He was also a first in a lot of things and without him, I doubt if we’d have had ‘Alien’.
    Re: Blade Runner. That came out of Scott ten years after the film not at the time. If Deckard was top notch, he would have iced Batty without much of a fight. It also somewhat defeats the object that Replicants weren’t allowed to work on Earth.
    I only used ‘A Boy And His Dog’ as an example that you might have seen or read. I don’t usually let the time frame worry me too much although it is worrying that there isn’t anything more current that I would classify as surprising me.
    ‘The Cold Equation’ – there wasn’t an ‘s’ – was pretty logical, too.
    A surprising ending doesn’t mean it has to be deadly just one that you wouldn’t suspect. Going for happy endings all the time isn’t always the most healthy way to go neither.
    I’m planning a piece showing the levels of safety in the sub-genres for next month which should give more detail of what’s wrong.

  • “The Cold Equation”? I’ve always known it as “The Cold Equations”, and Godwin’s own collection is called “The Cold Equations and other stories”.


    van Vogt – well, there certainly wouldn’t have been an “Alien” without the stories that made up Voyage of the Space Beagle (as Cameron learned to his cost).

    Deckard: ambiguities abound – some have been removed (eg, the change in dialogue from one android being killed, to two androids being killed, so that Deckard can’t be the “sixth replicant” – which was a female, in footage cut from the final film), and some have been added by Scott. Harrison remembers that he and Scott had this precise discussion during the making of the film, and the outcome was that Deckard was fully human. All the undermining of why Deckard can appear to be human (memories of a wife; returning from retirement, etc) may muddy the waters, but I still believe the film makes no _emotional_ sense if Scott’s campaign succeeds. However, that is a fault with Scott IMHO, and why I don’t like much of his work.


  • Hello Ian
    I suspect the plural of ‘The Cold Equation’ has spread across the Net without anyone checking a paper edition where it doesn’t have one.

    Re: Blade Runner. Missing Replicants. One of them was supposed to have died in an attack but I agree, the loss of the other one was poor accounting or script continuity.
    In many respects, Ridley Scott forgets he was interpreting other people’s scripts than being the creator himself. When you watch ‘Prometheus’ where he has more input on the writing, is it any wonder that some aspects are more sci-fi than SF. He didn’t grasp self-consistency and plausibility.

    • A friend has checked the original magazine. It’s “Equations” on the contents age, the title page, and all the running heads/feet of the story. In every other anthology, and Godwin’s own collection, it’s “Equations”. I think we can now take it, it’s “Equations”?

      The original film was so mucked-about that various explanations got lost.. they should all have been picked up before the premiere (they’ve certainly been picked up since).

      I have quite a few arguments with Scott (he was exec prod of “Masters of Science Fiction” which was about Verne, Wells, Shelley, Clarke.. and George Lucas” as one example!), was behind the execrable NUM3ERS too, as well as the egregious lie that was BLACK HAWK DOWN .. on the other hand, he directed KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, which, in either of its versions, is among the most impressive historicals ever made. He is certainly much more about spectacle than actual plot logic, but at times, he works.


  • Hello Ian
    Re: The Cold Equations. It’s only a mote point, nothing to break a sweat over when there’s more important aspects of your argument to consider.
    Re: Blade Runner. If Deckard was a Replicant then it would have been in the original script and in the Paul Salmon book that was never Fancher and Peoples’ intention then it would have been there and wasn’t. For all his good directing and interpretation of other people’s material, Ridley Scott isn’t an SF writer.
    As this argument started from an editorial about too much SF being too safe, have you read the piece in the February update??


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