What Is Causing Science Fiction To Die? an article by: GF Willmetts

Over the years, we have seen many articles about the demise of Science Fiction. I’ve touched on it from time to time but never focused so much on remedies. There’s a sort of politeness about this since I’m undoubtedly going to upset some publishers and definitely agents with what I have to say. I should point out from the start that with some areas of generalisation, there are always going to be exceptions but think of the word ‘exception’ as these are in the minority. They are outnumbered by the rest. None of which is going to be helped by the lockdown.

I’ve commented before that if you take into account mythologies, Science Fiction and fantasy is also one of the oldest genres. Working out why there is a decline in Science Fiction when the SF film media is doing so well, means I’m targeting specifically at the paper version.

Science Fiction Is Playing It Too Safe

I tend to think Science Fiction isn’t dangerous anymore. SF covers a wide range of subjects and often went into social commentary, which is where the general media hooks on because its more relatable than standard SF tropes. One only has to look at George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’, both taught in school curriculums, and Anthony Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’ where society is shown to be under governmental control to see a common theme of rebellion. When you consider how cities have cameras watching people, although not necessarily manned but can be consulted later to track individuals of interest to provide evidence. Undoubtedly, it has proven useful in tracking the movements of terrorists but there is always concern of abuse. Is it happening? One only has to look at communists states and wonder that.

It could be said that those books can’t be beaten or any authors doing anything similar will be compared to them. That’s only partially true, as SF has always followed a particular theme if its had good sales will publish more like it even if they aren’t so memorable. Saying that, one only has to look at the ‘Person Of Interest’ TV series showing the extremes of surveillance in modern society and its ramifications to see the theme being explored using two AIs, the Machine having a conscience to protect and Samaritan not under such a restriction, both however manipulate the people responsible on a regular basis in doing their job of protecting state. As a continuing series, it avoided novels and even novelisations because it would mess with its continuity. Film novelisations still work but less so with TV series. It does make the distinction that questioning society hasn’t gone, just not showing up in the written SF so much.

I should point out that Science Fiction often works as a testing ground for things taking to extremes and where it leads so we have to be aware of human nature and how much control is needed. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were done to squash the rampaging robot plot although not quite how it could be made or enforced as programming is still a dilemma. On the other hand, it did stop lazy film-makers from doing it anymore indicating the importance of paper SF against celluloid. Actually, that’s still not true, as there are still a host of successful SF films with rogue AIs and robots, although the reasons shown are not rampaging for no reason at all. Did anyone ever ask Asimov what he thought of the HAL 9000?

One of Science Fiction’s virtues is that it can hide social issues in metaphor or things happening on different worlds. However, with so many SF book series, this seems to have gone towards futuristic space opera. Nothing wrong with that in itself as SF can also be escapism but looking at our own society has. Of course, there will usually be some exceptions to this but they are becoming rarer and no breakthroughs in the mass media. One only has to compare the fantasy book series like Harry Potter and ‘Game Of Thrones’ to show that it is still possible. Science Fiction hasn’t had any breakthrough books to the general public for some time. I’m not dismissing the likes of ‘Star Wars’, although that’s really space fantasy. With ‘Star Trek’, its now reinventing itself than stepping aside for something new and, although dressed differently, is rehashing than seeking new worlds. ‘The X-Files’ made inroads into horror/Science Fiction also even its creator, Chris Carter, agrees that it probably had too many seasons and the latest revival fell on its face than move forward.

Science Fiction Needs To Be Considered Unsafe NOT Unsteady

Science Fiction deserves to be considered unsafe or at least capable of exploring controversial subjects because it can be explored in different settings and metaphors. I can understand publishers’ concerns about getting too controversial in case it antagonises any extremist groups. We’ve seen examples of that with political cartoons not to be concerned how it might put creators at risk.

Saying that, revolution is a common trope in SF but rarely does it go beyond first world countries, although that might be more to do with being in tune with the readership. That applies to any genre as books of any genre are there to make money or any publisher will go bust. Business always has to be considered. This hits SF TV shows even more because of the high cost in making them in CGI as much as anything and can be dropped unless they get sufficient viewing figures on the home market.

Slush Piles Need Publishers NOT Agents Looking Over Them

Some of this is old ground. A crucial change in recent years is many of the bigger publishers decided to no longer look at their own slush piles and rely on agents to pick out books for them and then forgot one detail: Agents have a preference for supporting the authors that they already have far more than recruiting new writers. Even so, they have limits on how many new authors they want to take on, more so in the covid-generation where the number of books being published has dropped drastically. An agent’s concern is to sell a book to a publisher and their percentage profit so want a good turnover. In that respect, Science Fiction as a genre doesn’t make as much money as other genres like fantasy does. As such, agents get their SF writers to switch to fantasy simply because it makes more money for both of them. As a business decision, it does make sense but all it does is make SF perpetually look like its makes less money and becomes self-defeating and further develops the sales slump. Only the eager novice wanting to write SF tries and finding it difficult to break in invariably ends up going self-published with ebooks now. An area, which we have discovered over the years, has many poorly written books since none have been looked over by a professional editor. Saying that, most would probably not get past a first look. Writing is an art and often takes several stories or books to get your writer’s voice right, let alone be self-critical enough to iron out the grammar mistakes. Writing is a craft, learning to get it all right is now only half the battle.

I haven’t mentioned having family connections or working for a publisher to get a leg-up to selling a book. Nepotism does exist but a bit difficult for anyone to achieve unless you have a book that will sell.

Ebooks Aren’t Really The Future Of Publishing

The rise of the Internet and many novice SF writers do self-printed books/ebooks reduces their profile on the paper stage. Granted that might also seem like a smaller market now but paper is where the awards go not the Net. Its also becoming slowly aware that although there is a market for ebooks, a lot of people still like or find it easier to read paper-based books. Whether this is for having something material to show that you’re a book reader is more questionable. Although having books in a global warming situation might give the wrong image, if everything was computerised ebooks, a disruption to electricity or even a nuclear flash can wipe out computer data very quickly. With ebooks, unless you’re a name, let alone write well, your chances of making money is extremely low. Yes, there are exceptions that hit the news media only to disappear again. You rarely here much about their second novels.

As I said, Science Fiction isn’t taking any chances any more. Look at how much is space opera these days with the number of book series out there. The publishers will say that book series sells and they have a good idea of how many copies they will sell compared to a new book but it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy (sic). Such book series sells because there is little other choice if you want something new and three book contracts are often based on continuing with the reality of the first book. But then, with you younger reviewers out there, how many of you are familiar with the Golden Age SF writers’ stories? It isn’t though the books aren’t out there as I’ve done three reviews in December to show that. There’s a lot of good material if you want to look for it and some of these old SF authors don’t go out of print. Even so, it doesn’t help getting new material into print.

It isn’t as though SF doesn’t have its fans. One only has to look at the number of SF films and TV series and their viewing figures to realise that there is a market out there but it does affect the number of people actually reading books. When you consider how books influence films, to cut that off would have serious repercussions. It would also suggest to potential writers to become scriptwriters if they want to write SF, although the number who will eventually rise to become showrunners will be small and limit the number of new ideas.

You should notice by now that Science Fiction depends on new ideas. I’ve said that a lot but what does that really mean? We look at new technology and see where it will take us. The problem is we are also living in a Science Fiction reality now where things the tech already exists and is rapidly changing so something new now could be obsolete in the two years that it could take to write and get a novel into print. The same also applies to something you dream up yourself and find reality has already moved in that direction. Coming up with something really new is hard, let alone a new solution to any of its problems. For transportation and weapons, their purpose hasn’t changed just how powerful they’ve become. Reinventing something that’s been done before is only re-creation into a new form and that only works because not enough people are reading the earlier SF authors which is a shame because they are often inventive. Knowing the history of our genre and my reviewing books on the subject to encourage you to look is a reminder how tough our genre is becoming. We are lacking its pioneering spirit and lacks reinvention. It’s a self-destructive route and Science Fiction deserves more. New ideas should really mean new solutions, not rehashing what has gone before.

What Can Be Done About It?

Finding solutions to selling SF isn’t that difficult. Publishers need to bring back their own people to look at slush piles than rely solely on agents to give them material. There has been some moves in America to this end late last year although any writer hearing of this will send material in and slow down the process. I’m not saying that there isn’t a need for agents. After all, once you’ve got a couple books under your belt, you do need someone to look after the business side. But it does need people who can tell what is a good story is other than dollar or pound signs. It will attract new blood and, subject to book sales, find some breakout writers and hopefully some breakout novels. We might even get some that aren’t off-world. Good writers will find outlets eventually but they do need more willing SF publishers to take chances.

New Writers Heed

The onus on new writers is coming out with some original ideas or taking old ideas and looking at them from a different angle that hasn’t been done before. Experimental doesn’t necessarily mean profound, just seeing where things will lead. Of course, with covid and global warming, we could also be seeing mankind’s days being numbered as well. This doesn’t mean Science Fiction will have any or all the answers. Much of the time, we cause readers to stop and think about consequences. Do we really want a desert wilderness the likes of the ‘Mad Max’ films have shown or do we want to see mankind surviving and hwo they might do it? Equally, readers do want some relief from today’s anguish and nothing works better than living through other people’s problems. That works for any genre but Science Fiction has a bigger range to explore. It needs to get back to its roots and show what it can offer the world.

Any subject will find a readership providing it has an outlet. It doesn’t mean that it will all be good literature. That’s true of any genre. Written Science Fiction is asphyxiating from neglect that should never have happened in the first place. It isn’t too late to change but that is really up to many publishers to reconsider how they select their authors and look for some break-out stars for the future.

GF Willmetts

December 2021

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One thought on “What Is Causing Science Fiction To Die? an article by: GF Willmetts

  • When editing manuscripts, I saw a number that would have done very well but the authors couldn’t afford to travel promoting their book. That’s only one problem among many.


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