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science fiction - what's all that about, then? Two - The Villages

Date: 2006-11-14 01:15
Subject: science fiction - what's all that about, then? Two
Security: Public
Location:back in the little room
Mood:sleepy again - long daysleepy again - long day
Music:It Bites

I was watching the first episode of BBC4's documentary series about British science fiction, which I rather enjoyed - not least because a documentary about British science fiction finally gave due credit to Olaf Stapledon - and a couple of things struck me. First was the mention that The Midwich Cuckoos was one of the most successful novels of the 1950s. And second - and I think it was Kim Newman who mentioned this - was that Quatermass was so successful because the BBC didn't plug it as science fiction but as a thriller. That reminded me of a friend, who hates science fiction, telling me a few years ago how much he liked Star Wars. I congratulated him, saying something along the lines of "We're finally breaking down your resistance," and he just shook his head and said, "But Star Wars isn't science fiction - it's adventure, innit?"
Which makes me wonder. Are we losing readers not because there's something wrong with science fiction, but because of the way it's perceived and marketed? Judging by the novels I've read in the last year or so, I can't personally see anything wrong with the fiction. In any sane world a novel like - say - Accelerando would be on the general best-seller lists for at least a week. Maybe more - I liked Accelerando a lot, and I liked The Atrocity Archive even more, but I don't remember either of them troubling the Times bestseller lists too much.
Which leads me to my second wonder - where is the modern equivalent of The Midwich Cuckoos? Where is science fiction's Harry Potter? Where is science fiction's Da Vinci Code? It's not as if this is beyond us. Are we too concerned about satisfying science fiction readers, who already have the grammar and vocabulary to appreciate us, and not concerned enough about satisfying the general reader? Has the general reader been educated away from science fiction because `it's all those aliens and long words and stuff and it hasn't anything to do with us'?
Looking across the various boards and blogs, it seems that the argument has died down. Which is kind of annoying, because I think we need to have this conversation, not fight our individual corners for a few days and then shut up until the next time. I know this is not a department of some multinational where we can all get together and have a team-building exercise and work out how we can improve our market share, but it seems to me there is a problem to be addressed, and we ought to be addressing it.
On a personal note, we're just back from Novacon, where we had the usual wonderful time, and the noise you can hear in the background is me applauding the Novacon committee and the Birmingham science fiction folks for organising, once again, what I think is an exemplary con. Also much thanks to the Quality Hotel. Happy days.  

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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-11-17 23:23 (UTC)
Subject: What do I know?
I think you may have a point - how we perceive something definitely affects our approach to it. Personally, I've always hated genres, pigeon-holes, labels: anything, basically, that limits our way of seeing the world; but this is the way the human brain tends to work and as we can't change human nature we have to deal with it as it is.

So, maybe if we labelled science fiction as 'thriller' or 'adventure' it would be more inclusive (how many people feel more comfortable with those genres than with sf?) Lots of science fiction these days does cross into these genres anyway and perhaps this is the way it is going to have to go if it wants to live on into the new world (hmm, did sf ever predict its own demise?)

But if we relabel it the fact still remains that some science fiction is heavy going for the uninitiated. Perhaps for these writers it is too easy to sit back in a self-made ivory tower of techno-speak, to revel in isolated mystery; the ultimate question they must ask is, 'do we want our work to be read by the many or the few'? If you want people to read your work then you may have to cut the waffle and sell your soul to the adventure/thriller market.

I guess ultimately, there is room for both - 'populist' sf and 'hardcore' sf - although which will win out in the end is probably a subject for endless debate.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that you have to work out which side of the fence you want to be on. There's no point whingeing that no one reads your work if your prose is so dense with technology that you need a PHD in rocket science to understand it.

Anyway, I seem to have rambled a bit, but I just thought I'd prove that someone is reading this blog!

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