Wednesday, November 08, 2006

What Are We Doing Anyway?

A decent while ago, John Scalzi mentioned a ruckus over someone saying SF should be more like Star Wars. Then he used that to go on a screed about how Star Wars is not entertainment. I found the essay amusing if nothing else and a better use of my time than getting caught up in the debate of what SF should be in the face of its declining readership because it seems to be an age-old debate that gets re-hashed every year--probably as a procrastinating tactic by a SF writer mired in the tricky bits of the next opus. (But here's the inciting article and two good discussions, in case you're interested in what SF authors talk about when they do some genre navel-gazing.)

But when I went exploring a new-to-me blog and found another piece on the debate, I started to wonder what I really thought about the whole mess. First, I had to be honest with myself and 'fess up that I avoided the debate not because it was navel-gazing but because I couldn't follow all of it. I have never studied the history of SF as a genre, and I have not read the hallowed authors who helped shaped that history--nor do I intend to. I keep some Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke, etc. handy on my bookshelf for when I think about trying to find "my roots" but usually a few pages of headache-inducing style or disinteresting story cure me of that ill. So when a bunch of folks who know their shit start applying their considerable language and composition skills to the topic of where SF came from and where it's going, I tend to skim read then play elsewhere. Nothing is less enjoyable that a good, meaty debate that you can't follow or analyze because you don't know the merit of the foundation to the argument.

At any rate, what Charlie Stross had to say resonated, particularly this bit:
...we read fiction for pleasure, not to be clubbed over the head with a fistful of insights. If the fistful of insights is coming anyway, it needs to be decently clad in a velvet glove lest the casual reader take fright.

I call this whole debate navel-gazing, he calls it a matter of tribal identity. And, no matter what you call it, it's pointless--even when dressed up in good rhetoric and logic. Your grandfather's SF may have been a clearly defined, clearly deliniated movement, but today it's just a marketing label. If SF has a declining readership, it isn't because the movement or the genre needs reinventing, it's because the readers aren't finding what they want in that label. So you should either change the marketing label (good luck) or figure out what the readers want and deliver it. Which is just basic common sense for getting your books published time and again.

Thus, I don't think it's productive to say we should be writing stuff that's more like Star Wars or to haggle over what it is SF should do or even how it is/should be defined. We have the solution to increase readership: determine what the readers want and deliver it. You don't need a movement or a better definition or even an image makeover for that. The whole thing reminds me of those great commercials from the Vote 2004 era where a whole bunch of people would look at a faucet someone had left on and get embroiled in a big discussion about how wasteful, how could this happen, why does it happen, how can we prevent this from happening again--and then someone comes along and just turns the damn water off.


Andi said...

I think writers need to remember that readers really aren't that "deep." My father is a huge science fiction fan, and he has books that span several decades (I still can't believe you used to be able to buy books for $2). He doesn't care about them following a trend or being written in a specific style (from what I've read of his collection, it's across the board); he reads those stories he enjoys. If writers could just accept that fact, instead of arguing over who's doing it right and who's screwing up, they might be a little more productive.

Kellie said...

Or, at the very least, they could find other ways to procrastinate that are less likely to up blood pressure, increase ulcers, and hurl vitriol. But then, we've never really been a healthy lot, have we? :)