On This Way Up...
is the driving force, the inevitable conflict between art and
commerce brings its own tensions...
Fiction is viewed by many as a discrete, corporeal entity; compared
to a landscape, a ghetto or as a muse...
carries a risk -- that Science Fiction's landscape will be deserted,
the ghetto empty, the muse silent and senile in a generation...
wall around the spaceport at Anarres -- that's SF -- prevents any
contamination from Urras -- the mainstream. Eventually all the
freedoms of Anarres (and SF) ultimately boil down to the freedom to
The City of Words, amongst the warehouses of the engineering
publishers, the garrets packed with starving poets, the institutional
hospital Cook Towers, there nestle in odd corners in the Fiction
Quarter, the walled ghettos of Genre Fiction.
a deserted street behind the Imperial War Museum, behind reinforced
doors, the heirs of Sven Hassel and Air Wonder Stories
rehearse their nightmares on the Eastern Front and dream of flying
The Dawn Patrol over Flanders fields.
a run-down area sits Western House: a ring of stables surrounds a
dusty rectangle of courtyard; a few old-timers exercise their horses.
Nick Evans visited here, before returning to the shiny towers of
Downtown to acclaim for The Horse Whisperer.
by The Church of Holy Matrimony, the women (and few men) who are the
romance writers, labour over their loves.
Twin Towers of Crime and Thriller are linked by a 99th-storey
walkway. A few of the most spectacularly successful have expanded -
Tom Clancy has taken over an entire floor. Others such as P D James
and Ruth Rendell have second homes in the outside world, where they
have respect as well as comparative wealth.
here, the last post in our whistle-stop tour, are the three enclaves
of the Fantastic, their internal walls all but ripped down, their
inhabitants inclined to wonder from section to section, staying in
one house for a while, before wandering into another.
bacofoil-lined windows of SF shine brightly in the moonlight, hiding
from the inside the gardens which are filled with rusting mounds of
junk, twisted into Heath Robinson-esque invention. The lawns of
Fantasy are cropped close by the unicorns, though the centaurs have a
tendency to deadhead healthy flowers as well as those past bloom. The
House of Horror has at least thrown most of its doors open to the
outside world, but most who wander in stay only briefly.
in the sixties, several revolutionary gangs, one led by the hairy
hippie Moorcock, another by a shrill American, dynamited the walls,
and dragged some of the presses out onto the street. But the
Minutemen, led by the Analog Resistance Front, boarded up the walls
behind them. In time the discouraged revolutionaries moved on; the
old hippie occasionally re-visits, and some of his old enemies now
see him almost as a friend.
of the residents are underfed. The last man to dine well every day,
Stephen King, moved out recently to his retirement home.
ago lots of them squatted in other houses such as Crime. Lately some,
like the Uberfrau Catherine Asaro, commute from the Romance House. At
least they're not looking at the same wallpaper all the time.
toil for years, taking their carefully crafted work to the serving
hatches in the sides of the building, which they exchange for a few
crusts of bread with the outside world. They toil too, in painful
obscurity. If the City of Words is the size of Los Angeles, then the
number of people who actually buy these works is no more than a dozen
people a month. This is a sleepy backwater; for every person who
visits Asimov's, there are fifty on the Playboy tour.
within SF House who lament the disdain with which the Fancy Dans
Downtown view them, always lament it's someone else's fault. Most
inside the house don't really care; they're too busy earning their
few, more than a few, in fact -- the heirs of those who scrawled on
the blackboards, "Get SF back into the gutter, where it
belongs," in the late sixties and early seventies -- revel in
their neglect. Rather like teenagers who don't want to be
understood, they continually re-invent their slang, so their parents
can't understand what they're talking about, then sneer at Olders
like that James woman, when she wanders in and tries to talk to the
kids. Or at cinema SF, which they decry as being thirty years behind
is where we put the metaphor to one side: SF isn't in a ghetto of
course, but it might as well be.
the argot has changed, with nanoware replacing cyberware, the reality
is that SF is ossifying, desperately in need of a transfusion of
genuinely new ideas, yet unwilling to risk the journey
outside. This year's SF seems modelled solely on last year's SF.
Every month we're treated to yet another vision of a war-torn, or
post-war Mars, Ganymede or Titan; featuring a quite inhuman
character, who yet has a very familiar twentieth-century outlook on
life. And if I read one more story about dragons, I think I'll throw
my PC out of the window.
does it matter anyway, I hear the muttering as someone scrawls a bit
more graffiti on the blackboard.
it does matter: there are five major SF magazines in regular
monthly publication. The Arts Council props up Interzone;
SciFi.Com is a loss leader for a multi-media conglomerate; and the
old guard -- Analog, Asimov's and F&SF -- limp along with
ever fewer readers. The number of front-rank book publishers dwindles
similarly with each year. The award nominations are drawn from
dwindling vectors. For four consecutive years every short
fiction Hugo winner came from Asimov's. Is there nothing else
out there? Written SF seems to teeter on the event horizon of a black
hole, compressed with each passing year, caught in a time-warp.
the outlets stagnate, the new writers who step forward to fill the
gaps left by others vacating the genre increasingly seem clones of
last year's New Discovery.
so this is gross over-simplification. Interzone, now the Last
Wave of writers are colonizing the American magazines, are
increasingly looking to Europe for new voices such as Jean-Claude
Dunyach from France, and Serbia's Zoran Zivkovic.
Ryman is as respected in the mainstream as within SF, as are Ursula
LeGuin, Tom Disch, and Kim Stanley Robinson. But these writers all
made their debut in 1976 or earlier -- the same year that Moorcock
and Co finally packed their samizdat press away. Coincidence?
the possible exception of Nalo Hopkinson, whose style stems from her
culture, and whose dialogue is often patois, I can't think of a
single recent award winner whose work couldn't be interchanged with
another's, without the reader even noticing. Spot the difference
between Walter Jon Williams and Robert Reed, say, is an old lament,
dating back to Pulp-SF of the 50's, but it's no less valid.
most interesting book I've read this year was a novel set between
1935 and 1940. It was well written; I could almost feel the heat of
the summer night rising off the pages. The main characters were
awkward, ill at ease, prone to misunderstanding one another.
of which could be in any of the better recent SF. What set it apart
was that at the end, the writer deliberately stepped out of the
shadows and took a risk with the narrative, that had he got it wrong,
would have blown the whole novel apart. Instead, it raised it from a
very good book, to a superb one. It's that element of risk that's
missing from much of what I've read within the SF world over the last
last time I encountered it within an SF novel was in The Use of
Weapons by Iain M Banks, who as Iain Banks, is the author of
acclaimed mainstream novels such as The Crow Road. Again,
the majority of mainstream fiction is feeble, vacuous or
navel-gazing. But at its best, good mainstream fiction brings a sense
of risk missing from much SF at the moment.
recent article in a major SF magazine recently bemoaned the loss of
much of the mature readership. I think it's because many readers have
simply become bored with SF that's now painting by numbers:
Our Hero(ine), complete with character flaws, and enough quirks to
make the reader care.
has a problem.
transformed in the process.
written in lean, spare prose; this is more vigorous. This is also
horse-hooey. Editors pay by the word, so writers have conditioned
themselves Pavlovian-like (me included), so it's become the Eleventh
Commandment -- Thou Shalt Avoid Passives Like The Pox.
there are only so many variations that commercial fiction can provide
while ensuring that readers don't feel let down by lack of
satisfactory resolution, etc.
commercial fiction. You, dear reader, are the problem. It's your
fault. You want character growth, and happy endings, and consistency,
and no loose ends.
do you? Sure, ask the people who buy the magazines every month, and
they'll tell you they want more of the same. But has anybody bothered
to ask readers why they're not bothering with it any more. No one
or Interzone wrote and asked why I was no longer a subscriber.
The plain fact is that after thirteen years of Asimov's I felt
I could tell you the plot outlines the month before they were
is the inherent problem with genre fiction. It's the mental
equivalent of comfort food. It's safe. Unlike mainstream fiction,
which sets out to change the reader's view of the world (often
unconsciously), genre fiction exists to reinforce the reader's
most genres, this is a strength. Readers want reassurance that
there's a safer, more predictable world within the pages they hold.
readers of the Fantastic have always claimed that they want to be
challenged. In truth, most simply wanted a different set of codes
than those provided by other genres, and justified their tastes with
reality is that fewer people are reading the magazines, and buying
the books, because instead of having a plain but substantial meal at
the TWU brasserie, they can nip into their local WideScreen fast-food
junk outlet and stock up on the latest franchised Thoughtburger:
Spiderman? Star Wars? LOTR? Harry Potter? We got em all. Hell, we've
even got Phil Dick, if you want to pretend you're watching SF
such as the one you're reading do a splendid job of creating the
illusion that there is movement within the SF field, and in giving
tyros like me a chance to develop, while giving you, the reader,
something else to read. But the reality is that they're labours of
love, and as ephemeral as mayflies.
you finish reading this, if you've persevered so far, thank you. Read
the rest of the site, then go away, and read something different, I
living in a real SF age. We have palm tops, and security cordoned
private estates, and GM crops, and sex changes. Yet written SF has
turned in on itself, and will always lose to cinema and TV, because
they're more accessible and require less effort.
the writers, editors, and readers
of SF, for we are all complicit, are prepared to risk breaking the
codes that are hardwired into the genre. Until they're prepared to
read a story that doesn't necessarily have a beginning, middle and
end in that order. Until they're prepared for characters who rise to
the challenge to fail. Until they're prepared to accept loose ends.
Until then, SF is doomed to become ever more irrelevant to the rest
of the world.
magazine SF goes from here, I have no idea; I'll take a look at one
possibility next issue, but the only guarantee I can offer is that
the guess will be wrong.
going to tear down another shutter: the sunlight hurts my eyes, but I
can take it. Then I'm going to bite the hand that feeds me -- again.