Children of the Ghetto


Colin Harvey


Previously On This Way Up...

...Whichever is the driving force, the inevitable conflict between art and commerce brings its own tensions...

...Science Fiction is viewed by many as a discrete, corporeal entity; compared to a landscape, a ghetto or as a muse...

...This carries a risk -- that Science Fiction's landscape will be deserted, the ghetto empty, the muse silent and senile in a generation...

...The 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 conform...


Across 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Over by The Church of Holy Matrimony, the women (and few men) who are the romance writers, labour over their loves.

The 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.

And 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.

The 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.

Back 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.

Most of the residents are underfed. The last man to dine well every day, Stephen King, moved out recently to his retirement home.

Years 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.

Most 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.

Those 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 beans.

A 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 the times.

This is where we put the metaphor to one side: SF isn't in a ghetto of course, but it might as well be.

Although 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.

What does it matter anyway, I hear the muttering as someone scrawls a bit more graffiti on the blackboard.

Well, 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.

While 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.

Okay, 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.

Geoff 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?

With 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.

The 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.

All 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 decade.

The 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, coincidence?

Yes, 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.

A 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:

  1. Meet Our Hero(ine), complete with character flaws, and enough quirks to make the reader care.

  2. OH has a problem.

  3. OH solves problem.

  4. Is transformed in the process.

  5. All 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.

Okay, 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.

Note: 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.

Or 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 from Asimov's 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 published.

This 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 world-view.

For most genres, this is a strength. Readers want reassurance that there's a safer, more predictable world within the pages they hold.

But 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 high-minded claims.

The 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 old-stylee.

Webzines 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.

When 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 dare you.

We're 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.

Until 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.

Where 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.

I'm 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.


Colin Harvey writes: "I'm 41, and have been married for 14 years to Kate, who has no interest in writing, or written SF, but puts up with her spouse's strange solitary habit of sitting and staring at a computer screen for hours on end. We've no children, but have an eight-year old English Springer Spaniel called Chloe, who is our surrogate daughter. We live in Bristol, where I work for an export division of a well-known Multinational fmcg company -- you'd know their brands, if not their name.

"My previous appearances have been in Aphelion webzine, and in the now defunct Fragmented Infinity, and my novel Vengeance was published by -- check it out, it's free. I have an appearance coming in September from Peridot Books Volume XVI.

"My webpage is at, and includes a fairly grim photograph -- one of my pet hates is photos. I'm currently working on a novel, Lightning Days, and have been since the dawn of time, it sometimes seems."
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