The Evil Emperor Mong, who leads otherwise angelic squaddies into vice, sloth, stupidity and inevitable disasters was at my ear a few minutes ago. “What is this applying yourself to the boring machine, while the sun shines after a week of rain? Go. Take up your shotgun and wander forth along the green brake. Or allow yourself to read some of Amelia Peabody’s rivetting misadventures in Egyptology. It’s homework! You said so yourself while reading Duplicate Death only yesterday. It’ll only take you minutes to dash out something innocuous for MGC.”
The Evil Emperor and I are old… I can’t say friends. I know his devious plots all too well. Why only a week or two ago he was kind enough to inform me that the water was calling me, it would make work better to be out in the briny fresh air for an hour or so, it would make a veritible literary production line… And only an hour or maybe two. I said to him: “Last time you told me thus, Oh great Emperor, it was eight hours. The management was not best pleased, because I had not taken the mobile. And I had an ear infection from diving with a cold that lasted a week of barely being able to write ‘snot’, but producing a lot of it.”
“Foolish minion, away, lest I curse thy bottom with boils. This time will be different. Think how the gentle roll of the sea will stir the creative juices. And it’s with Jamie. What could possibly go wrong?”
And thus it was ten hours, the mobile battery was flat, and we spent a lot of time punched through the sand crust and winching and digging ourselves out of the soft stuff before the tide did it for us (which, um, happens a lot with my dive partner Jamie, but this was far worse than usual) That is, when I wasn’t having my sit-upon pounded out of the top of my scalp by the anything but gentle roll. I couldn’t sit properly for four days, and I’d promised the management I’d be back in plenty of time to join her on her archery expedition. I was popular. If I didn’t cook the supper, it would have been inside the dog before I got home.
So this time I answered “Nay.”
And the Evil Emperor smiled and twirled his long moustache, knowing full well his temptation would either lead me astray (and it just started pouring with rain, so he would have been cackling if he’d succeeded, as I would been a very unhappy cleaner of shotguns) or lead me into worse vice – like writing something that irritated everyone.
Like: what is wrong with modern sf? And what do need to do to fix it?
And the answer is just about… everything.
It has got 1/100 of the readership it enjoyed in the golden age
It has managed to lose most of its male readership, and attracted almost no female readership (in fact it has probably lost some of that which it had).
It has lost most of its raison d’art (and some of its currants and candied peel – all that is left is prune-juice).
It’s in denial of what it is.
It is a dead genre staggering zombie like from little spurts of surviving muscle and nerve impulse. Sparks from the sub-genres – cyberpunk (which appeals mostly to… cyberpunks. Who live in cubicles doing IT stuff and spawn out of suburbia and buy cyberpunk.) or Military sf. Occasional dribbles of space opera, not inspired by watching Star-wars… and lots palsied groin thrusting onanism from the literary pretensionists. It’s a game they have to play alone, because the readers are outnumbered by the writers of it. The main, center part of sf, where we explored that great big frontier, the future, and gave it a good kicking is… mostly wasted away.
Of course it is very PC too, just in case it needed any more problems.
Since the Golden Age people have been ‘fixing’ sf.
Most dumb-as… geniuses, yes, that was the word I was looking for, couldn’t see it wasn’t sf that needed fixing, it was them. As a wondrous classic example explains what was ‘wrong’ with Heinlein… this elderly LA times article explains pretty well what went wrong (but not with Heinlein). Only it seems under the delusion that, you know, catastrophically declining sales meant the fix they applied was just what was needed. (Only they seemed to mean a ‘fix’ as in that white powder you bought on the street corner. I told the feller I had a problem with my dipstick, and he gave me some, said it would help my performance no end. I tried it on my truck’s oil-leak and it did nothing for that (I didn’t mind trying – truck was stuffed, and the funny man said first one was was free and he turned such a interesting color when I put it in the sump.) A wonderful thing a euphemistic common language is, isn’t it?).
If I can stop being such an idiot for a moment (A challenge at the best of times, which is why the Evil Emperor does so well with me) – the writer of the article did encapsulate the problem they tried to fix:
“Those writers, often liberal or radical, aimed to move away from pulp space operas and toward literature, from tales of physics to stories about psychology and sexuality and drugs.
There were more female writers, and the men exhibited a feminist consciousness that diverged sharply from the golden age”.
Screwing things up royally, while entirely missing the point of what made sf work in the first place. Diagnosing a fuel problem when, if anything, the air-filter needed changing, and filling the tank with diesel… with a gasoline engine.
What made SF work was that it was aspirational. It took the reader to a future where people he (or sometimes she) could identify with, used science and technology confidently to build, to explore, to be Captain Courageous. To dream of standing on a future peak in Darien, and know that could be their children, if not them. Not the person dealing with a world where they’re leaves in the wind, and the machinery is so whizz-bang wonderful as to be un-understandable by the reader. Of course the heroes – like Nile Etland, were all male, and white, like Homer Crawford. (if you recognise the examples, you’ll grasp my meaning – it was about _people_ they could identify with, not PC tokens). Not that it was about physics. Much of it wasn’t. Yes, on the hard sf side it tended towards engineering with a dash of chemistry and a bit of physics. But seriously no one could read James H Schmitz’s WITCHES OF KARRES
and say it was about physics. Nor do these twerps have the vaguest grasp of what ‘literature’ is as opposed to ‘pulp’. They thought you measured it by turgidity or word-length or reflecting their values. Duhlings, here’s a clue. Literature survives. Nothing else tells you it is. Jane Austen and Charles Dickens survive. Neither would have even begun to make it as ‘literature’ by the standards of our lit’ry elite, had they been alive then. And Thomas M Disch and 99% of the new wave and indeed cyberpunk there after… have vanished, and Schmitz and his ‘pulp’ are selling strongly -and mostly to a YOUNG audience. Yes, the fact that parents and grandparents bought them eagerly helped. But there just aren’t enough old people still buying books to account for it, not to mention the letters I get from our Schmitz sequels.
I’m going to quote from a letter I got asking about the next Karres book, which I think points to what appealed “the spirit of adventure into unknown frontiers, of hope in technology and the human spirit together was very alive and well” (KC).
And that pinpoints what needs fixing. Yeah. There are exceptions. Lois Bujold. Sarah’s A FEW GOOD MEN
You might even add Eric and my SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS in there. Oddly, we’re still the enemy – and the enemies of Heinlein-type books still do their best to mock, dismiss, and pour scorn on our non-literary writing.
And to the lady writer who got terribly terribly upset because a publisher wouldn’t look at her book – because the publisher told her that men just don’t buy hard sf by women (from which she managed to blame white men, not the publisher, and divine that we needed to leave Golden Age attitudes behind. Not that she’d read much and it was all so mired in sexism…) What sf, hard, soft, psychological, engineering-related need is: to be aspirational. If Jane Doe reads your book and thinks ‘I get this, I can imagine myself succeeding where hero Fred (or Fredrica – it doesn’t matter) has. I want to be like that.’ Then sf will be fixed and roaring to go. Where the heroes are people first, and gay or Muslim or whatever, in realistic roles and proportions that readers can believe (some villians some heroes, mostly just some of both), it’ll be blasting on all rocket tubes. While it is dystopia, turgid writing and those PC standard villian standard PC hierarchy ‘good’ tropes, which 90% ofthe population know is a load of old cobblers… and just don’t buy or buy into, it won’t.
And now for something completely different. Yes, Evil Emperor Mong advised me about this. “You’re supposed to be deadly secretive about this guard your status and dignity. But no-one will notice. No one important anyway.”
I did say I’d give feedback to how Indy kindle sales on A MANKIND WITCH
went. (and in the interest of transparency, all the pictures are live links to Amazon and pay me a princely 6%
The score. AMW 43, 40, 62 (so far) THE FORLORN 22, and… 2.
I dunno. I finally raised THE FORLORN price to match to match AMW, as there had been 1 sale while AMW had 59. I expected less (as it was on the free library) but either AMW is doing well (which I think is the case) or THE FORLORN worse than I expected. Any guesses, either post them here or on the back of an envelope, addressed to me, containing large sums of money.
And now the Emperor has just come up with a brilliant new command for me…. I must rush forth!