There’s no ‘right’ kind of sf (or fantasy or anything else, for that matter.) Only what sells, and it sells – or at least an author – or genre keeps selling (no matter how hard you market it) because readers enjoy it. It’s a big world with a complex range of kinds of people who enjoy different things. Just about anything will find some buyers who enjoy it (if they can find it, or even know it exists).
Of course some kinds, some subgenres, some authors sell better than others. Part of that comes down to everything from covers to marketing and availability – But the truth is some books/authors/subgenres/etc just have a wider appeal than others. Some would sell more even if the playing field were completely level, the process transparent and even-handed, with no politics, no agendas and no dahlings. It would almost certainly not be all the SAME books that do well now, but some would do better than others – some authors write better in the opinion of a larger number of people, some subjects are more interesting to more people.
I know: this is anathema to the self-elected arbiters of ‘good’. They can go on telling us what is good or even the world’s best (at least in their opinion). But that long since lost any semblance of ‘appeals to more people on a level playing field, thereby promoting the genre.’ It’s all about them and their buddies, and at best it’s failing marketing. It’s one of those ‘to work you can cheat a little, occasionally.’ Promote one or two works which are popular, just not quite as popular as all the rest you might get away with it. If you try and do more all you do trash your award and your credibility.
This is all called logic and common sense, and, based on the evidence, it’s rarer than unobtainum.
Still, genres (and authors) have ‘flavors’. That’s why readers go and look on those shelves. That is, if you like, the brand one recognizes. Sf’s genre brand has shifted a lot since I first discovered it and started reading it. As – relative to the number of possible readers available out there now as to then, it hasn’t been an unqualified success. Of course there are people who like the new direction, but I believe it is slowly killing the genre. Look, there have always been many kinds of sf, from many different angles – political, message, just entertaining fun, space opera (a story where space is really just a setting, and it could as easily be another setting), Military SF. Entertaining fun and space opera have always sold well, and in latter years Military SF (which may well also be entertaining fun and/or space opera) has also gone pretty big. I’m not opposed to ‘new’ directions (or continuing down the same track) just to that being the ‘only’ direction.
But of course there was a hallmark to much sf – the so called ‘sense of wonder’ – the opening up of new ideas, new viewpoints, new ways of seeing and thinking about things (not just how vast space is).
That is pretty dead in the water once you set PC limitations on what authors may think and write, and prescribe a narrative. It’s all about as new and exciting as last week’s leftovers. Most of the ‘unique’ and ‘new’ coming out trad publishing was new… in 1960. But hey, at least they are producing the right kind of sf… oh wait.
There isn’t a ‘right’ kind (remember this logic thing – one man’s good is another’s dreadful. And who are you to define what he should enjoy and pay for? He doesn’t think you’re his better or mentor. In fact, unless he has the intellect of a NPC he’ll probably regard your taste as… yours. Not his. And you as a jerk for prescribing what his taste should be). So – No right: Just various kinds of popular, greater or lesser. And with last I read 80% of Americans polling as being sick to death of PC, I guess whatever else PC is, it’s not a great route to making our genre’s brand widely popular.
So… maybe we need to go back to that sense of wonder. It’s not a bad idea even when blended into the various subgenres. You can add sense of wonder to space opera or message fiction or Mil sf.
It’s something that’s been a personal desire of mine to both read and write. SF and even fantasy to me anyway, are richer for it. Take for example Sprague De Camp’s Novarian cycle – which are fun entertaining fantasy – BUT explored – rather satirically, different possible political systems. I personally can see the merits of Xylar, with the kings chosen by lot and beheaded every five years… The Novarian cycle – with the Paaluans looking like aboriginals and riding Kangaroos (for one of hundreds of non-PC examples) would give modern prescriptive, politically correct sf/fantasy a collective generation of hysterical fainting fits and probably have Jim Hines leading a pogrom against De Camp.
Which would be tragic, because De Camp was in fact being true to the core tradition of sense of wonder. He was looking at things differently, and asking hard questions of own society and worldview by it. The Paaluans did not consider their nudity or their habit of eating captive enemies uncivilized. They considered the OPPOSITE barbaric. De Camp introduces the concept of ‘Mores’ (social norms of a group) rather than universal and perpetual ‘morals’. This – when you think about it, is also as abhorrent and antithetical to much of our modern PC narrative. After all, you must then judge people according to their time and social norms. Which would suddenly make a whole bunch of historical ‘bad people’ good, and good people bad (at least judged by the people of their own group and time), instead of assuming today’s ‘moral’ standards eternal, right and best, and condemning them for not living up to them. (Harry Harrison also brings this up in DEATHWORLD – A book very different to the Novarian Cycle.)
Injecting this into your own work is tricky: It requires two simple things we all struggle with: Asking hard questions – and finding different answers. And looking at things differently from other points of view, ones able to step outside our human preconceptions and the mores of our time (this is near impossible if you start from the foundation that modern mores are ‘right’ – ergo PC) for me the two work into each other.
I can’t tell you the ‘right’ method for doing this. All I can tell is what I do – and yes, I got this concept as very young teenager from De Camp’s FALLIBLE FIEND. It changed my world view – and my writing. You HAVE to step outside the framework of preconception we all carry as our worldview as humans of certain time, place, social group etc. How would a character who just doesn’t have these preconceptions view our mores? If you’ve read my books, you know this is a favorite trope of mine, which I try and explore logically based on the mores of the ‘alien’ (be they faerie, or dragon, or vegetable intelligence, or humanoid alien that changes sex with age.) I wish the idea of doing this were my originality – but I do think some of the results may make readers look at things they never questioned with new eyes. Medea’s ideas on child-rearing didn’t make her bad mother – in Ancient Greece.
The same goes for problem solving – finding answers to those hard questions. Eric faced me with ‘how do you uplift an animal with a tiny cranial capacity?’ (which he had been told was impossible). Ergo, RATS, BATS AND VATS – aspects of which I see becoming as true as Heinlein’s Waldos (since I wrote it the method I described for decoding which parts of the brain did what has in fact become the method used. I doubt if the idea came from me. It’s just logical – when looked at from a different perspective).
Likewise with SLOWTRAIN. Eric again. ‘What happens to a generation ship that gets to a place that sucks? From lightyears off you can’t really know. And you take generation to get there.’ So I came up with answers that are again a question of perspective. That applies if you colonize planets (especially one at a time). It doesn’t if you colonize space.
I’ve just finished a short AI for a Baen collection. I tried to put myself into a mechanical intelligence’s worldview, and see what would be different from a human worldview. And one thing struck me (the basis of the story) is that AI’s in much of sf… either don’t think (ergo are happy doing all the mundane tasks that would bore anything capable of rational thought witless) or, if they do, behave like humans. Yes, that would be original programming. That would shape some things in their thinking. But… much of our thinking is shaped by biological life and its realities: eating, sex and death and pain. These provide a foundation and framework for how we see and deal with everything. How does something de facto immortal see ‘death’? or ‘Love’?
So much of sense of wonder just requires getting out of your head and looking at the world without the bars and limitations of what and who you are. How would a species where the female had parasitic males sharing circulatory systems with no digestive tract of their own (as do various Anglerfish) see our society? What happens when a species with radial symmetry meets one with bilateral symmetry? How would a Classical Roman Senator view abortion or modern homosexuality or divorce laws (their mores were very different. And not in the ways that you may think)? How would an AI deal with money?
I wonder. None of the outcomes I see to any of these are remotely like the modern, predictable narrative – because that is based on the world-view and mores of our time and Western society. Why would some alien who is not from that see the world that way?
Put it a book for me to be filled with wonder about.