Saturday, April 28, 2007

Don’t call it Science Fiction!

Okay, my age is going to show here, but I don’t understand the death knell that is echoing for one of my favorite genres. When I was in elementary school, I watched television coverage of the rockets which occasionally propelled astronauts into orbit. I sought out books which explained the inner workings of these vehicles, and read fiction based on those early efforts. I know that Mike Mars Flies the X-15 didn’t make the bestseller list, but it was a keeper for me. Imagining that humanity would eventually try to conquer “the final frontier” didn’t seem too far-fetched, and still doesn’t to me.

However, I know that previous generations were not interested, because they wouldn’t see the dream become reality, and they seemed more interested in raises in social security and which denture cream might let them enjoy an apple.

My own children aren’t huge science fiction fans, although my son enjoys video games set in futuristic settings, and daughter has chosen to read a few volumes from my science fiction/romance shelf. Recently, Locus Magazine ran their annual poll of best science fiction works for last year, and there was a question at the end of the poll which addressed an important issue for the science fiction genre. I’m paraphrasing, but it referred to the lack of interest among young readers in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and asked for recommended reading to get young folks interested in sci fi and fantasy. This is a positive approach, but it does acknowledge that a problem exists.

I have experienced this first hand. People who gladly purchased a copy of my debut novel, The Gift Horse, refused to buy Trinity on Tylos. Or, worse, they purchased it and never read it. If I mention going to a sci-fi con, someone is bound to at least do that eye rolling thing which means I’m not entirely sane. I gave several talks after The Gift Horse came out, but I have given only two since Trinity on Tylos was published, unless I count visits to cons, and one of those was to the Atlanta Science Fiction Society. I am fifty-one years old, and I’d label many of them as “contemporaries.”

Perhaps the younger generation feels that the future is already here. Some of the gizmos that I could only dream about in elementary school are fixtures nowadays. Captain Kirk’s “communicator” looked a heck of a lot like my clamshell cell phone, and the computer that ran the Enterprise doesn’t seem too much more advanced than the iBook I am typing on. Dr. McCoy could administer a drug which seemed to cure diseases, and some of the concoctions we have now seem to work miracles. So, with so much high tech in everyday life, where should a writer venture? More importantly, what will entice the modern reader to come along?

The film industry and the publishing industry have decided to avoid the science fiction moniker, because they want to sell their products. So, Star Wars is shelved as “adventure” in the video section, and publishers are trying out terms like “speculative fiction” or “paranormal romance” and the darker side is now “post apocalyptic.” Recently, Wired magazine ran an article about the film industry’s avoidance of sci fi as a label, while embracing the themes for which it is known, and a couple of months ago Publisher’s Weekly featured an analysis of how publishing houses are using various approaches to reach a new generation of readers. Some publishers are continuing to embrace the term science fiction, but I just learned that one of the high quality small presses which has been devoted to the genre, Meisha Merlin of Decatur, GA, has decided to close its doors in May. I have to wonder, if they put a different spin on their books, would they have found the distribution and the customers that were lacking?

Anyone who has studied literature is aware that times change and culture tends to reflect that. I sincerely hope that works which I would term science fiction will continue to be produced, regardless of what labels the marketing people feel compelled to bestow upon them.

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