Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where are all the science fiction readers?

I recently read a post on SFReader/SFWatcher stating that there are only 20,000 regular readers of science fiction. That's fewer folks than live in my home county here in Georgia, making this a really astonishing statistic. The webmaster at SFR/SFW is now paying for movie reviews, in hopes of growing the website. No compensation is offered to reviewers of novels, of course.

When I was taking Mythology in Literature during grad school, one of our texts was by Joseph Campbell, who says that science fiction is mythology for modern people. If science fiction is so important culturally, why aren't more people reading it, and what might attract a larger readership?

In 2004, Business Week ran an article entitled ScFi: Novel Inspiration which lists four valid reasons for reading science fiction. They include looking for new inventions, understanding the social consequences of invention, learning the lexicon of the future, and inspiring young minds. As America stagnates, and it really is doing just that, I wonder if our lack of wonder is at fault.

While science fiction does more than explore invention, that is one important aspect of it. A website called lists almost two thousand ideas which began within the pages of science fiction. Most people know that Captain Nemo's ship beneath the sea predates the submarine, but how many folks know that Verne also predicted live news conferences, retro-rockets, and was the first to postulate that space travelers would have to deal with being weightless?

One of my favorite SF authors, Robert A. Heinlein, employs 3-D television, exoskeletons for the military, and smart lanes on the highway. All of these are in the later stages of development, and will be as much a part of our future as the "pocket phone" (which he used in "Assignment in Eternity" in 1953) is today.

Recently Fortune magazine published an article about the dearth of math and science students in the United States. Of the 8,000 students who graduated from U. S. colleges with a Ph.D in engineering  this spring, two-thirds were foreign nationals. Just a few years ago, most of those students might have stayed in America, but today, the majority will return to their home countries, because the opportunities to use the skills they just learned are there, and not here.

"The fastest-growing college majors in America as of 2007, says the U.S. Education Department, were parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies, as well as security and protective services." (Fortune, July 29, 2010) As Americans turn their collective backs on science (and science fiction) our nation will continue down the road to economic ruin.

In my research on why readers don't enjoy science fiction, a number of reasons were mentioned, including:
"It's too hard to read." 
"The future in science fiction literature is too dark."
"The science is bad."

All of those reasons might have some merit, but there is a reason, which should have no merit, that I encountered while promoting Trinity on Tylos: There is a social stigma associated with reading science fiction. Ouch!

Oddly, people who see movies such as Avatar, The Dark Knight, or Jurassic Park don't seem to feel that society is shunning them when they view science fiction on the big screen. In fact, many of the top grossing films of all time are either science fiction, fantasy, or have some ties to speculative literature. Now, the question is, how do we get those youngsters to make the leap from looking, to reading, and on to inventing?

That question is far more important than expanding market share for science fiction, which is stuck at a mere six percent of book sales. What America must accomplish, to expand the job market and our economy, is to expand the minds of our younger citizens. Science fiction should have a role in that, but someone, somewhere, must introduce it to them, and the earlier, the better.

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Review of Savage Survival

When many people view an author as just fabulous, that writer sells boatloads of books. Remember when everyone was reading the latest Stephen King? Other authors write memorable books, but they only do it once— Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee come to mind. Some writers are prolific, but it seems impossible to remember the plot of any specific book. Numerous such authors are still writing, but I am reluctant to name a living one, since I really don't want to make my readers angry. So, I will list a prolific author who probably won't complain, since she is no longer writing— Barbara Cartland. She wrote over six hundred novels, but I can't recall any standouts.

Then there are some obscure writers who ought to be less so, and Darrell Bain is one of them. I've read several of his yarns, and they are invariably memorable. Savage Survival is typical Bain— something extraordinary interrupts ordinary, and characters rise to the occasion, or they don't. I've seen grace under pressure— my mother was almost always cool and competent, regardless of her circumstances. My husband has that same quality— he manages the most difficult of situations without unnecessary drama. Such people have character, and I greatly admire that quality.

In Savage Survival, the main character, Lyda Brightner, is eleven years old. Yes, she comes of age, rather quickly, but she remains vulnerable enough for readers to be empathetic to her. Various adults interact with Lyda as the story unfolds, but the focus is always on her. Not since Oliver Twist have I followed a youngster through so many trials. Like Dickens' classic tale of social inequality, Bain's story is about the crucible of humanity under extreme pressure, but it is also about how people can either make bad times better or worse. There is something distinctly old-fashioned in Bain's themes, and I don't intend that as a criticism. In Bain's books, he tells you who is good and who is bad, and those who are evil suffer for their wrongs, usually at the hands of the hero. Pretense, which is an integral part of modern life, is quickly exposed in Bain's pressure cooker, and Lyda has no qualms about dispensing justice. Such authenticity is only found in fiction these days, which is ironic, isn't it?

The story is science fiction, but it is soft-scifi, because Bain never bothers explaining how anything works. Instead, he spends most of the novel showing how people react to it. With my fairly busy schedule,  I often begin a book and I'm still working on it a week later. Others are more compelling. Savage Survival took me about 24 hours, and that is only because I do have to sleep sometime. Lyda Brightner got under my skin in such a way that I just had to know how it was all going to play out.

I read the eBook version, but I believe the publisher, Double Dragon, also put a few hundred into print. Whether you choose electrons or ink and paper, I highly recommend Bain's books, and this particular title is quite worthy.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Trigger is for sale

When I was in the sixth grade, I sat near a Currier and Ives print of two horses pulling sulkies. Since I was as much a victim of education as a beneficiary of it, I can now admit that I spent much more time gazing at the lithograph than doing my schoolwork. One day, instead of berating me for being inattentive, my teacher informed me that she placed the print there because all girls like horses. Although I accepted her statement, I knew that most of my friends liked horses, but not the way that I did. Later, I did have a horse of my own, but in the sixth grade, I was still longing.

Nowadays, girls are more apt to drool over twinkly vampires than equines, but I am rather glad that I grew up in an era when the good guys and the bad guys were firmly delineated. My early Saturday mornings were ruled by television shows, including Roy Rogers, Fireball XL 500, Fury, and Sky King. Horses and flying were equally entertaining, and the good guy generally won out in the end.

Time has marched onward, and most youngsters today have not seen a western. These worldly wise offspring probably would not be amused by a horse who could untie ropes or do the hula, but my favorite equine star from yesteryear, Roy Rogers' palomino sidekick, Trigger, could do those tricks, and much more. After living some thirty years (a good old age for a horse) he was preserved via taxidermy and became an exhibit in the Roy Rogers Museum. While that might seem a bit yucky, when Trigger died, Roy said he couldn't just put him in the ground. Last year, the museum closed, and Trigger, whose image was as well known as any human movie star in the 40s and 50s, is going on the auction block, along with other memorabilia from way back when cowboys were heroic.

These are sad times indeed.

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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Girl Gone Nova— Review

Since I read Pauline Baird Jones' The Key, I have been waiting for this book. One reason I read eBooks is that I enjoy stories which are more "novel" than the novels published by the big guys. I happened upon The Key when it was atop the list of science fiction books at Fictionwise, and I read it and re-read it. One of the more charming aspects of The Key is the POV character, Sara Donovan, a "kick their trash" fighter pilot.

While set in the same universe, Girl Gone Nova is not exactly a sequel. Instead, we have another main POV character who interacts with some of the supporting cast from The Key. Delilah Oliver Clementyne (Doc) is indeed a doctor. But she is also a military troubleshooter who specializes in doing the impossible. A couple of years or so after Donovan returns to earth, things are in such a mess that Doc is despatched to do her version of Mission Now Possible. Her outlook is a bit darker than Donovan's, but she is quite entertaining, nevertheless. The plot involves political intrigue, first contact with aliens, and multiple timelines. Jones bills this book as fantasy, and since it is intended to be contemporary, but all of a sudden we have interstellar propulsion, I guess that qualifies as fantasy. There aren't any trolls or sparkly vampires, but for me, that's a plus. I'd much rather have spaceships, aliens, and nanotechnology, and this series has all three.

Girl Gone Nova is available in print and eBook form, and it is a fun yarn for light summer reading.

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