Okay, this is war!

I’ve just read Mark Charan Newton’s fiery blog on Why Science Fiction is Dying and Fantasy Fiction is the Future.

Normally I take a very mild attitude to other people’s point of view. If that’s what you think – then fine, go ahead and think it.

But on this occasion, Mark has hit me where it hurts.  It’s a very low blow indeed.

And I am enraged.  

Science Fiction is not dying! Fantasy Fiction is not the future!  And I can prove the fallacious error of Mark’s thesis with two compelling arguments.

Firstly, I don’t want this to be the case.


Actually there is no secondly.  I don’t want this to be the case – but Mark is quite right. SF sales are diminishing – not by much, but they’re certainly not growing. And fantasy sales are booming.  And hence, the genre I love so much is shrinking, and becoming less ‘cool’. 

Damn, I appear to have punched myself on my own jaw, and am now reeling and blinking.

Let me tackle it a different way. Why are SF sales being whupped by fantasy sales?

Mark proposes four reasons, and three of them I think are incorrect.  The reasons are these:

1) More women than  men read books.

2) Culture has caught up with our imagination.

3) Literary fiction is eating up SF.

4) Modern fantasy audiences have grown up on the films of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

As far as point 2) is concerned: I really don’t think this is true! Yes, computers and mobile phones have made the concept of  ‘cyberspace’ an everyday reality not a fictional notion.  But we haven’t colonised space, we don’t have sentient robots, we haven’t disovered aliens, we don’t even have a colony on Mars or the Moon.  The future still has much to offer; and in any case, science fiction is much more than an extrapolater of events. It’s a genre of fabulous ideas, in which the implications of future progress are explored in thrilling stories about real characters.  That’s the kind of SF I read and  love.

Point 3) is a clever one; but the fact that Margaret Attwood has written an SF novel isn’t going to affect the sales of established SF writers. If anything, it makes it more possible for SF writers to go ‘mainstream’.

I’d dispute point 4) too. Yes Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have made fantasy into big box office. But what about 2012? Independence Day?  The Watchmen? Star Trek? All the comic book movies?  Not to mention all the amazing SF on TV.  Science fiction movies and TV series have a huge huge fanbase, and yet for some reasons viewers of SF movies don’t read SF novels in the same numbers. (Why? Well I’m trying to figure that one out.)

Point 1) is a killer: yes, women do read more books, and it seems that by and large they don’t read ‘blokey’ hard SF.   (I’m basing this on anecdotal evidence, admittedly  – if the publishers know more or different, I’d love to hear it.) 

However, I do recall being on a panel at a Sci Fi London event where a female fan asked, sweetly and devastatingly, why SF writers are always so obsessed with ‘getting it [the science] right.’ 

And her words struck me like a body blow.  Here was a fan who wanted to be told stories. She didn’t want books which taught her all the science she’d so far managed to avoid by not doing physics and chemistry A Levels.  And so the whole geeky, anoraky dimension to hard SF was, for her, like a huge Keep Out sign.

And yet! SF – of the hard and space opera variety – is all about concepts and ideas and amazing extrapolations of scientific insights. Like the many-world theory, or the astonishing properties of black holes, or the commonsense -defying theory of quantum physics.  These concepts give a backdrop to a world of the extraordinary, where wonderful events can occur as a matter of course.   And it  is or should be no harder for the lay reader to grasp these concepts than it is for readers of Dan Brown to follow his historical and esoteric digressions. 

‘Hard’ SF , therefore, shouldn’t mean SF that’s ‘hard,’ and on which you will be tested by stern faced boffins.

And, personally, though I love the SF of ideas, I get bored when it’s gadgety and geeky, all about the machinery (plot and otherwise) and not about the story and the characters.

But should we – those of us who depend on, let’s face it, making a living out of this stuff - abandon all hope and start writing heroic epic fantasy?  Or is there a way to revitalise the SF genre, to make it be and appear to be less ‘blokey’?

There’s a killer argument here, and its name is Battlestar Galactica.  I was working on TV crime dramas when it first came out, and wasn’t part of the first wave of fans. I then started watching it when I ran a writers’ group in Brighton, after all the women in the group told me I had to watch it. 

At about the same time Zanna, my former script editor on The Bill – who is now an academic, a poet, and a theatre director, and generally the last person you’d expect to be an SF fan – also told me to watch it. She actually gave me the DVD of the introductory mini-series, and suggested (subtextually - she’s a master at gentle, courteous subtext) that I’d be a fool and a wastrel and a knave if I didn’t watch it.

So I did, and I was hooked, and I’m only a few episodes away from the climax of the final series.

But why is this show so beloved by female fans?  For it is a “blokey” show if ever there was one. It’s all about hardware and spaceships – the Vipers, the Battlestars,  the Cylon ships.  There are even long scenes in the engineering bay in which spaceship mechanics talk about the mechanics of spaceships.  There is jargon aplenty.  All in all, there is little – very very little – of what one might call “girly” stuff. And yet women love it. They don’t just love it, they adore it,  in their millions.  It’s SF! It’s Hard SF! Why????

I think there are three reasons.

First, it’s bloody good. It’s smart, complex, morally ambiguous, and has characters you can engage with, and care about, and be exasperated by.  Women fans are smart, just like male fans; they want stories that challenge them, and make them think and feel.

Secondly, it’s sexy. Genuinely sexy.  It’s not the old-fashioned pulp cliched stuff with big-breasted Amazons with no brains; the women in this show are sexy, the men are sexy, and the Cylons (Number 6! be still my beating heart!) are the sexiest of all. And it’s sexy in a totally non-sexist way. The beautiful young women in this show are often seen in revealing vests; but the gorgeous young men wear the same uniforms. And the old guys – Admiral Adama and Colonel Tigh – are also seen in the same revealing outfits, and dammit, they may be old and gnarly but they look good.

Thirdly, the women are just like men.  They can be vicious. They can be cruel.  Kara Thrace  (Starbuck)  is a swaggering arrogant jock who punches her senior officer and smokes a cigar - and we love her. 

My theory is that the show is made a bunch of men who know nothing about women, so they write them just like men. And women, it seems,  like that approach  – because it’s not condescending, and reflects a fundamental truth about our genders: women can, and do, kick ass.

So I don’t see any reason why contemporary SF  – which at its best is sexy, challenging, and full of great stories featuring real vital characters - should be tarred with the “blokey” brush.

But, it seems, it is. 

And my suspicion is that this is why fantasy sales are booming…the old fans are as loyal as ever (hence, great sales for Al Reynolds, Peter Hamilton, John Scalzi and other established SF types) but the newer fans tend to be women, and they tend to prefer the fantasy and urban fantasy genres. 

So, how to persuade these readers to try what’s available within the genre I most love?

Well I don’t know – I wish I did.  But I’ll end by quoting Kim Stanley Robinson, a wise owl, who in this piece wrote:

 I say this as a happy fan and an awed colleague: the range, depth, intensity, wit and beauty of the science fiction being published in the UK these days is simply amazing.

 Or to put it another way, Mark: Science Fiction kicks the ass of Fantasy Fiction!

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