On science fiction and sci-fi

I must be one of the few Wiccans who’s blogging on this day, yet is not discussing Samhain.  I’ve read some other Samhain-related blog posts, and found that those commentators spoke far more eloquently on the subject that I could.  I have a spare hour, so instead I’m writing on another topic that interests me.

I grew up on science fiction.  The first science-fiction book I ever read was The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron; it was given to me by my third-grade teacher.  I’ve been a reader of science fiction ever since. 

I reached adolescence on fantasy.  I don’t recall the first "fantasy" novel I read per se, but I remember the first fantasy work of any significance to me: The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.  I don’t remember who first recommended the work to me, but I remember reading it when I was 14.  I’ve been a reader of fantasy ever since.

When I started reading science fiction and fantasy, these works were mainly ignored by the world at large.  In fact, sometimes they were even hated.  Many of my teachers and many prominent critics regarded fantasy and science fiction as little better than comic books.  (Comcs would undergo their own Renaissance, but I’ll discuss The Watchmen in another post.)

I was lucky to find even a single shelf in a bookstore or a library that contained science-fiction books.  It was possible to read every single science-fiction book published, since there’d be perhaps only one or two such books published in a month.

Obviously, that changed.  Now bookstores have racks of books labeled "fantasy" and "science fiction."

In my mind, that change came with the release of the movie Star Wars.  Now, I do not claim that SF movie merchandising began with Star Wars; anyone with a Flash-Gordon ray gun or a Robby-the-Robot model kit can give lie to such a statement.  Nor did Star Wars begin the trend of novelizations based on existing screen properties; James Blish was writing Star Trek novels even as the series was being cancelled.

However, from my perspective, Star Wars marked the "sea change" when science fiction became the mass-market phenomenom that it is today.

Well, not science fiction; sci-fi.  Ideally, science fiction asks the question "what if" in some plausible context, then examines the consequences of that question in some way.  Sci-fi just tells a story using the tropes of science fiction.  Star Trek was science fiction (or tried to be). Star Wars was sci-fi, a fantasy with space ships replacing horses or airplanes.

When I walk into a bookstore or browse Amazon, I don’t see much science fiction.  Nor, for that matter, do I see what I regard as original fantasy either.  I see series of novels set in fantasy or sci-fi worlds that their authors did not create, nor can truly explore; for that reason, such stories are inevitably plot-driven rather than character-driven.  I see endless fantasy series by authors attempting to imitate Tolkien’s work simply by writing long stories, instead of understanding what makes a story great.

In short, what I see is neither science fiction nor fantasy.  What I see is marketing.

I feel that the number of good science-fiction or fantasy novels written is about the same as it was forty years ago, before Star Wars came out.  The problem back then was finding someone willing to put those books on the shelves.  The problem now is finding those books amidst the masses of Forgotten Realms and Transformer books.

I have my own criteria for trying to find such works: I will ignore any book whose cover proclaims that it’s "Book X of the Y series."  That indicates to me that the author doesn’t know how to end a story, or is trying to drag out a tale in order get a few more bucks in their pockets. 

Robert Jordan burned me badly on this very issue; I had started reading book five of his Wheel of Time series when I learned that the seven-book series had turned into a ten-book series.  I stopped reading it and gave away the books I had.

Frankly, I’ve mostly given up the search.  I tend to re-read old favorites rather than seeking out new works.  There are some authors whose works I’ll still look at the basis of their name alone (e.g., Steven Brust, Vonda McIntyre, Terry Pratchett), but otherwise I purchase almost no new books by writers I do not know.

Then I hit an exception that tests the above rules.  I’ll discuss this work in a future post, after I’ve finished reading it.

Hold on a second.  Let’s discuss some assumptions you’ve made in what you’ve already written.  You seem to have a problem with series of books based in other media.  Didn’t you ever read and enjoy any of those works?

Well… yes.  When I was a kid, I liked a series of books based on the Get Smart TV series, and the Dark Shadows books based on the soap opera.

You decry the large number of books whose stories take place in worlds established by others, such as TV series and role-playing games.  Aren’t these "shared universes" popular because they are now part of our modern mythology?  Why is bad to set a story within such a world?

A book set in such a world is limited by necessity. I’ve read a couple of Star Wars novels.  They were competently written, but no better than that.  They were always limited by something fundamental: they couldn’t go beyond limits established elsewhere.  They played plot games with their characters, but they couldn’t go much beyond that.

Would you expect anyone writing a play in ancient Greece about the gods to beyond those limits?  OK, Darth Vader can’t start raising baby kittens in a modern Star Wars novel, but a writer 2000 years ago couldn’t change Aphrodite from a Goddess of Love to a Goddess of War.  And yet the Greek playwrights were able to create stories that have withstood the test of time. 

Maybe the Star Wars, Forgotten Realms, Buffy, or various comic-book novelizations aren’t all great classics of literature, but only time and taste can determine that.  It’s judgemental to condemn all such books just because not all of them may survive that test, just like not every single play written 2000 years ago is highly respected today.

You may also be hasty in judging every author of those books based on marketing motives.  Do you think that Euripedes wasn’t paid for writing The BacchaeAnd that was definitely set in a mythology that he did not create, using characters that he did not invent, telling a story that was not original with him. That play is very character-driven; the way it presents the story is still regarded as a signficant piece of human psychology, which is part of why it is still read today.

Modern authors shouldn’t be condemned for writing works in worlds they did not create, even if it’s for monetary reasons.  Writers need to eat too.  And among those writers are James Blish, who wrote the first Star Trek novels, or Vonda McIntyre, who wrote some novelizations of the Star Trek movies.  These are both authors whose works you respect and enjoy. 

I suppose that, for me, the bottom line is time.  The italicized objections I’ve put in those post may have some validity, but i’ve only got so much time to enjoy reading.  I’ve got to impose some criteria in my choices of which books I’m going to read, otherwise I"m going to spend a lot of time (and money!) reading works that I don’t enjoy.

And even I can learn a thing or two about my assumptions.  As I said, I’ll get to that in a future post.

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  1. holzman

    Check out Elizabeth Bear and Iain M. Banks.

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