Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Why is science fiction not as popular?

In the online writer's group that I participate in (yes, agents do write too!), we've been having an interesting discussion regarding what it takes to push the boundaries of today's science fiction. While I'm definitely interested in hearing what people think is the "cutting edge" of science fiction today, I'm more interested in hearing why people think it's less popular than fantasy nowadays. We're strictly discussing short stories and books, regarding this topic, since I'm quite aware that science fiction continues to be quite prevalent in movies and video games. As I've mentioned before, there's a definite publishing trend to choose fantasy over science fiction, and obviously the publishers have done their market research regarding what sells. But the question that really needs to be addressed is why they are getting these results.

So, what makes you pick up a fantasy novel over a science fiction one?

What types of science fiction novels would you prefer to see published nowadays?

And finally, do you find it easier to relate to near-future science fiction, i.e. Michael Crichton-esque thrillers, and if so, why? What is it about today's science fiction that's turning you off from buying it in greater quantities?

Discuss! =)


G. Jules Reynolds said...

I think at least part of it is the fact that we see the future differently from how we did during the Golden Age of SF. There were always some dystopic versions of the future, but by and large I think the perspective was more optimistic.

And then, too, there's another argument that came up on Scalzi's blog, although I've heard it at cons as well. SF writers tend to be writing for people who are heavily entrenched in SF and have already read, say, Heinlein's early work, so there's no need to tell Heinlein sorts of stories. Which is fine, if they're only writing for the existing audience, but without entry points for new readers said audience isn't growing.

Does the same thing apply in the YA market? I can't think of much recent science fiction there, but what I can think of (Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, Kenneth Oppel's blimp books) has been pretty popular.

Kat said...

I think people find sf more intimidating to read and to write. For writers, there's the perception that they have to get every little science detail right. Sarah Zettel says that for a long time she thought she couldn't write sf because physics bored her to tears. For readers, there's this idea that science fiction is all about science and technology, not helped along by the current fashion for making the reader pick up on stuff as they go along -- or by the nitpickyness of a certain vocal portion of sf fans. I've noticed that the books that are most likely to appeal to a more general audience are the books that die-hard fandom looks down on the most.

Considering that most readers are women, and that there's still a perception that science is one of those male things, and that fandom is pushing for books to become more incomprehensible to outsiders rather than less, it's hardly surprising if sf isn't selling as well as the more open and relaxed genre of fantasy.

Jodi Davis said...

I read sf and fantasy - and I think right now, maybe always, is that there is a tendency to shy away from the person, the heart, the warmth, the character - in sf - I don't think it's too difficult - there are some convoluted worlds in Fantasy. But let's say, the George RR Martin stuff - you've got Tyerion fans. Fans of the character... who are you going to be attached to in say, SPIN, or MAELSTROM? Both fine fine books, but when they're done... they're done.

linda said...

When I pick up a science fiction book in the stores anymore, I don't see much of the kind of story that first drew me to the genre. The vision tends to be dark and dysfunctional, the characters bizarre, and the overall experience promises to be bleak rather than fun. Half the time, the humans are altered by technology in ways I find unappealing. Yes, I know my species is going to evolve and change, but ...

Fantasy more often looks like it will be fun, at least, or have incredible human depth, which is more of what I look for. Also, fantasies are more likely to have the kinds of characters I can fantasize about. :)

Harry Connolly said...

Another possibility that the resurgence in the popularity of fantasy is a market correction. After WWI, western culture looked down on fantasy and made-up things. Realism was the watchword.

Look at the way people describe science fiction: It's made-up things that could happen. Essentially, it's an attempt to mix fantasy and realism.

I think we're leaving that contempt for the unreal behind, and readers are returning to the stories that they've enjoyed for centuries--tales of magic, monsters and heroes.

Patrick Samphire said...

As Linda says, it's about fun. Most of us read for fun and fun alone. I used to read a lot more science fiction than fantasy, but now it's reversed, because it's my perception at least that the fantasy is fun and the science fiction (with some honorable exceptions, e.g., Peter Hamilton & Iain Banks) isn't.

I'm not sure you're right that SF is prevalent in movies, though. After Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Narnia (yeuch!) and King Kong, fantasy seems to clearly dominate.

Scott Washburn said...

I don't have any answer to this, but I just got hammered over the head with the reality of it. I'm a science fiction (and fantasy) writer, but so far my only sale has been one short story. Two years ago I had the "luck" to find an agent. Supposedly a good agent from a well-established firm (Harold Ober). My agent began circulating one of my novels (I've finished seven so far) but after getting several "We really like this and five years ago we would have bought it in a heartbeat, but now it isn't really what we are looking for" replies she decided that my SF was too conventional. She's read a few of my other SF novels and rendered the same judgement. She recommends I work on fantasy. So great, I have an agent who refuses to try and sell my novels. What the heck do I do now?

Jenny Rappaport said...

So many wonderful comments to talk about!

g. jules reynolds, I agree that there's not much SF out there for young adults. When I was growing up, I distinctly remember that my library had the Norby books by Isaac and Janet Asimov, and I ate those up. Nowadays, I don't really see many YA SF books, other than those you mentioned; I've read the first book of Kenneth Oppel's blimp series, and I remember it being set in a much more optimistic world than usual. But if the readers aren't getting hooked in YA or children's fiction, then where is the next generation of adult SF readers going to come from?

I personally know of one YA editor who would love to get her hands on some good SF, but just isn't seeing many submissions.

And if we see the future differently now, is it the current global economic/political situation that's influencing that? Another thought is that to many people we seem to be living in a SF future, with all the technological developments that are currently happening... if the future is now, then why bother to read books about it?

kat, I really like your point about the majority of readers being women, and I think it dovetails neatly with jodi davis' point about there being a lack of characters with which to empathize. There are plenty of women who are studying to be scientists (I have a friend who's a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology, in fact), but I think what you're saying touches on the larger educational problem of getting girls to really enjoy math and science, while they're still in school.

If it really is the science that's starting to become the limiting factor on enjoyable science fiction, then is it perhaps worth it to "black-box" the science more within the novels? To shy away from the harder forms of SF and go towards the softer forms, almost like science fantasy. It's a conundrum: you want it to draw more readersin , but at the same time there are many authors out there that are writing hard SF that's good to read too.

Jenny Rappaport said...

scott washburn, your problem with your agent is a difficult one to solve. You have to remember that she's trying to help your career as an author, but she's also trying to make a living too. If she's finding that certain types of novels don't sell, she's essentially making a business decision in regards to you.

Now I don't know if it's the right decision in regard to your work, since I've never read it, so I'm not defending her decision. But it may be that she's recognized the fact that conventional SF stories sometimes come across as "too small" for a major publisher to snap at, and so she's trying to steer your writing in a new direction. It depends on how comfortable you are working with her, but you always have the option of searching for another agent.

Laurel Amberdine said...

I agree with what Linda said. I read primarily for entertainment. I find a good fantasy novel very entertaining, and as long as I avoid the occasional weird stuff, fantasy novels are pretty reliable that way.

Science fiction has too many sub-genres that are not fun for me. I don't want military SF, or cyberpunk, or disasters, or dystopias. There are certainly a few SF authors that provide the fun, but as a genre, it's a mixed bag.

Last time I looked at sales numbers, entertaining, epic, multi-POV science fiction was selling really well (frex: Peter Hamilton). I wonder if more of that kind of thing was published, if it would increase the popularity of SF.

Amanda Downum said...

I don't like the stereotypes of fantasy being "easy", and SF being "hard," since that's dismissive to both genres, but I suspect a lot of readers still believe them. No matter what genre, I want books that are interesting--prose, characters, plot, whatever. For the most part I want books that aren't "easy" or "comfortable". (But that's not meant to be dismissive of lighter books.)

That said, I do tend to prefer fantasy. I like magic, and the resonance of myth and archetypes being played with in new ways.

SFwise, I like Gibson, Elizabeth Bear, Peter Watts, Neil Stephenson--cyberpunkish stuff that does more than rehash old tropes.

Amanda Downum said...

Jodi -- Peter Watts' Maelstrom? I love the characters in the Rifters books. Well, maybe by the end of Seppuku I couldn't love Killjoy, but he's definitely imprinted on my brain. I would certainly consider myself attached to Lenie and Ken.

Meredith said...

I don't think I do pick up a fantasy book over an SF one, so I'm probably not the most useful respondant.

I will admit to being left cold by The Singularity thus far, since all the incarnations I've encountered seem to either not give enough credence to the persistance of people in acting like people no matter how much processing power they have, or else to go into a land where I by definition can't follow or understand, and therefore fall apart at the end.

I also tend not to care for the hardest of hard SF -- which is to say, books where it is vital to Getting the Point that I understand the technical details, because I likely won't. Or books where the Point seems to be "cool gadget" rather than "interesting consequences."

(Related to that, I think one possible barrier to SF entry is that the science we have now is already moving so fast it far exceeds what most people remember or understand from school -- getting far enough ahead of that to be speculative runs the risk of becoming incomprehensible to a nervous lay reader. Whereas magic does not have a moving target, and in many cases you're not *supposed* to understand how it works.)

"Interesting consequences" is what I'm in it for, either for individual characters or societies or preferably both, and whether the author chooses to poke them with the sharpened stick of magic or science makes little difference to me, except that most SF seems to be about the future and most fantasy seems to be about the alternate past -- which is partly why I find urban fantasy and steampunk both fascinating, as ways of messing with those tropes.

And I also -- generalizing madly -- think that recent SF, starting as far back as cyberpunk, has wrestled more with entropy and disorder and worlds too big and weird and conflictful to be completely understood by their inhabitants than most fantasy, which tends to be more about the struggle of the misfit individual with an overly ordered society. That comes with a sense of efficacy -- a sense that big events hang on individual choices, which I think is soothing and satisfying to people who in real life may be feeling small and powerless and interchangeable because of current events. Though it also boosts my contrarian interest in fantasy that tackles similar worlds, like Perdido Street Station. There's also interest in retreating from a sense of scarcity to a time when all the natural resources and the space weren't running out and used up.

I've never seen a "science fiction of manners" either, and fantasy of manners is a growing subgenre. I'd be interested to see it tried.

Jenny Rappaport said...

Meredith, I would love to see a "science fiction of manners" too! Seriously, if someone has one written, send it to me.

John said...

I wonder if the rise in "science literacy" has imperiled science fiction. For example, does the understanding that space is unfathomably vast and that going to the Mars (if ever) will be the work of two lifetimes turn people off to the wonder of space?

Scott Washburn said...

Jenny Rappaport said: "but you always have the option of searching for another agent."

The key word is 'search' as opposed to 'get' another agent :) I don't need to tell you that these days an unpublished (or in my case barely published) writer has about the same chance of finding an agent willing to represent them as they do in finding a publisher willing to publish them. It is extremely difficult in either case. I was very lucky to get an agent at all and I doubt I'd be so lucky again. Still, if my agent isn't trying to sell my stuff, she's not doing me much good, is she? I'm not adverse to writing fantasy as she has advised, but I don't much like the idea of everything else lying fallow until I can manage to write something she thinks will sell. I've got seven very good novels sitting here and I find it hard to believe that there is no market for any of them.

Jenny Rappaport said...

scott washburn, has your agent told you that the novels are very good, or are you saying that based on your own faith in your writing? I don't mean to disparage your writing at all, so please don't take that question in the wrong way. But let's look at it common statistics-wise... on average (and this is based on what I've heard within the industry), a romance author's first novel doesn't sell. Neither does the second or the third or the fourth novel. Usually by the fifth book, the author has really hit their groove, and has managed to produce something that's of publishable quality. That's when they usually get an agent, and their projects start to get shopped around. But that's not to say that the first four novels weren't necessary; they were extremely valuable writing exercises, and taught the author a great deal about how to go about structuring and producing a high-quality piece of fiction. Sometimes those first four novels can be revised and then the agent will try to sell them as well, but other times, they're just stepping stones along the way.

Now the fact that your agent has not only read one of your novels and shopped it around, but has been willing to read several of your other novels says something about what she thinks of your work. Almost all agents work directly on commission, so she's investing time into projects that may not earn her a cent, but she's doing it because she thinks you have the potential to breakout as an author. At least, that's what I'm assuming her rationale is. Has she worked with you on possibly revising some of the existing novels, to make them more marketable? That's always a possibility to consider.

And yes, I completely agree with you that it's very hard to get an agent nowadays, just as it's very hard to get published without one. Personally, I reject at least 90% of the queries that I receive (and this is a common rejection rate), for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the novel is too long or too short for the genre that it's written in; sometimes the ideas are completely cliched and have been done before; sometimes it's for material that I don't represent (i.e., religious fiction, political thrillers, etc); and sometimes the plot synopsis just makes no sense to me. But since this is a subjective business, and not everyone can write a great query letter (see topic to be addressed in some posts next week), I sometimes request a partial anyway because the idea intrigues me enough, and I want to see the quality of the writing.

Allen Walker said...

I agree with Kat about the point of SF being more intimidating to write simply because of that very vocal fan base that simply picks apart all scientific information that doesn't match up with actual known data.

This makes it intimidating to write due to the added pressure of adding science into the science fiction novel. At least with fantasy, you're building your own world, so no one can look to you and say that you 'did it wrong'.

As for me with fantasy over SF reading, I've been reading fantasy nearly my whole life. Part of it comes from playing Dungeons and Dragons for most of my life, leaving me familiar with monsters like dragons and what not. I'm also not very good at science in school, so when I read I don't want to feel like I'm reading a textbook with a plot. Such scientific details for me just don't cut it.

Now, when authors tend to just state some form of science (e.g. "He pulled out his laser gun and shot the man. He turned into dust. [yeah, crappy example ;p]), I, as the reader, don't need to know why the laser turned him to dust. I can easily just understand that the laser guns in this book turn things to dust; I don't need to know the science behind it.

So I like SF novels that don't overload me with 'technobabble', if you will. I like the plots and characters. The setting doesn't really matter too much to me.

Scott Washburn said...

Jenny Rappaport, your question about just who thinks my novels are good is a valid one :) Fortunately, it's not just my opinion. I've had several disinterested professionals tell me that my work (even my very first novel) was of professional, publishable quality. One of them (Eric Flint) even went to bat for me to get his own publisher to buy. Even though that did not work out, the comments that came back from the editor were very favorable. And since I got my agent (I was recommended to her by another author who thought my work was good) the rejections have all been quite complimentary (at least I think being compared with classic Heinlein is a compliment).

So, I don't THINK I'm just kidding myself about the quality of my work :)

But, on the other hand, my agent's specialty is definitely NOT SF and it's becoming clear that she doesn't know all that much about it. I find this frustrating. She does know the market, of course. But still the fact remains that she's only circulated one of my novels to four publishers and has now basically given up. I find that even more frustrating. But I'm not exactly in a position to fire her.

So, at the moment I have one novel which had been in a slush pile when I got my agent (and she told me to leave it there) which has made it's way out of the slush pile and onto the pile on the publisher's desk. But that's it. Until I can write something my agent likes enough to try and sell, I'm high and dry. I can't say I like the situation at all.

BuffySquirrel said...

It's not just me, then? I have noted in a writers' workshop I visit occasionally that the SF stories/chapters put up for critique are outnumbered more than twelve to one by Fantasy ones.

And when I was researching bestselling YA, I noticed that most of those were also Fantasy.

I have always much preferred SF to Fantasy, although I do find myself hampered in writing SF by my humanities background. This is possibly why I'm writing alternate history atm.

I've always had a fondness for the definition of SF as "a literature of ideas". I like stories to be thought-provoking and to step beyond the mundane, and to read about human relationships complicated by something other than abuse or adultery.

It may be a prejudice, but SF has always struck me as being about ideas, whereas Fantasy is about setting. I have no objections to elaborate settings :) but something needs to be happening there.

I could make some kind of banal observation about the anti-science mood that's alleged to exist or claim that Fantasy is a comfort food that we're turning to in times that are perceived to be more trying than usual. Frankly I think that second one can't be right--the most dystopic SF came out during the Cold War. I think it's just that with Harry Potter and the LOTR films, Fantasy is very high profile atm.

Therefore, I would say that I still wouldn't pick up a Fantasy novel over an SF one, and if the choice is Fantasy or nothing, I go home with nothing.

The SF novels I'd like to see are probably unimaginable, as they will be something I haven't seen before :) just as Gibson's Count Zero smacked me in the head the first time I read it.

I read Crichton's Airframe and didn't like it at all, so I would probably not read anything more of his. All I really ask is that a story make me THINK. It can be set anywhere, any time, just let it have that one component. If I'm not buying SF it's cos I can't find any. Where is it!

Katey Coffing, Ph.D. said...

I'm probably too late spotting this thread, but what the heck.

Jenny said: "Meredith, I would love to see a "science fiction of manners" too! Seriously, if someone has one written, send it to me."

This won't get you a manuscript to represent, Jenny, but I think Lois McMaster Bujold's A CIVIL CAMPAIGN has been described that way. It's one of the reasons I started reading her work. But being the anal reader I am, I couldn't just jump into her Miles Vorkosigan series there, but started at the beginning, with SHARDS OF HONOR and BARRAYAR. I still haven't reached A CIVIL CAMPAIGN. Anyway, the series is good stuff, and one of the few in sf I've picked up.

Which goes back to the theme of this thread. I have a Ph.D. in the biological sciences, yet I strongly prefer fantasy to SF. Why? I dunno. Maybe it's the triumph of my right brain over my left, that I still feel I'm recovering from overresearchosis, or that I just plain enjoy settings that aren't and will never be real, but I'd like to think could be.

Which reminds me of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books. Wonderful series. IIRC, she considers them SF, even the beginning in which the science elements are (to me) overwhelmed by the fantasy ones. As the series continued, it morphed more comfortably into SF.

I prefer the early books.

James Dashner said...

Since I write for middle grade/ young adult, that's the universe I think in, but I believe the next Harry Potter-ish, crazy-selling, midnight-party-at-the-bookstore phenomenon will be something that is inherently different. And I think Scifi could be the answer. Someone just needs to write it.

I mean, kids are obsessed with Star Wars, which is scifi with a lot of fantasy elements to it. Maybe that's the right mix. I think kids would go nuts over a fun, well-plotted, humorous, strong character-filled scifi story. But it has to have something about it that screams out the feeling of "magical". Not magic per se, but magical.

Whoa, I think I just might've had a sweet idea pop in my head. Better get writing!

(And no, it won't be called Gary Kotter and the Magical Laser Gun)

Jonathan Cresswell said...

The nearest thing I've seen to "SF of manners" would be "Tooth & Claw", by Jo Walton -- a homage to "Pride & Prejudice" set in a society of intelligent and rather Victorian dragons. While the characters are ever so civilized, the different perspective of making them into dragons was an quirky way of showing their motives as really being about feeding, breeding, land, and power. Rather Victorian indeed. :)

Jenny Rappaport said...

james dashner, I love the spoof title at the end of your comment--that's great! =)

On the subject of "science fiction of manners", I was also told that THE DIAMOND AGE by Neil Stephenson is one such book. I'm planning on checking it out, in my copious spare time, since I've read SNOW CRASH and liked that before. =)

robin prehn said...

Very interesting question. At the recent PPWC in Colorado Springs, the panel on SF/F gave their answer more in terms of gender -- males usually prefer sf, females fant...they didn't necessarily agree with that answer, I might add.

I prefer science fiction -- philosophical science fiction, in fact, like Orson Scott Card...but I write fantasy or fantastical science fiction because I prefer to make up as much as possible.

Jodi Davis said...

Amanda - yeah - that Maelstrom Yeah, I liked Lenie - but on the whole - all those characters were cold blooded and insane - I can't see anyone starting up an online fan club for them. There are always going to be fans - I'm a fan - but I understand why there are less of us for Lenie - than say... Frodo, or that Potter kid.

PS - Really I think Watts is a golden god - but the best parts of Maelstrom for me was the code breeding - green with envy I was for those words.

D.L. Rankin said...

Hello, Jenny. I think the problem with current science fiction is that it has gotten a reputation for being too "unhip" and detached from what most people consider "cool." The Harry Potter series sort of reinvigorated fantasy, because it generated a new sense of awe about the dull world we live in, and provided readers with an example of the everyday magic that might (and often does) happen right under our noses. The same is not as true for the majority of science fiction, because the most common story archetypes have to do with spaceships traveling to far-off places that people can't relate to, or include distopian (if I spelled that right) versions of the future that are, for lack of a more articulate term, "played-out." Stories like Battlefield Earth and 1984 have been predicting the end of civilization for centuries, and I think science fiction as a genre needs to "come back to Earth," so-to-speak, and become more accessible to casual readers who have become jaded by the more popular forms of science fiction, such as the X-Men and Star Wars (though many argue that Star Wars isn't Sci-fi, because it's set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away") which provide a cooler, action-packed vision of what could happen in the future. The primary readers of sci-fi are young folks, many of whom are in school, and the last thing many of them want to read is something that remotely resembles a science text-book. It's up to writers of the present to evolve science fiction, and make it so that any kid, adult, geek, or jock could pick up a sci-fi book that immerses them into a picture of the future that makes them pray reincarnation exists. The series I've started mixes all the things that are fun about the most common forms of sci-fi, with easily understood science, and a believable depiction of the future. I hope to see more stories that dare to be different, and move our ailing genre forward. Read my manuscript; I'm sure you'll like it!