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Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2009 : Feature:

Future Tense

Signals 27

I'm beginning to adore Twitter. I find all kinds of articles and information I would never ever find otherwise. I feel like I'm at a major SF (or mystery [or romance]) convention every time I log on.

This means that I find a few flamewars and more than a few folks I disagree with. I try to follow my own personal convention rules, which include this one: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion (or the SF version: everything is entitled to its own opinion).

I don't live by that rule in real life, mind you. (That sound you hear is my husband agreeing vehemently.) In real life, I think that everyone is entitled to his own informed opinion—and believe you me I will quiz you to make certain that your opinion is based on knowledge, not gut feeling or a sense or a hunch. (And if I discover that you live by hunches but never ever research anything, then I will dismiss future opinions out of hand.)

But on Twitter, convention rules apply—maybe more stringently than at conventions (where I've been known on a panel to contradict some uninformed someone if I believe their opinion is harmful [mostly I do this in defense of new writers]). On Twitter, I see no point at conducting a flamewar 140 characters at a time.

But I do encounter all kinds of links and articles, as I mentioned, and I follow them to the bitter end, and sometimes I retweet them (forward them in e-mail parlance) and sometimes I shake my head and wonder who in the heck came up with that.

I'm getting even more informed than I was, which pleases me. When I saw Stanley Schmidt's editorial in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Analog, I knew that the writer he aimed part of the editorial at was John Scalzi.

Back in July on his blog, John had posted that he believed proof that the print fiction magazines were dinosaurs came from the fact that these magazines didn't take electronic submissions. Anyone who has ever run a magazine understands that editors set their own submission policies—and they can tell writers they'll only accept stories on cardboard boxes if that makes the editorial task easier. Harlequin has used a precise manuscript format complete with measurements and word counts for years. A recent start-up publisher has asked that any hardcopy manuscripts come three-hole punched because the editors will put the manuscripts into a binder to read them.

Stan refutes John's point at length, primarily because it started a flamewar on the Analog forum. I had read the initial post, which was an expansion of something John's said before (and has in his otherwise good book on writing You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop To A Coffeeshop: Scalzi on Writing), and I shrugged. It's not that John is ill-informed. It's that he acts as a gadfly, out to poke hard at the SF establishment whenever he can. If he can get a rise out of someone, he's happy.

In this, he reminds me of Damon Knight, who liked nothing more than dropping a small pebble in the SF pond to watch the ripples. I learned early on to take Damon's most outré pronouncements with a grain of salt, and I do the same with John Scalzi.

Still, it was fun to read Stan's response, because in it, he talks about something very important indeed: the future of science fiction. First, he mentions that anyone who reads the SF magazines understands that they're not dinosaurs. The content still looks toward the future and has some extremely innovative SF.

In his editorial, Stan doesn't just deal with the submissions process. He also discusses SF as a genre, and whether or not the genre is passé. After he wrote this editorial, but before it saw print, Peter Goat Allen who is a reviewer and the moderator of Barnes and Noble's science fiction/fantasy/paranormal book clubs, published a blog called "The Season of Wither: Why Is Science Fiction Dying?"

In it, he cites declining interest on the site in SF books as proof SF is dying and then quotes George R.R. Martin at length about the decline. Those of you who've read this column for a long time, and much of my other work, know why the SF book genre has had declining sales. (See Signals 23 if you want a shorthand version of my arguments.) You also know that I believe that SF itself isn't dying at all—that within the culture, SF has gained traction.

So I believe that Paul Goat Allen's premise is flawed, but it is based on his perception and his worries, and I can applaud that. But I think the quotes from my friend George are just plain silly.

George opines that the reason people don't read SF any more is because people don't believe the future will be a better place. George said, "People take polls now and most people think that their children are not going to have better lives than they do; they think that their children are going to have worse lives. [...] People no longer believe on some level that the future is going to be a good place and they prefer to read about other times and other places that are maybe not so scary as science fiction."

He must have known on some level that this line of reasoning was faulty, because he mentions that he grew up during the duck-and-cover years of the Cold War—but, he says, "there was still in some ways more optimism about what the future was like."

Really? Because I remember the Cold War, with the Doomsday clock a few minutes from midnight and the whole sense that the Earth could be destroyed in a moment. Belief in the future? We weren't sure the Earth would make it to the next year let alone the year 2000. My husband, who is about George's age, never thought he'd live past the age of thirty. That's not belief in the future. That's a lack of belief in the future at all.

I read George's comments the same day I read an essay by Robert Silverberg, reprinted in his fascinating autobiography Other Spaces, Other Times in which he mentions that by the early 1970s, the stuff of science fiction didn't interest him any more. He couldn't quite believe in aliens and spaceships and traveling to other worlds.

SF tropes no longer worked for him as a writer, just like they're not working for George R.R. Martin. But they're still working for me and for millions of others, if you count everyone who watches SF tv or SF movies or who play SF games.

If you count the readers—well, they're growing too. Alaistair Reynolds—who is writing very wonderful techy space opera—just sold books for one million pounds, the kind of money a publisher spends only when a writer is guaranteed sales in the millions. In the last year, more and more SF novels have reached the bestseller list.

The problem wasn't in SF. The problem was in the SF novels that publishers passed off as SF. Reviews of my current novel, Diving into the Wreck from Pyr, which is also space opera, have fascinated me. I can actually see the dividing line in the reviewers by age. For decades, SF publisher insisted that everything in SF had to be "new," not done before. Which meant that space opera as just one example had to go by the wayside since it had been done before.

This meant that for decades, no one in the print literature built on the foundation put in place by Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. Their ideas got lost, particularly those that never saw print after 1970 or so. The reviewers old enough to have read those writers and the others working in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, talk about my novel in that context.

The reviewers born after 1970 use only television and movie references, saying the book reminded them of Firefly (space opera) or is grittier than Star Trek (space opera). One reviewer said I was clearly influenced by Firefly because I was riffing off its tropes. (Sorry, kid. I only watched two episodes of Firefly back when Fox was airing the poor doomed series out of order. I had no patience with the way Fox was killing the show, so I didn't go back.)

Stan didn't address George's argument. Instead, Stan went after another argument that "supports" the death of science fiction: we're living in the future, so we don't need to read about it.

Stan deals with this eloquently. "We live in what people of the past called the future," he writes, "but we need to remember anybody's future is somebody else's past."

I think of this every day when I watch our African American president negotiate his way across the world stage. Not so long ago, an African American in the presidential role was a Hollywood bit part, signaling the future. But this is the present now. And the kids being born into this world will think the idea that a black man could not be president as ridiculous as the idea that a Catholic could not be president, demolished by John F. Kennedy the year I was born.

Stan's essay, written to mark Analog's 80th anniversary, is timely and wonderful. He talks about the importance of science fiction in the modern era. He still believes in science fiction as a genre of literature.

So do I. So do a lot of us.

And we still believe in the future too.


Copyright © 2009, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. All Rights Reserved.

About Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Kristine Kathryn Rusch is a Hugo award-winning writer who was, once upon a time, a Hugo award-winning editor. She has published fiction in almost every genre under a variety of names. Her most recent science fiction novel is Diving into the Wreck which Pyr
published in November. Her novella, "Recovering Apollo 8," won last year's Asimov's Readers Choice Award and was nominated for a Hugo. The novella has just been reprinted in Russian. For more information, go to her website at www.kristinekathrynrusch.com.

COMMENTS!

Dec 11, 05:53 by IROSF
Please comment!
Dec 11, 07:33 by Dan Goodman
I can't think of a fictional African-American President who was elected to that position. He (sometimes she) was elected as Vice President and replaced a dead or disabled President; or was lower down in the line of succession.

Dec 11, 11:26 by RaphaŽl AJ
What about Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact? I haven't seen the movie so I don't know if his character was elected president or not.
Dec 11, 13:40 by Athena Andreadis
Freeman in Deep Impact was elected, I believe. There are several other films with black presidents -- all of them disaster flicks. The over-arching concept seems to be that apocalypse is surely nigh once the presidency is "breached" by an Other! A good way for Hollywood to hedge its ideological bets and keep all demographics quasi-happy.
Dec 11, 14:53 by Patty Loofbourrow
Re: AA Presidents -- Instantly I thought of The Fifth Element. I think that fellow was President of Earth or something like that, though. :)
Dec 11, 20:42 by Nader Elhefnawy
I did my own attempt at a comprehensive round-up of the end of SF debate last year, and I'm not all that interested in running through the whole thing over again. (Anyone who's curious can find it at the new home of the Fix over at TTApress, with part 1 at http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-p1/, part 2 at http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-p2/ and a postscript at http://ttapress.com/fix/features/end-of-science-fiction-postscript/.)

Nonetheless, a couple of points here seem worth addressing. Basically, I think Scalzi's right about the "bozo filter" issue. It is not at all implausible that the headache and expense of "snail mail" (especially as it appears to younger prospective writers, members of a generation which grew up on e-mail) acts as a deterrent-especially when combined with the near-certainty of a form rejection letter coming in response (as is especially likely where these largest, most established and arguably most difficult markets are concerned). This may not be the only factor, but I can't picture it not having an effect-one that those who have already "made it," can't remember being an "outsider," and are prone to viewing the outsiders as losers not worth the trouble (indeed, as "bozos," a term I can only use with quotes around it for these purposes because it's essentially unfair), are too prone to dismiss.

Incidentally, magazine editors are not the only ones avoiding e-mail in order to limit the number (and the kind) of submissions they receive. I've noticed over the years that (with exceptions) literary agents and book publishers as well have been very slow to open themselves up to electronic submissions.

Additionally, while it's certainly wrong to pretend people were always optimistic prior to today, it's also wrong to dismiss today's worries lightly. I think an argument can be made that while there were visions of doom in, for instance, the 1940s or the 1960s, there were hopeful visions alongside them in a way that may not be as much the case now. The dark visions remain (in part because the dangers didn't go away-the Doomsday Clock remains, and there are actually fewer minutes left on it today than was the case in much of the Cold Warhttp://www.thebulletin.org/content/doomsday-clock/timeline), but anything like a coherent vision of a better place to be is tougher to find, and fiction reflects this, as do attitudes to fiction.

Star Trek wasn't the totality of '60s-era science fiction, far from it; but there is no analog to such positive expectations in contemporary science fiction (indeed, there's no shortage of disdain for anyone who'd try to offer one). The sole exception seems to be Singularity-themed writing-but one can take that as essentially saying that barring technological transcendence, we're not going to escape our messes.
Dec 11, 23:02 by Athena Andreadis
Since most versions of the Singularity imply extinction of humanity as we know it (with a few Chosen left to service and/or become part of the Machine Godhead), I wouldn't call that terribly optimistic either.
Dec 12, 14:49 by Nader Elhefnawy
True, but there are other outcomes; I think, for instance, of Ray Kurzweil's ideas (which I've criticized at length, particularly with regard to his technological overoptimism-you can check his predictions for 2009 against our 2009, as I did earlier in the year; and for his weak grasp of the social sciences). Still, the radicalism of the visions says something about how much it takes to visualize an appealing tomorrow.

One more thing: we should be clear on what's meant by optimism. There's more than one kind. There's, for instance, a clear-eyed, courageous optimism-but there's also the kind of optimism that Barbara Ehrenreich described in her recent book Bright-Sided. There's plenty of that in the air. But also plenty of doubt as to its meaning and value.
Dec 13, 00:26 by Ron Dwyer
It is somewhat ironic that Mr. Schmidt doesn't consider SF magazines to be "dinosuars", for during his editorialship of one such magazine the number of subscribers has decreased by over 50 percent. Not only Analog, but The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has taken a dive since Ms. Rusch left as editor. The short fiction magazines are like The Big Three Automakers today, except getting a government bailout is highly unlikely.
Dec 13, 03:57 by Athena Andreadis
Actually, Nader, in addition to the social sciences, Kurzweil et al apparently have an equally weak grasp of biology. Their ideas of uploading, cognitive enhancement, etc, ignore intrinsics of brain structure and function. I have written many articles about this issue. Here's a representative one: Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix
Dec 13, 14:24 by Nader Elhefnawy
Thanks for the link.

I appreciate the biological argument against Kurzweil's claims (certainly where biology turns into ecology, his understanding of things is astonishingly simplistic), though in fairness, some of the issues involved may belong more to the realm of philosophy than science. (I think, for instance, of Hans Moravec's discussion of body identity vs. pattern identity.)

Still, as I see it: despite all the hype about medical advances and a "biotech revolution," the body's a messy, intractable thing, and we haven't been good at doing much with it. The promise is always of something just around the corner or over the horizon-and I have doubts about whether we'll get there.

Indeed, he seems to have underappreciated the messiness of the non-biological stuff he talks about, like the painful, clumsy slowness with which, for example, voice-recognition software has developed.
Dec 13, 16:38 by Nader Elhefnawy
Incidentally, regarding the magazines: their declining sales and readerships are not in doubt, having been amply documented (by, among others, Gardner Dozois in his Year's Best anthologies, often in the same breath as his attacks on the "end of sf" argument).
Print magazines in general are facing tough times.

What is more at issue is whether their content is relevant to the state of the field. Analog, whether deservedly or undeservedly, doesn't draw a lot of respect from the critics, but to go by the awards and anthologies-like Strahan's latest Year's Best, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons(accessible at http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2009/11/the_best_scienc-comments.shtml), and by the "big names" they can and do draw, the big magazines on the whole still matter.
Jan 2, 07:23 by jonathan laden
Print magazines are suffering, but they're suffering a massive decline in advertising revenue, an increase in paper costs (thanks to the LBO goofs who have bought up all the mills and run them like our banks), and an increase in postal costs (thanks to the USPS "spiral of death" strategy of raising rates to compensate for/cause lower mail volumes).

Paid subscriber numbers are actually holding very steady across the magazine universe for the mags that don't fold or intentionally lower their rate base for advertisers (meaning they no longer plan controlled circ. or other techniques of propping up the distribution numbers for advertisers at a loss).

Many SF fans I meet don't even know the SF mags exist at this point. So, is Mike Resnick right that there's just no ROI in it, so harvesting the cash cow is all that can be done? (His arguments are eloquent and persuasive, as are those of many others.) Or have the mags underinvested for decades, and reaped the consequences? I wish I knew.

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