Friday, December 03, 2010

People who used to read science fiction part 2: Techno-thrillers and franchise tie-ins

This past decade saw the publication of a wildly successful pair of novels that dealt with artificial intelligence, a software-driven alternative social structure, augmented reality, robotic weapon systems, and the chaotic emergence of a post-industrial world. These two books sold millions of copies.

No one in the science fiction literary community seems to have heard of them.

Meanwhile, plenty of people who used to read science fiction shelled out $26 for each novel.

The first inkling that had about how far detached the lit sci-fi community has grown from its former readership was at last years Orycon, here in Portland. It was my first con and one of the first panels that I had ever attended. What hit me was one of the panelists' derision for the talking-heads scenes common in classic science fiction novels.

These expository interludes typically feature two characters talking over or debating a social concept, or technology, or the human implications of a bit of scientific knowledge. In Issac Asimov or Author C. Clark novels this often takes the form of two scientists conversing over a cup of coffee. With Robert Heinlein it might be a nude couple taking a stroll on an indoor lawn and debating cultural realities. Either way, it's not 'literary.' A good writer doesn't bore the readers with such didactic dialog. Readers supposedly find these scenes tedious and tend to skip through them. Instead any writer worthy of that title thrills the readers by showing the technology or social concept in action.

The former method of conversational presentation was common when science fiction had a thriving readership and successful novels were expected to sell more than 10,000 copies. The latter more artistic approach is typical of the present, in which books are successful if they actually sell 10,000 copies.

The second book in Daniel Suarez's runaway techno-thriller serries, Freedom™, is largely a tour of his technology-driven alternative social order and a vilification of the current one. And it features lots, and lots, and lots of talking head scenes. Did I mention that these books have sold millions of copies?

Which returns to a point that I've harped on before here on Consilience. And that would be that ideas are one of the major value-added selling points of science fiction. Raw ideas put forth directly for the readers' consideration--often in the form of freshmen 101 philosophical conversations. Such undiluted ideas are like crack for much of our ex-readership, who continue to pickup expository idea-driven books outside the genre, even as character-drive human drama novels within the genre languish on the shelves.

Then there are the tie-in novels

Like the previously mentioned Daniel Suarez technology-thrillers, these books typically employ cardboard characters and clear-cut situations that are not typical of real-world events. The writing also frequently leaves much to be desired. Many tie-in novels also use blatant talking-head scenes to convey world history and plot points.

While they do not typically explore high concepts or potential future changes, the exotic settings and feeling of adventure common to tie-ins touch upon one of science fiction's other traditional points of value added: a sense of transport to a world that might one day exist in some form. This stands in stark contrast to the dark futures, lack of heroism, and tragic endings of current literary science fiction.

Despite the literary shortcomings, tie-ins routinely outsell works of original literary science fiction. By a lot. Tie-ins to major commercial properties often sell 100,000 thousand or more copies, while as previously mentioned, a lit-SF novel is successful if it reaches the 10,000 mark. Not surprisingly then, the percentage of bookstore shelf space devoted to tie-ins in the genre aisles has increased dramatically over the past twenty years.

The success of techno-thrillers that stray into the realm of speculative fiction and the sales figures behind tie-in novels is proof in my eyes that there is still a significant market for written stories set in the near and far future. The fact that few writers can make any kind of a living writing original literary science fiction speaks more the state of the community and its current literary pretensions than it does the disappearance of a fan base for science fiction.

Just why that fan base has supposedly vanished is a common topic in both conversations articles bemoaning the state of the art.

The public's loss of a belief in an optimistic future is one reason commonly given for lit-SF's decline. Another is that the current rate of technological development has either left us jaded with technology and its possibilities and that it's simply no longer a viable form of escapism. In other words, high tech and its implications are now such a common part of our daily lives that stories set in the future no longer provide any sense of wonder or transport out of our mundane existences.

Which, again, the success of near future techno-thrillers and science fiction franchise tie-ins argues against. This especially true when it comes to the idea that the public has lost its faith in the possibility of an optimistic future. To happily belabor a point, tie-ins and techno-thrillers showcase the kind of heroism and bright endings that have largely disappeared from literary science fiction over the past two decades. In short, optimism seems to sell rather well for something that has supposedly vanished.

Having said all of this, a few quick clarifications are in order. Most of the younger tie-in readers who are driving those impressive sales numbers have never been fans of literary science fiction. They've simply come to SF via stories told through the medium of video games, television, and films, and so far most do not seem interested in switching over to original literary science fiction. There also seems to have only been a limited to movement to reading tie-ins among people who used to read original SF. The latter is part of why I believe that ideas are more important than exotic locals and a sense of transport to revitalizing the genre.

Additionally, not all tie-ins suffer from bad writing and simplistic characters these days. Karen Traviss' Star Wars novel Hard Contact has won both fans and recognition for its sense of realism and the depth of its characters. It's also now more common and accepted for authors of original literary science fiction to write tie-ins, as is the case with Greg Bear's entry into the HALO universe with his Cryptum novel.

Which leads us to a new medium that science fiction stories have thrived in as they have helped to drive sales figures that rival the income generated by blockbuster Hollywood films: video games.


Q. said...

You know, in some ways this pattern reminds me of natural forest clearing. Sci-Fi seemed to come from pulp roots before it became "sophisticated", and to its pulp roots it now returns. Perhaps this is a necessary step in the revitalization of the genre?

Alex Black said...

Now there's a thought! Perhaps the success of tie-ins is the return to science fictions pulp origins...