Saturday, October 21, 2006

Medieval But No Manifesto

Charles Stross weighs in with "Let's Put the Future Behind Us," and because I don't want to misquote him as he feels has already happened elsewhere, I want to say that Charlie has stressed that he is not writing a manifesto, but is - as I understand it - simply responding to the notion that rolling back the clock and writing to the golden age or Heinlein crowd is not the ideal long term strategy for growing the genre's market share.

As he says:

"There's a new cultural strange attractor at work, sucking in the young, smart, deracinated mechanistically-minded readers who used to be the natural prey of the SF movement. It's geek culture.... And unfortunately they don't buy many [fiction] books, because we aren't, for the most part, writing for them. This isn't to say that they don't read. There is a literary culture that switches on the geeks: it started out as a branch of SF. Yes, I'm talking about cyberpunk. But while cyberpunk was a seven day wonder within the SF field, which subsequently lost interest, the geeks recognized themselves in its magic mirror and made it their own. This is the future they live in, not the future of Star Wars and its imitators, of the futures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And in addition to cyberpunk — the golden age SF taproots of their field — some of us are beginning to address their concerns. Among the quintessentially geek authors, the brightest names are Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Douglas Coupland and (in his latest incarnation) Bruce Sterling."

Charlie goes on to posit that the above authors are not writing for traditional SF readers, but writing fiction that is based on a present-day world view. His comments remind me of the way cyberpunk father William Gibson has been zeroing in on the present, approaching backwards from the future in his own work, his Bridge trilogy not as far cast as his Sprawl trilogy and latest Pattern Recognition set simply in the now (and actually, as of now, a few years in our past). I wonder if Gibson no longer needs to write science fiction because his particular future simply arrived. But I digress...

While Charlie goes on to say that:

"The audience I'm talking about is today's successor to the traditional SF readers of yore. They're smart, not brilliantly well socialized because their energies have been going elsewhere, and they increasingly self-identify as geeks. We are competing for their attention time with computer games, video, the internet, and fuck-knows-what new bleeding edge media that haven't made it our event horizon of self-absorption yet: anime, manga, machinima, your guess is as good as mine. They don't, yet, have a separate section in the bookstore, but they know what they like to read and they get it from the fringes of the mainstream and the edges of the genre and the core of the slipstream. And their time is coming. If you're a writer and you still want to be in business in something vaguely resembling SF in thirty years time, study them."

It's late here, and I want to process this some more after sleeping on it, but I will say that the target audience he identifies is EXACTLY the audience that David Louis Edelman was deliberately writing for with his novel Infoquake. That Infoquake has drawn multiple (favorable) comparisons to Stross, Stephenson and Doctorow should not surprise then.

More as I know it.

34 comments:

Dianora said...

This was supposed to be a comment on your previous post, but my computer hates your blog layout and won't let me scroll down all the way, so this is the only entry of yours I can comment on. Grrr.

Anyway, I just wanted to say the reason that BSG is the highest-rated show on SCI FI has less to do with its subject matter than it does with the fact that it is well-written and well-acted, unlike SCI FI's other original programming (IMO). I watch very little SF TV because I usually think is sucks, but BSG is an exception to that rule because the quality is at the level of the network shows I watch regularly. It's that simple.

gabe chouinard said...

Aaargh is right; your layout also doesn't work for me. Bugger.

However, I just want to point out that Charlie didn't think *my* post pulled him out of context. He was actually mistaken in thinking I had posted this post at the Vector editorial blog. See the comments there.

A.R.Yngve said...

In any case, it is wise to write SF for the (current) young audience -- not only because young readers are more tech-savvy, but they have more leisure time available for reading.

Fortunately, writers don't have to be teenagers themselves to become successful -- think of how middle-aged men like Tolkien and Heinlein produced bestsellers for the youth market.

Lou Anders said...

re: BSG of the quality level of a net work show - absolutely (though I'd say of an HBO series, but I take your point). But I still say what I hear over and over again - NPR report, the USA today article, and elsewhere - is this surprise from people who don't watch SF that SF actually can connect with their lives - this is one part character writing and one part subject matter. Anyway, we are agreed - quality outs and tv may never have been better.

Gabe, amending now. My apologies.

Tim Akers said...

I'm with stross on this one. That post of his has been causing some conversation over at the william gibson discussion board.

Lou Anders said...

Has Gibson himself weighed in?

Tim Akers said...

He only participates at the blog level, only occassionally touching on the discussions at hand. He hasn't entered this one yet, though I'd like to know his reaction to it.

Lou Anders said...

As would I, very much. But what's the gist of the discussion - do they agree?

Ted said...

(Since this seems to be the thread in which to comment about BSG...)

I guess I'm in the minority in feeling increasingly dissatisfied with BSG (although it looks like I'm not the only one). I do wonder whether its popularity will change people's ideas about SF. This article on Slate praises the show but says it's not SF, and while normally I would dismiss this as a sign of ignorance, I've been wondering about whether a plausible case could be made for that position (if not in the way that reviewer intended).

A friend of mine gave up on BSG after the first season because he felt that it wasn't really SF, it was a contemporary war story; as far as he was concerned, it didn't need to be SF. This relates back to some comments you and I made a while back, Lou, about our preference for SF that couldn't be told any other way, and the subjective nature of that judgement. BSG's popularity probably has a lot to do with the fact that it deliberately mimics contemporary reality, in everything from the politics to the aircraft-carrier look of the ship's hardware. Will BSG lead to more shows that feel like contemporary or historical dramas dressed up with futuristic hardware? Is that the way SF will become more acceptable to general audiences?

Paul Wargelin said...

Re: Charles Stross's and Ian Cordingley's (from the comments section of the "Chadobourne Dissents..." post)comments where both refer to SF professionals and potential SF readers as “nerds” and “geeks.”

This reminded me of a post by comic book scribe Beau Smith who finds such terms derogatory, believing they’re bad for business because they insult the genre as a whole (he specifies comic books, but his reasoning can certainly be applied to SF), as well as the readership. These words also make the genre unattractive to any potential readers, who would not wish to be classified in this way.

Beau also points out that comic book writers are writing for themselves more than the readership, a similar point to Charles’s point about SF writers missing their audience:

http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/busted/11573599729614.htm

I know that neither Charles nor Ian meant anything insulting about using “geeks” and “nerds” to describe professionals and fans of SF. Some fans embrace these words as badges of honor. But if SF is going to expand its readership to include mainstream audiences, its practitioners are going to have to leave these terms behind.

You cite Battlestar Galactica as the new standard, raising the bar for cinematic SF: “BSG is succeeding for a TV audience specifically because it has managed to become part of the world’s conversation. And if television viewers aren’t put off by smart RELEVANT TV, why should we continue to assume readers will be put off by smart RELEVANT books?”

You’re correct. Readers shouldn’t be put off by smart relevant books. Unfortunately, the “stigma” attached to SF books by mainstream audiences remains, because those books are read by “geeks” and “nerds,” while I don’t believe BSG’s average viewers consider themselves such. They’re not watching BSG because it’s SF, they’re watching it in spite of it being SF because it’s smart relevant television. BSG has touched a nerve with mainstream audiences (as Star Wars has done, for better or worse), and while those of us who are avid readers and viewers of SF understand how much SF viewers would enjoy SF books if they’d only give them a chance, they’d rather watch than read.

I’ve read many comic book blogs written by professionals and fans who believe that Hollywood will save the publishing industry because the films and television programs will generate interest in the books. But despite the success of the Spider-Man, X-Men, and Batman films, those audiences aren’t flocking to the comics—anymore than the audiences for Star Wars and Star Trek are grabbing up piles of tie-in books, regardless of how many are clogging the book shelves.

As Charles also noted, authors and publishers are competing with films, television, the Internet, and video-games for their readers. The competition provides entertainment that appeals to the instant gratification, short attention span of modern audiences—stories delivered quickly in less than an hour or two, without the audience having to work for it. Granted, popular programs like BSG, Lost, and Heroes are episodic in nature, but each episode is still less than an hour of their time once a week, as opposed to the time required to read an SF novel.

It’s ironic that modern audiences want quick fixes of entertainment, but ignore short stories and novellas. SF and fantasy publishers put out trilogies and series in franchise building efforts that continue to attract the already converted reader. I can’t blame the uninitiated for not wanting to spend twenty-four dollars for three mass market paperbacks released over a three-year period to complete one story, when it’s far simpler and quicker to spend ten dollars in theaters, or five dollars on a DVD rental, or just watch television for a story fix. (Comic book publishers follow a similar trend by generally putting out six-issue story arcs for future trade paperback collections, rarely releasing one-issue stand alone tales).

There must be an audience somewhere between the legions of franchise fans and the microcosm of hard SF readers. Authors and publishers need to create stories that will appeal to people beyond their loyalists.

Tim Akers said...

Lou, I hesitate to speak for the community, especially since my own presence there has been greatly diminished in the last year. I think I can summarize, though, by saying that most of us feel that Charlie's description of the readership accurately describes most of the board.

Where we go from there...meh?

Lou Anders said...

Paul,
think that something happened in the last 5 years where the words Geek and Nerd were uncoupled, and, in fact, to get briefly political, when George Bush called on the "nerd patrol" to help American R&D, he was once again showing he is out of touch by not using Geek instead. Geeking out, as a verb, as Neal Stephenson wrote in a brilliant essay about how half our culture vegges out and the other geeks out, has very little stigma attached to it now in my mind. Some of culture has caught up with this, some hasn't.

There is a great commerical for the airforce, no less, where a cop is driving down dark streets looking at suspicious teens, and says "there's the kid now" and pulls up to a kid standing with his homies on the curb. He flags the kid over, who looks at his friends with a bored/cool "what now?" expression, then walks over. The cop points to his laptop and says "It keeps crashing on me," and the kid rolls his eyes and says "I told you when that happens you....blah blah blah." This understanding that it is the cool / dangerous kid who helps with the computer problem, not the guy with the pocket protector, is really smart marketing. The new show Heroes is halfway to this - the highschool cheerleader still has a classic "nerd" sidekick, but her father, who is from what we can tell, the big evil of the show, tells her of her interest in football players "I'd rather you dated a geek. It worked for your mother." So the villain - who is pretty damn powerful and scary and tough- self-identifies as a geek too. Changing perceptions.

Tim,
I don't know how I feel about all this yet. I'm still processing... I imagine that there is a lot of overlap between Charlie's demographic and those who play World of Warcraft, and again between players of WoW and readers of Forgotten Realms novels, yet nothing in Forgotten Realms novels is written to appeal to technogeeks, is it? I'm aware I'm committing a logical fallacy in there, just mulling aloud...

Lou Anders said...

Ted,
I've got my own thoughts on where I thinjk BSG is letting the side down, which mostly has to do with the way in which both side's religions are portrayed (or failing to be portrayed). That we have seen two examples of special revelation on the part of the human religion lends support to the conclusion that when the cylons initially showed up talking of God's Will, they had some degree of insider knowledge - they had special revelation or what they thought was special revelation. What this could be was an intriguing question. But now, after four months of living under their rule, we are no closer to understanding their beliefs, and the dissention inside their ranks suggests they aren't either!

Tim Akers said...

Stross~WoW~Forgotten Realms. That's one hell of a Venn.

Must process.

Ted said...

I think World of Warcraft's player base is so broad that it overlaps many different groups that don't necessarily have any overlap between them.

Regarding religion in BSG, I think any revelations that individual characters receive have little to do with the truth or falsity of anyone's religion, and more to do with the writers' desire to move characters in whatever direction they feel like this particular week. One could argue that this disregard for a coherent backstory is one of the things that makes the show not only weaker in storytelling terms, but less interesting as SF.

Jose said...

I'm having a hard time finding a stigma attached to Science Fiction here where I live in Brighton. In fact most people think its cool that I'm into is although they would switch off if I were to talk their ear off about the latest developments in the genre.

So no stigma here, but I can't use Science Fiction to get laid either.

Lou Anders said...

Jose, I often think that the UK has a better attitude towards SF than America. Isn't Banks a well regarded mainstream writer there too, when he writes with or sans the initial. Here, it is harder for writers to write both sides of the fence, hence Lethem's distancing himself from genre as he achieves mainstream success. But Lethem's really writing one kind of book and relabling it, whereas Banks writes more than one kind of book. (I read THE WASP FACTORY back when it first came out).

Ted, the Cylon's words in season one lead to the idea that they were acting under what they perceived to be direct orders or divine revelation, not just their own conclusions about faith. Right now, the show succeeds for me enough that I'm waiting to see where it goes, but whether I rewatch the series again one day will depend on the answers they come up with for the religion and for earth - which ideally will relate.

Anonymous said...

"The competition provides entertainment that appeals to the instant gratification, short attention span of modern audiences—stories delivered quickly in less than an hour or two, without the audience having to work for it."

There has to be something in that last phrase. I wonder how much of Sci-Fi and other more sophisticated writing genres have suffered at the hands of the evolving workweek. Certainly from the 1950s onwards the workweek has increased (and in earlier generations when it was equally long before industrialization, leisure reading probably was minimal as well): I tend to work 60+ hour weeks. Add to this longer commutes than were normal in my parents' time and you get someone who arrives home, microwaves some food and most likely drops into the couch to catch some of this fast-paced and immediately engaging television or videogames for a couple of hours, then hits the sack for another day.

Working for my entertainment thus becomes the last thing I want to do after working. I can certainly think of nights where I wanted to read, but 5 pages in was dozing off. Most of the time I want some mental disconnect between my workdays but if I read I'll just be asleep and on my way to work again in the blink of an eye. Quick TV and games provide something that'll keep me awake a bit longer and entertain me, allowing me to wind down.

So, I've tended to reserve reading time for a day off when I'm awake and relaxed enough already to enjoy 3-4 hours of uninterrupted reading time without falling asleep. I have, at those times, the *energy* to work for my entertainment.

Jose said...

If dimminishing free time is such a factor why are novels getting longer?

When I was a kid the average SF novel clocked in at just over 200 pages. Last week I just finnished Reality Dysfunction which drags its feet at the 1200 pages mark. And it's the first part of a series (which I probably won't read now). That's a serious time commitment, I suspect I could train for a half marathon in the time it would take me to complete it.

Even more curious, I can't find anything in the story to justify the length. The novel seems lengthy for its own sake and it's been quite sucessful (although it left me feeling quite flat). So if we have less and less free time why are we reading longer and longer books?

A.R.Yngve said...

Yeah!

Why the #¤&#¤ can't editors tell the #¤#&%** writers to cut down on the #¤#%¤%%¤* length? We're not made of time... seriously!

:-(

Paul Wargelin said...

Lou,

I've seen the air force commercial you refer to, and agree that it is definitely smart marketing (especially because the work geek is never uttered). Of course the idea that computer geeks are dangerous is true. Katie Hafner's and John Markoff's "Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier" chronicled this and films like "Wargames" and "Hackers" have fictionalized it.

So that brings up a new question: Do today's computer tech savvy kids consider themselves geeks? Or because computer technology is so mainstream today, and there's a wider range of kids who are computer tech savvy than ever before, has geek actually become an outdated term? Has not the day of the hardcore computer geek ended if the technology is becoming simpler and everyone is embracing it, and using it daily?

Paul Wargelin said...

Jose,

Longer novels (and comic book story arcs) are a trend that publishers continue to embrace.

I had a similar reading experience to your "Reality Dysfunction" one with Anne Rice's "The Witching Hour." In mass market paperback, the book has more than 1000 pages--and ends in a cliffhanger. Granted, I knew of the book's sequels, but I wasn't aware it had been planned as a series. Whether this was Ms. Rice's decision or her publisher's is up to debate.

I haven't read an Anne Rice novel since.

The first three Harry Potter novels were approximately around 300 pages each, but starting with "Goblet of Fire," the books doubled in size. Was this because J.K. Rowling started stretching her writing muscles, or an editorial edict to lengthen her stories? (Incidentally, I enjoy reading the Potter books very much, but IMO the first three are much stronger, tighter reads than the three that followed)

SF/fantasy/horror short novels, novellas, and short story collections have become small press specialty items from such publishers as Subterranean Press and Cemetery Dance. But these numbered/lettered limited edition books are marketed to a specific demographic--the established readership of popular genre authors who are more than willing to pay $40+ per book. I don't know if expanding their markets beyond their core readers is a goal for such publishers.

But I know many SF readers would love to stroll into a Borders or Barnes & Noble to find a wider variety of original fiction around the 200 page length.

Lou Anders said...

Paul,
I'd be willing to bet in both the case of Ann Rice and JK Rowling it isn't editorial pressure to make the book longer - longer books me more pages mean more expense means less profit. It's that both the writers you site have reached the level that they refuse to be edited. A similar thing happens with superstar actors who refuse to take direction (Sean Connery is one - and can fly off the handle if he thinks a director is telling him how to act).

Meanwhile, I passed on at least one work because I thought it was too, too short - 40,000 words - but am thinking of experimenting with one or two of less than 100,000 for a test.

Anonymous said...

Please do experiment Lou. The 70s had that much going for them--books that could actually fit in your pocket without ripping it. It was a main reason why eventually I started hitting the used book store for out of print Poul Anderson or Simak books, to get a quick fix that I could enjoy. Hmm, I suppose I could still do that, but then again most of the used book stores in my area shut down in the 90s.

Short stories are nice, but I always tended to get collections by authors I knew I liked: Bradbury, Asmiov, Clarke, etc.. I subscribed to SFAge for a couple of years and picked up Asmiov's for awhile but ultimately you spend more than half your time reading stuff you probably don't enjoy.

I will say since stumbling across this blog quite by accident that I'm more interested in reading more often, though! That's another thing games have going for them: high-profile, interesting and very active web presence that creates a sort of meta-entertainment between gaming sessions in reading about other titles, checking out impressions and screenshots and videos, that keeps interest high.

A.R.Yngve said...

I've written a blog post about what will happen when books are too long: readers start skipping pages and peek at the ending in advance.

And I support this practice. Why? Because when writers start behaving like self-indulgent divas, they break the unspoken agreement with the reader:

UNSPOKEN READER-WRITER AGREEMENT
1. The Reader is obliged to start reading the Text from the first line of the first page, and read the entire Text to the last line.

2. The Reader is not allowed to skip to the ending, alter the Text, tear out pages or deliberately misread the Text.

3. In return, the Writer pledges to have removed any unnecessary words from the Text, and to include all relevant information in the Text.


Lou: the next time one of your writers has a hissy fit because you suggest cutting down a 30-page infodump, tell them the truth: "The reader will skip those pages. Readers skip the boring parts. Didn't you know?"
;-)

Tim Akers said...

I posit that the term geek is fully viable. Any person of my generation can check email, browse myspace or download porn. That's like being able to drive a car for my parents' generation, or something. But to have true proficiency with the guts of the thing, to be able to run your hands through the deep places of the internet and its more localized manifestations, that's geekery to its core.

Lou Anders said...

Re: Anonymous - Will do. Also, we've run some shorter works - Starship: Mutiny, Here, There & Everywhere, and Sagramanda - by Resnick, Roberson, and Foster respectively - that I'll happily point out. Personally, I like hardcover books between 293 pages and about 325. This is just an aesthetic thing. Though there is a certain writer I love, but, oddly, all of his books feel just about 20 pages too long. Or rather, right when I'd like to hit The End, I always read his last 20 pages with a degree of impatience. Since I'm a big believer in "stories take the length they take" and I hate when people complain about 3 hour films, this may be odd.

Tim, is geekery only defined by programming proficiency, or ability to extract obsessive information from the nets?

Anonymous said...

Mmm, I've liked Resnick in the past so I may need to grab that. See, your blog has gotten me interested in two books now.

Lou Anders said...

Well, I am not lying to say the Resnick is one of our top books, and the opinion in the bloggosphere seems to be that the book is a hell of a lot of fun (which is the book's editor's opinion too). It's old school space opera full of old tropes, but weilded by a master who is clearly having some of the most fun he's had in ages writing it. If you do pick it up, please let me know what you think.

Tim Akers said...

Lou, I was going to address that, but I'm at work, and shouldn't be wandering the bloglists commenting on science fiction anyway. Ahem.

What I was going to say was that "geek" as a descriptor is no longer constrained to the technical professions, at least in my peer group. Kind of like "hack" no longer applies to, you know, hacking.

When you turn that around, what does it mean, though? If we're writing geekfic, and geek isn't constrained to techie stuff, what is that fiction? Is it science fiction if we've taken the science away? Gibson's last book had science in it, but only in the loosest possible sense. What we've seen of his next, Spook Country, is more politics and humanity that it is science. In Pattern Recognition, what he does with people in relation to that science is what makes the story interesting. If you follow that back, what really moved Gibson's work in the early days was the relationship of people and their technology, rather than the technology itself. I'd go so far as to say that what made cyberpunk great wasn't the Ideas he had, but rather his characters' relationships to those Ideas. Other people in the industry took those Ideas and spun them off into a marketing category and labeled it cyberpunk, but the actual value was in the sociology and humanity of the thing.

I think.

j h woodyatt said...

"Why the #¤&#¤ can't editors tell the #¤#&%** writers to cut down on the #¤#%¤%%¤* length? We're not made of time... seriously!"

Believe me when I tell you that they have no trouble at all telling the #¤#&%** aspiring writers to cut down on the #¤#%¤%%¤* length. None whatsoever.

I have no idea whether established authors have a magical ability to turn the spines of editors into jelly, or if it's something more mundane at work. I suppose it's possible the market somehow rewards editors who let established authors get away with crimes against the memories of old growth forests, but I don't quite see how.

One wonders what Mr. Anders thinks about the matter.

Lou Anders said...

Tim,
I'd say that the intersection of people and technology IS science fiction, or at least a large vein of it, though I agree with a lot of your analysis. As I said before, Gibson saw a very specific future, inspired Silicon Valley with a lot of it, and as they realized it (to a degree) his own fiction approached the present by degrees, until now he is able to write mainstream present day works and still keep his characteristic intersection of people and their tech. He doesn't NEED to write about the future anymore; we're living it.

JH - Mr Anders addressed this above, but thinks the idea of editors with jelly spines is crazy talk. As a slow reader, I am enjoying some 80k to 90k length books right now, but don't mind a good, big book if it is a GOOD big book.

Ian Kaplan said...

I like Charles Stross. I like Vernor
Vinge. I'm a full bore William Gibson
fan boy. I liked Chris Moriarty's
work (Spin State). I even like
Stephenson, especially his early work
(Snow Crash and Diamond Age). There is,
I'm sorry to say, no comparision
between these writers and David
Edelman. Edelman is a weak writer.
I have a hard time reading about his
invented world because I keep saying
to myself "hey, it would not be like
that". I'm sorry, but you made a bad
bet publishing "Infoquake". I respect
all of the years of work that Mr.
Edelman put into the book, but that does
not change the fact that the book is
not worth my precious time to read.
There are simply too many great books
out there waiting to be read (the
latest work by Alastair Reynolds
or Robert Charles Wilson). I could
go on and on about the flaws in this
book, but I'll leave it at this.

Lou Anders said...

Ian, I appreciate your candor very much, nor will I debate you. Reading is a subjective experience and INFOQUAKE very well may be a waste of your time. But I'll take issue with the phrase "bad bet." So far, your experience of the book is a minority one, with scores of glowing reports coming in - not only from reviewers, but from readers and writers all over the world. This is not to say that every book is for every person - but as Fiona Avery often reminds me to say, there is a big difference between saying that something doesn't work, and that it doesn't work for me. Clearly, INFOQUAKE is working for a great many people, this editor included, so the bet is one that is paying off.