I’ll start off the conversation, I guess, by looking at Thomas Disch’s article. First, go to any Borders or Barnes&Noble and browse through the SF/Fantasy section: you’ll see a lot of overblown, cheesy cover art and franchise names like Halo or Warhammer 40K. What does this mean for scifi? Why does it matter that there are so many franchise books and shiny brand-new releases?
Disch’s article (The Future of an Illusion: SF Beyond the Years 2000) was really interesting, because it deals with the meta-world of publishing and commercialism of scifi. I wanted to unpack a few things he had to say.
“Sameness is what marketers want us to want.”
I hadn’t really thought of it before, but Disch is right: publishers are often the poison to creative, innovative scifi. They want and need big hits, names that can get good returns, material that they know people will read. No experiments necessary. Disch explains how SF expanded over the past few decades to carve out several niches where readers can find the ‘sameness’ they want – Star Trek novelizations, ‘hard-science’ adventures, cyberpunk, splatterpunk (ew), you name it. Novels that are based on TV or video games are steady hits. The fact that these alcoves of stale pop-adventures in SF appeared next to writers of such complexity and creativity as Gene Wolfe in the SF section of bookstores is strange, to say the least. I liked how he put it – it resembles anarchy.
Disch’s article is mostly doom-filled. This commercialization of SF means that the genre’s future is ‘more of the same and more of the sameness.’ Disch accuses even my hero-man-crush Gene Wolfe for adapting to the wills of the market. He doesn’t produce a single novel of brilliance, but a nice trilogy – and once he finishes one trilogy, he moves on to the next. Like a factory. Like a product. It’s interesting and I kind of agree..though I think even implying a comparison between Gene Wolfe and, say, Dan Abnett (a writer of a huge number of Warhammer 40K novels – the very essence of SF sellout, though I can’t lie and say I haven’t read his stuff) is gross and unjust.
I want to tie this back to Russian scifi. This returns-driven publishing craze that’s sucked the creativity out of modern SF? It’s happening in Russia. I went to a lot of bookstores in Russia (they have a lot of really nice chains, similar to Borders but less gimicky I guess). The SF sections were depressing. Snooty Russians look down on current Russian literature in general, but I would say SF is particularly scorned as trash. It’s still very popular, but very dull, very predictable stuff: you’ll see giant things resembling Sarlacc pits battling Androids on more than a few covers. One of the more famous current SF novels is Metro 2033 (and it’s many sequels), about the different factions that rise in the Moscow Metro in a post-apocalyptic world. Awesome stuff – it made a good video game too. But still, it’s no Zamyatin.
PS: The author didn’t just complain like an old geezer. There were a few interesting tangents on the nature of SF itself, like: “The romance between SF and the counterculture has been going on a long time.” Surrealism, absurdism, dadaism, punk-ism, a lot of -isms have influenced SF from the counterculture realm. I would be interested to talk more about that, since I know relatively little about those sort of influences on the genre, especially in Eastern Europe.