On Monday, I found myself uttering a phrase I never thought I'd utter: "I think science fiction as a genre will be dead in just a few years." My husband Dean Wesley Smith looked at me in great shock (which was dangerous, since he was driving us to Portland, Oregon, at the time). So I had to clarify what I meant.
Which is exactly what I'm going to do here.
First, let me define terms. Genre is and has always been (in English anyway, not the original French) a subjective marketing category. In other words, we slap a label on a book in order to sell it. That label is often chosen by guess and by golly.
For example, in what genre would you place The Da Vinci Code? It now exists in a particular genre called "bestsellers" because it is one, and that's not a subjective guess, but an actual fact. But let's get rid of that bookstore category, "bestseller," and pretend that we've just discovered The Da Vinci Code in our slush pile and we as the editors at a publishing house want to take that book to the sales force, and talk to them about possibly buying that book for our line. The sales force will want to know how to market that book, and the first stage toward marketing it is to assign it a category.
Well, The Da Vinci Code has a nominal romance. It begins with a murder. Our hero solves the murder and learns tons of other things along the way. The entire book is about Christianity. The book has worldwide scope, meaning the events in the book could change the world, if allowed. The action moves at a fast clip.
So...is The Da Vinci Code a romance? No, because of the word "nominal." The romance is there, but it's not central to the book. Is it a mystery? Yes. It follows the classic mystery structure perfectly. Is it a Christian novel that could be marketed to Christian bookstores? A big, resounding no, since The Da Vinci Code's message is anti-religion, if not anti-Christianity.
The question then is why wasn't the Da Vinci Code, in its very first printing, way back when, published as a mystery?
Because there is a genre all its own that has mystery elements, worldwide scope, and fast-pacing. That genre is called "thriller."
Once upon a time, thriller used to be a subcategory of mystery. Until—
Voila! A whole new marketing category—
All genres develop with similar roots. Sometime around the late 19th century, it became clear that women bought a lot of a certain type of book, so the genre women's fiction was born. It's different from modern women's fiction, which is now a subcategory of a subcategory. Back then, women's fiction meant any and all books that would appeal to women, but not to men (all that much). You read many of that old genre in school, including Wuthering Heights, Little Women, and Jane Eyre, not to mention everything by Jane Austen (which was then being repackaged [not kidding!] as women's fiction).
Eventually, that old label would get subdivided again, into gothic (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre) and romance (Jane Austen), kicking Little Women into the children's book category—
Confused yet? Now you understand how Dean felt on that drive to Portland. I was talking about science fiction, the marketing category, and he thought I meant the science fiction that he loves to read.
I didn't mean that what he loved to read would go away. But someday—
Why do I think this?
Because so many readers claim they hate science fiction. They never, ever, ever go into the science fiction section of the bookstore. Books with "science fiction" written on the spine sell fewer copies than books with almost any other genre written on the spine—
Point out to those same readers that they're reading science fiction all the time, and they'll deny it. Yet they're reading more science fiction than ever. Most of Nora Roberts' giant fan base has moved to her J.D. Robb novels, set in a futuristic New York. Rising romance star, Linnea Sinclair, writes space opera. At least a third of the paranormal romance genre contains stories we in the center of the SF genre would call science fiction.
And those SF haters aren't just getting their science fiction from romance. They get it in that illusive bestseller category, catapulting Neal Stephenson to the lists along with William Gibson and Audrey Niffenegger whose book title, The Time Traveler's Wife, advertises its SF roots. (When that book came out, I enjoyed the hell out of the mainstream reviewers twisting themselves into a knot trying to explain why The Time Traveler's Wife wasn't science fiction. The general agreement among those reviewers turned out to be that the Niffenegger book wasn't SF because the reviewers liked it, and they didn't like science fiction.)
Bestsellers aren't the only category littered with science fiction. Mystery nominated Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union for an Edgar the same year that we in SF gave him a Hugo. We claimed the book because it's alternate history. In fact, I have an alternate history story in this year's Best American Mysteries volume. Mystery is also embracing science fiction in a big way. Not just Chabon, but Jasper Fforde and Charlaine Harris and oh so many others.
And let's not forget young adult fiction. Everyone from Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) to Scott Westerfeld (The Uglies) seems to write science fiction. In fact, young adult may be the SF marketing category's savior—
Yet people who read Jasper Fforde or Michael Chabon or Linnea Sinclair or Cormac McCarthy (The Road is pure SF, Oprah, my dear), wouldn't be caught dead in the SF section of their bookstore. Somewhere along the way, those of us who live at the core of science fiction actively drove people away from our genre. (I have theories about that. See my essay "Barbarian Confessions" in Star Wars on Trial (edited by David Brin and published by BenBella Books).) The marketing category—
Would that make you buy a book?
That's not at all what SF is. But that's what people think it is, so they don't pick up books with the words "science fiction" on the spine, even though they're reading science fiction all the time.
What's a publisher to do? Why, what they've done since time immemorial: call the book something else. It has a romance—
See how that works? I've seen Cory Doctorow's wonderful SF novel called "dystopian" in the mainstream press, without the SF label at all. And yep, it is dystopian, if that makes you feel better about your brains and education level. But it's also a science fiction novel.
I'm not the only one who's noticing these trends, by the way. Paul Goat Allen, a blogger at BarnesandNoble.com, has some cogent short essays on this. See "Science Fiction is Dead! Long Live Science Fiction!" and "It's the End of Genre as We Know It and I Feel Fine."
Both Orson Scott Card and Tobias Bucknell have blogged about this, although their reasoning differs from mine. They think the cutting edge has moved away from SF. I'm still reading SF short fiction (and loving it), so I know the cutting edge is still in SF. But SF book publishers have become conservative, not wanting to take risks (there's a reason that Linnea Sinclair isn't publishing in SF—
I don't blame the publishers for avoiding risk. The SF category is small enough already. We don't need to make it smaller by publishing a lot of books that might sell even worse than usual.
And if the SF category numbers continue to look dismal, eventually publishers will find a new label for every single book that has an SF angle. It's...futuristic. It's...an alternate now. It's...
You see where I'm going with that.
But I'm hoping that the SF category hangs on for a few more years. Some of that is nostalgia. I remember grabbing Andre Norton books at the local library, not because of her name (I hadn't learned about authors yet) but because of the rocket ship on the book's spine. Whenever I see that old rocket ship on the spine now, I feel a wave of happiness—
If SF hangs on, it will be rescued. How do I know this? Scott Westerfeld's readers have told me this, and so have Cory Doctorow's. So have all the readers now picking up copies of Ender's Game and all the other books you can find in the young adult section.
The tastes we form as young readers stay with us our entire lives. We read and reread those books, search for that experience in other books, and hope for the same experience in books to come.
What's the difference between what the young adult writers are doing and what the folks in the adult SF category are doing? Not much. In fact, hardly anything at all.
Except for one important difference.
Characterization and voice. These characters all "speak" colloquially. The narration is voice-heavy, not the invisible prose many SF writers use. The tech-heavy narratives, and the narratives that rely on lovely language without a character point of view have no place in young adult fiction (and as a longtime SF reader, let me simply say, good riddance).
The ideas are still present. The worldbuilding is strong. Adventure plays a large role—
So when these readers grow up, they'll wander into the SF section of the bookstore (or download the SF book)—
Otherwise our club will get smaller and smaller until someone finally decides they need that space for something else, and the club's doors close. Will that mean the death of SF? For some readers, yes. Because SF is guiltier than all the other genres in not allowing others inside our little club. We're like a group of disapproving school marms, who haven't noticed that the kids are reading at an adult level. We've just noticed they're reading non-approved material—
So, to get back to my very first paragraph, I think there's a good chance that the genre label, the marketing label, and the section in the bookstore marked "science fiction" might disappear in the next few years. If it does, SF reader, don't worry. Just wander over to the other marketing categories and find your favorite writers. Because the publishers won't get rid of SF writers or their books. The publishers will simply label them as something else.