Eric Flint posted yet another post about the Hugo Awards and it’s obvious that he still can’t seem to wrap his mind around the real problem.
The problem with science fiction today is that by and large it isn’t barbecue anymore. Look when I was growing up science fiction was like barbecue. Not very pretentious, but usually pretty good with all sorts of different kinds of sauce. If you didn’t like one flavor of the barbecue you could find some other sauce that you did like.
But barbecue has a certain style to it. It’s meat and sauce, with corn or vegetables on a stick cooked or smoked over a grill, usually outdoors. It’s not sophisticated food with a lot of excess pretensions or extras to muddle the issues.
But suppose you went to a barbecue and were served up something like this. This pop up restaurant run by the world’s best chef is an amazing thing. You pay big money for the experience. But it’s not Japanese food. It’s definitely not Japanese barbecue.
Now this sophisticated eating at the highest level. It takes true artistry to make the generally inedible almost palatable. This kind of cooking appeals to a very elite group of eaters who want to be challenged. But there is no way it’s barbecue. In fact it’s at best barely food. Which is actually the point.
Most of us who are science fiction fans have a pretty good idea what kind of barbecue it’s supposed to be. Like the elements of “America’s most wanted painting” we know what the elements of a science fiction story are. We expect some sort exotic technology, an interesting story and rational framework. Most importantly we expect the story to stay within certain lines.
I know that Eric knows what a science fiction story is supposed to be like. After all he’s written fifty books that are cracking science fiction and has done very well with it. Eric writes good books and stories none of which seem, for some strange reason, to express the political stances he espouses. I think he knows that Marxist tracts don’t pay the bills very well. The probably with message fiction is that nobody really likes to be preached at constantly. People read fiction to be entertained, not guilted. Yet there are large groups of people who are so obsessed with whatever their pet peeve is that they can’t see anybody would not want to be reading about it and talking about it constantly.
The problem is that the traditional publishers are owned as part of conglomerates. So publishing has become corporate and bureaucratic. As we all know, bureaucracies are not known for dealing with creativity, innovation or risk very well. Bureaucracies want things to run along on nice little formulas with preset solutions. Which works well with groceries, but not so well for figuring out which books are going to do really well.
As time went on the magazines who had been the forefront in buying innovative short fiction which were in many ways the soul of science fiction have closed up. As they did science fiction lost a lot of the diversity of ideas which made it so vibrant a genre. The genre’s main format went from short to long as novels became the central focus. But that causes problems. Especially when editorial doesn’t have the qualifications to understand what they are editing. This piece was interesting, especially one line.
Not to be sexist, but this is the important line:”90% of the genre imprints here are actually run by women.” Now that’s the UK publishers, but from what I have observed it’s by and large the case here in the US as well. This is the problem with most publishing being run by corporate types who generally hire by credentials. The kind of people they hired were not people who actually geeks with some talents in writing, but English student types who “loved the genre.” But those English student types brought some baggage with them.
These new editors come from college educations heavily radicalized, determined to “make a difference” and perfectly willing give advantages to authors who are either minority or express radical views. Who got to determine what did or did not get published in SF. Some of the older authors who had sold well continued to get published but the new editors tended to choose stuff that we old time fans just can’t really stomach as barbecue. Instead of rocketships we get self actualization and dealing with bigotry and overcoming oppression due to the character sex or race.
That’s where we are with science fiction right now. Over the last twenty years or so a small clique of rather radical people has started to dictate what they thought science fiction was supposed to be. Due to the way the publishing industry had evolved and the smallness of fandom they by and large got away with it. The big reason is that the people working in the big five never developed the feedback forum that Baen built on the internet. Baen’s bar gave Jim Baen an access to his readership that none of the traditional publishers in NYC seem to develop or even want. I think that the editors at the big five, what was then the big six didn’t even want to know what the readers really thought. Having watched them for years that doesn’t surprise me.
The recent flap over what Irene Gallo commented on her post is indicative of the problem. Ms. Gallo didn’t come to the opinion that the SF readers were “Unrepentant racists and misogynists” all at once. That corrosion took years of living in the NYC bubble to develop. When you don’t have to deal with your readers directly it’s all to easy to neglect their needs for your latest political fad whether it’s green whatever, diversity, sustainability or LGBT rights. You can pursue your ideological passion in your work and if enough of the formula books get pushed out, the readers may not notice for a long time. And if a few leave for better stuff in manga or comics, well they were readers that were not wanted anyway.
The problem is that when we fans, who used to buy lots of books, stop buying the new stuff it gets harder for ANY new stuff to reach the shelves. Especially when the stores are all ordering to the net. Which is why you go into a Barnes and Noble and find “the same five authors with the same 20 stories” as a commenter on a blog said that I can no longer find. This what happens when the book buying budget that was 5 books a week becomes two books because readers can’t find enough good new stuff. So you don’t go to the store every week, maybe once a month. You start looking a manga of comics where the stories might be barbecue like. You buy from Baen, who seems to have not lost focus on what good reading , like good barbecue was supposed to be. Or maybe you just reread the hundreds of good stories you already have.
What’s happened to the Hugo awards is only part of the problem. The Hugos were supposed to be the fan’s award, but somehow, I suspect it started when publishers could afford large number of staff memberships and travel allowances, the publishers and a small clique of rather wealthy, but radical truefen managed to get control and dictate what barbecue was going to be from now on. The problem is that the readership has well, left the building. What used to be an award given by and large fans of science fiction has be become a device of a small clique of people to award themselves and use affirmative action to push a rather radical agenda. Which is how barbecue became something else. Here’s an example, one of the truefen’s nominees for the Hugos this year.
Rather like undercooked shrimp sprinkled with ant parts. It takes a special taste to eat it. And it’s not exactly the greatest of well written stories. There’s also no attempt to create a rationale for the world turning upside down or explain it. It’s just there. Instead it concerns itself with the character’s goldfish and naval investigations. Not exactly typical SF fair and just not trying. Yet this is what the truefen feel is ward worthy.
In contrast, here’s what barbecue looks like. It has interesting characters, an interesting problem, a Mcguffin and a resolution. Maybe it’s not the best story ever written, but at least it has the elements of a science fiction story. It’s barbecue.
I knew how rotten things had truly gotten when I realized that boycotting Tor over Ms. Gallo’s comment was pointless because I already had been boycotting Tor more or less for the last ten years or so subconsciously. At least I was still reading some science fiction. Thanks to the bookstores ordering to the net, the push model, and the radicalization of editorial, I’ve given up on everybody other than Baen. Many people I know have given up on SF completely, driven off by the inedible dreck that the truefen insist is barbecue. But it’s not and that’s the sad part.