Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fantasy vs Science Fiction in the marketplace

Two topics I have discussed in this blog previously are Locus Magazine and the current dominance of fantasy over science fiction in genre publishing. The latter topic reared its head again recently while I was reading the November issue of Locus. One of the magazine’s ongoing columns is entitled Books Received, and it highlights a specific month each issue. The November issue highlights books received by Locus during September of this year. There are nearly 8 pages of books, each with a brief description, and I could not help but notice a similarity to those descriptions.

For example, here are the descriptions of books in one column which I randomly selected:

• omnibus of the five books in the young-adult quasi-fantasy series;
• young adult paranormal romance about a teen werewolf;
• adventure novel with SF/fantasy elements;
• young-adult fantasy novel;
• young-adult vampire novel;
• urban fantasy novel;
• Arthurian urban fantasy novel;
• collection of SF stories;
• historical romance with debatable fantasy elements;
• Young-adult fantasy adventure.

That is 1 science fiction book with 7 fantasy novels (one of them having only debatable fantasy elements. So why the heck is the book even listed here?). All right, perhaps that column was a fluke. Let’s try another random column:

• tie-in novel based on the collectible [fantasy] card game;
• reprint vampire novel;
• paranormal romance novel;
• collection of 20 [SF] stories;
• reprint archaeological thriller with supernatural elements;
• fantasy novel;
• urban fantasy novel;
• graphic novel inspired by Hal Clement’s Needle;
• anthology of eight stories of vampire erotica;
• original anthology of erotic SF and fantasy stories.

This is harder to pigeonhole: 1 SF book, 1 SF-inspired graphic novel, and ½ of an erotic anthology is SF. So count that as 2.5 SF out of 10 books.

At the end of the listing, the column keeps a running tally:

September Totals / 2010 Totals
SF: 26 / 162
Fantasy: 34 / 307
Horror: 21 / 133
Paranormal Romance: 24 / 213

Notice that the SF totals are surpassed easily by both fantasy and paranormal romance for the year. If you consider those four categories as the “genre” fiction published in 2010 to date, SF comprises a mere 20% of the total so far this year.

The good news is that 162 SF books have been published so far this year, but considering how varied the types of novels are which fall under the SF umbrella, perhaps 50% might fall into a specific reader’s comfort zone. That’s still 81 SF books, far more than most readers will buy in a single year.

In my case, I do read some fantasy, so long as it is neither contemporary nor urban fantasy (with an occasional exception, such as a Charles de Lint book). I prefer either historical fantasy or ones set in created worlds, since they provide more of the wonder similar to science fiction’s futuristic worlds. So while I am distrustful of the trends in genre publishing (paranormal romances will never appeal to me, nor am I likely to read any books featuring those overused fantasy tropes of vampires/werewolves/zombies), at least for now enough SF is still being published to satisfy my reading hunger.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Science fiction has been a big part of my life ever since I was a child, and my collection is about evenly split between books (1,247) and prozines (1,233). Books actually came first, via trips to the local library to take out as many books with little rockets on the spine as I could find there. Next came Tom Swift, Jr. books which I devoured as soon as a new one was published.

Prozines came next, beginning with the January, 1963 issue of Worlds of IF. Through the 1960s, I bought both IF and its two companions Galaxy (those issues are still my favorite prozines) and Worlds of Tomorrow. In 1969 though, all three magazines were sold to a new publisher, and Frederik Pohl took the opportunity to resume full-time writing, and was replaced by the incredibly incompetent Ejler Jakobsson. I continued all three magazines until their demises at various times in the decade (and Galaxy did have a brief resurgence under Jim Baen’s editorship), but I expanded to Analog when Ben Bova took over as editor, and Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1974 (when IF died).

When Stanley Schmidt took over Analog, it became boring to me, so I switched to Asimov’s early in the 1980s and read it and F&SF through the late-1990s when I gave up reading all science fiction for about two years, including letting my subscriptions lapse. Since then I have renewed F&SF recently, but I have found myself falling far behind in reading it, partly because it seems to be leaning a lot more towards fantasy than science fiction. I would not mind so much if it were historical fantasy or fantasy set in created worlds, but it seems to be largely contemporary fantasy or slipstream, both of which bore me considerably.

So in a few months I will be without any prozine subscriptions, although fortunately I still have a backlog of magazines to read or re-read, probably more than I can read the rest of my life considering how many books I also have to read. Here’s what will keep me busy awhile:

Amazing / 21 issues
Analog / 56 issues
Asimov’s / 207 issues
Black Gate / 1 issue
Chinese Literature / 17 issues
Fantasy & Science Fiction / 407 issues
Fantastic / 1 issue
Galaxy / 247 issues
International SF / 2 issues
Interzone / 5 issues
Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet/ 4 issues
On Spec / 1 issue
Paradox / 5 issues
Postscripts / 8 issues
Realms of Fantasy / 6 issues
Science Fiction Age / 13 issues
Subterranean / 1 issue
The Third Alternative / 1 issue
Tomorrow / 19 issues
The Twilight Zone / 1 issue
Ultimate titles (miscellaneous) / 22 issues
Venture / 5 issues
Worlds of Fantasy / 4 issues
Worlds of IF / 148 issues
Worlds of Tomorrow / 26 issues

Friday, November 12, 2010


I guess I should start any review of a book by Jack McDevitt with a disclaimer: he is my favorite current writer, whose books inevitably get a rave review from me. I selected Seeker as my book-of-the-year, and Echo is the next book in the same Alex Benedict series. Nor am I alone in my admiration for Jack McDevitt; his novels have been nominated for 9 Nebula Awards, and Seeker won the award in 2006.

The premise of an Alex Benedict novel, including Echo, is relatively straight-forward: Benedict is an antiquities dealer in the far-future, when much of the Orion Spiral has been settled by humans for many millennia. Along with his assistant Chase Kolpath, who is the narrator of the books as she writes her memoirs of Benedict’s adventures, they invariably get involved in a historical mystery involving some ancient artifact which they are trying to authenticate.

The novels in this series contain several aspects which often fill me with sense of wonder: a colonized sector of space in which worlds have different cultures and backgrounds; a sense of history far beyond our era; and a non-genre historical mystery. Add to this McDevitt’s ability to write a fast-paced, enthralling novel with characters who are reasonably-well-rounded, if not developed in considerable depth.

Echo also involves one of the great tropes of science fiction: the search for intelligent life other than humans. At the novel’s outset, Benedict finds an ancient artifact which contains non-human writing, and which belonged to one of the most famous seekers of alien life, a man who devoted himself to traveling through space looking for aliens. A few mysteries surround the artifact, including a pilot of space tours who mysteriously resigned her job soon after the finding of the artifact, and who refuses to discuss it with Benedict two decades later. To make the situation even stickier, somebody is very anxious to prevent Benedict and Kolpath from learning the truth behind the artifact, even to the point of attempted murder.

There are a few minor weaknesses in Echo, a few plot details which should not be considered too deeply, and a bit too much of a Sherlock Holmes influence on Benedict’s thought processes, weaknesses which did not appear in earlier books in the series. But they are slight compared to the strengths of this book, and the pleasures it gave me. Echo was the third McDevitt novel I read this past year, and while it was slightly weaker than either Cauldron (the magnificent finale to the Academy series) or Time Travelers Never Die (a wondrous romp through time), it did nothing to hurt McDevitt’s reputation in my mind. I recommend it highly, both for Alex Benedict fans as well as for all future history lovers.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Six Great Short Science Fiction Novels, part 2

Algis Budrys wrote some of the most thought-provoking sf, and “Chain Reaction” is no exception. It reminded me of Star Trek’s “prime directive” that forbade members of the federation from interfering with native cultures. I also thought about Christian missionaries who tried to convert savages while simultaneously raising their level of existence. Budrys’ story examines a native culture which has been kept enslaved by superior beings from space, but then are freed when their captors are overthrown by superior beings from Earth. But the Earthlings feel obligated to keep the natives healthy and alive, which requires their abandoning many of their traditional practices and which they refuse to do. This is a well-done study of culture clash.

My least favorite story in the book was “Incommunicado,” by Katherine MacLean. The first few pages were confusing, and I almost abandoned it, but for some reason I kept going and the story became more interesting when the main character visited a space station where all the residents were speaking what seemed to be nonsensical gibberish, and he assumed something had made them crazy. His investigation and eventual realization were both interesting, and I ended up liking the story, although less so than others in this book.

My favorite story in the book was Damon Knight’s “Rule Golden.” Knight is mostly remembered as a critic and anthologizer himself, his Orbit series was one of the foundations of the New Wave in this country. But prior to that, Knight was an outstanding writer of short fiction, much of it in Galaxy in the 1950s, stories such as “To Serve Man,” which became arguably the second most-famous episode of The Twilight Zone (after the story of William Shatner having a breakdown on a plane flight), and the vastly underappreciated “The Visitor at The Zoo” (The Other Foot in novel form).

“Rule Golden” takes a premise which many people, including myself, have often considered: how would human civilization differ if humans automatically felt whatever pain or suffering they inflicted on another person? Knight makes the premise more interesting by bringing to Earth an alien representative of a galactic union whose members all possess that ability before they are allowed to leave their home planet and venture into space. And since Earthmen are now venturing into space for the first time, the alien intends to infect all humans with that ability, like it or not.

In some ways, this story is a companion piece to “Chain Reaction,” as its alien interferes with human life for our own good, or so it believes. This is an incredible story which is available in this volume and also in Knight’s collection Three Novels.