Saturday, September 30, 2006

Beer-Money SF Redux

Velcro City Tourist Board linked to my recent post "'Beer Money' SF vs. 'Literary' SF," which reminded me that I'd had a related thought that I haven't managed to nail down yet.

It came about after I tried to talk up David Weber's upcoming book, Off Armageddon Reef, at my weekly editorial meeting.

Digression: I'll have to tell you a bit about Off Armageddon Reef for this to make sense. Reef is a big adventure novel, first in which might be a long series, about the last planet of humanity, planted secretly ahead of a genocidal onslaught by implacable aliens and kept low-tech for emissions secrecy for several centuries. The main story starts at that point, when an android wakes up and learns that she has to modernize the entire planet (fighting against the carefully-constructed society and religion the founders set up long ago), and, I expect, eventually lead them in kicking alien butt. But Reef is set entirely on the low-tech planet, and is about a small nation standing up to an alliance of larger, nastier nations. The tech level is roughly 18th century, and there some sea battling obviously influenced by Patrick O'Brian.

OK. Given that this book is a) a big adventure novel by b) a regularly-bestselling writer and c) is being published by this writer's new publisher, who is excited about it and going to push it hard, I thought it had a chance with some of the general-interest bookclubs in my company. Plus, I thought the low-tech thing would be a plus -- it felt more like a historical novel, without a lot of techy jargon and the kind of geekery that sends even stereo-manual enthusiasts like Dave Itzkoff screaming in terror.

I don't talk up most of the books I'm buying for SFBC at the editorial meeting (and the other editors silently thank me for it, as they similarly don't spend time talking about their similarly esoteric books that I won't want), but I took a few minutes to try to drum up interest in this one. And I failed, miserably.

Maybe I went about it wrong, but nobody was interested. The big problem seemed to be that the background was just too confusing -- one editor said something like "I don't get it -- it's in the future on another planet and they're fighting in wooden ships?" So my massive sales skills were for naught; nobody joined me. (Though I will laugh at them if it becomes a bestseller, as I suspect it will.)

That's when I started thinking about how we (we being editors, agents, authors, librarians, readers -- anybody, really, who thinks about books seriously and has to describe them to others) talk about books, and what things are easier to describe to a non-specialized audience.

Mysteries have their jargon, with "locked room" and "procedurals" and all the rest. And I know romance fans have their own shorthand as well, though I think that's a much more recent development, and has been helped along by web-based communities. I'm sure every genre or type of book has some inside terms that are opaque to outsiders. But it seems to be that SF stories and settings, at least a large subset of them, are uniquely difficult to explain to people who haven't yet been indoctrinated.

There are certainly kinds of SF that are easy to describe to people who aren't already SF aficionados -- Asimov's robot short stories, for example, or any alien-invasion story. But lots of SF is quite hard to explain to people who don't already know the jargon -- especially the kind of books we think of as near-future, the ones set twenty or forty years on. I'd say most serious SF these days is inherently difficult to explain to mundanes; SF builds on its history, and references its history, in ways that distances it from readers. To explain a new book to an insider is often a case of tracing references and pointing out the particular changes being rung on old themes, but all of that genre backstory would have to be explicated for an outsider, piece by piece.

By contrast, Fantasy, especially the kind of fantasy that's really hot now, is not distanced at all. The big fantasy explosion of the last decade has been in contemporary books, ones easily described as "what if"s. What if werewolves were real? What if vampires were tired of being second-class citizens? What if every kind of folkloric creature you've ever heard of liked to have lots and lots of sex? For better or worse, your aunt Gertrude in Schenectady can understand the set-ups of these books instantly, just as well as anyone else can -- and, for whatever zeitgeist-y reason, lots of Aunt Gertrudes have recently decided they do want to read about werewolves and vampires and fairies (oh my!). There's been some sour grapes, and some frankly envious looks, on the SF side of the fence, but it doesn't seem to me that SF could have the same kind of explosion -- not any kind of SF that would be identifiable as such to those of us already reading it.

My general theory here is that most readers are primarily interested in books that are described in words they already understand. There will be exceptions, but, for most people, being told that a book is about something incomprehensible (in a more convoluted way than that) will not be a point in its favor. If someone tells me that some great novel is about the inevitability of frammis, and that it distims the doshes in a way no gostak can, I'm probably not going to be interested. If the same person tells me it's a great new First Contact book with a neat new idea about picotech and a different take on "The Cold Equations," then I'll probably look for that book. You have to have some handle on why you might like a book before you can even decide you want it.

So, even a book that I thought of as "beer money" SF -- that is, one that is quite accessible and which I expect to be a major bestseller in the field -- can still be off-putting and distanced from the general mass of readers. Sure, they could figure it out, and the explanation wouldn't be all that long, but I can see having to bring up the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox and SETI to make this "low-tech planet hundreds of years in the future" idea look plausible to logical thinkers who don't read SF. (Though I do wonder if that old mainstay of '70s SF, the lost colony, isn't an easier and quicker end-run to nearly the same place.)
Sidebar: I still like the phrase "beer-money" SF for this kind of story, since it has some resonance with SF history, and encapsulates the general unpretentiousness of this end of the field. (Not all literary SF is pretentious, but all pretentious SF is literary.) There is, of course, a tension when I use this term, since the old-fashioned beer-money writers -- people like Poul Anderson, who I believe originated the term -- didn't start their stories the way I described in the original post. But the world has changed; the new core SF stories assume their readers have already read Anderson and Clement, Asimov and Clarke in a way that those writers didn't and couldn't assume that their readers would have read as many particular works and ideas.

I guess I'm also saying that I don't entirely like the term "entry-level" SF, since that assumes new readers will start with those works and then move on to "real" SF. It seems to me that there is a core readership for the more demanding, allusive, historically-grounded SF, and that some new readers do join that group. But there is also a larger penumbra of readers who don't generally read those core current works (though they may have read and enjoyed some SF classics), but who do read less-demanding SF. They may even think of themselves as primarily SF readers, and the bulk of their pleasure reading may indeed be this kind of SF.

To put it in geeky SF terms for us core SF readers, literary SF's delta-vee is quite large, after about eighty years of post-Gernsback propulsion at several gravities. It is still possible for ships to leave Earth and rendezvous with us, but it gets slightly more difficult every year, as our distance from the starting point increases and our velocity continues to rise. And even the trailing beer-money flotilla, running at a slower 1G acceleration and keeping in more regular tight-beam contact with the inner system, is passing the orbit of Jupiter and becoming increasingly strange to those left behind.
One of two things could make SF's language more accessible to readers: either SF (or some subset of it) limits itself to very clearly understandable extrapolations (which wouldn't necessarily mean really near-future; I suspect very unscientific Galactic Empire adventure stories would be the best bet), or the language of SF extrapolation becomes massively more widespread and central in our culture. Since I don't see either of those things happening any time soon, I guess we're stuck over in here in our ghetto. But we're used to it; we've been here since the days of Gernsback, and, to be honest, we've really done wonders with the place. I doubt ol' Hugo would even recognize it...

No comments:

Post a Comment