SF Miscellany: Magazines/Books, WorldCon Kerfuffle, Grand Masters

Over the past month or so, I was struck by the discrepancy between magazine and book content, aspects of book marketing, the latest in the interminable line of WorldCon fights, and the deaths of great and honored SF luminaries which prompted thoughts on who remains to be honored. I thought these might become detailed and considered posts but, as usual, I just went with a hodge-podge. I am sure about the last section, though.

Where the Readers Aren’t

With “How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?Auxiliary Memory brought us another fascinating post, this time about the science fiction market. I was also most struck by slide 35, though for my own reasons.

Slide35-1024x768

(Before I even start, I have to note that there are several problems with the slide. First, I have no idea how temporal/qualitative descriptions like “Classics,” subject genres like “Military,” source categories like “TV… Adaptations,” structural categories like “Anthologies,” and formal genres like “Short Stories” are treated as equivalent. Second, I have no idea why “Anthologies” and “Short Stories” appear twice, the second time combined with each other. I also have no idea what the difference between “Alternate History” and “Alternative History” could be. So the slide has to be taken with a grain of salt but I still think it demonstrates some general truth.)

Here’s the question prompted by the slide which should occur to all SF magazine editors and lovers of short fiction: if LGBT, Alternate History, Steampunk, “Metaphysical & Visionary” and Time Travel sell so little and Military, Adventure, Space Opera, First Contact, Genetic Engineering, Galactic Empire, Hard Science Fiction, Colonization, and Space Exploration sell more, why does the vast majority of magazine (especially webzine) science fiction I read deal with the former categories (or similar) more than the latter and might this be a contributing factor in the increasing irrelevance of short fiction? (The sole reach for a wide readership I see in magazine SF is the negative and probably incidental one of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian.)

There are probably many answers of various kinds but one that occurs to me is that, in these days of low overhead and a market of dozens and dozens of magazines, all that’s needed is a fanatically loyal niche readership, much like a cable TV show vs. the shared culture of the pre-cable era. But if people want short SF to compete in the general marketplace and get it something like the honor it had and deserves (which is admittedly tough for several reasons), it might be better to go where the general SF reader’s hearts and minds are.

Variety Is the Spice

If all is not ideal in short fiction, there are issues at book length, too. As always, I was struck by the nature of the books listed in Locus’ “New Books” posts. Saying that I’m looking for a non-YA SF singleton doesn’t sound too restrictive. According to the last two posts from the 17th and 24th (which are very typical in these matters) this is what I have to choose from:

  • Satirical fantasy novel…series
  • Steampunk fantasy novel…third in a series
  • Epic fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, first in a series
  • Fantasy novel, first in a series
  • Fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, third in a trilogy
  • Alternate history fantasy novel
  • Contemporary fantasy novel
  • Horror novel, first in a series
  • [YA] SF novel… first in a series
  • [YA] Short SF novel
  • [YA] SF novel
  • Young adult SF novel
  • Young adult SF novel
  • Young adult sf novel
  • Humorous space opera novel, third in a series
  • Military SF novel, third in a series
  • SF novel, second in a series
  • SF thriller
  • Collection of [a series of] 18 stories…about a giant mountain man in the Old West
  • Collection of [a series of] five stories about a post-apocalypse ex-government assassin turned bounty-hunter
  • Collection of 16 stories

If I get a little more restrictive and say I’m not interested in a “thriller” or the Old West or a post-apocalypse, I’m down to one book. If I want it to be a novel and/or in mass-market paperback, the counter hits zero. And so it goes…

WorldCondemnation

I’m not involved in fandom in any way except, y’know, being a fanatic about SF and reading and writing about it constantly. I’m sympathetic to some of the Sad Puppies’ desires for more “fun” in SF and a broader reach for it. I’m not sympathetic to some of their non-literary excesses, though (nor those of their opponents). Either way, it turns out the Sad Puppies were right about one thing, at least. Now that they’re not there to kick around any more, the Worldcon folks have turned on each other (as they used to do before the Puppies). Currently, a lot of people are complaining about the vast evil right-wing straight white male conspiracy which is keeping them from their entitlement of being on important panels and I was reminded of a video of a panel I’d seen while mourning Gardner Dozois. So I thought I’d point out how people like Dozois, George R. R. Martin, and Howard Waldrop were treated. I hope the video goes straight to 19:41 or so but, if not, you can fast forward there. The relevant segment ends at 24:55 or so. (Note that, at one place, Martin says “1985” and “1986” when he meant “1975” and “1976.”)

Grrr. Since it turns out the site owner has inexplicably disabled playback on other sites, you can either click the youtube button on the “unembed” above or this link.

Help Me, SFWA Prez, You’re My Only Hope

From one award to another.

As the last section relates to Gardner Dozois’ recent death, so this one was specifically triggered by Ellison’s (and there were a couple of Ellison anecdotes in the clip above). I got to wondering which of my favorite authors from earlier decades were still alive. I have several (overflowing) cases of SF books which contain an “era” per case. People who started in the 30s and 40s are in one case. They are all dead now. People who started in the 50s and 60s (with maybe three who started in the 40s but really started in the 50s) are in the next case. With Harlan Ellison’s death, they are now all dead except the Grand Masters Larry Niven and Robert Silverberg, the Author Emeritus Katherine MacLean, and… Ben Bova (b.1932), Carol Emshwiller (b.1921), and Norman Spinrad (b.1940). This leads me to again make a plea I’ve made several times before in various ways.

Please, SFWA prez’s, make Ben Bova and Norman Spinrad (two peas in a pod, there) Grand Masters next year and the next! Please, SF fans, pester the SFWA board to make this happen! (Carol Emshwiller may win a Nobel for Literature someday but doesn’t seem to have made quite the impact on the field that might be expected. If anyone wanted to give her a Grand Master, I’d be delighted. Surprised, but delighted.)

As a life-achievement award given to authors who must be living, seniority should be and usually is a major factor. The last time someone older than Emshwiller was given the award was Phil Farmer (b.1918) in 2001. For Bova, it was Wolfe (b.1931) in 2013. For Spinrad, it was just this year but Delany, Cherryh, Haldeman, and Willis are all younger and have already received it. Time’s a-wastin’!

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8 thoughts on “SF Miscellany: Magazines/Books, WorldCon Kerfuffle, Grand Masters

  1. Interesting that you noted the same thing that I did about that slide, i.e., the massive disconnect between the bestsellers and where the magazine field is at. Made me wonder if there is a gaping hole in the market for a magazine like, say, Worlds of If circa mid to late 1960s.
    Thanks for the video link—interesting stuff; I’ll probably watch the whole thing later.

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    • If you’ve posted those thoughts on your blog or somewhere and have a link, I’d be interested in reading them. As far as a hole in the market, I think there is. I keep hoping one of these people who keep complaining about SF and also brag about how rich they are will start a magazine. 🙂 Things as diverse as Compelling to Galaxy’s Edge seem to glance around the edges of the hole but I don’t know of a pro-level zine that’s gone charging right through it.

      It is a long video, but I’m glad what you saw was interesting – glad one of the links worked, too!

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  2. Summary: Once you clean it up, the AE list isn’t really that different from the RSR list, with the sole exception of Hard SF, which I think they’ve grossly undercounted.

    I count four categories in the AE list that largely duplicate others and eight that don’t belong at all. When I compare with my own list of subgenres, they’re missing anything corresponding to the following: Climate, Far-Future, SF Horror, SF Mystery, Near-Future, Robot/AI, Sports, Superhero, Thriller.

    I realize they’re counting novels and I’m counting short stories, but none of those categories was big enough to make their chart? Really?

    So, mapping the remaining categories to mine, I get a list in this order:
    NONE (1/3 of short science-fiction fits under none of their categories, but, to be honest, 1/5 of it fits under none of mine either.)
    Hard SF (I think they’re WAY undercounting this)
    Post-Apocalyptic (the next five are the same as AE’s top five, albeit in different order)
    Military
    Adventure
    Dystopian
    Space Opera (includes Galactic Empire)
    Time Travel
    Humorous
    Colonization
    Exploration (includes First contact and Space exploration)
    Alternate History
    Steampunk (strictly speaking, I have this under fantasy)
    Cyberpunk
    Alien Invasion
    Genetic Engineering

    So, all-in-all, I don’t think the distribution of subgenres in short SF is all that different from novels after all.

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      • Well, I think one should disregard everything in that table from the “TV, Movie, Videogame Adaptations” line on down. They’re either things that don’t fit at all or else seem too small to believe. For example, “LGBT” isn’t a real subgenre, or shouldn’t be. A hard SF story is still hard SF even if it has a gay protagonist.

        Anyway, my point is that the print magazines and anthologies that I read (which is quite a few) seem to be focusing on the same “reader-friendly” subgenres as the Author Earnings list. They’re counting sales and I’m counting titles, but even so, the fact that they’re roughly comparable suggests that the problem isn’t that magazines are printing stories that are wildly different from the sort of novels that are successful. When you run the numbers, they seem to be about the same.

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      • This is in reply to both your last two comments, Greg.

        I don’t really have a list of subgenres – in my reviews, I try to list everything as either SF, F, or H, though I go so far as to mark some things “science fictional” or “science fantasy” (when I bother to note that they’ve pushed it past any reasonable definition of SF) or “dark fantasy” (if it significantly approaches horror) or just list them as a category or a wordcount when they fail to even be speculative or stories.

        I can’t consider everything for this but, just going back over the 83 stories I’ve read from July (I’m in the middle of Analog and this week’s Wrap-Up stories), I tried to map them to a version of the slide’s categories. First, I will say that, on fiddling with it more directly, I agree that the “subgenres” listed are really very poor (though “Metaphysical & Visionary” is surprisingly useful) and agree with Paul that what was resonating with me was “reader friendly” Good Stuff vs. “other stuff.”

        Anyway, because this is a bi-monthly month and Analog still tries to present as an SF magazine, as does Asimov’s to a lesser extent, while F&SF is naturally approximately half and half and all three publish a lot more stories than your average webzine, this skews things much more towards SF than other months. So I get 38 non-SF stories and 45 SF stories. (I also cover Nature‘s Futures, Slate‘s Future Tense, and Terraform, for instance, which almost always aim at some form of SF whereas I think the only thing RSR covers that I don’t are Interzone and Tor novellas which are at least mixed.) Even so, of the 45, aside from Military SF, you may be right about an overall categorical mapping or at least it could be construed as not being as far off as my gut feeling told me but it comes with some crucial caveats on humor, surrealism, ambivalence, etc. I get:

        • Military SF: 1 (and it’s more a dystopia than MilSF)
        • Space Adventure (sort of Adventure/Space Opera): 6 (but this includes two things that could be “Metaphysical/Visionary” and two things that are somewhat “Humorous” and one from a TV sci-fi sort of milieu so this could be as little as 1)
        • Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian: 7 (this includes a climate story, a surreal alien invasion and doesn’t include the MilSF tale above)
        • Genetic Engineering: 5 (three are actually crime stories and the other two are from a microgenre I’m really tired of, which is the “iterative relationship” story or the like (as is one of the apocalypse tales above))
        • Colonization: 3 (one of which is surreal and one of which makes little sense)
        • Cyberpunk: 3 (this is actually kinda dead with one being a “proxy bodies” story and related to social media while a couple more are purely social media more than cyberpunk and one of which is a joke story)
        • Space Exploration: 2 (actually 0 as one is surreal and the other is a fragmentary gimmick of microfiction)
        • Time Travel: 3 (seems like less than most months and two are mostly mainstream in their ways)
        • Metaphysical & Visionary: 6 (this is excluding all the “surreal” things I mention elsewhere; these don’t click elsewhere but drop straight into this grab-bag)
        • Alternate History: 3 (also seems like less than most months; excludes at least one fantasy alternate history)
        • Humor: 2 (again, many more listed elsewhere but, like M&V, these seemed to fit better in humor than other categories)
        • Other: 4 (an AI romance, symbolic robot microfiction, utterly unscientific but non-fantastic multiverse dinosaurs, and multiverse dinosaur porn)

        I didn’t list anything as hard SF for much the same reason as your LGBT rationale. Hard SF has to be about something and tends to go there first. (If I went back re-did it, I don’t know that I would find a lot that would meet my definition which includes not just being “realistic” but actually having the scientific elements be there for their own intrinsically fascinating sake and not as thematic or symbolic fodder.) However, I would disagree about LGBT not being a category. It’s an actual category in (some? all?) stores. In terms of speculative fiction, I would say that it’s a judgment call on whether the thematic tail’s wagging the narrative dog or not.

        Anyway, if you don’t want to actually laugh at something derisive, comical, and/or trivial, or read something which “fantasticates” SF but do want to have fun with a story set in this universe in the future of our timeline, you can read 83 stories and get about 6-8 stories. And, since I tend to note about one out of five stories and recommend one out of ten (though it’s a little less lately), maybe one or two of these would actually be good Good Stuff.

        (Hm. Based on this month’s forthcoming recs, I may be a bit biased. Of my four recs so far, I’m recommending “The Nearest” (which is a biology/psychology future crime story rather than genetics but didn’t fit anywhere else) and, of eight, have honorably mentioned “Broken Wings” (space adventure), “Starship Mountain” (colonization, though more of a history mystery), and “Your Face” (which is a flash piece similar to the Egan novelette but much more genetics-oriented). Plus, as I said, I’m not done with Analog and another story. I think they’re genuinely worth noting but it could be that I’m just desperate for more “real SF.” ;))

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