Thoughts Sparked By Hearing Geoff Ryman Speak on the SF Genre

Yesterday evening I went to see Geoff Ryman and Amanda Hemingway (aka Jan Siegel) being interviewed by Pat Cadigan at the fifth anniversary of the monthly Borders evenings (every second Monday of the month, in the Borders on Oxford Street, London).

In the midst of a whole slew of fascinating topics which are best left for him to expound on himself (doing research for Was in Kansas, the inspiration behind 253, doing research for The King’s Last Song in Cambodia, the nature of small towns everywhere), Ryman briefly mentioned some of the thoughts and feelings on the science fiction genre that were behind his Mundane Manifesto. He skipped over the manifesto itself, and I will too, because, if I understand what he was saying correctly, the type of fiction it encourages is simply one specific way of manifesting Ryman’s real hope for the science fiction genre.

From what Ryman was saying last night, I took this message: science fiction too frequently engages only with its own history as a literary genre, when it should be engaging instead with the world.

The use of tropes such as faster than light travel, etc. (the kind of tropes the mundane manifesto wished to avoid in sf) is an indication that the writers who use such tropes are referring back to and “conversing” with earlier science fiction works which also used those same tropes. To choose to use such tropes is to choose to develop them in the context of the science fiction tradition. It is to choose to engage with science fiction as a self-referential literary genre. Whereas to choose to engage with the world, rather than with a genre, to engage with modern science and technology, and with modern lives and societies, well, if writers were genuinely engaging with the world around them then they probably wouldn’t still be turning up those well worn tropes. The issue is about what the use of different tropes signals about the overall approach, whether it’s inward looking or outward looking, not about whether you are or aren’t “allowed” to use those tropes.

I am increasingly looking for engagement with the actual world I inhabit in the fiction I read. I do find that this means that I’m not always that interested in reading some modern core science fiction, because some of it doesn’t seem to have to much to say about anything other than the literary genre it inhabits. I’m not particularly interested in following a heavily referential literary conversation, but I am interested in exploring the modern world through fiction. I find myself drawn to the science fiction that does actually engage with modern technology and modern culture (and I think Ryman’s fiction, a book such as Air, is a prime example of this).

I find that placing an emphasis, in reading, writing or criticism, on defining genres, on taxonomies, and in particular on defining genres according to their histories and their traditions, is a stifling practice, unless those definitions and taxonomies can be used as tools for looking beyond their own boundaries. I love science fiction, but I love it for what it can say to me about the universe I’m living in, not for its own sake.

Supporting Short Fiction Markets as a Reader

In his editorial to the latest issue of Ticonderoga Online, Russell Farr talks about how (in this case Australian) sf short fiction venues and markets need readers to keep them alive and healthy:

Unless they’re hiding it well, pretty much every independent story market right now is struggling. Struggling to find enough stories, struggling to find the right stories, and, importantly, struggling to make their story market pay.

[…]

Show me the money? Show me the readers and I’ll show you the money. I think that what Australia really needs is a whole pile of wonderful people who read fast and have large, disposable incomes. These are the people that we want to see coming along to conventions, with a big shopping bag in one hand and a fat wallet in the other.

This hit a nerve with me, because I’ve been struggling for a while with questions of whether and how I should be supporting short fiction markets and what my responsibilities are to those markets as a reader.

I love short fiction. I read lots of it. Given the choice, I much prefer to read single author short story collections. I sometimes enjoy reading year’s best anthologies as well. I occasionally read themed anthologies, though often find them to be a bit hit and miss (The Faery Reel and Firebirds were excellent, for example, but I found The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time and The Alsiso Project distinctly underwhelming). I have read various short fiction magazines in the past, but don’t get much out of reading them, and eventually always seem to find them stacking up in a corner, unread and sometimes unopened. The reason for these preferences is that I like to be able to trace patterns and trends in the short fiction I read. I find the most interesting and meaningful patterns in single author collections because I can trace how that author’s ideas/themes/writing style/etc. develop through a series of different stories. Year’s bests and themed anthologies let me trace the patterns that led the anthologisers to draw those particular stories together under that banner, with varying degrees of success and interest. I find it much harder to read short fiction in the context of magazines, because I have nothing to ground them in, no references to trace patterns to, and so often don’t get much from reading them in that sort of scattershot form.

Given my personal preferences in terms of how and where I like to read short fiction, what do I need to do, as a reader, to ensure that more publications of the type I want to read come out? The short stories that get anthologised and collected are, in many cases, first published in short fiction magazines. Does that mean that if there weren’t any magazines there wouldn’t be as many anthologies and collections? If so, do I have a responsibility, as a reader of collections and anthologies, to support the short fiction magazines?

I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Traditionally, the short fiction publishing model that’s been used in the science fiction genre is to start off selling stories to the magazines and then work up to anthologies/collections, but I don’t know how predominant that model actually is these days, or how predominant it needs to be. Interestingly, three of the anthologies I mention above (The Faery Reel, Firebirds and The Alsiso Project) are anthologies of original fiction and not reprints. I know alternatives to the traditional publishing model for short fiction have been suggested, but I don’t know how successful they are. Original anthologies and collections of short fiction seem to mostly be published by small presses, and I don’t know how well they do and if that’s sustainable. If the traditional model does still hold, should I consider myself to have a responsibility to support the magazines, even though I mostly don’t want to read them, but because I do want to read some of the products of the magazine market when they’ve been picked up elsewhere? It seems hypocritical to say that I want the short fiction magazines to exist and then say I don’t want to buy or read them. But if I don’t actually want to buy or read them, if the traditional marketing model is only meeting my needs as a reader in a roundabout way, then am I obliged to support it? Would I be better off supporting other marketing models, such as small presses, which produce short fiction in the kind of form I like reading them in, even if I don’t like the actual stories they’re currently publishing (Elastic Press, for example, produce original anthologies and collections of short fiction, but I haven’t actually liked any of the ones I’ve read so far)?

What I’m asking, basically, is: do I have a responsibility to buy short fiction I don’t actually like or want to read from markets that only occasionally produce, or may at some point in the future produce, short fiction I do like and want to read, for the sake of that market?