Slashdot SF

Charles Stross:

Things are fast, chaotic, cheap, and out of control. Ad hoc is the new plan. There’s a new cultural strange attractor at work, sucking in the young, smart, deracinated mechanistically-minded readers who used to be the natural prey of the SF movement. It’s geek culture. You can find it in the pages of Wired (although it’s a pale shadow of what it used to be) and on Boing!Boing! and Slashdot. You can find them playing MMORPGs and hacking their game consoles. These people have different interests from the old generation of SF readers. And unfortunately they don’t buy many [fiction] books, because we aren’t, for the most part, writing for them.

This isn’t to say that they don’t read. There is a literary culture that switches on the geeks: it started out as a branch of SF. Yes, I’m talking about cyberpunk. But while cyberpunk was a seven day wonder within the SF field, which subsequently lost interest, the geeks recognized themselves in its magic mirror and made it their own. This is the future they live in, not the future of Star Wars and its imitators, of the futures of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. And in addition to cyberpunk — the golden age SF taproots of their field — some of us are beginning to address their concerns. Among the quintessentially geek authors, the brightest names are Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Douglas Coupland and (in his latest incarnation) Bruce Sterling. (I’d like to append my own name to that list, if only to bask in their reflected glory.)

The authors I listed above are not writing SF for your traditional SF readers. They are writing something quite different, even if the forms are similar, because the underlying assumptions about the way the universe works are different.

I’ll happily quibble with some of the detail in Stross’ post — in particular, I think it’s a bit misleading to imply that everyone who isn’t writing slashdot sf is writing about obsolete First-sf futures — but I think he’s spot-on about the nature of the geek audience.

9 thoughts on “Slashdot SF

  1. Charlie has been shouting this sort of thing for 15 years. Remember Technogoth? Remember his short-lived fanzine Solitons (with Simon Ings)?

    As Farah says on the LJ feed of this post its based on a false premise about the SF/technophile crossover.

  2. I think Charlie falls prey to the common misperception that “my subculture is the dominant subculture, because it’s what I see all around me”. But my response to his post is too long for a comment here, so happily I now have something to blog about this morning!

  3. It’s bollocks. If it were true, there would be lots of geek authors being sold as a separate marketing strategy. There aren’t.

    And the main reason they don’t buy many fiction books is that the majority of people never did, and the crossover readers of science into fiction have *always* been a minority. Many of my relatives were technical, engineering people. Only my Dad was a fiction reader as well.

    Stross is simply ignoring all the studies on reading which show: it is, and always has been a minority pursuit; non-fiction is and always has been more popular; the market has always been skewed by those who read a new book every week (or more) at one end, and at the other end people who read three books a year, and will read three books a year however many authors there in the category that they might like.

    There is also the age factor: peak reading seems to be around 13-25. Geeks in work are older. Try asking a teacher how much s/he reads. I bet s/he reads very little because there is so little time. Try the same even on someone like me, who reads for a living: my reading of fiction plummetted after about 1994 when I started teaching.

    Actually, thanks to TV, if the question you asked was “how much narrative do you experience each week”, you’d find a different type of response, and if you then asked the geeks how much sf do you watch, you’d get a different response again: and there’s the rub, because I don’t know of much cyber-future on tv do you? It’s mostly pretty old fashioned, if sexy-modern, first-sf (space opera and time travel).

  4. Thanks for quoting me out of context in such a way as to distort the entire thrust of my argument, Gabe. It’s really appreciated.

    I’m not issuing a fucking manifesto, declaring a movement, or suggesting that SF is dead. My think-piece is basically an attempt to diagnose some of the failings in the strategy of going back to the golden age.

    kev: technogoth was a drunken prank, facilitated by Colin Greenland, and you were there at the time. Is your memory that selective?

    Farah: I am well aware that reading is a minority pursuit. (Your comments on the full piece, rather than the “let’s you and he fight” extract Gabe picked, would be welcome.)

  5. Thanks for quoting me out of context in such a way as to distort the entire thrust of my argument, Gabe. It’s really appreciated.

    Waitaminute! Are you commenting on the post I made at my journal or the post above, which was most certainly not me? Color ME confused!

  6. Charlie: I remember very well you talking about a British cyberpunk, calling it technogoth slightly tongue in cheek, but seeming very earnest about the need for something like a movement, a manifesto, a plan.
    The details may have changed, the direction hasn’t really.

    Amongst other things you, and to be fair, the pieces you responded to, make the mistake of adressing SF as a single entity. It isn’t, and never was.

  7. Woah! This got a stronger response than I was expecting it to. Some follow-up.

    Charlie: I assume the ire about misquoting should be directed at me rather than at Gabe, so I apologise. That said, I personally don’t think the quote makes it look like you’re issuing a manifesto, and the link is there for anyone who wanted to see the full context. What I wanted to highlight was that I agree with your identification of a geek audience that is interested in, among other things, a subset of contemporary sf, and I agree that this audience seems to be under-served by contemporary sf.

    Which brings me to Farah: I agree entirely that this audience, if it exists, is not going to be the salvation of sf, and I already said that implying that the majority of written sf is currently about obsolete futures is (at best) hugely misleading. But I think the slashdot audience exists, I think it would be happy to buy more books than it currently does, and I don’t think the absence of a traditional marketing strategy is evidence of the absence of the audience. I think all this for a couple of reasons, the main one being that I knew a decent chunk of people at university who fit into it — people who read Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling, and in comics people like Warren Ellis, but don’t have much interest in sf in general — and they keep asking me for book recommendations. I’ll be the first to hold my hand up and say my university experience is probably not typical, but I don’t think it’s atypical enough to make the scaled-up audience trivial. The secondary reason I’m not surprised there’s not much traditional marketing to these people is, well, they are not people who get their books by the traditional routes. I suggest they’re vastly more likely to obtain them by something like Amazon (which will then recommend other things they might like) than they are to obtain them by going into a bookshop. They get their word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and blogs, not from booksellers.

    Kev: I don’t think we’re talking about whether or not sf is one thing, but rather about the extent to which the sf audience is one thing; and my sense is that it’s much more balkanised than it used to be. You could argue that this is a function of many things — expansion of the market, say, or the fact that there are no writers identifiably central to the field any more, only writers central to bits of the field — but I would be surprised if you argued that it hasn’t happened. And some of today’s audiences are highly visible within the field (say, the Wiscon audience), and some of them (say, the slashdot audience under discussion) are more visible from outside the field, and (I think) less tapped than they might be as a result.

  8. Niall, Gabe: whoops, sorry — crossed wires, and mistaken contexts. It looked (at first) like a classic “let’s you and he fight” moment. So let me apologize too, and let’s all calm down.

    SF indeed isn’t one thing, and neither is the audience. There are, I think, audiences who would read if they had a way to find books that relate to their interests, but who are effectively cut off from the “literary” end of things. (And there are audiences who won’t ever read, but there’s not a lot of point in worrying about them.)

    Steve Stirling raised an interesting point over on my blog, in that he’s explicitly trying to target the neo-pagan market. (“Right wing mil-SF author in Pagan horror!” You can see the Sun headline from here.) He made the point that the number of neo-pagans in the US is growing at roughly 50% per decade, and they buy 5-10 times as many books per capita as the general public. If that’s his target audience I take my hat off to him — it’s not an audience *I* can go after but I think the effects may be … interesting …

    But anyway: yes, Balkanization. And yes, I keep getting fan mail from geeks who discover me, rave about how I’m the hottest thing since they discovered SNOW CRASH, and immediately went out to buy everything else I’d written, because they’re not finding much that speaks to their interests. The idea that there’s no centre to the market any more is an interesting one.

    (Need more coffee. Back later.)

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