Hunt the Centre

Jeffrey Ford:

Lord knows I’m not exactly an astute observer of the ebb and flow of the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, but I have been looking, if sometimes with glazed eyes, for more than ten years, and in recent months, maybe over the past year, it strikes me that the genre(s) are re-centering. The energy in publishing and I suppose a good deal of the writing and reviewing seems to be flowing back to classic forms and styles. I don’t take this as either positive or negative but merely an evolutionary development. I mean scientific evolution, devoid of the concept of perceived social “progress.” Just as environment shapes organic evolution, I suppose the current fiscal environment is responsible for a part of this. It just makes sense that publishers, in order to stay viable, have to bet on projects and books that they feel certain will have a chance of bringing in some income. The ready cash to take chances has dried up as it has in the greater economy. I see this in the themes of proposed anthologies, in the popularity of certain novels, etc. I’d like to be more specific, but I don’t really give a shit enough about the issue to do the leg work. It’s just a perception I figured I’d throw out there and see what others thought. I’m not of the mind that this says anything about the quality of the fiction being published. It strikes me that there are as many great writers around as there ever were, and many of the newer writers (this is anyone younger than me, and at this point that’s a lot of writers) generally amaze me with their abilities. There are still writers traveling the marchland at the boundaries as there always have been and always will be, but the general energy seems to be flowing again to the center. What do you think? Is this one of those instances where I’m finally getting what has been evident to pretty much everyone or in my own addled way am I on to something? Maybe even the idea that the energy of the genre(s) has ever been anywhere else has been an illusion or delusion. What say ye?

What I say is: how would you go about establishing whether or not this is the case? On the one hand, I guess, you could look at something like the SF Site “Reader’s Choice” lists, comparing, say, 2001 and 2002 with 2006 and 2007.The first two of those lists, which include Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, China Mieville, Jeff VanderMeer, Carol Emshwiller, Kelley Eskridge, and M John Harrison, to my eyes do perhaps look less “centred”, than the latter two. On the other hand, Robin Hobb is there in both 2001 and 2006, and Steven Erikson is in all four lists. You could look at Hugo award shortlists, though I can’t discern any great differences there — and, of course, last year Michael Chabon won with a book that is, for all that it uses a classic form (several forms, even), arguably a boundary case. You could attempt to analyze a list of forthcoming books: I suppose you’d have to control for publisher as well as genre (and sub-genre).

The idea that something of the kind Ford suggests might be happening chimes with three things in my head, though. One is the discussion of “normal” and “revolutionary” sf that Gary Wolfe kicked off on the Locus blog; another is Jonathan McCalmont’s column about a new generation of British sf writers; and the third is the ongoing background concern about “entry-level” sf, or the lack thereof (which overlaps with the ongoing discussion about YA sf, I think). Which is to say, I think, that I’m as interested in what might be driving such a shift — readers or writers or publishers — as I am in the fact of it happening or not. Ford suggests it might be publisher-, and ultimately economy-driven; on the other hand, there are many more sf-focused blogs now than a few years ago, and most of them focus on core genre books, which may give a sense that that aspect of the conversation has got louder. My gut-level response is that, to the extent I see a degree of re-centring in my reading and in the spread of books I’m looking forward to, I see it in the output of genre publishers, but I also see, if anything, an increasing number of mainstream-published sf novels to look forward to: Xiaolu Guo’s UFO In Her Eyes, Toby Litt’s Journey Into Space, and Bernard Beckett’s Genesis, for instance, not to mention a new Margaret Atwood sf novel later this year. All of which is to lead up to an inevitable question: what do you think? We’re probably too close to the issue to really know one way or the other, but let’s speculate.

10 thoughts on “Hunt the Centre

  1. I also think that there’s a problem at the level of the author. the last wave of SF authors is getting older and is also in a financial situation where they need to work a day-job OR produce more than two books a year.

    Both of those are forces that disincentivize innovation and which strengthen the centre at the expense of the more interesting fringes.

  2. This is why it’s the perfect time for a new writer to say “fuck the center,” because these things are cyclical.


  3. Niall: Hijacking my post, eh? Actually I was hoping that someone somewhat more in the know than myself might weigh in on it. Thanks. You’ve convinced me that the picture is just too large to get a good handle on. As stated, it is all just an impression to me. I totally agree with JeffV. None of this should have any bearing on what anyone writes. It’s always a good time and has always been a good time to go your own way.

  4. Do I take it from this that you think Ford is right?

    I’m wary of making a generational argument like that; I don’t think you could put Elizabeth Bear and Charles Stross in the “older generation” bracket just yet, and both have a habit of putting out multiple books a year (albeit, I believe, because that’s the only way they can move between genres and styles, by having different books with different publishers, rather than for purely financial reasons). And I’m not sure a financial restriction would disproportionately affect established/older writers as you suggest; it seems to me they could also be more likely than younger writers to be able to take a chance. But I’m speculating about economics I don’t fully understand, here.

  5. They are cyclical, but I’m sure “write what you care about” is solid advice at pretty much any point in that cycle. (And if what you care about is core science fiction of fantasy, fair enough, so far as I’m concerned.)

  6. I agree with the last part of that. I think it’s still worth thinking about, though, for readers and reviewers and publishers as well as writers. We may not be able to see the whole picture, but it’s worth thinking about what picture we want to see.

  7. I’m sure I read Charles Stross saying something about having to write two books a year to make a living, may be on Jonathan’s blog?

  8. You’re right, it’s here. Though I would have sworn I’ve also seen him say something about publishers wanting predictable product, and therefore needing to produce for multiple publishers if he wanted to write both sf and fantasy.

    Hmm. Possibly the threaded comments aren’t going to work with this blog template.

  9. I think he just sold to another publisher, but then had to pretend it was fantasy or some seemingly unnecessary complication!

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