The Critical Journal of the British Science Fiction Association

The New X - Issue 250


Pattern Recognition, by Graham Sleight

It's now a year since I started writing columns for Vector, and looking back I realise the subjects I've picked have dotted around a bit. So, in the retrospective spirit of anniversaries, let me try to step back and put forward a bigger picture of where I'd suggest the speculative fiction field is right now.

First, in North America its homeland as a self-conscious genre science fiction is in relative but not absolute decline. Looking at Locus's figures for original books published in the US, about 250 original sf novels have been published per year since 1990. Fantasy, by contrast, was at about 250 a year in 1990, and is now closer to 400. This is reflected in, for instance, the Hugo results: before Robert Charles Wilson's superb Spin won the Hugo this year, the last time a widely-acclaimed science fiction novel won that award was Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky in 2000. Other wins have either been fantasy novels (Harry Potter, Strange & Norrell) or best explained by the circumstances of a particular Worldcon.

Second, the short-fiction magazines which have historically been the field's proving-ground for writers and ideas are in a sharp circulation decline with no obvious signs that this can be arrested. The Locus figures are sobering: the paid circulations of Analog, Asimov's, and F&SF are currently around 31,000, 21,000, and 19,000 respectively. (Asimov's lost 23% in 2005.) In 1990, the same figures were 80,000, 80,000, and 50,000, and most of these magazines had higher peaks than that in recent memory: Analog spent several years above 100,000 in the 80s. That's not to mention the deaths of any number of venues for short sf Omni, Aboriginal SF, Amazing (repeatedly), and most recently, Ellen Datlow's Scifiction. Even people who are bullish about the continued health of sf have taken to proclaiming at every opportunity, as Gardner Dozois does in the most recent instalment of his Year's Best, "I'm urging everybody who reads these words, if you like there being a lot of short sf and fantasy out there where it can be easily found, to take the time to subscribe to one of the genre magazines ... Subscribe now, however you do it, if you want to help ensure the survival of print sf/fantasy magazines as we know them." Moreover, since the last edition of Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight in 2001, there has been no non-themed anthology series from a US trade publisher a far cry from the 70s days of New Dimensions, Orbit, and Universe.

Third, some of this slack has been picked up by the burgeoning small-press scene in the US. I've gone on in the past about how the barriers to entry for those wanting to publish their own books and magazines have dropped. I think this is one of the reasons for what I identified in Vector 248 as an excessive number of tools in the field for working out its meta-story: year's bests, recommended reading lists, awards, endless blog chatter. Perhaps we need some of this (though not, please, all of it) to make sense of a field which is too diffuse and diverse for any one person to grasp.

Fourth, the small-press scene (and therefore the interests of the young writers coming into the field) is skewed heavily away from what would be considered traditional genre stories. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, the obvious leader of such magazines, publishes almost nothing that would conventionally be recognised as sf and fantasy. The most interesting young American writers, like Kelly Link or M. Rickert, take the tropes of the fantastic for granted, as tokens that neither need to be explained or dwelt on. So we have an increasing body of work which derives its force from its liminality, from the knowledge that, this late in the day, readers knowledgeable in genre protocols respond to stories that play with those protocols.

Fifth, almost none of this applies to the UK. Since, say, 1987 the archetypal UK novel of the fantastic has been the big, slightly-ironic-but-nonetheless-joyful widescreen space opera. (Paul Kincaid suggested a few years ago that US and UK sf have swapped attitudes since the 70s, when we were reading gloomy post-New-Worlds stories of constraint and limitation and Americans were having fun with their tropes. It's a little too neat to be true there's plenty of exuberant US sf, certainly at novel length. But I find it unarguable that most of the genre-mixing work is happening in North America; next time, I'll talk about some of the reasons why it's registered so little over here.)

Sixth, the big success story of the last decade has been Young Adult fiction. I'm not just talking about Harry Potter and Philip Pullman, or even notionally non-fantastic work like Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider books. The establishment of specifically YA imprints like Firebird or Tor Teen represents a series of votes of confidence in this market, that it's going to remain at its current levels of success as do the increasing numbers of YA books by "adult" writers.

Lastly, science fiction and fantasy remain profoundly conservative genres, at least in terms of literary technique and approach. The stylistic experiments of the Moorcock/Ellison new waves of the 60s have been largely rolled back. The default style of an sf novel these days may be cyberpunkishly dense, but it tends to tell a story in a straightforward, beginning-to-end way. (Although this isn't true of some of the genre-mixing US writers I've referred to above: people like Alan DeNiro or Theodora Goss are strongly interested in playing with the formal strctures of their stories.) Similarly, the mainstream's preoccupation with beautifully-turned phrases has, by and large, failed to infect the fantastic. Creators of graceful sentences like Lucius Shepard or John Crowley remain the exception in sf rather than the rule.

Some of this undoubtedly falls into the category of stating-the-bloody-obvious; and I'm sure I've omitted as many trends as I've included. But I think it sets out a few bases for a discussion of where the field might head in the future which I hope to get to in the next couple of columns.

Graham Sleight lives in London and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Strange Horizons and Interzone.

This article first appeared in Vector 250. Back issues of Vector are available from
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