Science Fiction Brewed Fresh Daily

It’s September…

…so it’s time for my annual Worldcon/Hugo rant.

I believe that the time has come for us to consider, like it or not, the need for changing the name of the World Science Fiction Convention to something like the World Speculative Fiction Convention, the World Convention for Fantastic Literature, the (to paraphrase Locus’ cover) World Convention of Science Fiction & Fantasy, or something equally as amorphous as the recent criteria for nominating and dispensing the Hugo Awards.

First, let me say that I am not a literary bigot. I’m not claiming that fantasy is, in any way, a literary product inferior to science fiction. About 25% of my fiction reading consists of fantasy, but, when I nominate work for the Hugo Awards, or vote for a nominated work, it would never occur to me to consider fantasy as an option. There is already a World Fantasy Convention and a World Fantasy Award, and they don’t consider science fiction to be eligible. Fantasy has a palpably different internal structure and tradition than science fiction, and its increasingly common inclusion on Hugo ballots is like allowing wolves to compete in an AKC competition; it skews the judging criteria. To drag a bad analogy farther down the road, the inclusion of YA work (fantasy or SF) on Hugo ballots is like tossing puppies into that same competition; puppies are sometimes irresistibly cuter than adult dogs. Lest the dozen or so people who will read this post think I’m ranting about occasional, statistically insignificant aberrations from the putative norm, let me run some numbers here. In the years spanning 1990 -1999 there were ten Hugos for best novel awarded to 10 books that were inarguably science fiction. There were no “borderline” (slipstream, AH, etc.) novels receiving the Best Novel award; each book was straight-up SF. In the following decade, 2000-2009, the ten awards for best novel break down as follows:

Fantasy — 5
Science Fiction — 4
Difficult to categorize — 1 (Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S BALL, which is probably closest in category to Alternate History, which, by association, is most often grandfathered into science fiction, so, if pressed, I’d probably allow that the ten awards split 5:5)

There are probably some people who would argue that one of the awarded fantasy novels, Susanna Clarke’s JONATHON STRANGE & DR NORRELL is also AH. To them I say — if your only reason in writing an alternate history is to introduce magic, Faerie and dragons into Dickensian England then — well, I’m just sayin’.

Additionally, two of the five fantasy books that won the best novel award during the 00s were YA works, so the nominating and voting segments of fandom announced that the most prestigious fan award for science fiction, i.e. the best the genre had to offer, would be bestowed upon a pair of fantasy novels written for adolescents.

In the September, 2009 edition of LOCUS, there are 23 novels reviewed. Seventeen are fantasy.

In the most recent SFBC mailing, fantasy titles outnumber SF titles 2:1. In some mailings, recently, the ratio has been as high as 3:1.

I’m aware of the market forces at work in the publishing industry, and I read the publishing numbers each year. I’m aware of the impact that HP had on YA and, by extension, the already burgeoning fantasy category in general. I also know that the LOTR movie franchise certainly didn’t hurt the consolatory fantasy market. Fantasy is more lucrative than SF at every level from the author up, at the moment, and publishers active in this category won’t be satisfied until every potential reader on the planet is mired, hip-deep, in at least one interminable consolatory fantasy series. I also know that the group of people who nominate and vote for the Hugos each year is probably largely static, and mostly 30-60 years old. And let’s be honest, today’s SF is not your father’s SF — or even your younger self’s SF. It’s darker, meaner, morally ambiguous, considerably more complex, (and frankly, better written), as a rule, than the more optimistic sensawunda-fests that we middle-aged fans remember from our youth. Personally, I celebrate the changes that have occurred in SF literature over the years, but I have a number of friends around my age who would rather retreat into the work of past decades, or, alternately, cross over into the relatively safe territory of fantasy, particularly high or consolatory fantasy, where the rules are fairly predictable and the hobbits usually win. This crossover has been made particularly easy by authors, largely known for writing SF, who have transitioned into writing fantasy occasionally or exclusively. Additionally, some of these same people seem to prefer the relative simplicity of YA work, which I understand is read more by adults than by its target market. I do believe that YA work should be included in consideration for Hugo awards, but I would prefer to see it have its own category.

But, getting back to the point — whether Wolrdcon needs to change its mission statement as a convention dedicated to the literature of science fiction to include fantastic fiction in general — in my opinion, this is a matter of the tail wagging the dog. SF is definitely a subset of fantasy, but it’s my particular, favorite subset. Even though the number of SF titles, as a percentage of all titles published in the U.S. and U.K. has been in a bumpy but general decline over the past few years, there remain far more SF titles published each year than any one individual could ever hope to assimilate over the same period of time. I’ve been told by several older fans and writers who attended Worldcons in the 1950s and 1960s that a dedicated reader could cover almost everything published each year before the convention, and those conventions were legendary. Today there is an exponentially larger amount of genre fiction and media for a yearly convention to draw upon.

And it should be dedicated to science fiction.

Posted in Books & Authors September 17th, 2009 by Shadow