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August 3, 2008 5:20 PM   Subscribe

Warren Ellis on the grim future of science fiction magazines. Some of the previous posts he mentions, and response to one from Cory Doctorow (unsuprising short summary: Blogs!). Jason Stoddard on 5 small things and 5 big things Science Fiction can do to improve its image.
posted by Artw (66 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
And thus the irony: speculative fiction is being killed by advances in technology. Science fiction magazines are becoming obsolete.
posted by Class Goat at 5:25 PM on August 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

Ringtones? What on earth would a science fiction ringtone be?
posted by jokeefe at 5:37 PM on August 3, 2008

Fantasy and Science Fiction is still publishing? And Analog as well? I haven't seen a copy of those since the 70s... huh.
posted by jokeefe at 5:40 PM on August 3, 2008

The linked Helix flap is very Orson Scott Card - The short summary: Helix editor William Sanders wrote a rejection letter using the term “sheet heads.” (The rejected story included Muslim characters and dealt with terrorism.)
posted by Artw at 5:49 PM on August 3, 2008

The problem with SF publishing is that sexy teenage vampire bodice-rippers sell books and wanky dystopian doorstops by cranially-perforated art school dropouts pass as literary achievements.

Oh, we're talking about magazines. Never mind. They still publish Analog? How quaint.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:00 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Considering that the Internet has been as big a boon to sci-fi and fantasy geeks as anyone, it's hardly lamentable that sci-fi magazines, which were never exactly a thriving genre of periodical anyway, are "dying."
posted by decoherence at 6:01 PM on August 3, 2008

Warren Ellis on the grim future of science fiction magazines. Some of the previous posts he mentions, and response to one from Cory Doctorow (unsuprising short summary: Blogs!)

If you look at the market for just plain ol' fiction magazines, SciFi mags have managed to buck the trend by hanging on for as long as they have. I'm wary of pretty much any pronouncements Ellis has regarding periodical sales, considering he's still making his living churning out pamphlets.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 6:05 PM on August 3, 2008

This isn't about science fiction; it's about writing. The number of publishers has shrunk dramatically through consolidation and those remaining are more interested in provable profits than developing the art. So they publish total crap by celebrities and washed-up but known authors and won't even read anything that comes in over the transom.

These short-sighted fools are in turn killing their own industry because people have become conditioned to expect crap when they buy fiction and they get ever more tired of being disappointed.

Back in the late 80's there was a neat startup called Aboriginal SF that was grooming some really good writers who couldn't get a sniff at any of these other markets. It was just hitting its stride when the owner's parents got sick and the care costs drove them to bankruptcy. Haven't seen anything like it since.

Of my web-published trunk novel one person wrote, "everyone who turned this down for publication is an idiot." Considering that I have received over a thousand emails and several thousands of dollars in unsolicited tips for it, I'd say he is probably right. I just have to wonder how many other books are out there, moldering like mine was for so long because there simply isn't any entryway into the industry any more.
posted by localroger at 6:12 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ringtones? What on earth would a science fiction ringtone be?

If we're all ready on the Dark Side of the Moon... play the five tones.
posted by WPW at 6:18 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I still buy Asimov's and Analog because they are the ideal format for reading while standing in the metro. As a reader, what is really killing these mags is the bad stories they publish. I just enjoyed reading Ted Kosmatka's Divining Light in Asimov's, but for such a terrific story about science, there is so much rubbish or misplaced stuff, like crime stories with rockets, plain dreamy pathos drama or princess and dragons fantasy with time machines. Disgusting. Is it really too much to expect a respect for Science in Science Fiction?

Ellis points out that they don't pay much, so it may be the reason why talented authors publish elsewhere. My point is that if these publications had great stories, they would find a home and a market on any medium.
posted by bru at 6:59 PM on August 3, 2008

I haven't seen or read any of those magazines in over twenty years. But lately I've been enjoying short-story anthologies of material written in the fifties and sixties. A lot of good stories don't need to be expanded to novel length, and would suffer from the attempt. Plus, when you read a bad or mediocre one, at least you haven't made a several-hundred page investment of time.

As far as online publishing goes, I don't enjoy reading long-ish stories on screen. Stories formatted for a portable device would be okay (until the battery runs low!), but I think specialized devices such as the Kindle are economically and environmentally wasteful, with the speed of obsolescence of electronics. A multi-function portable such as the iPhone or iPod Touch would be more useful. Even then, screen resolutions can't match printed type.
posted by D.C. at 7:27 PM on August 3, 2008

In a weird coincidence, I was at the boxstore today and picked up that "Year's Best SF" comp and read the intro. What caught my eye was a line that roughly said "this was a good year for SF -- none of the major publishers folded and both of the magazines are still publishing." Sad but true.
posted by smackfu at 7:32 PM on August 3, 2008

("boxstore"? What the hell fingers?)
posted by smackfu at 7:32 PM on August 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

The next big thing in SF: Cory Doctorow to publish a novel which contains no vowels.
posted by the_bone at 7:38 PM on August 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

What's missing in current sci-fi is a sense of wonder, and the science.

I read a lot of popular science non-fiction, and I still also pick up science fiction novels. There's a lot more wonder in a Dawkins or Pinker or Jared Diamond non-fiction book than in much of the current sci-fi.

And the science is missing; as someone who makes his living writing software, I know a little about computers and programming and how code is written. Most of current sci-fi gets all three wrong, and in a cringe-inducing way. (Charles Stross's Halting State, which I read last week, doesn't get it wrong and makes for a good read, but it also doesn't get as nearly in-depth about computation as the title suggests and I had hoped.)

There's so much wonder in biology, in computation, in physics, but instead we seem to get vampires and princesses and rehashed Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur's court, and their cousin the alternative time-line. Perhaps it reflects a dissatisfaction with our present, a fear that science hasn't lived up to its promise to save us or perfect us, or is seen to consist only of warnings against cancer or doomsaying about global warming, or is even hastening our demise. Maybe it reflects the disdain in which Americans hold science and science funding. Maybe it's a desire to return to (an idealized) past to correct or avoid a present that feels like a failure of all our ideals, and a future in which the American Century and American dream will both yield to versions Made in China.

Whatever the reason, there's no wonder, no science, but lots of exposition. Pages of explanation do less to populate an exotic world than throw-away hints: I read John Brunner's 1983 novel The Crucible of Time a few weeks ago, and one thing that makes it a delight is that the alien race is never explicitly described; it's only by the characters' off-hand remarks you realize that they're aliens and in fact some sort of squids. Heinlein was masterful at this, e.g., the use of the word "cubic" rather than "square-footage" in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress both tells you that the locale isn't Earth, and also about the effect of teh environment on the human culture there. In current sci-fi, lectures and tedious scene-setting too often replace this deftness.

Some authors just write good stories: there's nothing by Iain M.Banks I haven't liked. And some do invoke real science: Greg Egan particularly is able to make cutting-edge content also gripping fiction -- not that you can find him in most American bookstores. Stephen Baxter's collaborations with Arthur Clarke were all fun reads, as was Baxter's Evolution, but Baxter's other books have been too strange (but lacking wonder) to move me.

But I find that many of the sci-fi novels I've picked up recently, I just haven't bothered to finish, or have finished grudgingly and with no real interest. And that's strange for me, because my signal flaw as a reader is that I want to see how a story ends, even to the detriment of reading it closely and enjoying its subtleties.

With much of the current crop of sci-fi, I find that by the end of a novel my sense of wonder hasn't been stimulated, and I just don't care anymore. Non-fiction does provide the wonder and the science, and so more and more, that's what I'm reading instead.
posted by orthogonality at 7:52 PM on August 3, 2008 [13 favorites]

the_bone writes "The next big thing in SF: Cory Doctorow to publish a novel which contains no vowels."

If it also contains no consonants, it'll be his best novel ever.
posted by orthogonality at 8:09 PM on August 3, 2008 [10 favorites]

orthagonality: My impression is not many contemporary sci-fi writers really understand modern science too well. They use old science to lend their books -- essentially just fantasy tales -- a sheen of science and tech without bothering to really grapple with today's science in a serious way. Could it be that science has gotten so complex and specialized that few people with any storytelling ability also have the requisite knowledge and understanding to look at today's science and make creative extrapolations from it? Richard Powers is one person who comes to mind who might be an exception. Strangely, though, he never seems to be grouped as a sci-fi writer.
posted by decoherence at 8:20 PM on August 3, 2008

To me, science fiction increasingly looks as reactionary as fantasy.
posted by Slothrup at 8:35 PM on August 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

orthogonality: the sad fact is, the stuff you're complaining about sells. (If it didn't sell, the publishers wouldn't buy it, and it wouldn't be clogging up your bookstore shelves. Right?) More to the point, it's also bloody hard to write hard SF about near-future whatevers in this day and age. The future we're living in -- the future of the 1950s -- turns out to have so many extra fields of scientific research and technological development that it's virtually impossible for one human being to keep current in all of them. As for the small-c conservativism in so much contemporary SF, that's a matter for another discussion (but I'd just like to note that it's a cultural thing, and it's telling that so many of the authors you mention enjoying the work of this decade are not American).

Going back to the topic in hand, though, I should like to note that right now the two highest-paying short fiction markets for SF -- Baen's Universe and -- pay about five times as much per kiloword as the established pulp mags (Analog, Asimov's, F&SF). There's a sign, here, about the viability of distribution channels and markets; the big three mags are already available in ebook form via, and I suspect if Dell Magazines would retarget them as all-electronic publications (shedding their dead tree magazine distributors, who eat about 70% of the cover price) they might well remain viable and be able to pay their contributors a higher word rate.

As a viable large-scale market, the SF magazine field actually sank in 1957; what Warren is complaining about is the unseemly way the survivors in the last lifeboat are eating the corpses. But that, again, is another story.
posted by cstross at 8:51 PM on August 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

You know who's good? Ted Chiang.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:54 PM on August 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh yes. He's just got the one book though hasn't he? But each and ever story in it is just incredibly imaginative and well done and goes in a completely different direction, not just from regular SF, but from every other story in the book.
posted by Artw at 8:58 PM on August 3, 2008

I'm not a sci-fi reader, but what made that interesting to me is how similar it sounds to my own niche, crime fiction. Short genre fiction is no way to make money these days, and while one good print mag has started in the last year or so (Out of the Gutter), the print world is mostly the dinosaurs of Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock, both owned by the same company and read by absolutely no one I know. There's a nice online scene, but very few ways to get noticed by the outside world.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:04 PM on August 3, 2008

Artw: Just the one book, and a newish 2008 Hugo-and-Nebula-winning short story titled The Merchant & The Alchemist's Gate (full text @ FS&F).
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:10 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes, Ted Chiang is amazing. He's only published about 10 stories, and every one is fantastic.

Also great are Charles Stross, Rudy Rucker, Ken MacLeod, Ian M. Banks, Karl Schroeder, Gene Wolfe, Lucius Shepard, Patrick O'Leary, Greg Egan, Bruce Sterling, Neil Stephenson, Paul DiFilippo, Vernor Vinge, David Langford, Geoffrey A. Landis, and Terry Bisson.

But don't take my word for it. You can sample stories from all these and more via the links at Free Speculative Fiction Online.
posted by straight at 9:31 PM on August 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

The homonculus story, the babel one and the rapture one are particularly outstanding.

(Hell is the Absense of God actually inspired one of my stories - Rapture Ready, 2000 AD #1576, available at clickwheel for $1.99 if you're desperatly curious and can deal with the interface. )

Also great are Charles Stross...

There's a good analysis of Stross here, which I think is slightly overcritical but has some pretty good points. It also nails why A Colder War is far, far better than the laundry books (which I kind of enjoy anyway). Good response from Stross in the comments too.

(and yes, cstross posts here, blah blah blah. )
posted by Artw at 9:51 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

decoherence writes "My impression is not many contemporary sci-fi writers really understand modern science too well. They use old science to lend their books... a sheen of science and tech


Could it be that science has gotten so complex and specialized that few people with any storytelling ability also have the requisite knowledge and understanding to look at today's science and make creative extrapolations from it?"

Not sure about this. One, you can have good science fiction without scientific extrapolation as such; by this I mean thoughtful social extrapolation, or extrapolation on the effects of science. One common-place (that I enjoy immensely if done well) is the novel of the post-apocalypse; others would be, e.g., "what if most people were clones" (Brave New World, Forever War, etc.), or more generally, "how might some established part of the human condition change because of scientific advances" (he War in the Air, any "spacewar" novel, Niven's various stories about the economic effects of teleportation but see alsohis monograph on the science of it), etc.)

But forget that -- there are plenty of areas of well-established, not too complex, that could be mined for great science fiction, but are (as far as I know) ignored. I'll draw examples just from two fields, biology and cognitive psychology.

* Parasites and their multi-host lifecycles are fascinating; I'd love to read a sci-fi novel from the viewpoint of a sentient brain fluke. Perhaps it develops an affection for its host, or even feels protective of it (either or both of which would be evolutionarily advantageous to the brain fluke, as it relies on a healthy host). But of course, the parasite has to move from host to host, possibly killing one host to get to the next. I imagine it rationalizes quite a bit, muttering "all for the common good, this won't hurt a bit". Perhaps the metaphor here is the priest, or politician, or even an animal trainer or the over-protective mother (or the mother living vicariously through her children).

* Or an examination of the culture that mind develop among intelligent, tool-using ichneumon wasps that improbably, of course, lay their eggs in another intelligent species (every sci-fi novel is allowed one improbable starting conceit, so long as its consequences are handled "rationally"); whether the author used this a metaphor for slavery or colonialism or animal rights, it could be fascinating to read.

* Or consider those species of sharks in which the mother develops a litter of embryos which swim inside her uterus. Having no internal milk glands, the several young have only one source of food -- their litter mates. Eventually only one offspring is birthed, having waxed fat on his brothers. Now imagine these sharks sentient, and have therapists to discuss their memories of eat-or-be-eaten juvenile fratricide with, and imagine a Jesus figure among them -- complete with the ritual cannibalism of the Holy Communion ("this is my flesh...."). Or imagine a human Catholic missionary priest preaching the Gospel to them.

And so forth. All the three examples above are uncontroversial,simple science. No real math beyond the implied Trivers's reciprocal altruism, and nobody has to explicate that. Just imagine and extrapolate the cultures that might develop if certain animals with interesting biological quirks were intelligent.

(This comment's gotten too long, so I'll leave off the examples from cogpysch.)

My point is simply, there's plenty of scientific grist out there, if anyone has the imagination to mill it, and much of that science isn't too difficult or too abstract o too specialized for a non-lazy layperson author to grasp. But, well, vampires and cliches sell, I guess.
posted by orthogonality at 9:53 PM on August 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

orthogonality - Have you read Bloodchild by Octavia Butler? if not I think you'd like it.
posted by Artw at 9:58 PM on August 3, 2008

orthogonality: I know those are just examples, but if you haven't already, check out Vernor Vinge's short story "Original Sin". It's biology-inspired SF that hinges on a nifty inversion of cliché.
posted by teraflop at 10:03 PM on August 3, 2008

There's so much wonder in biology, in computation, in physics, but instead we seem to get vampires and princesses and rehashed Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur's court, and their cousin the alternative time-line.

To me, this sounds like "The problem with science fiction is that it's being tainted by fantasy." I think the best response to that is Hal Duncan's great rant in which he describes science fiction and fantasy as overlapping families:

The families have been intermarried from the Year Dot, fucking and fighting for centuries, coming together at weddings and funerals only to split and feud over insignificant insults, slight differences of opinion blown up out of all proportion[...] But for all the bickering and backstabbing, the talk of this side of the family and that side of the family, the gene pool is too mixed, I'd say to talk about SF and Fantasy as different forms, different genres, in an analytically rigorous way. Formally, we can talk about Space Opera, Technothriller, Epic Fantasy, Swords and Sorcery, because these are qualitatively distinct; but if SF includes Dune and Fantasy includes Gormenghast... I mean, where's the magic in Gormenghast, and isn't Dune chock full of it? Priests and prophecies. A drug that lets you warp reality, gives you visions of the future. Monsters and messiahs. And what's the most fantastical idea in Gormenghast? A really big house.

Also, I agree with those who say the energy in the field is shifting from paper magazines to online publications. There's plenty of good speculative fiction being published online, and you can read it for free!

And at least one science fiction magazine is evolving in response to the changing climate; Apex Digest recently announced that they were shifting from print to online publication, with a corresponding raise in the rate they pay writers.
posted by overglow at 10:06 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Artw writes "orthogonality - Have you read Bloodchild by Octavia Butler? if not I think you'd like it."

No, but thanks. So the ichneumon wasp thing's been done.

teraflop writes "Vernor Vinge's short story 'Original Sin'"

Yes, I should have mentioned Vinge as on of the authors I consistently enjoy. I just wish he'd write more.
posted by orthogonality at 10:11 PM on August 3, 2008

Fledgeling may also be of interest, though, um, it's got vampires in it.

Actually the biology thing made me think of Peter Watts, but, um, guess what.
posted by Artw at 10:27 PM on August 3, 2008

Artw writes "Actually the biology thing made me think of Peter Watts, but, um, guess what."

Yeah, but with an almost plausible explanation for them. 's odd; I like what he's trying to do -- work in cutting edge cogpysch -- but the novel kind of dragged and so I didn't finish it. Is it worth going back to, Art?
posted by orthogonality at 10:37 PM on August 3, 2008

Blood Music by Greg Bear had some neat biology-porn in it too.
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:44 PM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

S'alright - It's got some creepy bits that kind of stick with you - anything to do with vampires being absolutely the least of them, but TBH I preferred the powerpoint. I'll check out his "newer" (re-released older) books on the basis of it.
posted by Artw at 10:46 PM on August 3, 2008

I'm in no way an expert in biology, but Joan Slonczewski seems to do a good job of dealing with biology in her books, once you get over her extremely annoying naming of characters after semi-precious gems. Don't let the dumb names (and dumb titles - "Brain Plague"? Really?) stop you from reading her surprisingly good books.

Likewise, don't let the floral and jazz references stop you from reading the books of Kathleen Ann Goonan.
posted by smartyboots at 10:47 PM on August 3, 2008

smartyboots - A Door Into Ocean is stunning. I suspect the "feminist SF" tag it's picked up helps or hinders it depending on the audience, but it really is quite excellent in it's own right.
posted by Artw at 10:50 PM on August 3, 2008

This isn't about science fiction; it's about writing. The number of publishers has shrunk dramatically through consolidation and those remaining are more interested in provable profits than developing the art. So they publish total crap by celebrities and washed-up but known authors and won't even read anything that comes in over the transom.

It would be impossible to read everything that comes in (or came in) over the transom for the big publishing companies. Many, many people who may or may not be good writers (here's a hint, most are the latter) pack up a print out of their newly finished (or excerpts of their unfinished) novels and mail it off to whatever companies have published the books sitting on their shelves. Sometimes they look at the submission guidelines (assuming those are even there anymore), but usually they don't. The man-hours it would have taken to read everything that came in would have made doing anything else impossible. It is a lot of work for them to read everything that comes in through agents, let alone unsolicited submissions. And of course there's no point in reading just some of what comes in.

These short-sighted fools are in turn killing their own industry because people have become conditioned to expect crap when they buy fiction and they get ever more tired of being disappointed.

See, the problem with your enraged-author-rant is that it's not really "their own" industry anymore. Every single major publishing house is own by a media conglomerate. Thus the parent corporations are the ones driving the search for profits, and Borders and Barnes and Noble only exacerbate this problem. Even though the people working in the actual publishing companies care about books and want to publish the best books possible, and would like to take a long view of things, surviving off of back list and taking risks on great art that may not sell well more often than they do, they can't do that because the parent companies put people who know more about books than profits in charge (think the Alec Baldwin character in 30 Rock), and even if that weren't the case, the big chain bookstores' emphasis on turnover and bestsellers means that they'd have a difficult time, at best, getting all those great books to readers. Because it's not like publishing is profitable enough to spend a lot of money on advertising; what advertising you see is only affordable to them due to their focused drive for profits.

The problem is with modern consumer culture, not with the publishing companies. They're doing the best they can. I mean, look at this little press release: Based on preliminary figures from U.S. publishers, Bowker is projecting that U.S. title output in 2007 increased slightly to 276,649 new titles and editions, up from the 274,416 that were published in 2006. That's a complaint. The business folks are upset that there wasn't more growth.

Now think about that for a second. That's... a lot of fucking books. Sure, the majority of those are non-fiction titles of various sorts, but there's a ton of fiction titles in that number. That number every year. Of new titles. You say "I just have to wonder how many other books are out there, moldering like mine was for so long because there simply isn't any entryway into the industry any more." I guarantee you that there are more than you think, that the number of books actually being published is a tiny, tiny fraction of the number of books that people want to publish. So try to, just for a moment, imagine the pressure of try to sort through the chaff to find the wheat, something that will both sell (because that's what your bosses want) and also something that is awesome (because that's what you want; not that you don't want it to sell, too, because what good is it if it's awesome if no one reads it). Then think about how to get your book, or you handful of books, into the readers hands, instead of one of the 274,415 other books being published this year. And then think about how many people in America don't read at all; I bet you can find numbers. I bet you are acquainted with more people who don't read, or at least don't read more than a handful of books each year, than you are with people who read voraciously.

And it's also worth noting that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of small, independent publishing companies out there, doing good work, publishing things that they hope will allow them to survive another year, but also trying to publish works of merit; sometimes doing better than the big publishers, sometimes not. How many frustrated authors don't even know about them, let alone send their amazing book in? How many authors who have written more execrable piles of crap than you can possibly imagine happen to find these small publishers and send their horrid manuscripts in without more than glancing at the submission guidelines, choking them, too, with needle-in-the-haystack slush piles which they can't even get agents to sort through for them? After all, they can't afford to pay the big advances that agents demand, meaning that much of the good stuff goes to the big publishing companies, who subsequently shoot it down because they're already publishing three books like that this year, or because it was hot last year but not selling anymore. It's sort of like diving into a meat grinder.

Publishing sucks, dude. Publishers take it from both ends. They're doing their best, and they're doing it because they love books and they love reading. A publisher never picks up a manuscript and says, "What sort of shit do I have to look at now?" They pick it up thinking, "Man, I hope this is awesome." They want to publish your book. They would publish all books if they could, but they can't. I am of course generalizing, but this is the attitude of more than not. Some publishing professionals are douches, of course, just like some members of every field, but working in publishing isn't something you do because you want to make money hand over fist, because you don't.
posted by Caduceus at 10:53 PM on August 3, 2008 [8 favorites]

The homonculus story

posted by homunculus at 11:26 PM on August 3, 2008

I guess around here I should have spelled that right around here.

The stories conciet is esentially that preformationism is true (also some stuff about golems) - it goes some neat places from there.
posted by Artw at 11:33 PM on August 3, 2008

Two words, people: TEK WARS
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:41 PM on August 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

orthagonality: My impression is not many contemporary sci-fi writers really understand modern science too well.

I think, yeah, something like this might be an issue. Since the whole transhumanism and The Singularity ideas have come up, many more traditional ideas like people in meat form flying around the galaxy in physical spaceships seem sort of quaint compared to what can be imagined. Thusly these ideas become more like fantasy, as noted above.

Some authors get this and run with it: Mssrs. cstross and localroger quite excellently. Vernor Vinge and Banks for some authors not on Metafilter.

An interesting facet is that these transhumanist ideas posit that current humans could understand a true piece of transhumanist fiction about as much as an ape can understand Shakespeare, and so the stories work around this. Stross' Accelerando starts with the transitional period and by the latter parts the characters are the left-behind remnants. Vinge has an Anti-Singularity Field established in the galaxy like humans establish a national park, or time travel to the future allowing humans to observe the aftereffects of a Singularity where everyone seems to have departed for higher planes. Localroger and Banks' main universes have higher-level intelligences keeping human-scale intelligences around because the former are nice guys.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:43 AM on August 4, 2008

I just finished looking over my booksheves containing some fifty year old SF paperbacks (the ones that have not come apart yet),and hardcovers I bought after I became gainfully employed. I certainly see a trend away from space opera and hard SF toward fantasy, with maybe a few exceptions in C.J Cherryh, David Weber, Elizabeth Moon. The shift in my buying seems to have happened twenty, twentyfive years ago.

Some of the authors in my shelves defy pigeonholing. Where would you put Roger Zelazny "Amber" series? Or Gordon Dixon "Dorsai" books? Very little science in eiter one. I also see a big shift from male autors to female authors. The only female in the early days seems to be James Tiptree, while now most of the books I buy in the SF/Fantasy genre are written by females.

As for those SF magazines, I'll wait until I have grandchildren old enough to read SF. Those lurid embarassing!
posted by francesca too at 2:54 AM on August 4, 2008

I loved science fiction when I was a teenager. I liked it in my twenties. I dabbled in it in my thirties and now that I am in my forties I am nostalgic for the days when I was foolish enough to fall for that shit. I've read too many good books now to have the patience to suffer through the near eternal punishment of finding good science fiction. Reading science fiction is like following US politics. So much promise, so little delivery.
posted by srboisvert at 3:33 AM on August 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

There's a good discussion over at Tor.Com, where the point is made that we're currently lacking an accepted, mass-market avenue for short fiction. Quote:
"Unfortunately, we're missing one thing that Hugo [Gernsback] had... by the time he launched Amazing Stories, magazines were well-tested and widely adopted. We don't have e-readers or similar devices that have attained that level of market acceptance. Our distribution model is incomplete."
I think this is pretty on the money. Outside of early-adopter nerds, I don't know anyone who would a) fiddle around with the mess of formats and readers out there to read a book on their phone or PDA or b) buy a Kindle/eBook reader.

I know a ton who will download Battlestar Galactica off iTunes and watch it on the way to work though.

I think there's a much bigger discussion to be had about the constantly shifting balance between broadcast media (stuff you watch or listen to) and everything else (stuff you have to make an effort to engage with), that may be outside the scope of this thread. But from experience, I know that I find it much easier to take 45 minutes out to watch an episode of a new SF show than I do to pick up an issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, or Interzone. I have a stack of a year's worth of F&SF and Interzones that I've barely touched. Some of that is down to the fact that I just don't like a lot of the stories (I don't quite know why, but the short fiction I see in the magazine markets never seems to match the really interesting stuff I see in novels). There's also the generally shocking cover art for F&SF, which is straight out of 1920's dime-store paperback hell, and does little to dispel cliches about SF fans generally, or attract new readers.

I've been downloading SF novels through CC-licensing, and also some of the stuff Tor.Com have released, and personally I love it. I can normally burn through a good piece (let's see, cstross's latest clocks in at novellete length at a little over 12,000 words) in a day - half an hour on the train to work, half an hour or so over lunch and half an hour on the train home, plus all the interstitial 'waiting for a bus' moments. Plus the Tor ones have audio readings too.

The magazine delivery format came about at a very specific time, and for very specific reasons. Rising literacy rates, cheap paper, cheap transport and a genuine hunger for fantastic stories, fuelled by an exponential rate of technical progress. The rate of progress is still with us, but it's become everyday. The cheap paper and cheap transport are clearly gone.

We're not there yet with eBook delivery. Either it'll be a significant advancement in e-Paper or something similar that imitates the look, feel and hardiness of paper books and magazines, or it'll be something entirely different (in-eye contact readouts?). Print magazines, in their current form anyway, are doomed, I think. The people behind them almost certainly won't be, if they take a look at the options and start working on it. And as long as they're still stuck with the incredible workload and tribulations of running print magazines, it will be difficult for them to do that.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:49 AM on August 4, 2008

Just reading this thread it occurs to me how many different things people want from science fiction. Some people want rigorous science, some people want a sense of wonder, some people want social commentary, some people want adventure set in space. Ted Chiang's stories are intellectually fascinating, but the characterization and emotional content were so stunted and perfunctory that they left me cold. Mostly I want a novel that is interesting in the ways that novels in other genres are interesting, but that is also set in an interesting future. So, if science fiction can be said to encompass all of these things, then it makes sense that each issue of Asimov's or F&SF might have just one story that really gets at what you like about science fiction.

And maybe Analog's has hung on as well as it has because they publish such a specific kind of story that if you like that kind of story, you'll be a devoted fan.

All that said, who buys short fiction any more? It's not so much a problem of science fiction as a genre, as a problem that people don't read short stories in any genre.
posted by Jeanne at 4:38 AM on August 4, 2008

What about the media-tie in section that lurks, ever growing in the past 15 years, at the back of your average Borders' SciFi/Fantasy section? I'm not saying most of that stuff is good, but it seems to be a growing market that can help get new authors published and established before branching off into their own settings. Same could (almost) be said of fanfiction.

There's one author, Dan Abnett, that I really enjoy. He writes mainly in the Warhammer 40k setting (though I have seen his name on a, ungh, Torchwood title) and most of his stuff is really good military hard SciFi. I can only assume that every morning when Dan wakes up a small army of Games Workshop employees are busy cooking breakfast in bed for him, fetching his slippers, and offering to do whatever else it takes to keep him happy and not branching out into his own works. Were he to make the jump, I'd follow in a moment.

I think the fantasy author Naomi Novak got her start in fanfiction/MMORPG writing. I'm reluctant to point to her as her Tremiere series has gone to total crap in the most recent volumes, but she does show there's a vector for getting into the business outside of SciFi magazines.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:48 AM on August 4, 2008

I was an avid F&SF and Asimov reader for years and years. I don't know what it is, but I'm less and less interested in what's being published. There's the obvious rehashed sword and sorcery, orphan goes on a journey and learns he can control the world and author thinks he's hit on a money-making series that I just avoid. And there's the equally wretched cyberpunk formulaic BS that consists of nounds turned into verbs mixed with the ennui of a 500 channels but nothing on cable subscriber. But the rest....dunno if it is me at 51 or just the genre in particular there isn't a lot left that I find satisfying anymore.
posted by paddbear at 7:04 AM on August 4, 2008

ugh -- I hit the wrong key--here's a bit more.

I've had cataracts for the past year or so that have made reading very difficult without aids. (Getting removed this month.) Maybe that's why I'm not enjoying what I've been reading? I don't know. But I miss the excitement of seeing a new issue at the newstand, buying it and planning on enjoying it slowly.

posted by paddbear at 7:07 AM on August 4, 2008

turgid dahlia writes "Blood Music by Greg Bear had some neat biology-porn in it too."

It does. But after reading Darwin's Radio I decided never again to waste my time reading anything by Greg Bear.
posted by orthogonality at 8:09 AM on August 4, 2008

I don't know about you, but Flurb is ten kinds of awesome.

posted by Freen at 8:41 AM on August 4, 2008

What about the media-tie in section... I'm not saying most of that stuff is good

Sometime last year, I was amazed to find a Warhammer anthology penned by none other than Ian Watson. Lesser authors may suddenly have dived into the sanctity of some awful non de plume, but there again few have less to prove than the author behind The Jonah Kit.
posted by specialbrew at 8:43 AM on August 4, 2008

The problem with SF publishing is that sexy teenage vampire bodice-rippers

...Um. I'm sorry. I, I kinda spaced out for a second there...what were you saying?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:57 AM on August 4, 2008

optovox writes "And after it's published, it will mysteriously and inexplicably vanish from existence."

You forgot the ironic quote marks around "published". ;)
posted by orthogonality at 9:09 AM on August 4, 2008

I'm actually surprised that any magazines are still going, never mind sf lit ones. Not when you can get most of their content for free on the internet. And for public transport - where was where I used to read magazines you've got podcasts to listen to. In fact while I tend to dip in and out of them, in recent years, I've to listened to far more short stories from various podcasts than I've read anywhere else. I used to read Interzone every month for years but I gradually came round to the fact that the stuff it was publishing didn't interest me anymore.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:00 AM on August 4, 2008

A lot of British authors have written Warhammer tie-in novels or short fiction, including novels by Kim Newman and Brian Stableford, and short fiction by Nicola Griffith, Paul McAuley, and cstross.

The SF magazines are slowly dying, and I'm just surprised none of them have gone under already. I might miss them if there weren't an increasing number of online 'zines putting out good short fiction, many of them run by people who are not as offensive as William Sanders, and if they pay more for short fiction than the print mags all the better - no one can make a living from short fic any more, but if there's a greater financial incentive for my favourite authors to write some short fiction instead of more novels, that's good for me.
posted by penguinliz at 10:09 AM on August 4, 2008

Not sure if this post is still on anyone's radar, but I wanted to share this exchange when I told Jason Stoddard (disclosure: boss, friend, member of same writing group) that he was in a FPP:

ME: Dude, you're in a front page post on Metafilter.

JASON: Holy shit!

ME: You're in the Intartubes!

JASON: I AM the Intartubes.

ME: Then what's in them?


...which is probably true, since Jason and I talk about the problem of getting published when the number of name publishers dwindles. The Big Three mags have been slow to embrace online publishing at their own peril; they need to cultivate not only a new readership but new writers. Why not do both through a lower-paying online arm? New writers get put onto, say, F&SF's site at reduced pay rates (or revenue sharing or whatever the hell they decide), where they benefit from editorial and audience feedback so they can grow as writers. New readers get to connect over the new stories, get to share links and Mobipocket files and whatever else, get to read cool new stuff. We cranked out a big-ass business plan two years ago for something like this that we had to abandon in its embryonic stages, but seeing things like the new Tor site give me hope that someone will get it right. Throw in some fast publishing from something like MagCloud, and who knows?
posted by RakDaddy at 10:19 AM on August 4, 2008

Of course there is the idea of Mundane SF, using what we know about science, no FTL travel or communication, no time travel, etc. Ian McDonald wrote a great bit about the pluses and minuses of this.

And a plug for Ian McDonald here, especially the chaga series.
posted by Hactar at 11:46 AM on August 4, 2008

But after reading Darwin's Radio I decided never again to waste my time reading anything by Greg Bear.

Oh yeah. That made me go all D-:
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:36 PM on August 4, 2008

Well, I'm largely convinced that the primary distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy is that science fiction writers and fans have misplaced pretensions about being faithful to "science." I've not read a science fiction novel yet that didn't have a whopping plot device that required the same kind of suspension of disbelief that is required of J. K. Rowling's Potter novels, and these days I consider "The Singularity" to be in the same spot that cheap interstellar travel occupied 20 years ago. Interstellar travel is a huge McGuffin and the primary division is between slow (Alastair Reynolds/Robert Reed) that uses impossible energies to shove big ships filled with practically immortal humans, or fast (Herbert, leGuin, Tepper, Star Trek) which has mostly ordinary humans making impossible jumps between solar systems.

And ultimately, it doesn't matter. Asimov got both sociology and computation badly wrong, but Foundation and Robots are good reads. Lathe of Heaven is wonderful even with its impossibility. Dune doesn't even pretend to pose a plausible explanation for interstellar travel. What's important is that the characters come to accept the impossibilities of the setting as the way things are.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:01 PM on August 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

What Caduceus said. Furthermore:

The magazines are indeed the walking dead. This didn't used to be the case. Science fiction has been killed by its own red-headed step-child, the Internet. It's pretty funny in a way.

I loved sf as a kid and wrote shitloads of it, trying to be published, which I finally succeeded in doing in 1973 and have done sporadically since then. Selling that first story was like winning the World Series for a book-lover like me. But I gradually became disenchanted with the genre over a period of time. For one thing, I am not really interested in fantasy, and a lot of sf has become that. (Yes, yes, it always was; I know.) For another thing, I like poking around the internet and reading about real-time science as opposed to having to get it out of older books or even monthly peridoicals. I don't have as much leisure time as I used to, and I tend not to read much fiction anymore. If I do, I am reading "mainstream" fiction for the most part -- what sf fans used to call (and still do, for all I know) mundane.

I am still writing, probably more than ever, and I think I am a much better writer than I was, but I am writing historical fiction now. I was a member of SFWA for many years but I let my membership lapse because I just got bored. I write a regular music review column for, so I am sort of still involved with the genre. All on all, though, I'd rather write mysteries or even supernatural thrillers. I hardly ever read much recent sf. I can't help it, I just love the old-time story-tellers like Sturgeon, Heinlein, Knight, etc. My daughter bought me the latest Year's Best Sf a few months ago and I haven't even cracked the thing. I think there's a Greg Egan story in it, though, and I like him (stupefying original concepts, like the guy who keeps waking up in a new body every day because his consciousness has become unstuck), so I'll get to it one of thee days.

Do I have an agent just now? No. Have I got book manuscripts piling up? Yes. My own curse is that I write a number of things and have pubished children's books, science fiction, mysteries, fantasy, and more. I don't want to be pigeon-holed so I am having a hard time finding an agent who is interested in more than one thing from me.

As it happens, I love to write, and I'll continue to do it, but science-fiction as a genre and as a business doesn't seem viable unless it's a noise-in-space movie. Oh, I will probably write more of it at some point, because there is some god-awfully cool science out there that should be discussed, as orthogonality notes, but overall it can be worked into other forms of fiction without having the fucking genre label pasted on it.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a deadline.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:39 AM on August 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Way to kill a thread, Guy.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:28 AM on August 6, 2008

Well, firewhatever it's worth I still read a lot of new science fiction and, yes, science fiction short stories. It still seems to be going pretty strong with interesting new ideas and, yes, sometimes that's in science-fictiony science fiction and not new weird, or alt. history or any other kind of mash-up, not that there's anything wrong with that.

I can't say I've EVER read one of the magazines though, and TBH I really don't know why anyone would want to - they're horrifically unappealing - I've bought them, with the vague intention of checking out what it might take to write for them, but even then I never got around to reading them. It's like they've got interest repellent or something. And yes, I read the same stories collected or on the Internet or what-have-you, somehow the same material becomes better there. I guess other people feel the same about reading the floppies of comics before they are collected.

So the magazines, which are an important cog in SF, are dying, and that may be big deal. But I think it's probably a bit much to say that SF itself is going to die out because of that. I suspect, Guy, that it;s just your taste changing, and the quality of current SF is, um, orthogonal to that.

Is the SFWA considered a useful and interesting institution, BTW? I'm only vaguely aware of it as it's been popping up in blogs recently, but it sounds awfully stuffy and dumb. The sort of place you can go to get your "ME AM SCIENCE FICTION WRITER" badge and sit around pretending it's still the 1950s.
posted by Artw at 12:12 PM on August 6, 2008

This is all based on what I've picked up on blogs too, but I think there is a general sense that the SFWA is somewhat outmoded now. There's a lot of differing views and disagreements about that though, and even some people who have been pretty critical of some things the SFWA has done are still members (if I recall correctly, both John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow fit that description). I think the organization is trying to become more relevant, and it seems like they must be useful in some ways beyond self-congratulation and nostalgia if prominent younger writers are willing to join and support them. I've heard that the grievance committee has been really helpful for some people...
posted by overglow at 2:55 PM on August 6, 2008

Two short follow ups from Warren:
Print is not dead
And another thing
posted by Artw at 9:07 PM on August 6, 2008

posted by Artw at 8:25 AM on September 2, 2008

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