Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Notes on the continuing generic crisis

io9 recently noted that science fiction narratives provided 2/3 of Hollywood's grosses in 2008 (at least if you count comics-based narratives).

Meanwhile, as widely reported, the leading commercial sf magazines are in a new wave of hurt (along with huge swaths of the magazine market generally). Dutiful authors supported (directly or indirectly) by such markets renew or restart their subscriptions. How much of the content they will actually read is the question none dare ask. As one who has not been published by such magazines, and always enjoys at least some of the fiction and nonfiction within, I will leave the ongoing debate about the relative faults of content, distribution, or media death to others, and say that dream editors and publishing entrepreneurs like FSF's Gordon van Gelder deserve to succeed. I think sf, broadly viewed, is very healthy, as evidenced by its domination of Hollywood and appropriation by so many great mainstream novelists in recent years. But I think literary sf, which is the hearth of wonder, could probably use a new marketing department (as well as some fresh pollination from sources outside the insular small town of the genre).

Consider the February issue of Asimov's. It has some great content. A sparkling cosmic collaboration between Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling, a rich space opera from Judith Berman, a welcome new story from Turkey City emeritus professor Steven Utley, a new story by grande dame Carol Emshwiller, a cool story from Matthew Johnson, some groovy speculative poetry from David Lunde and others, and some great reviews and short essays. Which makes me want to say, is it too much to ask that it be put in a package as cool as the work within? As in, something other than a wonderless pulp pastiche cover of a space-babe being assaulted by tentacles?

Would you want to be seen reading a magazine with that cover, other than at a science fiction convention? Or, maybe a hentai party? I'm not advocating some kind of literary gentility. But great sf like many of the stories in these magazines is intellectually vibrant and intensely cool. Why can't it be presented in a format that strives for those same qualities? I am sure the answer would be that unironic third-generation pulp covers are essential to keeping the core audience. To which I might ask, where else are they going to go if we try to push the comfort zone a little (and aren't they already leaving anyway)?

(See, e.g., Jayme's post below about Electric Velocipede, and compare the covers.)

Okay, time to go update my subscriptions. If you haven't done so before, disregard the cover, pick one of these up on the newsstand, and see if there isn't something in every one worth your five bucks.


Fantasy & Science Fiction.


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