The acoustic version of ‘Appetite’ by Prefab Sprout on the bonus disk that comes with the reissue of their album Steve McQueen is really quite lovely. The Dr Who Christmas Special was rather blah. Peter Beagle is a remarkably talented man. And, I’m not sure what exactly I think of the Nebula nominations issues that are going around at the moment.
Today was supposed to be nose to the grindstone on the copyedits for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Two, which goes to press this coming week. Some work was done, and I finished some interview questions for John Joseph Adams, but didn’t get to do much on my recommended reading essay for Locus, which is due this week. Hmm. Let’s try out some thoughts, while I’m here. First, I think it’s possible that commentators become jaded, so when we turn to do something like assess the year in review, we’re far harsher than the average reader. Like 2006, 2007 seemed a rather so-so year. Yet there were some terrific books and stories published, as there always are. Maybe the real problem is that we’re waiting for the next Neuromancer, the next dramatic change. It’s unpredictable, and may never come. Who knows?
Second, one of the great challenges facing science fiction is that I think we’re losing faith. Science fiction writers in the 1950s might not have believed that what they were writing was the truth, but I bet most of them believed in things like the power of technology to improve our lot in life, that mankind would go to the stars and so on. When I was a kid in 1971 I believed absolutely I would grow up and be a geologist living on Mars. Regardless of whether we go to Mars or not, do people really believe that we’re going to travel to the stars, live off-planet in some romantic wonderland, encounter other cool, groovy but very different lifeforms in a confederation of planets? I honestly doubt that many science fiction writers working today believe it, and I think that is profoundly coloring the kind of science fiction being written right now. When you read new science fiction at the moment, especially when you read a lot of short SF, you see writers searching, looking for something to write about, to make stories out of. It’s a strangely exciting time, but I think it means we can expect sea changes in the type of science fiction that’s published over the next few years.
Third, there are trends out there, I’m just not sure how interesting they are. There’s obviously a huge upsurge in the number of anthologies being published. This is not an intrinsically good or bad thing (it’s happened before), and it doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. A common observation – one that I’ve made myself a number of times – is that original anthologies are the new magazines, the next logical sales contraction down the cycle. The only problem with this as an observation is that there’s very little empirical evidence to support it. Yes, magazine sales are falling and there are fewer professional magazines around. But, not many of the people associated with the magazines are saying they’re less profitable, in fact, I’m sure I saw Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF question exactly this point. The good thing about the upsurge in anthologies is that we’re not being deluged with junk books, as we were in the 1970s by the likes of Roger Elwood. Rather, for the most part, we’re getting solid, well-edited books that reward the adventurous reader. Whether there are enough readers will remain the question. The trend towards more anthologies is coupled with the trend towards both year’s best anthologies and movement anthologies (new weird, steampunk etc). The only thing that I’m confident about here is that this trend will end soon. We can’t, and won’t, support large numbers of these kinds of books for any great period of time. Look for a contraction.
There’s also a common, or reasonably common observation made about the state of the science fiction field that I think I’d now question. On any number of occasions over the past five years I’ve said that we’re living through a golden age of science fiction. That never before in the history of the field has so much great work been published at one time. I’ve come to question that. I do think there’s a staggering amount of work being published and, as a result, only the pickiest of reader would have any trouble keeping themselves interested, engaged, or entertained by the field. But, a golden age? Well, we’ve certainly never seen this much science fiction published before. So, a Golden Age of Quantity maybe, but that’s hardly exciting. I also think we’ve largely done away with the more purple end of the Sfnal spectrum. We are profoundly more competent than we once were. Again, though, a Golden Age of Competence hardly seems the kind of thing you want to trumpet to the stars. What I’ve come to feel after looking at and thinking about close to 15,000 stories of various lengths and types over the past five years, is that we have a core group of terrifically good writers, and they are producing amazing work. But, there’s an incredible signal to noise ratio. In a year where 3,000 stories are published, how many are good and how many are great? I think there are a great many competent, professional stories. Of the three thousand, less than 10% would qualify as interesting. And how many are great? I think if we got ten great stories in a year, we’d be staggeringly lucky. Of course, the only way to know is this is true is to apply time to the question. Let’s see what we remember in ten years time. Of course, what do we remember from ten years ago?
More thoughts soon. What do you think?