Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, these are names that conjure up certain images, most of which are probably summed up in “a-sense-of-wonder. What does that mean? Well, in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s when these writers were popular, the United States was going through social and technological upheavals. The kind of fantastic fiction that evolved from pulp magazines, which popularized space travel and aliens, morphed into a genre, which for a time, appealed to many mainstream readers. All of the writers that I’ve listed above, aside from writing about the fantastic, also delved into social commentary and political observation. For example, Heinlein’s “A Stranger in a Strange Land,” has sections that satirize religious hypocrisy and commercial exploitation. “The Puppet Masters” was, on one level, poignant cold war commentary, as well as a SF book about alien invasion. Many such comments can be made about Arthur C. Clarke’s novels, and some Asimov novels, like “The Gods Themselves.” In fact, many “Speculative Fiction” writers of that time wrote best sellers that were read and enjoyed by a wide cross-section of readers with disparate interests and tastes.
A second wave of Speculative Fiction authors came out of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s that took the trend even farther. Writers like Ursula LeGuin, Stanislaw Lem, and Frank Herbert took the SF genre to new heights of social and psychological abstraction. And because these authors were less pulp-like and harder to read, they were not as ubiquitous as their predecessors. But some of these authors became required reading in college courses. I once read a line about Stan Lem’s book, “His Master’s Voice.” “If the king of Sweden believed that SF was literature, Stan Lem would be up for a noble prize,” the piece declared. So what happened in the 90’s and beyond? That is a matter of disagreement, but I have my own spin. The one fact that is not in contention, however, is that SF or Speculative Fiction—not the same things in my opinion, although they have a lot in common—has greatly declined. Some would say that SF has always been a ghetto, with its roots in pulp fantasy, but some of its books were mainstream bestsellers written by physical and social scientists of notoriety in their respective fields.
Today marketing trends dictate how new authors have to sculpt their books—publishers often publish the same risk-adverse book over and over again. Many books are geared to that segment of young readers heavily marketed by pop-culture. There is little distinction between fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction. Reviewers use words like “magic realism” and science fiction in the same breath. The sum total of all this is what I call marketing normalization, which tends to squeeze out of the genre many of the voices that once made speculative fiction so exciting. I remember a collection of short stories entitled, “Dangerous Visions.” That title is antithetical in any real sense to the few risk-adverse media giants that now dominate books in print.
So, what is the solution? How do we get a greater diversity of voices out in the marketplace? The obvious answer is the medium on which you are reading this essay. The Web offers small publishers and new authors from disparate backgrounds the opportunity to have a shot at injecting truly new blood in a highly managed genre. But new publishers and authors have a high barrier to contend with, especially if they fall outside the readership that big media has developed for the genre. Little by little, however, readers are sniffing around the edges of books that are appearing outside the purview of large media. Speculative Fiction Review is a small web publishing company, specializing in speculative fiction that offers readers something a little different, and something kind of familiar, but absent from much of today’s speculative fiction. The SFR “formula” is to give readers an opportunity to sample new authors for free, then to offer both print and e-books (without DRM) at convenient prices that the publisher and author share almost equally. For those with that sense that entertainment and relevance are not mutually exclusive, be naughty, don’t do what big-media tells you to, give publishers like Speculative Fiction Review a try…