Margaret Atwood Steals The Bread From Neal Asher’s Mouth
Mark Newton says that science fiction is dying and fantasy is the future. As Larry Nolan asks in the comments, does it really matter? Not to me. For starters, I don’t really draw much of a distinction between the two, it is all SF and it will always been around. Nolan mentions the death of the Western novel as an analogy. Now, the Western is inherently a more limiting genre than science fiction so I don’t think the analogy is plausible but even so there is something appealing about a world where all the pulp trash has withered and you are just left with Cormac McCarthy and The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada.
As always, Newton is mostly interested in science fiction as a marketing category which is another reason not to be too concerned about its “death”. It does lead to him saying some slightly odd things though:
Literary fiction is eating up SF. Mainstream fiction possesses a parasitic attitude to SF, whilst contributing very little to the celebration of the genre. Jeanette Winterson, Toby Litt, Margaret Atwood – the ‘literary’ brigade are taking SF ideas, recycling them as something new, packaging them for mainstream tastes. And more importantly, dragging the ideas to a section of the bookstore or readership that aren’t likely to visit the SF section. Those sales don’t get categorised as SF sales – just general fiction. So mainstream fiction is leaching sales, and the latter is just as important in terms of the genre’s sustainability. Without sales, there is little long-term backing from bookstores, and eventually publishers. (Publishing is a business, and imprints must react to patterns in sales – else they go bust.)
Literary fiction is not eating up SF, it is at best nibbling it. Based on my own very unscientific survey of the literary landscape there has certainly been an increase in the amount of science fiction published outside the genre imprints. This is a source of considerable pleasure to me (I’m not sure how you could describe their existence as “parasitic”). There is hardly a deluge of them though; as a percentage of all science fiction novels published in a year they would barely register.
Moving on, bringing the ideas of science fiction to a new readership sounds like a positive thing to me as well. Growth seems like the opposite of death. The problem, apparently, is how you score the sales. I’ve spent some time grappling with the idea that “mainstream fiction is leaching sales” but I still haven’t got my head round it. Newton has just said these books sell to people who don’t visit the SF section of the bookshop so I’m not sure how this can also deprive the same section of the bookshop of sales. It also seems to set up a false binary opposition: you can either buy the new Atwood or the new Asher but not both.
As it happens, I agree with Newton’s wider point that fantasy is ascendant at the moment (although, as Eric Gregory points out in the comments, all such things are relative). I don’t think that is particularly interesting unless you work in the industry. None of this escapes the fact that there will always be more books I want to read than I have time to read them. The exact ratio of types of books available at any one moment in time isn’t much of an issue to me.