Bewildering Stories

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Bewildering Stories Guest Editorial

by Kevin Ahearn

New Tech vs. Old Lit.

“In twenty years or so, people will no longer need to read,” predicted a famous literary figure on PBS last week, implying that in the future, new means of communications will make the written word obsolete.

This is already happening, yet sf publishers, blinded by the light their own writers had seen coming, continue to churn out space operas and futuristic fantasies better seen and played than read. Moreover, the sf community is forever clinging to Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke as if they were a divine trinity rather than as grandmasters whose time, as grand as it was, has long since gone.

Is such a statement heresy? Prop-driven fighter aircraft from the 20th century were fearsome, beautiful machines with legendary flight plans, but I wouldn’t want to fly any one of them into a New Millennium war. That’s just what today’s marketplace is, and week after week, sf websites review books that will make the warp speed trek from store shelves to bargain bins to recycling centers because they are trying to fight a battle already fought a generation ago.

(Not that sf is in publishing hell alone. Of the five novels recently nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, none had sold more than 2,000 copies.)

Back in the day, sf was paperback novels, short stories in magazines, a few movies and crude, black-and-white TV shows. Technology has changed all that, and the sf that once dominated the genre has either been pushed to the back burner or completely left the kitchen.

Consider Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 — classics all that failed as films, generated no toys and T-shirts, and how would you play the games anyway? None even has a poster! Sorry, sci-fi fans, but remaking these films will neither change nor diminish the content of books that were written to be read. (The Official Halo 2 Guide sold 270,000 copies on its first day of release. That’s more than any sci-fi novel will sell in a year.)

Two recent films, Van Helsing and I, Robot, push not the characters as created by Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson and Asimov, but the young Hollywood stars playing characters who never appeared in the original works or were bit players at best. For the forthcoming War of the Worlds, the spotlight has fallen not on Wells or his Martians, but the director and the star. As sf readers have evolved into sci-fi fans, ideas have been usurped by icons.

Now sf books are no longer written but “packaged” to be sold not as literary works but as springboards for toys, comic books, movies and video games. Therein lies the irony: more sf movies are springing forth from toys, video games and comic books than from novels and short stories.

Where does this leave published sf, once the lifeblood of the sf community? So watered down that it now makes more sense to invest in the novelization of Van Helsing than in a new, original novel.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that new sf novels are bad, but that they are old. “Tradition” may be fine for mystery, drama and romance, but for sf, the very idea of retracing a master’s footsteps goes against the heart and soul and honor of the genre. Why bother with hand-me-downs at retail prices when one can buy the originals used?

What’s sf publishing to do? “Nobody knows anything” is the mantra of the entertainment business, and I am no exception; surely more of the same is no way to go. We’ve entered a new era in publishing, technically and literally. The technology is humming, but the literature is lagging far behind. More than simply new stories, sf needs a new mindset, a new attitude that can only be forged by editors with the guts and the vision to let go of the past and grab hold of a new age.

Until that day dawns, science fiction will become not unlike the antagonists in so many of its immortal tales: the arrogant establishment, incapable or unwilling to adapt to the future it had once prided itself in foreseeing.

Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Ahearn

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