Is Science Fiction Dead? (Or, lessons learned from the Creative Ink Festival.)

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Yes, indeed, that is the question. IS science fiction dead?

Great galloping Ghu! Not that ancient chestnut again. Guaranteed (no matter how I answer) to stir many a hoary fan out of their Rip Van Winkle slumber to gnash their remaining teeth and sharpen their crayons with splashes of acidic bile. Which, of course, is why I hate internet communication more and more (being the realm of deaf trolls bellowing into bullhorns) and increasingly treasure the old-fashioned solitude of a writer scratching away on parchment.

I’m such a Rip Van Winkle myself that my online magazine Polar Borealis is not in any way a blog but simply a magazine that happens to be posted online. Perhaps as a consequence of that, or in recognition of that, I get essentially zero feedback. Am I upset? Hell, no! People in sixty different countries are downloading the zine and often, after downloading a sample issue, go on to download all the rest. That tells me that some of the readers, maybe the majority, are enjoying the works of the authors I publish. Whole point of the exercise, actually.

I prefer to waddle through life with a smug, complacent smile on my face and a brain teaming with fantasies about people appreciating what I do rather than read comments along the lines of “You are so good at editing and publishing it almost makes your magazine worth reading.” Since I know for a fact that nobody is impressed by what I do as much as I am, why should I bother seeking other people’s opinions? I am my own source of egoboo.

When I write, and I suspect this goes for most writers when they write, I’m chuckling and chortling away at how brilliant I am, at least until the process of revision begins and the mood quickly reverses. Nevertheless, I believe that most writers–quiet, pensive, introverted little mice that we be–are raging, megalomaniacal egotists when we ride the kaleidoscopic bucking bronco of our imagination. Non-writers have no idea what an orgasmic pleasure the act of writing is when you manage to slip into the groove and the worlds of your imagination come pouring onto the page like … like … well, yes, like an explosion, like a fountain, like fireworks or any other obvious imagery in a film trying to avoid an R rating … uhmmm ….

Point is there are reasons why writers often seem dull and boring in person. They’ve recently been “released” so to speak. They just experienced the “peak” of emotional satisfaction, in a cerebral sense, of course. Or, to put it another way, writers don’t NEED drugs. They are themselves their own drug. The dirty little secret of writing is that writers are adrenalin junkies to the point of rendering bungie-jumping or sky-diving limp and listless in comparison.

That alcohol and/or sex are relatively popular with writers is because they often have trouble “getting it up” for a bout of writing frenzy, such that booze and sex function as weak substitutes until inspiration triggers the “real” emotional release the writer is addicted to; namely that surge of the unleashed imagination non-writers can’t even begin to grasp.

What has this to do with science fiction, you ask? Everything.

Last weekend I attended the 5th annual “Creative Ink Festival for Writers and Readers” held in Burnaby, British Columbia. I remember it started as a tentative “proof of concept” one-day event organized by Sandra Wickham. This latest incarnation, still organized by “Chairperson and Festival Goddess” Sandra (who is a genuine, certified expert in swordplay, by the way), turned out to be a packed, highly-energised four-track event with standing-room-only lectures and panels overflowing with aspiring writers eager to learn the tricks of the trade. I have to say it was probably the biggest orgy of creative enthusiasm I’ve ever attended. It is a wonder it wasn’t raided by the police. All those shining faces glowing with satisfaction and a desire for more.

I personally came several … err … experienced a series of epiphanies. It was a bit of a coming-of-age milestone for me. It felt like I was beginning to be taken seriously as a publisher and an editor. For one thing, the four people I critiqued in my “Blue Pencil” session seemed pleased and maybe even a little bit encouraged and inspired, which was very satisfying for me. For another, after my outbursts of excited babbling during the “How Editors Think” panel someone came up to me and commented “I enjoyed what you said. It almost made sense.”

To be fair to myself, I should let you know I didn’t claim to be a professional editor. I introduced myself at the beginning of the panel this way:

“I know bugger all about the stages of editing in preparing a novel for mainstream publication, and as far as the editorial process at other magazines goes for all I know they consult Ouija Boards to select their authors, but damn it, I am the world’s leading expert on what sells to Polar Borealis Magazine and that is what I will speak to.”

Which I did. And let me interject here that Polar Borealis is open to submissions all April long so if you are a Canadian Writer or foreign writer resident in Canada and happen to have a speculative fiction story (science fiction, fantasy or horror) 3,000 words or less in length, or several genre poems, check out my magazine’s web site for submission requirements and instructions on how to submit. My magazine may be free to download, but I pay my contributors and not only that, I pay my contributors before publication. One cent a word for 3,000 words or less. Flat rate of $10 for 1,000 words or less. And $10 per poem. Not much, but it does count as a sale to a semi-professional magazine. Not SFWA level, but better than nothing.

See < polarborealis.ca/ >

Anyway, in nine issues I’ve paid for and published 96 poems and 108 short stories. Not bad for a semi-professional magazine!

This perhaps accounts for what a long-time friend said to me at the Festival “You know, when you first started Polar Borealis a bunch of us thought you were insane. There was no way it could work. We couldn’t believe you thought it would. Crazy stuff. Setting yourself up for a big fall.”

To which I replied “YOU had doubts? You should have seen MINE. I figured it would be the final proof I really was an idiot. BUT … I wasn’t going to let a sensible, realistic appraisal of my abilities hold me back. What the heck. Substitute enthusiasm for lack of talent. See what happens.”

And that’s how I got to where I am today … wherever I am. Point is you begin with enthusiasm and utilise that to sustain your effort and eventually, what with practice and experience improving your skills, you accomplish some portion of your goals enough to make you carry on.

So, walking about the Festival observing hordes of readers-wanting-to-become-writers everywhere engaged in animated conversations or lost in the solitary trance of slavery to their imagination as they fingered their keyboards, heads bowed toward each other like monks at prayer, I couldn’t help but feel encouraged. So many devotees. Many of them young. The muses will be well served for ages to come. The creative urge is flourishing as perhaps never before. It’s a good time to choose writing as a life style. More exciting than most. And with so much promise!

And yet … and yet … deep in my darkest thoughts I couldn’t help but reflect that writing is one of the worst livelihoods to choose, the ratio of effort to profit so meagre as to be heart-breaking. The public thinks writers are wealthy. Get one best seller and you become a Stephen King, churning out one novel after another to live like an actual King. Next best thing to winning a lottery, and almost as easy as buying a lottery ticket since everyone knows writing for a living is dead easy, a lazy profession, compared to a “real” job.

Certainly I thought it would be easy when at 16 years of age I decided to become a successful science fiction novelist. Get out of bed when I feel like it. Pound away at the typewriter for a couple of hours while sipping coffee. Then get dressed and spend the rest of the day having fun. Just publish a couple of novels a year and I’ll be happy and rich all my days. Good plan. Good choice. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Things didn’t quite work out that way. That’s another of the dirty little secrets of writing. Most writers don’t earn enough to make a decent living. Doesn’t matter what genre. Even as prolific and talented a writer as Philip K. Dick (my favourite SF writer) barely got by. And the earnings of H.P. Lovecraft (my favourite fantasy/horror writer) were abysmal by any standard. Yes, if you were Heinlein or Clarke or Asimov you did fairly well, but not as much as you might think. In any case, their careers are irrelevant to my point. The AVERAGE writer doesn’t actually earn a living. Hence the proverbial reliance on a spouse or two with “real” jobs.

Nothing new, really. Gernsback was notorious for being late with payments. Most pulp fiction era editors were. It was mainly because their magazines were staggering from one issue to the next with limited cash flow. They printed on pulp because they had no choice. Couldn’t afford better. Things improved as science fiction became more popular. At one point there were a couple of dozen SF magazines on the stands. But very few currently, and all constantly juggling subscribers, store sales, patrons, and government grants in a frenetic and desperate effort to stay afloat. Kudos to those who dare start a new magazine nowadays.

Me, I took the easy way out. My business plan is designed to earn ZERO revenue. The magazine is free. Even the ads I place are free. Consequently, I experience no financial pressure whatsoever. Not a worry in my head. No pain. No strain. All I do is set aside a portion of my meagre pension income every month and presto! Enough money to publish AND pay my writers in advance of publication. Of course, unexpected expenses (a frequent event for us old folk) can delay publication of the next issue, but no big deal. It’ll come out eventually. When you think about it, I can’t fail. It’s not possible. All that can happen is that no further issues will be published once I choose to give up my Polar Borealis hobby, but there’s no danger of my making that choice any time soon.

Who would have thunk? The secret of success is not to make any money. Wowzers!

Yes, plenty of creative talent out there, both professional and beginner, but the nitty gritty is, what are their chances of getting published? How many sales opportunities are there? What are the market trends? Can skill and ability and originality and individuality guarantee a sale? Guarantee a career?

Probably not. Increasingly, your chances are slim. Luck of the draw at best. Really is something of a lottery.

That be one of my epiphanies courtesy of the festival. Courtesy of my listening to the talk “Giving up on Traditional Publishing” by Robert J. Sawyer. Courtesy of a fast-paced hour-long three-way conversation at the SF Canada party between myself, Robert, and author Randy McCharles on the topics of “the death of science fiction” and “the death of science fiction fandom.” (I know fen who would kill to have been a fly on the wall for THAT conversation.)

Both Robert and Randy contributed insider information derived from vast experience appropriate to the topic, and I merely anecdotal evidence based on my exposure to fandom, but our views largely coincide nevertheless. Truth is both science fiction and science fiction fandom are not what they used to be.

Since Robert, in addition to being a wonderful writer, is also a brilliant futurist who derives a portion of his income from lecturing on current trends and what they are likely to lead to, I wouldn’t feel comfortable quoting his bread and butter, so to speak, and will content myself with just one point he made: “Editors no longer choose which books get published.”

My reaction? Consider how prescient the Pohl/Kornbluth novel “The Space Merchants” was. What if they had titled it “The Marching Bean Counters?” Would be even more appropriate. That sales and marketing experts make the decisions nowadays does not strike me as a good thing, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I think it was Asimov who stated the advantage of being a science fiction writer was that books never go out of print. When new readers decide a given writer is wonderful, they tend to snap up all his/her previous works. Thus author income was cumulative, each new book adding to the royalties still flowing in from previous works. Not anymore. Increasingly the mantra is “No reprints! New books only!” This is a hard blow to the financial life of many a veteran SF author.

Throw in the fact most SF fen are media fans, and that of the small percentage who like to read a great deal the vast majority prefer fantasy over SF, it is evident the mainstream market for SF doesn’t have much of a future. Ironic, isn’t it? But then, mass market fen don’t seem to like contemplating the future anymore. Whereas seventy or eighty years ago technology was perceived to offer glittering prizes, liners to Mars and towers of adamantine porcelain or whatever, there has been a cultural shift, people dread the future, things can only get worse. SF, the best of which is about today’s problems as William Gibson points out, is no longer “escapist” literature. That role now falls to fantasy which, like much of the politics of today, is all about a longing for a past which never existed. To steal one sound bite from Sawyer “Science fiction is Democratic. Fantasy is Republican.”

Well, bugger. I knew SF was in decline. It hadn’t occurred to me it was doomed.

I mean, even here at the Creative Ink Festival the majority of enthusiasts were fantasy writers, or writers of mysteries, romances, or action-adventure novels. SF writers were a minority.

Then it hit me. In our talk on fandom we’d agreed that traditional, book-minded SF fen were now thin on the ground compared to mass market media fandom and yet, within their own niche, surprisingly strong and resilient. So my last epiphany, the most triumphant one, turned out to be the idea that speculative fiction, now nearly divorced from mainstream marketing publishing, is in fact flourishing and likely to do so into the foreseeable future.

There is in fact no lack of science fiction writers. Small in numbers compared to other genres, perhaps, but still a healthy number in and of itself. In Canada at least, they have myriad options to consider.

To start with, self-publishing. Yes, of course, most self-published writers earn very little, but the same can be said for most mainstream-published authors. Randy McCharles is proof that writing fulltime and self-publishing can work well if you do it right. And I have no doubt that Sawyer, with his formidable talent, excellent reputation, huge fan-base, and phenomenal writing discipline, will have no problem taking advantage of the enormous possibilities self-publishing offers should he choose to go that route. For any writer willing to self-promote, self-publication offers much higher royalties and near total editorial control. Rather appealing, that.

And then there’s all the editorially-driven small press publishers in Canada. Quite a few of them. They don’t publish as many novels or anthologies as a mainstream publishing house, but the quality of what they do publish is often as good or better. Edge Publishing, Tyche Press, Chizine Books, Bundoran Press, Five Rivers Publishing, Martian Migraine Press, to name just a few off the top of my head. And magazines like Augur, Unnerving, Lackington’s, Neo-opsis, On Spec, Polar Borealis, etc. I tell you, there’s a veritable renaissance of small press publishing going on.

Fact is all the enthusiasm I witnessed at the Creative Ink Festival isn’t wasted or condemned to frustration. There are readers out there. And numerous small presses willing to serve them.

So I came away from the Festival exhilarated and optimistic. Written science fiction is not dead. It occupies a tiny niche in contrast to the days of yore, true, but it is rather a splendid niche and likely to remain so for decades to come. Huzzah!

The only downside of the festival came when I climbed out of my hotel room’s bathtub and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Let me put it this way. If I were to waddle naked onto the shooting stage of the DUNE reboot the producers would instantly fire Stellan Skarsgard and hire me to replace him in the role of the infamous Baron Harkonnen.

Resolved, that I lose sixty pounds by the time the next Creative Ink Festival rolls around. If I can manage to do that, I’ll look more like a lithe Howler Monkey than the elderly Orangutan I currently resemble. A worthy goal, I think.

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