This morning I had a conversation with what you would call an average reader. It’s not a rabid convention goer, not an author who’s got his favorite reads and plugging his friends, but a person who periodically reads books for fun and relaxation and happens to like to explore strange, new worlds. The kind of person that our creative industry needs to get out of our little bubbles and talk to more often.
What he told me is disconcerting for the state of the industry. As we’ve seen time and time again, it necessitates science fiction and fantasy going in a different direction to bring back the sense of wonder that most of us used to have when reading. In a lot of ways, it’s what the #PulpRevolution is all about, and while there’s a small group of us working on the independent level to fix the problem of the fact that big publishing is NOT keeping their readership in mind, it’s another warning to the Big Entertainment gatekeepers that something needs to be done on their end, lest they risk losing everything.
So, dear gatekeepers, as a service to you because I love science fiction and don’t want to see my small corner of the galaxy shrink, I’m going to give you a brief account of a normal reader’s conversation with me, and hopefully it will give a sense for how the market is not serving its customers.
The conversation started like I’ve heard dozens of times. He listed off authors that he used to read, talked about how he was a voracious reader before. He loved Asimov’s Foundation, Arthur C. Clarke, Niven’s Ringworld, Piers Anthony’s early work, Zelazny’s Amber series… I hear these names and these worlds over and over on repeat in almost every conversation I have with readers.
But then, something changed in science fiction. He didn’t feel like any of that fun was there anymore. The optimism of exploration really isn’t around.
“I know how you feel,” I said. “Everything past the 80s just feels so—“
“Dark,” he finished my sentence for me.
It hit the nail right on the head. I didn’t have to prompt. I didn’t have to give him a lecture on Sad Puppies or Appendix N. He knew intuitively where sci-fi had gone wrong and what he desired as a reader. What is missing from today’s “literary” climate.
It shows in television as much as anything. The examples of sci-fi and fantasy that you’ll get on TV. Dark Matter, The Expanse, Killjoys, Game of Thrones, while all have excellent production we only could have dreamed of shows having in the 90s, they all have extremely dark themes, anti-heroes or outright villains as main characters, no one to root for, no real hope for their respective worlds. They’re filled with uncomfortable debauchery and graphic sex before every commercial break, and yes, this reader did mention that the over-sexualization is disturbing to him, as it is to most people. Even though some of these have decent elements that make them worthy to watch once, they aren’t the kind of thing you will share with your co-workers or especially your children. They aren’t the kind of thing where you will study, watch multiple times, relate to the characters for the rest of your life.
Gone are the Captain Kirks, the Spocks, the Picards.
Gone are the Luke Skywalkers, the Princess Leias.
Gone are the John Crichtons (Farscape, which I consider the last truly great science fiction tv show)
We don’t have lovable heroes we can root for anymore. We don’t have protagonists with real morals or real honor. It’s been a concerted effort by Hollywood to bring down our culture into its level of hedonism over decades, and it’s gone so far full tilt a normal person can’t relate at all anymore. But Hollywood is just a reflection of the literary world, as they steal their concepts, buy the rights to what they like, in order to make blueprints for their shows and movies.
It’s no wonder the only films that go anywhere are caricatures of the old Stan Lee stuff from the 60s, where it was heroes who start as ordinary, become extraordinary through their powers, and through their own exploration of self and sense of wonder, save the world time and time again. Those characters preach responsibility and loyalty, words that rarely are used anymore. That resonates with our basic human nature and desire to be better. That resonates with fun.
The sad part is that these readers and viewers are still out there, but they aren’t even looking for content anymore because they’ve been let down time and time again. They’ve been told, through the stories that are produced, that they’re basically not wanted and should buzz off. It’s been a systematic destruction of a customer base by big publishing, the comic book industry and Hollywood. Since the 90s, those groups have lived off of trying to create a shock value that is more horrific, more morally degrading and with bigger explosions than the last one in order to compensate for this.People do turn their head to watch a train wreck every time, we know that much to be true. The problem is, they won’t come back and watch that train wreck over and over because they feel disgusting if they do, and rightfully so. It’s short-sighted and lazy, and that’s what’s caused this downward spiral.
This is why we need adventure fiction that’s fun. These readers are out there and will come back if there’s something produced for them. It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take reshaping the image of the entire industry, but as Daddy Warpig has mentioned via his blog on multiple occasions, science fiction magazines, comic books, serial films and the like used to get millions of readers and viewers. Now they’re lucky if they can get thousands. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not the invention of the iphone that’s the problem. It’s the content that the industry produces.
Yet another warning delivered from a former avid reader. Do with it what you will.