Behavioral Observations In Science Fiction

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Now, I’ve been active in this scene for a long time. Been hanging around big name authors since about 2010, been reading since the 90s, so I think I have a good sample size of the general landscape, and how people react. Here’s the truth:

There’s two groups, the old guard burnout mentality, and the new indie pulp revolution. There’s a bit of a line up along political lines, but not as much as you’d expect, and in fact, that’s used as an excuse a lot of the time to poo poo the new. This is the state of science fiction today. I’ve talked about it briefly before, but here’s a broader look at the experiences I’ve had after engaging with both.

Old Guard

You walk into social media, or a group, or a convention of what I called the “old guard”, they’e hesitant. They’re the type to complain that they’re introverts, having to recharge after social interactions (which is fine to be, but knowing that… why complain so often?). A new person is immediately greeted with a stand-offish attitude, like they have to vet you to make sure you’re “really one of them” or that you have to pay your dues to prove yourself somehow. They’re hyper-political. If you look at their social media posts, 70-90% of them are endless shrieking about politics they don’t like. They keep talking about how they’re too busy for anyone or anything — including the next generation of fans and writers. And this is all before they know that you’re on the “wrongthink” side of politics.

It took me a couple years to get settled in with those types, and in that mentality, you’re expected to go into slush with your stories (a nice metaphor for what you’re going through as they vet you personally) — have them vetted by gatekeepers that are flooded with thousands per week, hoping that they’ll see you as special for whatever reason. You’re expected to be at some bottom rung, and wait to be acknowledged by the “greats” giving you the nod.  At that point, you’re supposed to slog it out for years, getting a story in Analog or whatnot here or there, making convention speeches to rooms of 5-10 people, and posting negative politics all the time yourself. Even when familiar, they’re still standoffish. They’ll smile at you a little more, but very few will lift a finger to help. They’re too bogged down in their own negativity.

It’s a burnout mentality. The old guard has watched generations go through this process, and even if they are younger, they grew up in a grievance mindset subculture that’s become science fiction. The stories are boring. They’ve been struggling with the same grind for decades to be considered by academics to be “real literature” and have adjusted their writing styles accordingly — copying the boring, mundane aspects of literature style, while removing anything that makes science fiction special. As a consequence, there’s been a drop off from people buying millions of books, to thousands. We’ve seen this story before. It gets blamed on external factors like ebooks — but those are tools to help you grow your audience, not something to shrink. Of course, they don’t use these tools right, including on pricing, which further shrinks the audience.

When I was in slush reading, as one of the gatekeepers at a smaller outfit trying to work my way up, I found myself getting into this mentality as well. I’d reject anything, I’d be LOOKING FOR reasons to reject. It wouldn’t be reading stories for excitement, it was quiet the opposite. And that then translates into a mentality in which you read other fiction, even for fun. You go to panels and join groups, everyone’s talking about how hard it is to write, how they have a block, how the muse just isn’t inspiring them, how they’re scatterbrained and can’t focus. Or it’s about this group or that isn’t getting represented well enough and gosh darnit it’s because of those bigots (who… are the very same people making the complaints).  It’s oppressive. It’s torture.

You can only buy fiction at 6 cents a word. You can only sell fiction at 6 cents a word. You must wait for an agent to give you the nod and take 15-25% of whatever they can sell it for–if it can sell at all. Scoff at anything else. Scoff at everything else. If the gatekeepers don’t buy it, revise revise revise and resubmit! Keep going in the slog, keep not making money, keep getting outraged. Repeat.

Most people do burn out. I see folk going through this all the time. Even the small victories seem just that after awhile — because getting a few shorts in a few magazines really doesn’t move the needle. They don’t see their fanbases growing in proportion to the work they put in. And so they get angry themselves. And they often quit. They don’t want to market themselves because they’re told on repeat if they self-promote, if they drum up support for awards — it’s not real.  You’re faking it then. If you’re really, they’ll certainly find you naturally. And with very rare exceptions, which has nothing to do with quality of work, no one ever finds them naturally.

Release a book, none of these folk will help. There’s zero loyalty involved here. Everyone here won’t self promote, so why would they promote others? Promoting friends is just as icky as self-promoting. They don’t want to sully themselves. A publicist for your publishing house is supposed to do that for you. Right? Invariably, they don’t sell like they should. I even saw a prominent writer today who’s very highly regarded by this group complain about the income made after having contracts for almost 10 books in traditional publishing. Yikes!

Bring politics into the mix, if you’re in the “wrong”… you’re going to get shrieked at, shouted down, shunned, personally attacked, personally destroyed, mocked, and hated at every turn. It’s so disgusting that they’ll go full on racist, everything they claim to be against, just to put you down. It happened to me last week even. If they don’t do that, they’ll completely ignore you in hopes that you’ll just go away. They don’t want to share their science fiction space with anyone, and don’t even want to talk about it because they’re so burnt out with the above.

This model is failing. Sales are declining. Attendance is going down. It’s an unmitigated disaster, but they keep repeating the same mistakes.

Enter the New Indie Pulp Revolution.

Remember, I was hobnobbing with the group above from 2010- November 2016, flailing from November – February in a vacuum of pretty much just myself, before I finally got fed up with the political shunning and decided to tell the story of how I’ve been treated by the old guard. As soon as I did that, some of my “friends” finally took the plunge in disavowing me like they’d really wanted to all along, but something special happened as well. I met this whole group that i didn’t know existed.

They’re all over the internet. Independent authors. They’re hungry, they want to sell, they want to consume, they want to see the next hot trend. They haven’t been reading thousands of slush pages trying to reject anything and everything, haven’t been speaking at droning conventions about the woes of the industry, haven’t been on writers groups complaining about everything. They just write. They release. They hope readers love it. They engage with readers and other authors. They repeat, and because they love it.

Just watching the mentality of blog reviews from this crowd vs. reviews from the old guard system — you can tell they’re here to have fun with science fiction and fantasy. And that’s what these genres are about: FUN. In all caps. Without fun and imagination, you might as well read a literature type novel, about real life, about the mundane. You might as well read the news and get depressed. The whole point is the sense of wonder. Why lose that? Why not be excited with your fellow author and fellow readers about everything? Learn and grow from each other. We’re all on the same team. Even members of the old guard reading this — and I know you do read — we’re on the same team as well. There’s no reason to be frightened. We’re all friendly.

I showed up in February, it’s June now. Just saying hi and talking with everyone on a regular basis has been a joy. I’ve been invited to writers groups. People invite me to their magazines and anthologies. People invite me to publish with them. We spread reviews and interviews and love around regularly, all hoping to find the next, great thing, so that it edifies our fellow authors and helps ourselves grow at the same time. We’re constantly seeking, constantly smiling, and constantly enjoying.

I’m friends now in this indie group with authors who outsell a lot of people who wouldn’t give me the time of day because they’re “so busy” in the old guard camp. They make time for me, because they’re in the thick of it and understand what it’s like. They haven’t forgotten. They bucked the grind I listed above, and carved their own niche with their own hard marketing work. And they’re happier and freer for it. They understand all their work is on them and them alone, don’t expect anything, but give everything in return. And the old adage is very much true: you get what you give.

Think about it. Six years of working hard still can’t get a person accepted and embraced without a miracle, four months of chatting with some folk online create unbreakable friendships. I’m the same person in both situations, so are you. There’s nothing different there other than the people and the mindset. And that’s why more fans keep coming to me and to other authors involved in this very real revolution in science fiction.

It’s obvious where the business is headed, and where things are going. Old Guard ,or people trying to break into it — embrace these new trends, these fresh faces. They’ll do a lot more for you than the hierarchy that you’re seeking approval from. The gatekeepers are just a social construct from ages past. There’s a new one for the future age. And what are we about in Sci-Fi if we’re not about the future?

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22 thoughts on “Behavioral Observations In Science Fiction

  1. Well written, I loved your post. While I respect those who chose the Traditional Publication route, I prefer to blaze my own trails. Keep up the good work!

    • Some are still my friends through all this (those are the good ones, I might add, who don’t suffer from the burnout so much). But I hung a lot in the Anne McCaffrey circles as I’ve noted in the past. Can probably do a tree from there.

  2. There’s two groups, the old guard burnout mentality, and the new indie pulp revolution. There’s a bit of a line up along political lines, but not as much as you’d expect, and in fact, that’s used as an excuse a lot of the time to poo poo the new.

    This. So much this. In fact, when I try to explain the entire Sad/Rabid Puppies phenomenon to people who aren’t political, I basically explain it as old guard trad publishing vs new wave indie publishing. I think the political aspects are, frankly, a smoke screen.

    • I’d argue that the politics aren’t a smoke screen, but part and parcel of one side of the political aisle believing in big institutions, and marching it’s way through culture and academia, kicking those who would not conform to the curb. So the other side had nothing to lose, and jumped into the new with gusto – especially when they discovered what the old guard had done to the history of their beloved genre.

        • Thanks Russell. Yeah. Simplifying and categorizing makes things easier on all of us. There’s a lot more to explore on this topic, but I have to write fiction too 🙂

  3. A divide I have found is Christian and post-Christian atheist.

    Throw a rock at a crowd of Pulp revolutionaries and you will hit a Christian 9 out of 10 times.

    “It’s a burnout mentality”

    I have been reading Spengler a bit. A couple things he wrote strikes a cord here. First he says all science of a civilization comes from religion. Now I don’t speak German and i am reading Decline of the west in English anyway, but i get the distinct feeling Spengler’s idea of what he means by science isn’t graphs and guys in lab coats. I think he includes philosophy and art when he says this.

    The other thing Spengler mentions is that after all possibilities in art philosophy and science are exhausted in a culture its civilization dies.

    Now you don’t ascribe much as to the reasons why the old guard group is boring and complain about how “hard it is to write, how they have a block, how the muse just isn’t inspiring them, how they’re scatterbrained and can’t focus.”

    I am going to go out on a limb here and ascribe their exhaustion to their post-Christian atheism. They have built a culture and civilization without an ethos where all the possibilities for art philosophy science and FUN are pre-exhausted and because they have rejected the culture and civilization from which they birthed cannot build upon that ethos nor any of the works produced by it.

    The predominantly Christian pulp revolutionaries on the other hand in contrast to Spengler’s speculation that the west has exhausted its possibility hasn’t exhausted all the possibilities and hasn’t rejected the works produced in its past.

    The Pulpsters have an ethos from which they can still build imagine and create while the Old Guard does not.

    • Building on the past allows you to write in richer colors, so to speak. Read some of the pulp greats (or even earlier) and see what I mean.

      The Old Guard seems sterile by comparison.

      • I know it. Poul Anderson. Anne McCaffrey. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Leigh Brackett. Nothing sterile there. Everyone go read them! 🙂

  4. Jon, this post is awesome. As someone who has dipped his toes into the trad publishing world since, also, about 2010, trying to “make it” with the in-crowd, I find hanging with the indies much more exciting and fun.

    I saw a similar thing in my time trying to make a go in music. The “official” biz is just . . . miserable. Brutal doesn’t even describe it, because brutal competition can be exhilarating and rewarding. This was just ugly. It wanted to squeeze everyone and everything into a nasty little conformist that didn’t really care about artistry or even enjoyment. I have stories about this I need to share sometime . . .

    • Oh yeah music is very similar actually. I did music for a bit too — sold a song to MTV’s Real World: New Orleans. Almost everyone in that industry has unfriended me and pretends I don’t exist now.

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