© 2006 G.N. Jacobs
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The hero wanders into New York City and looks up the magazine where he works in his reality. He sees no change in that month’s issue of the flagship science fiction pulp. He asks a receptionist about the magazine only to be told that the book is an adventure title, because the bug-eyed alien invaders are real.
Similarly, Star Trek episodes deal with this blasé attitude to technology as a constant subconscious undercurrent to the main action. Crewman Daniels comes from the future to stop other time travelers from screwing up history. Captain Archer of Star Trek: Enterprise doesn’t panic or gush over the cool technology, he merely stops and listens to his crewman and makes his decisions.
Thieves from the future try to steal a McGuffin from Captain Picard while he’s on vacation with a hot nubile archeologist. He takes the assertion of the thieves that they are cops from two centuries hence with great equanimity, because in his history he has had the ability to slingshot a starship around a star into the past for at least a hundred years.
I suspect that our society is undergoing a similar transformation. We have fantastic computers that will do the heavy lifting if we ever care enough to resume real space exploration. Hell, even the advent of a spell checker should be a source of wonder to every writer too lazy to reach for a dictionary.
But, these things just are, like the air, constant warfare and smell of crap in the street must have been to a resident of medieval times. It is logical to assume that once we actually start building the high tech dystopia of the average cyberpunk novel that we won’t be as impressed by new things anymore.
Sure, individuals will still be impressed by their first car when they buy it, not so much because of the technological privilege, but because they were able to save the money for the down payment. The car could fly or water ski, but in a world where such things are common that car’s luster would soon fade as the driver catches up on his payments.
He will still say he likes his car and punch punks out for running a key along the fender, but there comes a moment when he dreams of his next car. Not because the technology is so cool, but because a new car is easier to maintain. In such a society, a literary genre devoted to new things that are so far beyond the imagination seems almost superfluous.
Of my three assertions, my last that the genre or pseudo-genre is overrun with licensed fiction is the only one about which the average reader can do something. Go to the end of the science fiction section and count up the books devoted to Dungeons and Dragons, Star Trek, Magic the Gathering and Star Wars.
The first maxim of free enterprise is to give the customer what they want. If enough readers want a Dungeons and Dragons epic written by R.A. Salvatore then the market will get exactly that. However, imagine if those fantasy writing skills had been turned into writing something completely original in the genre?
My argument does have a little bit of the literature snob to it. I freely admit that science fiction is a silly genre to the vast majority of people that hate such books, so this is the pot calling the kettle black. But, at least when we had some sanity to the mix between original works and licensed series we had better books.
The lifeblood of any literary genre is new readers. Good books attract readers and when we churn out marginal books due to licensing a game, comic book or TV show we might affect the ability of the genre to care about next month’s offering.
So what do you get when you mix a genre that is really more of a setting for dressed up stories from other categories with increasing irrelevance and a market that is too afraid to live beyond the licensing agreements that drive sales? The Death of Science Fiction.
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