1.26.2004

a bit of commentary

For decades the reign of the Centralist Hegemony flourished, and peace descended upon the Inner Colonies. Basking in the success of their conquest, the Colonies became complacent, grown torpid by half a century of uncontested might.

Yet the Lunatic Fringe had begun their incursions, stealthy at first, but growing in boldness....


-- excerpt from The Strange Hegemony: A Chronicle of Time and Space


WARNING: What follows may offend some people. Delicate gazes should be averted. Small children should be hidden in closets. Anyone with a large ego or bloated sense of self-importance should consider a vacation in the Ukraine. I hear the weather’s nice this time of year....



the placid core

Within the arts, it is common to have a controlling center that defines and shapes current acceptable modes. This center often consists of an entrenched Old Guard whose opinions rule the majority, determining what is Good For The People. A worthy analogy wo
uld be in television, where someone has determined that reality shows are right and good.

I call this center the "placid core".

Speculative fiction has a placid core, entrenched through a mingling of tradition, reputation and nostalgia. Their names are recognizable - Asimov’s, F&SF, Del Rey, Locus, Tor, etc. etc.

The strength of the placid core lies in the habits of the general reader. These are the ones who seek solace in their SF, the ones who return to the same sections of the shelves in search of their favorite authors, rarely venturing too many letters away, and certainly never seeking beyond those cozy shelves. These are casual readers, not really in tune with the field, not really paying attention to the behind-the-scenes drama. They know their authors, maybe their particular publishers... but never much beyond.

I still get a chuckle out of it.

Speculative fiction, that innovative, idea-laden, progressive branch of the great Fiction Tree; that futuristic,
ultra-creative, unpossible speculative fiction, which influenced the postmoderns, an entire generation of filmmakers, and even Saddam Hussein himself -- I still can’t believe that at its heart, the field of speculative fiction is dominated by rampant, ass-clenchingly rabid uptightness.

It is the Old Guard, torpid and stalwart in their views, that continues to define the shape of modern speculative fiction. In its own way, this placid core is filled with broad-sweeping, anti-tech, behind-the-times academia-level snobbishness and petty conservatism that makes Rick Santorum look like Liberace in comparison.

This is not a good thing.



the lunatic fringe

Within the arts, the placid core has never held for long. Always, always, there are upstarts that dwell out on the fringe, pushing against the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. We see it often in fine art, with each movement of painters challenging the norms: from the Impressionists to the Surrealists, from Pop Art to even commercial art; each of these movements fought against the entrenched establishment, and each eventually won out, becoming popular and accepted before being replaced by their successors.

Except this hasn't happened in speculative fiction.

Perhaps it is because the genre is still relatively young; even going back as far as 1885 and the publishing of Wells' The Time Machine, we're looking at an inconsequential amount of time against the whole of literature, and the genre itself has only been recognized for a bit more than half a century. And so the modes that were set into place in the infancy of the genre remain, barely contested.

I say barely because there have always been marginalized, fringe-worthy writers working at the edges of genre, barely appreciated and barely selling. I've taken to calling these underrated writers the 'lunatic fringe', accosting a phrase from Fandom that was originally used to describe cultish UFO nutters that hung out at SF conventions.

This lunatic fringe plays the role of the upstarts, in the same way that upstarts have tackled the establishment within other arts. One such lunatic fringe was the New Wave, battling to bring experimentation and literary values to genre fiction. Another fringe came with the cyberpunks, and their modernization of science fiction. Often, the lunatic fringe was called a movement, but my thought is that they were simply the writers at the margins, taking chances and propelling the traditional modes forward until reaching a point of popularity that brought them from the fringe to the center.

And the center is where they remain.

This placid center that holds sway over speculative fiction has grown increasingly tedious over the past decade. I find myself bored to tears with the majority of speculative fiction, floundering in traditional modes and reused tropes. Some critics describe this as a dialogue within the genre, an ongoing conversation between writers and readers. Personally, I reject that explanation.

Instead, I think it is a case of… well, placidity. Whether it's the stories published in the Year's Best anthologies or the day-to-day novels put out by the major imprints, it all boils down to a case of reproducing what has already been done in an effort to generate sales.

I find it incredibly boring.


on the outskirts

Except, I think the placid core is on the verge of crumbling.

Jonathan had challenged us to rate the small press magazines against the entrenched magazines, and I'm willing to accept that challenge, and even build upon it.

My theory is, they cannot be compared, and moreover, they should not be compared.

The small presses, the zines, the webzines are all quite different creatures from the old standbys like Asimov's, F&SF, and the others, because they are no more related to those magazines than they are related to CNN. They represent different things, and different guiding visions.

The major magazines are concerned with maintaining the status quo. While it will certainly be argued that the magazines remain vital because of the stories that they publish, and because of their status amidst the field. I would contest this.

My contesting begins with the basic principles of format, as I've noted countless times elsewhere. How can a magazine claim to be startling and full of vitality when it languishes in a format that is no longer appropriate, and certainly is not viable on the magazine racks? I've heard numerous sides of this argument -- that the digest format is cheaper to produce, and that there are no newsstand sales anyway -- which I find wimpy and overblown and ultimately full of hot air. Presentation is an absolutely necessary component to any publication, and the fact that no one cares enough to update the format of the magazines points to laziness and an entrenched mentality.

Meanwhile, I would also argue that there is nothing startling or vital about the stories published in the major magazines -- which should not be confused with me disparaging the quality of the stories. Many of the stories published in the digests are GOOD ones… but they are also traditional stories told in traditional modes. (Please allow me these generalizations for the sake of argument, eh? The occasional non-traditional story that slips through does not count as anything more than a fluke, and I don't think anyone can claim a trend around them.)

One could point at the fact that many of the stories published in these magazines are the ones that win awards, and are often collected in the Year's Best anthologies, thereby proclaiming their excellence and vitality. That's very nice, I would say… and dismiss anyone that could be so thick-headed.



innovation through the blurry lens of nostalgia

Speculative fiction is a rut, filled with old habits and protocols and traditions.

We still claim that speculative fiction is the literature of ideas, that it is the innovative form for all fiction; grand claims that we like to share with one another while slapping backs and shaking hands. But the truth is, we are mired in a soup of nostalgia when it comes to assessing the genres, and we conveniently cite examples from decades in the past to illustrate our vitality.

It is my opinion that any truly original, truly innovative speculative fiction piece would never be published in the current 'mainstream' genre markets. Not by Asimov's, not by Tor, not by DAW, not by Baen.

Those markets and the various others that I don't wish to list (it'd be a long list…) are the placid core, continuing to propel the genre forward into the past, perpetuating a circular publishing industry that merits traditionalism and repetition over the supposed inherent genre traits of innovation, creativity and ideas.

But there's still the lunatic fringe.



niche creativity

I said that we could not compare independent presses and zines to the big boys, because they are completely different creatures. To attempt to describe, for example, Small Beer Press within the context of Baen or Del Rey is futile. They share nothing in common, and I don't think they represent the same vision.

Likewise with many of the zines that are being produced. For one thing, most of the zines are actually more attractive than the traditional magazines; these are produced by people that are in touch with technology, utilizing the 'push-button publishing' that has risen via desktop publishing and the internet connectivity. The simple fact that the forefront magazines have failed to embrace this technology is just one symptom of their staid placidity.

Zines and independent presses are granted more freedoms than the mainstream publishers. When one exists at the fringe, one is not bound by the restrictions of marketability or catering to what the consumers demand. Zines and independent presses can therefore play with traditional modes, and take chances with forms and content that others cannot. They represent the lunatic fringe, that place where artists push against the boundaries of what is acceptable.

This is not a judgement of qualities; stories in Say…? are not necessarily better than stories in Analog. They are different, and should not be compared to one another.

So when Jonathan asks if the small presses are comparable to the mainstream magazines, I have to shake my head in bemusement, unable to give a definitive answer.



how the fringe matters

Yet I think it is very important to direct our attentions to the fringes. This is where writers are playing with the speculative fiction traditions, and for the first time in the history of the genre, I think we are teetering on the edge of an overthrow. Where we've seen movements in the past that were quickly absorbed into the general SF canon, this time it's something different. The lunatic fringe is only tangentially related to the placid core, rather than existing as an extension of it. This is not RA Lafferty writing stories, not John Sladek being overlooked by the genre core. Rather, this time it is a shift in philosophy, a tweaking of the zeitgeist that will have lasting implications within the genre. It is my feeling that the lunatic fringe will eventually reshape the core of speculative fiction, which has not happened in the past fifty years.




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