Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Heat Death of Science Fiction

I haven't yet read all the stories in Helix #6, nor even properly digested the ones I have read, but I'm going to go on a bit about John Barnes' essay, "Reading for the Undead." In it, Barnes suggests that genres tend to last about 70 years, vaguely about three generations, and he describes the dynamics of the origin, development, and final flowering of a genre, until it becomes, in his phrasing "undead," a fixture on the cultural landscape that still moves from time to time, but which isn't growing, breaking new ground, or even becoming more artistically interesting, because all the tropes have been explored and exploited, to become merely familiar.

The "70 year lifetime of a genre" caught my attention right away, because my friend Dave Stout has been saying that for quite a while, and he derived the time span from pondering the history "picaresque novel," which had a lifespan of about 70 years. So we've been talking from time to time about the nature of genre lifespans for quite a while around our house.

I myself tend to use more of a combustion metaphor, with a genre beginning from kindling, moving to tender, then burning up most of the available fuel. So my word for the phenomenon that Barnes describes as "undead" is "banked." That's less provocative, but then, Barnes has more reason (and greater stature) to be provocative than I do.

But there are exceptions that test the rule ("test" being the original meaning of "prove"), and it's instructive to look at a few of them.

The "puzzle" form of the detective story, discounting Poe, can be dated from Sherlock Holmes, and Holmes had a number of well-know imitators. Eventually, many of the tropes became codified in the "drawing room mystery," where all the suspects eventually wind up in the drawing room and the Great Detective explains to one and all whodunit. A period of 70 years from 1887, and the 70 year rule would place its death somewhere around 1960. Agatha Christie was still wringing the last few drops out of the handkerchief at that time, but it's true that the drawing room mystery was largely a banked fire—at least in its literary incarnation.

But as a pop culture artifact, we had yet to see Columbo, MacMillan and Wife, Murder, She Wrote, and Monk, to say nothing of the other various lesser cop shows, detective shows, etc.

Literary snark would now claim that this is further proof, not just of Barnes' concept, but of his terminology. What can be a better indication of "undead" than TV Zombieland? Moreover movie and TV tie-in books will tend to crowd out any valid attempts to revive the literary genre, something that has indeed occurred in science fiction, where Star Trek and Star Wars novels routinely outsell the "serious stuff."

Something very similar happened to the Western. Born in the Dime Novel era, circa 1875, the climax practitioner, Zane Grey, died in 1939. But 1950s television was dominated by Westerns, just as motion pictures had been dominated by the genre just a few years before. Then, practically in a puff of smoke, the genre evaporated, almost vanishing from pop culture entirely (Heaven's Gate certainly helped remove it from the motion picture landscape), leaving only Louis L'Amour to tend to the embers, and the occasional Silverado homage, and Rustler's Rhapsody spoof to hold the motion picture fort.

But notice that I wrote "puzzle form" of the detective story up above. The drawing room mystery was still going strong when the "hard-boiled detective" came on the scene, and while a Black Mask story might very well feature a puzzle mystery, and even, occasionally a gather-all-the-suspects-into-a-room scene, those were not the dominating tropes. For hard-boiled detectives, it was the action, the social commentary, the atmosphere, and a different blend of characters than you find in the drawing room,

Then hard-boiled got even darker, tougher, and noir came along, a bank shot off of motion pictures, where B movies were cranked out of the studios aging black and white units, quickly written, even more quickly filmed, and verging on experimental in their art direction. Cue the cigarettes, the gunfire, and black, black blood. On the literary side, the original paperback novel was invented, and suddenly Mickey Spillane was the best selling novelist in the English language.

In the 1960s, the spy novel broke out of its genre and became a fad, and anyone who missed the connection between hard-boiled noir and the nihilistic secret agent was simply not paying attention (Spillane paid attention; he began writing spy novels). The fad finally culminated in parodies of spoofs of satires, like Get Smart and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. A plethora of parodies is often the signal of the end of a fad; genres tend to go less willingly.

The spy novel is usually considered to have originated in the early 20th Century. By the 70 year rule, the spy fad of the 1960s was its swan song. But the Cold War was still in operation, and the spy novel refused to bank down. It also gave rise to the "techno-thriller" which often used spy novel tropes.

Back at the detective novel, after noir came the procedural, whose origin is usually dated from the post-WWII period, i.e. a similar time frame to noir. The 70 year rule would suggest that we are now seeing the final flowering of both, unless noir is just a refinement of hard-boiled, in which case it's dead already. That would mean that I'm hauling two dead genres with Dark Underbelly.

So now let's consider a sci-fi subgenre: superheroes.

The superhero comic has dominated that field for quite a while, being the almost the sole reason for comics to exist as a medium for a considerable period, say from 1960 to 1990, barring the brief explosion of the Undergrounds. Moreover, Odd John and Gladiator notwithstanding, the superhero originated as much in comics as in science fiction, with Superman and Slan being approximately contemporaneous, 1938 and 1940, respectively. Intriguingly, Superman's creators, Siegel and Schuster wrote a fanzine story in the early 1930's, entitled "The Coming of the Superman," featuring a Slan-like (telepathic mind control) character.

The 70 year rule would suggest that superheroes are nearing the end of their run, which may be true, given the ongoing colonization of television and motion pictures by the genre. But notice that the superhero genre began as a sub-genre of science fiction. SF conventions used to be where comics fans could meet; now Comicon attendees vastly outnumber Worldcon attendees. Moreover, gamers are the real growth demographic.

But let's not forget the external dynamics here. Comic books are a natural precursor to motion pictures and television because of basic mechanics: a comic book is substantially like a story board. By contrast, novels are dreadful movie precursors, because a novel is much too long a form to translate to the screen. The amount of story in an average movie is approximated by a novella. Even given that most novels these days are at least 50% padding, there is still a mismatch. By contrast, game-based movies tend to be heavy on the glitz of special effects and martial arts choreography, but the stories tend to suck.

The short story itself had an economic lifetime of close to genre length (by "economic lifetime," I mean that the time given to writing a short story paid its own way, so that it was actually possible to make a living as a writer of short stories). But the short story flowered because a combination of the pulp magazine (the low end, with a low sales price) and the mass circulation magazine (the high end, with a heavy advertising base). Both markets sputtered and largely died in the 1950s, owing to external forces (television sucking away the mass advertising dollar and the death of the pulp magazine distribution network). The short story form is hardly dead, or even undead, but it's no longer a paying proposition. If the venues came back, there would be plenty of both readers and writers, but lack of venues is due to a different market dynamic than a loss of readership.

All of this may seem a bit far a field from science fiction as such, but it's worth noting, as a friend of mine recently said, that the "science fiction" section of his local bookstore is still growing. Part of that may be simple book bloat, but I rather suspect that it's because other genres are encroaching. Epic fantasy was revived after decades of ember tending by writers like Fritz Leiber and Henry Kuttner, but The Lord of the Rings and the Frazetta Conan put it back on the shelves and fired up the genre. Can we count on 70 years of elves and magic starting from 1965? If not, then who originates, Howard or Lord Dunsany?

Similarly, vampires, werewolves, urban and gothic horror, all seem to be churning right along, yet there was a time when such stories had to masquerade as science fiction to find an audience. Now it's often the other way around.

What we may in fact be witnessing is the great hybridization of fiction. Something similar has been underway in music; it's not uncommon to hear a fugue riff in a hip-hop number, or a salsa variation of a hot jazz piece. Similarly, most literary fiction now has a pop culture awareness, so a showdown with ray guns becomes just another bit of wallpaper.

A genre is a literary form where the willing suspension of disbelief is aided by an appeal to the conventions and tropes of the genre itself. When categories break down, the number of unacceptable things declines, while at the same time, the opportunities for theft, er, I mean, "influences" or "homage" or "pastiche" increase. Ultimately the real question is the same as it always was.

"How can I make money off of this?" –Jim Turner, "The Brain that Wouldn't Go Away"

Helix is at:

Be nice. Toss some money in the tip jar.


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