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Science Fiction Association of Bergen County

Convention Reports:

Readercon 9

A convention report by Taras Wolansky

[Editor's Note: This material originally appeared in FOSFAX, January 1998. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

Copyright 1998 Taras Wolansky

Table of Contents

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Readercon 9

Readercon 9 was held the weekend of July 11, 1997, once again at the affordable Westborough Marriott in Westborough, Massachusetts. Guests of Honor, author Kim Stanley Robinson, author/editor Algis Budrys; Memorial (i.e. dead) Guest of Honor, 1950s author C.M. Kornbluth.

The Sky Is Falling

Saturday afternoon, "The Declining SF Readership" was the downbeat topic at a convention dedicated to SF reading. The participants were: authors Eleanor Arnason and Barry Malzberg (who is depressed at the best of times); editors David G. Hartwell, Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), and Charles C. Ryan (Aboriginal SF); moderator, Fred Lerner, librarian and fan.

With mixed success, Nielsen Hayden attempted to disagree with the panel's theme. While it is true the mass market paperback distribution business has collapsed in the last two years, he said, the SF readership has "diversified", not declined: "Most of the industry studies I see point in the opposite direction."

Do those studies exclude media tie-ins, asked Ryan; Nielsen Hayden had to answer, no. There is definitely a decline, said Ryan, especially in the area of short fiction, where both Analog and Asimov's are down to about 50,000 subscribers. The "magazines are in trouble, it's obvious," agreed Nielsen Hayden. Yet in the book business, even without media tie-ins, Tor is doing very well. Tor may be doing well, said Ryan, but "other lines have fallen by the wayside".

Malzberg challenged Nielsen Hayden to provide the actual numbers from those optimistic studied he had cited earlier. Nielsen Hayden said he resented having his word questioned and refused. But Hartwell took up the challenge. In 1970, he said, there were only 30 genre titles published every month, but the printings were from 60 to 75 thousand, selling about 50%. In the 1980s, the number of titles doubled, but the typical printings went down to 30 to 35 thousand. Today, there are over 100 titles a month, including media, but the printings have declined to less than 25 thousand.

It's gotten harder for a writer to make a living, Nielsen Hayden acknowledged. On the other hand, the statistics may be misleading. They don't count the subgenres spawned by SF in recent years, he said, things that would once have been considered part of the genre: for example, Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, techno-thrillers.

But Malzberg had no doubts. The genre SF audience has held stable at 500,000, give or take 50,000, for years but in the meantime the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America has soared from 150 in 1967 to 1000 today. The result is "more people fighting for a static audience." Where solid work once stayed in print for years, Nielsen Hayden admitted, "mass market books these days have the life-expectancy of mayflies."

The Words of GoH

Later that same afternoon, Guest of Honor Kim Stanley Robinson was interviewed by David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Hartwell's better half). Robinson said that he took his first step toward becoming an SF writer when, during the Q&A at a lecture by Harlan Ellison, he naively asked Ellison for the address of the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop. What he got instead was an Ellisonian rant about how Clarion eats young writers for breakfast; but after the lecture a more affable, off-stage Ellison finally gave him the address.

In light of his experience, Robinson hesitated to recommend Clarion, or any other workshop, to aspiring writers. For him, Clarion was "as much bad as good", because of the "homogenization effect" when twenty-five students and six faculty "hammered on all the experiments". I got the impression that Robinson's attempts, which he described as "extremely bizarre", did not go over well.

In his academic career, what started Robinson on his way to writing his doctoral dissertation on Philip K. Dick was hearing his faculty advisor, critic Frederick Jameson, call Dick "the greatest living American writer"--not "greatest science fiction writer", but "greatest writer"! Which left Robinson temporarily very perplexed after he read his first Dick novel, unfortunately the extremely minor Galactic Pot-Healer.

Robinson read a lot of "after the fall" novels in preparation his first book, The Wild Shore, and included in it a line apiece from the ones he liked, like George R. Stewart's Earth Abides and Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney. The book was inspired by growing up in Orange County, California and watching in horror as its rural beauty was urbanized almost overnight. So "I bombed them back to Hannibal, Missouri," he said with satisfaction. As a boy, he had imagined he was living in Mark Twain's old home town--and there was no objective evidence to the contrary, he said.

As Red Mars took shape, it "looked very strange" to its author, due to what are usually damned as "expository lumps": a two-page list of tools; a five-page how-to; etc. But in the end he left the material in: "To hell with the workshop rules!" he said.

Robinson doesn't like being called a hard-SF writer. "The hardness in hard SF is hardness of attitude," he said, not scientific rigor. He also dislikes the "literary" label. What he writes is "just straight science fiction".

Part of Robinson's intent in writing his Mars trilogy was to explore alternatives to "the dominant order of late capitalism ... a hundred years from now there's going to be a different economic system."

Pretty much the chimerical brand of economics expected of lit. majors today: "We could declare tomorrow ... that the maximum hours of work a week would have to be twenty ... and people would have twenty more hours a week of leisure". And, living standards would be cut roughly in half, because half the nation's work wouldn't get done.

Robinson was unapologetic about the elements of the Utopian novel in his trilogy, especially in the third novel, Blue Mars, like 30-page chapters on alternative political systems. Michael Bishop had criticized that book for its "brutal overload of information"; Robinson wished he could use that line as a cover blurb!

Robinson proved to be something less than a doctrinaire leftist. Asked about his environmentalism, he said that while currently the capitalist Right is more unfriendly to the environment, the Left--in the form of the Eastern Bloc socialist governments--had an even worse record. A question from the floor referred to America's "totalitarian agriculture". "You can't really bash agribusiness if you try growing a garden yourself," he said. Plants will die, right before your eyes, with the slightest provocation, or for no discernible reason at all. What with six billion mouths to feed, "I'm sympathetic with the people who are trying to grow an incredible amount of food. Because if we don't have people trying to do that, we'll have mass famine."

Hartwell: "Are there any particular trends in science fiction you wish to deplore?" Robinson, after a brief pause: "Not really; it's going great as far as I'm concerned!" (General laughter; events in San Antonio a few weeks later made his remark all the more apt.) Robinson described his current lifestyle as follows: "Essentially, I'm a suburban house husband, and I write on the side, and I get to the mountains when I can."

Playing With the Net Up

Sunday afternoon, in a small room on the lower level, Kim Stanley Robinson gave a provocative talk on his view of the relationship of "Science and Science Fiction". "It is not science that is the basic subject of science fiction," he said, "it is the future."

Robinson drew a line representing known history on the board, with the present instant on the right end and the past extending leftward. Stories set between, say, 1900 and the present are considered realistic fiction; earlier than 1900, historical fiction. Science fiction draws an extension off the right end (the present), while alternative history jumps off from various points in the middle (the past); and prehistoric fiction branches off from the left end (where history leaves off). And finally, fantasy he drew in off by itself to the side because, he said, it is not connected to our history in any way.

From which it follows that every SF work "has to contain its own theory of history", be it one of progress (usually) or decline.

In a sense, science and science fiction are opposites. "Science is focused very much on what we can know, and science fiction is focused on stuff that we can never know": alternative history, other worlds, the future. From the audience, Evelyn Leeper questioned in what sense "we can never know" the future. Because when you get there, the future is still ahead of you, Robinson responded, somewhat lamely.

"I really dislike these replacement terms, like speculative fiction or fabulism or whatever". He felt it's a sign of SF's "inferiority complex". "Science" and "fiction" are a powerful combination. Science creates "facts"; he described a scientific fact as a "black box" containing a "ferocious argument", the argument that won the general acceptance of the scientific community. Whereas "fiction is the ultimate home of our values," at least for a nonreligious person like himself, and is "where our values get created".

On the one hand, there are the "sociobiologists" who claim, he said, there are no values, just biological drives. On the other, there are the "postmodernists, often leftists" who claim "every fact is just a cultural construct" and "the entire world is nothing but a text". Then consider that, in effect, "our genre is called, 'fact values'!" "The underlying message of our genre's name" is that both are real.

As to those who will not read anything labelled "science fiction", they have their heads in the sand. "They can't even recognize that we're all living in a science fiction novel now!" He feels there is "no reason to be defensive even about the bad stuff." Sturgeon's Law: there is bad stuff everywhere. It merely makes science fiction a "vertical genre", extending from pulpish juvenilia to high literature. Borrowing an idea proposed (half in jest) by Charles Sheffield, Robinson proposed placing writers and works on an x-y graph, with literary quality on the vertical axis and scientific accuracy on the horizontal.

While Robinson had begun by asserting science is not the subject of science fiction, he thought it was interesting to ask why there is so little "fiction about science". Robinson knows a thing or two about how science is really done. Earlier he had told us about his "hard chemist" wife, who had started out as an ethologist: "The origin of Sax Russell [the scientist in the Mars trilogy] is not mysterious if you know my home situation!" "There's something very resistant to narration in the process of science itself," he speculated.

Paper Goods

As in previous years, the Readercon souvenir book was a substantial collection of encomia and bibliographies of the guests of honor, plus short stories by Budrys and Kornbluth, and a cogent essay on Philip K. Dick by Robinson.

The program guide was once again an exemplar of the genre, with eight pages of discursive program item descriptions arranged by time, and twelve pages, in tiny print, of participant biographies. (No pictures this year.) The cover featured another deliciously absurd pen-and-ink drawing by Cortney Skinner, showing people in neo-primitive dress, perched on stony pinnacles above a forest, reading books attached to ropes and suspended in the air from primitive balloon-ships hovering overhead.--Taras Wolansky.

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