AUSSIES, BRITS, AND YANKS
It seems to me that a disproportionate amount of not only the best Anglophone science fiction but of out-and-out science fiction in general is being written by British and Australian writers, and in retrospect it seems that this has been going on for quite some time.
Of course the Brits and Aussies are not actually publishing more science fiction titles per annum than the Americans, but given the relative demographics, the number of such titles published by non-Americans greatly exceeds what the population statistics might lead one to expect. Nor am I talking about “SF” in general, only about actual science fiction itself.
Not that British science fiction writers are celebrating the state of science fiction publishing. There are all too many worthy British science fiction novels that haven’t been finding publishers in the United States. Indeed, there are newer science fiction writers of repute in Britain who have never published a book in the United States, and quite a few who were once established in the US who now have a very difficult time securing American publication. Original Australian science fiction publishing, squeezed between British and American imports, has always been small time stuff in commercial terms.
So Australian and British science fiction writers are having an even more difficult time of it economically than their American counterparts, certainly when it comes to publishing their work in the United States, and even in their home markets. And yet there seem to be more of them, and more interesting newer British and Australian writers, publishing actual science fiction rather than “sci-fi” or fantasy or “SF” in their home markets percentagewise than Americans are doing, and of an overall higher literary quality too.
I’m not talking about the New Wave or its literary successors, but rather what might be called the high quality more or less down the middle science fiction exemplified in the past by much of John Brunner, no little of earlier Brian Aldiss, more of Arthur C. Clarke than Sir Arthur might care to admit, George Turner, and so forth. In the present by the likes of Damien Broderick, Greg Egan, Ian Stewart, Stephen Baxter, Brian Stableford, Paul McAuley, and so forth, but also by quite a few writers you probably haven’t even heard of. Nor had I, until I recently became acquainted with some of their work.
Now I’m not saying that this latter group of writers is less literarily ambitious than the writers of the New Wave school and its successors, or less sophisticated, or less skilled, or less accomplished at what they generally set out to do, but that the two sorts of science fiction do differ in terms of literary and commercial ambition.
It can generally be said that British New Wave science fiction and its spiritual and esthetic successors sought and still seek to break the genre bounds between “science fiction” and so-called “mainstream.”
In marketing and commercial terms, this has meant trying to repackage the stuff as “speculative fiction” and conceiving of the potential readership as wider than that of the committed SF cognoscenti and therefore assuming no prior knowledge of the tropes, terminology, and givens of “SF” or “sci-fi” on their part. Science fiction that, while it doesn’t exclude the in-group audience, is written with a care for people who ordinarily would not read “science fiction.”
In literary terms, this more often than not means applying a broader palette of “mainstream,” “experimental,” and “literary” stylistic and formal technique to a more generally comprehensible panoply of science fictional material than might be found in the hard core of the genre in order to reach a wider and more literarily sophisticated, if less scientifically and technologically and “science fictionally” sophisticated readership.
A few years ago, perhaps in reaction to this, yet paradoxically perhaps also as a part of it, there was a certain flowering of what has been called “post-modern space opera,” also led by British writers, such as Colin Greenland.
“Naïve” space opera, if you will, was basically science fiction set in space or worlds other than Earth, written, as opposed to “hard science fiction” on the other extreme, in blissful disregard or plain ignorance of the laws of mass and energy and in many case of the actual physical conditions pertaining in “outer space” or the planets in question.
Post-modern space opera, on the other hand, takes the same sort of astronomic, scientific, and technological liberties and then some in the service of story, but knowingly, the attitude being, “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn!”
The writer of post-modern space opera does not really believe that Venus is a world of dinosaurian infested swamps or Mars is crisscrossed by the canals of a decaying civilization, and does not expect the reader to be an ignoramus either. The attitude is, if I want swamps on my Venus, I’ll have swamps on my Venus! If I want Martian canals, I’ll have them too! This is, after all, fiction, and, chez Vonnegut, all fiction is lies. Fair enough, as long as you know it’s lies.
This sort of stuff more often than not deliberately lays it on with a trowel, the point being to openly acknowledge that this is not intended as mimetic realism or “science fiction” in any traditionally rigorous sense, but fantasy; a literary construct, pure if not so simple.
That’s what makes post-modern space opera post-modern, and it is that post-modernity that makes it, paradoxically, at least, a distant cousin of the “New Wave” or “speculative fiction.” The later also often takes a similar post-modern stance in terms of eschewing the “transparency” of style and form and scientific mimesis adopted by traditional science fiction in order to suspend disbelief in favor of openly admitting that what is being presented is, after all, a literary construct and therefore no such belief on the part of the reader is required.
But now, when American genre “SF” publishing has become overwhelmingly dominated by fantasy, and, with some significant exceptions, most American writers who seek to publish literarily, psychologically, and philosophically serious science fiction are of necessity trying to snake-dance out of the genre straightjacket in the direction of “mainstream,” there seems to be an emerging counter-trend in Anglophone science fiction, coming mostly but not entirely out of Britain, Australia, Canada, and Northern Ireland.
Namely a renaissance of, well, traditional science fictionscience fiction that does not seek to be anything other than the best science fiction it can be, but nothing less either. If it wasn’t so ridiculous a term, I’d call it “post-post-modern” science fiction. As it is, I don’t really know what to call it, except perhaps “sophisticated mainstream science fiction.”
Take Paradox and Context, “books one and two of the Nulapeiron Sequence” by John Meaney. That I am reviewing the first two books of a trilogy, and without even seeing the third, given my well-known aversion to novel series, is exceptional as far as I’m concerned, but the Nulapeiron Sequence is exemplary of what I’m talking about here.
Meaney is, yes, British, and the whole three novel sequence, the third being called Resolution, and let us hope it is, had already been published to some significant acclaim by a major established British SF imprint, starting with, so it would seem by the copyright of the first book, Paradox, in 2000.
But Paradox was not published in the United States until 2005, five years later, and not by a major established American SF imprint, a clear example of the current unfortunate transatlantic disconnect, but by a new start-up called Pyr. As, I find, are all the books herein considered, and not by happenstance either, about which more later.
Nulapeiron is a large planet out there somewhere colonized by humans centuries ago. It would seem to have a toxic (to humans) atmosphere, for the humans inhabit not the surface, but vast and deep interconnected caves, caverns, corridors, and warrens whose breathable atmosphere must be provided by a fungus genetically engineered to do so.
Humans have also been on Nulapeiron long enough to have evolved, or devolved, an elaborate and elaborately stifling neo-feudal culture. The planet is divided up into “domains,” feudal fiefs. Each fief consists of multiple levels of stratified caverns, and the physical stratification mirrors and determines a rigid class structure. Only a Brit could or would create a dystopian class system like this.
The protagonist of the series is one Tom Corcorigan, who starts at the near bottom of his fief’s levels and class structure, rises slowly and stepwise to the top as “Lord Corcorigan,” becomes a secret rebel against the system, then a not-so-secret rebel leader, then a fugitive, rises again, falls, flees, rises once more, and, I would suspect, finally succeeds in reforming or definitively overthrowing the system in Resolution, as yet unpublished in the United States, which I have not yet read.
But don’t stop me if you’ve read this before, which you probably have, since in summary it is probably the plot and thematic framework of more space opera than not. Because I am about to contend that the Nulapeiron Sequence is not space opera at all, though the publisher has put a laudatory quote on the cover of Paradox contending that it is, but exactly the sort of stuff that I’m trying to avoid having to call “post-post-modern science fiction.”
Okay, these novels would seem to have a protagonist and a plot straight out of naïve space opera or post-modern space opera, and yes, they’re set primarily on a distant world colonized by humans a long time ago, and yes, the feudal society is all too familiar, and yes, there are plenty of combat sequences, indeed to excess, and yes, our hero is the mightiest of warriors.
However, while there is a great deal of what at first may seem like cavalier space opera pseudo-scienceprescient seers, living vehicles of every sort, creatures seemingly concocted at the author’s whim, and so forthMeaney does make a serious attempt at giving it all at least science fictional credibility. Genetic engineering seems to be the dominant technologywhy engineer transportation vehicles, atmosphere generating systems, and so forth, when you can breed them?and since Nulapeiron could not have been colonized without the genetically engineered fungus, this cultural technological dominance is credible. There is also a plausibly worked out futuristic mutation of the web and the internet and other hardware, as opposed to meatware technologies, so in toto the technosphere of the planet is quite three-dimensionally credible.
There is also a lot of very advanced futuristic physics underpinning the science, technology, prescience, and even the plot, underpinned in turn by mathematics too recondite for me to quite tell where the real cutting edge stuff grades into the necessary vaporware and bullshit. This, after all, is exactly where what I have elsewhere called “rubber science” is supposed to leave the reader within a piece of true “science fiction,” post-modern or otherwise.
Further, early on in the first novel, young Tom comes into possession of an artifact that tells him tales from his deep past, which is to say our own relatively near future, which Meaney uses to intercut another story, namely that of how the far future set-up of Nulapeiron came to be. The two time-lines seem to slowly converge so that, I suspect, they will finally come together in Resolution.
Tom is given the thing by what Nulapeiron folk assume is a mythical creature, a Pilot; one of the humans cyborged to the FTL ships that colonized the planet long ago before some mysterious event somehow rendered such space travel impossible and Pilots supposedly extinct.
And the story that Meaney intercuts with the main narrative, at least in the first two novels, is that of the events that caused such isolation, the physics and metaphysics behind it, told from the points of view of two generations of Pilots, mother and daughter, and, in contradistinction to the doings on far-future Nulapeiron, with science rather less rubbery, and in a time and in places at least initially not that distant from our own.
Thus Meaney is attempting, and, as far as I have read thus far, succeeding, in doing what space opera by any meaningful definition never attempts. He seeks, at least in terms of literary effect, to seamlessly connect the reality of his far future with that of the readers.
My contentionor definition, if you likeis that fiction that does this, or even has the ambition to do this, cannot be space opera. This is full-bore science fiction, not self-consciously fantasy or a pure literary construct.
Furtherand this is something space opera can do but seldom doesat least as presented in the first two novels, Tom Corcorigan is a flawed hero.
One arm has been chopped off as punishment by the powers that be, making him a physically flawed hero. This is rendered more psychologically and practically significant because a central part of his heroic powers is that he is a crackerjack martial artist despite, or possibly because of, this. Martial arts combat of any number of schools forms a large part of Meaney’s actiona bit too much for my taste, becoming obsessional not only on the part of his character but on the part of the author.
More importantly, Tom is a psychologically flawed hero. In the white heat of combat he does kill without hesitation and under extremes of torture degenerates into a subhuman killing machine. But he is agonized by his own acts and mistakes, rather than being a simple good-guy with an authorial license to consciencelessly kill, to the point where he spends quite a bit of time as a drunken derelict.
Thus what we (in the US) have here is two novels of a three novel sequence that attempts to be both literarily and thematically quite sophisticated and mimetic, unlike space opera, without being anything more or less than science fiction period, and for my money succeeds.
But commercially speaking, the chances of the novels of the Nulapeiron cycle “breaking out” of the SF genre marketing parameters and numbers limitations, certainly in the United States, and almost certainly elsewhere, are zero. Not because of any lack of skill or sophistication, but because no one not at least passingly familiar with the literature of science fiction is likely to be able to read them with full comprehension and therefore enjoyment on the level the author intends.
This is not to say that this sort of literary product fails or that the general readership that can’t possibly fully comprehend science fiction written on this level is stupid, but that this is science fiction for people who read science fiction, period. Fiction that can only be really be enjoyed by such readers. Fiction that chooses to address a deliberately limited audience. Elite fiction of its own kind, as surely as Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake.
There, I’ve said it. And I will go further and say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this if one chooses to write such fiction with no commercial illusions. Certain things simply cannot be properly written for a general audience. I knew this and accepted it myself when I wrote The Void Captain’s Tale and Riding the Torch, for example, and unless he was smoking much stronger stuff that I was at the time, I’m sure John Meaney knew and accepted it too. There are stories you must write for a limited well-educated audience or not at all.
This is the sort of thing I’ve been reduced to calling “post post-modern science fiction.” It would be easy enough to simply call it “classical science fiction” or even just science fiction, period, if this kind of thing hadn’t seemed to be on the way out in the US to the point where its literary renaissance out of Britain and Australia seem to be some kind of brave and perhaps quixotic counter-trend deserving of some sort of label.
“Science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction” is not exactly a sexy logo like New Wave or post-modern space opera or cyberpunk, but it is precisely what I’m talking about. And the readership for it is pretty precisely self-selected and limited too.
The question is, is that readership large enough for such literature to survive commercially?
The major established science fiction lines generally appear to think not. Pyr, on the other hand, seems to aggressively believe it is, perhaps because its definition of commercial survival is more modest and realistic. Which is why all the novels considered in this essay have been published by Pyr, since Pyr seems to be specializing in such stuff, which also seems to be a main reason why they are publishing so many non-American writers, unlike the major American SF lines.
At first glance, Pyr seems to be a small press, indeed a small SF specialty press, meaning a low capitalization, minuscule print run start-up whose distribution is the dwindling number of independent SF specialty stores, a wing, and a prayer. However, Pyr is an imprint of Prometheus Books, an independent non-fiction publisher that has been around for over thirty years, during which it has established distribution access to the chains and major independent book stores. So Pyr, while it may function as a small specialty press on the acquisition end, has a leg up on the rest of them when it comes to distribution.
If a publisher like Tor can get out five thousand copies of a mid-list SF hardcover, maybe something like Pyr can do it too, and do say a thirty-five hundred copy sell-through, which would seem to be about an average percentage these days, neither a disaster nor a great success. At twenty-five dollars a copy, that earns out an advance of $8750 for the writer, more than Pyr is probably fronting, and maybe they do a trade paperback later, and who knows, occasionally sell mass market rights.
The point of doing these numbers is that if Pyr’s editorial selection and distribution processes work in a nominal but not exceptional manner, they can run at a decent profit while being competitive with the established so-called major SF lines, at least when it comes to mid-list. And writers thereof will do no worse by going their route either.
The bad news is that what this proves is that so-called mid-list SF writers have as much of a chance of earning a tough hard-working livelihood published by an outfit like this as they do of doing the same being published in a so-called major SF line.
The good news is the literary strategy being employed by Pyr’s editor, Lou Anders, in taking advantage of the bad news. Anders, emphatically unlike the majors, has been opting for trying to maintain a consistently high level of literary quality. What Pyr has begun to publish, and yes, thus far fairly consistently, is the aforementioned science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in.
Literary idealism, but also cunning commercial cherry-picking. What Anders seems to have realized, what the Pyr business model seems to reflect, is that this sort of elite science fiction does have an inherently limited readership, that such novels are not about to “break out,” any more than the uneven mid-list sci-fi persiflage churned out by the majors.
Surprisingly enough, there is now a lot of such high quality science fiction available for average advances under ten thousand dollars, maybe well under. Therefore, unless such a publisher as Pyr (or for that matter most of the so-called majors if they would get the point) is really incompetent, if it accepts the demographic limitations, it can run quite nicely at a profit publishing nothing but such down-the-middle science fiction of literary quality.
Given good literary taste, it’s a no-brainer. There are scores, perhaps hundreds, of high quality, even classic, science fiction novels by well-known writers living and dead laying around out of print that you can pick up for relative peanuts. And is there any reason you have to package them as Golden Oldies? At these advance levels, there is really no economic excuse for publishing low-grade filler even in the mid-list of a major, especially since it isn’t going to sell any better than the right stuff anyway.
And these days there are all too many science fiction novels of literary quality being published in English outside the United States by writers unknown and unpublished in America begging to be published in the US with apparently no major takers, and therefore in no position to bargain for budget-busting bucks. Another reason, it would seem, why a disproportionate number of the early novels on the Pyr list are of non-American origin.
Another of these books is The Affinity Trap by Martin Sketchley, another British writer, and yes, billed as Book One of the Structure Series. This novel was published as a trade paperback original, perhaps because its prior publication in Britain may have been in that form, making a later American hardcover commercially unviable.
This is another science fiction novel of literary quality that hasn’t a real prayer of being marketed to or read with comprehending enjoyment by any but an experienced and sophisticated audience of science fiction readersthough it does partake of some of the attributes of space opera, and the sub-genre, if you want to call it that, of so-called military science fiction.
Around the turn of the twenty-fourth century, most of the population of Earth has retreated into enormous habitats reminiscent of Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, but the novel doesn’t much concern itself with what goes on inside them.
The Earth has been taken over by a nasty, corrupt, bureaucratic military dictatorship, more banana republic writ large and high-tech than efficiently fascist, though utterly fascist economically, run in an amoral fashion by a generalissimo named Myson for the greedy profit of himself and his cronies.
The heroor, better, protagonistof The Affinity Trap is Alexander Delgado, commando killer and military intelligence agent par excellence. As the novel opens, though, his career is somewhat in decline, having been too closely identified with the fortunes of the previous generalissimo overthrown by Myson. Thus does Sketchley introduce Delgado as a man who has been a dedicated soldier with some idealism, but dedicated to the previous regime, wishing to redeem his position with the current one, though viewing it as degenerate and Myson a monster. It is a well-rendered set-up for a classic piece of jaundiced viewpoint military SF in the mode of Chris Bunch and Alan Cole’s Sten series.
But Sketchley’s fictional universe is an interstellar one with any number of methods of interstellar travel, any number of alien races off camera in The Affinity Trap, and the Structure, the term for Earth’s military-industrial-trading kleptocracy, doing dirty business with and/or against any number of them at any given time, and engaged one way or another in any number of crummy little colonial wars for and against aliens and human colonials.
Tension is currently high between the Structure and the Seriatt, a race of three-sexed aliens, and Myson concocts a ploy straight out of medieval Europe to father a child on Lycern, the “child-bearer to the royal household,” in order to cement diplomatic relations and maybe even an alliance. But Lycern splits to the encampment of the Affinity Group on a third planet, a kind of human religious nut-cult-cum-nascent hive mind, and Delgado is given the chance to save his endangered ass by bringing her back to Earth or else.
So it’s a very complex geopolitical mess out there in outer space. The McGuffin involves a scientifically exceedingly unlikely act of inter-species reproductive sex, our intrepid hero is dropped down on a hostile planet to fetch the alien princess, and it seems like a set-up for a classic piece of post-modern space opera.
Delgado snatches Lycern, but in the process ends up involved in a bizarre sexual affair with the alien “princess,” that addicts him to her sexually, biochemically, and psychologically; an addiction which he loathes, struggles against, and that stepwise changes his loyalties, moral compass, and personality.
There’s a long sequence in a huge resort space habitat on the way back to Earth. Without going into the details, Delgado ends up with a little rag-tag guerilla group in the ruins surrounding the habitats fighting Myson and the Structure. The novel ends with an action sequence in which Delgado and his comrades attempt to snatch Lycern away from Myson and his minions.
How the novel ends, I won’t even hint at for fear of ruining the bravura effect, except to say that it knocked my socks off, left my jaw gaping open, turned what was billed as the first novel of a series into something that stands entirely on its own, and left me wondering what in hell the next novel in the series could possibly be.
If the above plot description gives the impression that The Affinity Trap is a disjointed smorgasbord of science fictional schtickspace opera, military science fiction, anthropological science fiction, sexual science fiction a la Philip José Farmer, rebel-against-the-system science fictionwell, on a surface level it is. The military technology is well worked out and coherent and so is the space resort, but the FTL stuff and particularly the human-alien sex and reproduction is not to be taken seriously on any but the pure story level.
Nevertheless, The Affinity Trap coheres on a literary level because, at its core, it is a political and psychological novel, always focused and centered on the evolution and/or devolution of Delgado’s loyalties, moral structure, character, and essential consciousness. At its heart, this is a novel of character, bouncing around from one level of rigor to another on an external phenomenological level, but always believable, interesting, and realistic on a psychological level.
Another science fiction novel of high literary quality, an adult novel of character even, with no chance at all of being enjoyed and comprehended by other than the sophisticated and experienced reader of science fiction. Another worthy novel whose commercial sales potential is entirely contained within those limited demographics.
And I’m not talking about the science fiction readership the major science fiction lines are addressing with so much stuff targeted at the so-called “fan base.” That’s a different, though also limited, science fiction readership from the one I’ve been talking about, though there is some overlap.
Some of those less sophisticated science fiction readers can and will read science fiction written for a sophisticated and intelligent readership likewise familiar with science fiction when, like Context, Paradox, and The Affinity Trap, it pushes their science fictional buttons too, and some of them will have their literary tastes widened and deepened thereby.
But I doubt that many of them will likely read something like Michael Blumlein’s novel The Healer with much enthusiasm and enjoyment.
This is another worthy science fiction novelwell, sort ofpublished by Pyr, but this time it’s the novel’s first publication anywhere, and the author is not only an American, but an American who has previously been published in a major American SF line.
But under the current conditions, one can see why an established major SF line would not be likely to publish something like The Healer. Blumlein is a doctor, and even puts the “MD” after his name on the cover as if it were a license plate. Which might be taken for a rather silly affectation were not The Healer a novel about a doctor, or anyway a, well, healer.
Where or when (or both) the story takes place seems impossible to ascertain from the text. Another planet? A far future Earth? The overwhelming majority of the population is human, but there is a significant minority of mutant Grotesques, most of whom are simply grotesque, a few of whom, like Payne, the protagonist, are healers.
Healers have an orifice-like organ on their torsos called the os melior that enables them to sort of body-meld with ill humans, draw the disease out of the patient’s body like the “bad vapors” of pre-allopathic medical theory, and concretize them into a strange sort of semi-creature that they excrete, thus effecting the cure.
Science fiction? Fantasy?
Blumlein has invented and elaborated in convincing fictional detail an alternate healing science not only unlike any contemporary or past school of medicine, but whose internal logic holds up quite well on a literary level, even though it makes no sense at all in terms of what science knows of mammalian, bacterial, and viral biology.
Easy enough therefore to call The Healer “science fiction” if one takes the venue for a far future Earth with mutated biology or another planet with inhabitants who are somehow “human,” a common enough science fictional convention, or just as easy to call it fantasy.
Who really cares? Blumlein doesn’t seem to. His fictional healing process works like rubber science, not magic. I would contend, not that I feel particularly contentious about it, that this is post-modern science fiction in the manner of post-modern space opera.
Blumlein, like writers of post-modern space opera, knows that The Healer violates known science as surely as the Swamps of Venus or the Canals of Marshe is a physician, after allbut, like them, doesn’t give a damn. Like the writers of post-modern space opera, he’s quite willing to jettison verisimilitude, science, even the science of his own profession, in order to tell his story.
The difference, and in commercial terms as well as literary terms it is an enormous difference, is the nature and intent of the story. Whereas post-modern space opera, like naïve space opera, is out to tell a ripping adventure yarn, in The Healer Blumlein is out to tell a very interior, indeed somewhat claustrophobic, character-centered story.
Who does and who does not become a healer is genetically determined, and the culture depicted allows them no choice in the matter; they are in effect drafted, and drafted for life. And that life is a shortened one, for the healing process burns them out and kills them at an early age. And since Grotesques are an underclass despised or, at best, grudgingly tolerated by the dominant humans, healers, being Gro-tesques, are neither richly rewarded nor respected in the manner of doctors in our society. No human mother in Blumlein’s fictional reality would aspire to have her daughter marry one.
Thus Payne’s story is that of something of a social isolate, who generally fails to break out of his social isolation, and is not very good at human (in the broadest sense) relationships; a professional empath, whose empathy exists mainly on a professional level, as perhaps deliberately symbolized by the manner of the healing, as he cures diseases caused by immaterial agencies by converting them into concrete material aggregations to be excreted.
Has Michael Blumlein, MD, deliberately written a kind of science fictional meditation on the inner lives of doctors in our own society? Is there something psychically autobiographical here? Maybe. Certainly appending his MD to his author credit seem like an invitation to take The Healer that way, else why do it in the first place? But be that as it may, that’s where literary criticism starts to drift off into speculative psychoanalysis of the author, and that’s a direction in which I choose to go no further.
My point for present purposes is that The Healer is a very deep and very interesting and very interior meditation on what it is to be a healernot to choose to be one, but to be chosen, to be able to heal others but not oneself or one’s colleagues, to pay a heavy price in psychic terms and in terms of lifespanbut interesting only to a readership interested in such stuff, which is not likely to be a large one.
Certainly smaller than the potential readership for space opera, post-modern or otherwise, smaller even than the more restricted readership for science fiction written for sophisticated and knowledgeable readers thereof in general. Which is to say smaller than the potential market for novels like the Nulapeiron Sequence or The Affinity Trap.
And yet, though the major established SF lines hardly ever publish anything promising only numbers like that anymore, Pyr has chosen to publish it, calculating, and I think correctly, that there are still enough potential readers even for something like The Healer to turn an acceptable profit on realistically modest terms.
What all this means to the writers laboring within the aforementioned commercial parameters is a true existential question that cuts to the heart of what one writes at any given time and why.
Under the present commercial conditions, science fiction of the sort reviewed and lauded herein is just not going to “break out” of its limited readership, nor, therefore, is it going to “break out” of its circumscribed economic potential. Indeed, this may be, maybe have always been, and may always be, inherent in the nature of the material itself. No one is going to make anything beyond a tough hard-scrabble living writing science fiction for sophisticated and knowledgeable readers exclusively.
Does that mean it is not worth writing?
I would contend, and have hopefully thus far demonstrated that such fiction is certainly worth reading for those equipped to read it with the necessary level of knowledge and commitment. Indeed, for such readers it may be the fiction of choice.
Whether it’s worth writing for practitioners without illusions is a personal choice, perhaps a choice that one makes from book to book. I know that I have. In absolute literary terms, the sincere writer really writes for a readership of one. You write what you would like someone else to have written so you could read it.
I like to read the sort of fiction I’ve been discussing here, so I’ve written it from time to time; early on perhaps with unrealistic stars in my eyes, later without commercial illusions. But I have other literary interests, too. I not only wish to reach larger readership for certain of my works, but wish to acquaint them with something of the spirit of speculative fiction, too. And so I have no problem writing contemporary fiction, historical fiction, “cross-over fiction,” whatever, with the same literary sincerity.
But accepting a limited elite audience for a particular work sometimes has a strong attraction for a writer, for it liberates you to write certain things that you know damn well can’t be read with comprehending enjoyment by anyone else.
Of course the economic attraction is not much beyond bare survival. Still, if something like Pyr succeeds and is emulated by more such publishing programs, and the numbers say given competence such a business and literary model should work, it will be possible to earn something like a survival living writing only such fiction for those with the necessary talent who can write quickly enough or a nice supplement for those not fast enough to give up their day job.
That much being said, it is still depressing when something like The Resurrected Man by Sean Williams, which should have been published in a major way by a major SF line at the very least must be rescued from American limbo by a specialty imprint like Pyr.
Williams is an Australian who has apparently published eighteen novels there, The Resurrected Man was first published in Australia way back in 1998, and is one of those comparatively rare novels that both fulfill the parameters of full-bore science fiction yet could be read by a “cross-over” audience as easily as the science fiction of Michael Crichton or Margaret Atwood to which it is quite superior on all levels.
The Resurrected Man is a murder mystery of a science fictional sort, of the hard-boiled private dick variety thereof, and the cyberpunk variant of that. Jonah McEwan, once a cop, now a private eye, must solve the murder of his one-time partner and lover Marylin Blaylock.
Well, not really. In this future, matter transmission is the major form of transportation of goods and humans, and the process can produce duplicates of the originals who don’t even necessarily know they’re duplicates, and what’s really going on is that a serial killer is duplicating women who look like Marylin and murdering them. And since their partnership and relationship ended badly, Jonah himself is the prime suspect. The original Marylin, still alive and now a cop, ends up somewhat reluctantly partnering with him again to solve the serial murders of women who seem to be surrogates for herself.
Thus we have a story-line that would pull readers of thrillers or detective novels through what is otherwise a very well written and very well extrapolated science fiction novel set in a very complex and well-realized future, moreover written with the considerable style, panache, and attention to the inner life of the detective in question that one has come to expect in high-end noir.
The Resurrected Man is hardly the first novel to mix the detective story with science fiction in an attempt to appeal to the readerships for both, but most of them water down the science fiction elements for the sake of the detective novel readers, and tone down the noir concentration on the inner life of the main character for the science fiction readers, and the whole usually ends up less than the sum of its parts.
Here, though, the whole succeeds in being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s impossible for me to have read The Resurrected Man as if I were ignorant of science fiction, but I do believe that there are readers of noir detective novels who are will be able to comprehend the science fiction, and I am sure that the science fiction readers will not feel talked down to.
So why was The Resurrected Man not picked up by a major American publisher during the seven years between its publication in Australia and its rescue from Stateside oblivion by Pyr?
True, getting something like this published as a “major mainstream novel” has always been problematical in the United States, and though it has worked very well in France with things like Maurice Dantec’s Les Racines Du Mal, publishing something like The Resurrected Man as a major mystery novel is rare in the United States because, aside from the main character and the plot, this is dominantly science fiction.
But what makes a mystery a mystery is the lead character and the plot and nothing more, which is why anyone can read one readily without having read in the genre before. And what makes science fiction science fiction has nothing to do with the plot and the lead character.
So there’s nothing in The Resurrected Man that would have distanced the book from science fiction readers, and quite a bit that would have drawn in an additional audience from detective novel readers had it been published in the United States with a bit of push and savvy.
Therefore given that under the present conditions the acquisition cost would have been modest, it would seem that The Resurrected Man would have been an ideal novel for a major American SF line to place a modest bet on at breaking out of the singular genre marketing box.
So speaking of mysteries, why didn’t one of them do it?
Speaking of hard-boiled literary detectives, why wasn’t there one with the publishing street smarts to try?