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Barbarian Confessions by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Author’s Note: I wrote this essay at the request of Glenn Yeffeth at BenBella Books. He asked SF writers to debate the merits of Star Wars, taking a position for the defense or for the prosecution. In addition to the essays, the book has a “cross-examination” for each side, and rebuttal answers from each essayist. BenBella published the book in June, 2006. This essay differs slightly in form from the one that I wrote for the book: a few lines have been added for the sake of clarity. I also want to note that I’m discussing sf book publishing here. Magazine editors have the luxury of putting all types of sf into a single issue, without disappointing any of their readers.

—Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

 

Since this book is titled Star Wars on Trial, and I am testifying for the defense, let me proceed as if I were sitting in the witness chair. No, you don’t have to swear me in. I’ll raise my right hand if someone wishes, but let me simply say that when it comes to the future of science fiction—one of my passions—I feel as if I’m always under oath.

First, my credentials. I am a Hugo-award winning science fiction writer who has, joyfully and without remorse, written nearly thirty tie-in novels. Since someone writing for the prosecution will probably mention the words “art” and “literature,” let me add that for more than a decade, I edited two of the most literary publications in the sf field—Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. My authors and I were nominated for dozens of awards. We even won a few.

I have received awards in a number of genres, not just sf. Of my mystery series, written under the name Kris Nelscott, Salon.com said, “Somebody needs to say that Kris Nelscott is engaged in an ongoing fictional study of a thorny era in American political and racial history. If that’s not enough to get ‘serious’ critics and readers to pay attention to her, it’s their loss.”

“Serious” critics and readers have paid attention: I have received several literary awards—given by people who only think of writing as “literature” and “art”—and I have become a darling of book clubs. Meanwhile, I glam around in my secret identity as a romance writer (Kristine Grayson, for those of you who don’t know), and I skulk through life as the sf/fantasy/ horror writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

All three of us (as well as several of my other pen names which shall go unnamed) read everything we can get our hands on. From classics to mystery novels, from literary short stories to the latest Nora Roberts, from science fiction novels to tie-ins, I read. And read. And read.

My catholic reading tastes (small “c”) and my catholic writing tastes match my entertainment tastes. I record fifteen hours of television per week (although I only have time to watch six hours per week; I catch up during those endless months of reruns). I watch two to three movies per week, sometimes more during peak seasons like Christmas and summer. Last week alone, I saw Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Good Night, and Good Luck—one at an art house and the other at the cineplex down the street.

I am one of the heretics who believes that art must be enjoyed first and analyzed later.

I am also a member of the Star Wars generation. Sixteen years old when the movie came out, at a first-night screening with a dozen of my high school buddies, I watched the world change right in front of me. Did I know that E.E. “Doc” Smith had done something similar thirty years before? Of course not. My small town library never had that kind of trash (their words, not mine). Had I memorized the science fiction canon? Hell, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as science fiction. Or fantasy. Or genre, for that matter.

And I didn’t care.

All I wanted that night was a bit of entertainment. What I got was an addiction that has lasted through my adulthood.

 

I often say that I came to science fiction because, at thirteen, I fell in love with a classic Star Trek episode called “City on the Edge of Forever,” written by someone named Harlan Ellison. My best friend, Mindy Wallgren (one year older, two decades smarter) told me that Ellison wrote short stories, and if I liked the epi-sode, I’d love the short fiction. She gave me a Hugo-award collection edited by Isaac Asimov, and I read every story in it. Then books by every author. And then more books, and more books, and more books.

But you must remember: I had no idea what genre was so I didn’t know where else to find wonderful stories like the ones I had just read.

Now fast-forward three years. I’m sitting in that theater and absorbing Star Wars like there’s no tomorrow. And I buy not my first but probably my fifteenth tie-in novel (yes, we have to count those Partridge Family books [yes, there were Partridge Family books]). Next to that Star Wars novelization (which I should have kept, dammit!, considering how much the thing’s worth now), I found a bunch more of those books like the ones I read in my Star Trek/Harlan Ellison phase. So I buy those too.

One of them is Dune, which had a very Star Wars-y cover. I fall in love all over again.

 

When Glenn Yeffeth asked me to contribute an essay to this volume, he sent me a list of topics, asking me to choose one and take the defense or prosecution position. There was no contest; I had to take defense. I love Star Wars, especially Episodes 4, 5, and 6. Especially Episode 5, known to you non-Star Wars buffs as The Empire Strikes Back, screenplay written, by the way, by a classic science fiction writer, a woman named Leigh Brackett.

My problem came in limiting myself to one question, because questions three, four, six, and seven intersect. Let me list them here.

 

3. Star Wars and the battle for SF readers and shelf space—the shelf space and mindshare that Star Wars books take up; is this a positive or negative thing.

4. The impact of Star Wars on SFF writing today—to what extent is current sf writing influenced by Star Wars and how?

6. The impact of SW on the public’s perception of SF/F—to what extent does SW define how the general public sees SF, and is this a good thing?

7. Star Wars as a fantasy—not really a pro or con issue, but many have argued that SW is really a fantasy and should be held to the standards of fantasy.

 

I told Glenn that I would write about question four. But four and three and six are inseparable in my mind. Seven has to be addressed here as well because of the underlying assumption behind it, an assumption I’ll address shortly.

First, the promised answer: to what extent is current sf writing influenced by Star Wars? The answer is simple: Not enough.

In order to make my case for that answer, however, I must address #3: Star Wars and the battle for SF readers and shelf space. There is no battle for shelf space because of #6: to what extent does SW define how the general public sees SF or, as I like to call it, the definition of SF.

If you’ll notice in the questions above, Glenn has gone back and forth between SF, SFF, and SF/F. Those abbreviations, used in the sf field only, mean the same thing in his questions. Science fiction—as a marketing category—is called SF. Science Fiction the Marketing Category includes fantasy novels. Later reviewers and critics sometimes called the category SF/F to acknowledge the two different genres labeled as one. Because of that confusion, the Science Fiction Writers of America wanted to acknowledge their fantasy base, so they started calling themselves SFFWA, which led to SF being labeled, in the sf field, SFF.

Why is all this important to my essay? Because, in the dark days before literary tropes hit sf (which in my essay, lowercased, stands for science fiction only), the sf and fantasy genre had the same goals. Large-scope stories, in which worlds or universes were at stake, created new but oddly familiar settings that were far enough removed from real life so that readers could escape their mundane existences. The lead character was not the protagonist; he (and it was usually a he) was the hero. He often followed the hero’s journey (see Joseph Campbell, whom Lucas says he gleefully plundered). No matter how dark the journey, the reader will follow the hero because, the reader knows (and is reassured on a deep level) that the hero will triumph at the end.

When literary tropes hit sf in the 1960s, solid characterization, good sentence-by-sentence writing, and dystopian endings became commonplace. “Realism,” both in character actions and in scientific approach, became more important than good storytelling.

Fantasy continued its heroic ways, promising—and usually delivering—those uplifting endings, those fascinating worlds, and those excellent (heroic) characters. But science fiction started resembling the literary mainstream. The novels became angst-filled. The protagonists, demoted from their heroic pedestals, lost more than they won. The worlds became as ugly or uglier than our own.

Suddenly, sf became unreliable. Readers had no idea if they would find uplifting stories or dystopian universes. They didn’t know whether, once they plunged through six hundred pages of nasty, ugly world-building, they would ever emerge into any sort of light. Sometimes, the sf devolved into one long scientific exposition. Or into jargon-filled, hard-to-follow stories that realistically explored situations set up in the bad old days of pre-literary science fiction.

Science fiction editors and critics declared that something that had been done before—such as time travel to Hitler’s Germany or space opera like E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series—was unacceptable for the new generation of readers. The assumption was and still is that if someone in science fiction literature—anywhere or at any time in science fiction literature—had written a known work on a topic, that topic was off-limits to future generations of sf writers.

That assumption arose when publishing was small, when sf was a community of readers who numbered in the hundreds. Walter Jon Williams calls this community “the science fiction village.” In a marvelous essay published in Asimov’s, he writes:

Along with the fiction, the [sf] culture grew more sophisticated along the way, but it retained a proudly self-made quality, standards that it considered unique to itself, and a specialized vocabulary to describe both the texts, the contents of the texts, and the special view of life that was considered particularly scientifictional. Fandom may not necessarily be a way of life, but it’s definitely a point of view.1

A problem arose for sf fandom, which controlled sf publishing, when people like me entered the mix. We received our introduction to sf through the media. Williams explains the dilemma:

. . . electronic media brings science fiction to its audience free of Science Fiction Culture, the history and view of science fiction laboriously hammered out over the last sixty or seventy years. . . . Science Fiction Culture places the work in its context, relates it to other work, to traditional themes in science fiction, to contributions of individual editors and magazines. All of this is necessarily absent from visual SF, which—also necessarily—looks at SF as a grab-bag full of ideas useful to put Scott Bakula in jeopardy again this week.2

But the only way the Science Fiction Village can protect itself against Media Barbarians pounding at the gates is to keep the village small. Such a task was easy in the early years of sf fandom. It’s not so easy now.

The world has changed since the Science Fiction Village was created. After World War II, countless people went to college on the GI Bill. Those people became readers who bought books and read to their children at night. Readership grew across the board. So did the book-buying public. Book sales expand every year from 1 to 5 percent, a phenomenal and consistent rate of growth not seen in most other industries.3

Fiction markets have expanded. In 2004 alone, 2,550 books “of interest to the SF field” were published as originals or reprints. This total number of books does not include gaming novels, movie novelizations, or original novels written in a media universe (like the Star Wars novels).4 The days of being able to read everything published in sf in one given year are long gone.

So the new reader coming in, the one with a voracious appetite for SF, has a wide range of choices. The problem is that most of those choices respond to or build on ideas found in novels so long out of print that libraries and specialty used bookstores no longer carry them. Many of the sf editors still working today live in the Science Fiction Village. They are buying novels that appeal to a few thousand people, forgetting about (or ignoring) the barbarians at the gates.

It is impossible—physically impossible—to catch up on the language of Science Fiction Culture. I have immersed myself in it for thirty years now, ever since I discovered it, and I’m still reading the classics. What I didn’t understand in the early sf novels and short stories that I read, I researched. I forced myself to pass as a Science Fiction Villager, and lo-and-behold, they actually took me in.

But I’m a barbarian. Of the 1,417 original books published in sf last year5, I read ten of them. Six of those books were short story collections. Two of them I wrote. The other two were novels by people whose sf I’d read before and liked. Of the remaining 1,407 books, I probably handled 750 of them and replaced them on the shelf. Honestly, most of the 750 novels I put back looked like work.

I read fiction for entertainment, relaxation, and enjoyment. If I want to work, I read the history, literary essays, biography, science, and legal books that grace my shelves.

Last week, for the first time in more than a decade, I saw an sf novel on the bookstore shelves that made my barbarian self reach for the book with joy. The cover had a picture of a derelict space ship. The back cover blurb talked about far futures and finding artifacts in outer space. The cover quote said, “In the old tradition of Astounding.”

Because I had been burned before, I read the opening few pages, and a section out of the middle. And then I bought the book. I haven’t read it yet, so I won’t say the title here.6 But I will say that I haven’t been this eager to read an sf novel in almost twenty years.

Why am I eager to read it? Because the novel promises the very things that Star Wars gives: An escape, a journey into a new yet familiar world, entertainment. A good read.

The things you still find in fantasy fiction. (There, as promised, #7: slain like the dragon it is.) The things that sf jettisoned in the erroneous cold equations practiced by the New Wave.

The things that bring barbarians into the Science Fiction Village.

Why do I want barbarians in the Science Fiction Village? Forget that they’re my kith and kin. Think for a moment about the shelf space argument (good old #3). Large genres do not care about how much shelf space goes to tie-in novels. The mystery genre has a plethora of tie-ins, from Murder She Wrote to CSI. The romance genre has fewer, but almost every single romance movie that comes out has a novelization attached to it.

In those genres, no one talks about the tie-ins “stealing” shelf space, even though, logically, there should be less shelf space because of the very size of those genres. In 2004, romance novels accounted for 39.3 percent of all adult fiction sold. Mystery and thrillers came in second with 29.6 percent. General fiction, which is what most of us would call the “literary mainstream,” was 12.9 percent of all adult fiction sold, followed by “other fiction,” a category that includes such things as Western and Men’s Adventure, at 11.8 percent.

SF came in dead last at 6.4 percent.7

SF—y’know, the genre that includes fantasy. I have no idea how low the sales would be if we were only talking about science fiction all by its little ole self.

SF is committing the common sin of a dying literary genre. It blames its problems on the outsiders—the tie-in novels, and by extension, the barbarians at the gate—who are crowding the shelves and taking away space for “good” sf.

“Good” sf can retire to the specialty press where the Science Fiction Village can read and discuss it. It’s time to return to the gosh-wow, sense-of-wonder stories that sf abandoned when it added literary values to its mix, the kind of stories that Star Wars, and by extension, Star Trek, Stargate, and all those other media properties have had all along.8

SF’s insularity is murdering the genre. Remember that publishing is a business. As a business, it is driven by sales figures, by profit and loss statements. For too long, sf has been in the loss side of the publishing column. As a result, fewer and fewer sf books are being published.

The figures I quoted above for 2004 are down from 2003. In that year, SF counted for 7 percent of all adult fiction books sold. In 2001, SF counted for 8 percent. The literary trend spirals downward while the media trend goes up. Half the new television dramas introduced in 2005 were science fiction, fantasy, or had a fantastic element. Most of the movies in the top twenty for the past five years have been SF. Nearly all of the games published have been SF.

If we bring even one-tenth of the people who play the games, watch the movies, or read the tie-in novels into the literary side of SF, we’ll revive the genre. In a few years, we could overtake mystery or even, God forbid, romance.

Let’s put it another way. When Star Wars fans go to the bookstore like I did thirty years ago, they buy the latest novelization. Then they patrol the aisles for something similar—and find nothing. The books that would interest them are hidden between the jargon-filled limited-access novels that fill the shelves, behind the dystopian novels that present a world uglier than our own, the protagonists who really don’t care about their fellow man/alien/ whatever. A few attempts at reading that kind of book, and the SW reader returns to the tie-in shelf where the heroes are indeed heroic, the worlds are interesting, and the endings are upbeat.

Recently, Publisher’s Weekly interviewed six sf specialty shops across the country, and asked their proprietors which books they consider must-haves. Not a single science fiction book on the lists has been published in the last five years. Fantasy novels include books published recently, but not sf.9

Science fiction, small case, is not producing novels that a large group of people want to read. And that spells the death knell for the literary genre at a time when, ironically, interest in SF is expanding.

Fantasy will take care of itself. It has kept the tropes that bring in readers. It is a growing genre. The statistics I list above do not include young adult novels, which means that the Harry Potter phenomenon is missing from the 6.4 percent. But the gaming novels, movie novelizations, or original novels written in a media universe (like the Star Wars novels) are included in that number. Which means that the actual percentage of sf books in relation to other adult fiction titles sold is even lower than 6.4 percent. Significantly lower.

The literary genre, on whom we modeled this debacle, saw the error of its ways about five years ago. Now, you’ll notice, literary fiction has become general fiction (see above) and publishes things sf sneers at—alternate histories set in World War II (Philip Roth, The Plot Against America); time travel novels (Jasper Fforde); and scientific adventure fiction (anything by Michael Crichton). The literary genre has also reclaimed plot. Or, as Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (author of the first-draft screenplay for Spider-Man II), calls it: Entertainment.

In his opening to The Best American Short Stories, Chabon writes:

Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people, some of whom write short stories, learn to mistrust and even revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure-suit studded with blinking lights. It gives off a whiff of Coppertone and dripping Creamsicle, the fake-butter miasma of a moviehouse lobby. . . . Intelligent people must keep a certain distance from its productions. They must handle things that entertain them with gloves of irony and postmodern tongs. Entertainment, in short, means junk, and too much junk is bad for you. . . .10

Chabon goes on to say that those serious and intelligent people are wrong. Because they have strangled entertainment in the literary field, the field has narrowed unpleasantly. He continues:

The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.11

Chabon’s argument applies to the sf genre. We have gotten the entertainment we deserve, and it is slowly strangling the publishing arm of our great genre.

Is current SF writing influenced by Star Wars? No, not nearly enough. We need more grand adventure, more heroes on journeys, more uplifting (if not downright happy) endings. Yes, we can keep the good sentence-by-sentence writing, the good characters, and the lovely descriptions the New Wave steered us to. We can even keep the dystopian fiction and the realistic, if difficult-to-read, sf novels, so long as we do them in moderation. They cannot—and should not—be the dominant subgenre on the shelves.

Are tie-in novels taking shelf space away from SF? Hell, no. The tie-ins, from SW to Trek and beyond, are keeping SF alive. If we, the sf writers and publishers, want more shelf space, we have to earn it. We earn it by telling stories, some of them old faithfuls that the fans like to read, the things that have been published before. We earn it by entertaining. We earn it by creating characters as memorable as Luke and Han and Darth Vader.

We don’t earn it by whining that a movie has encroached on our genre.

Barbarians are taking over our little village!

Well, let me remind you of the things I said in the beginning of this essay. I am a barbarian in villager’s clothing. I snuck into the SF Village long ago, but I sneak back out every night for a little forbidden entertainment.

Open the gates, people. We barbarians aren’t here to trash your genre. We love it too. We love it for different reasons. But the village can become a city.

In fact, it needs to become a city in order to survive.

So let us in. We can save the SF genre.

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"Barabrian Confessions" By Kristine Kathryn Rusch, copyright © 2006, with permission of the author.

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