Teaching SF&F at Writers & Books

I’ll be teaching a class at Writers & Books on Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy this winter, Thursday nights from January 16 to March 6.  Hoping to get a substantial group of local writers to join up so we can have a fruitful workshop.  Sign up, if you are nearby.

(As per tradition now, they use this Crucible cover close-up for the SF&F class announcement.  It’s a good tradition since Nancy Kress taught this class at W&B, once upon a time.)

The Cliche, or at least the Prejudice, of the Incomprehensible Alien

It’s an interesting theme of course, and as such worth exploration.  I would not disparage the idea of the incomprehensible extraterrestrial.  And, it has been very well done.  Lem’s Solaris, for example, is a masterwork of the subgenre.  And Tarkovsky’s filming of Solaris, a masterwork of SF film.

But, most times, I just don’t buy it.  A biological intelligence would have evolved — by definition.  And the constraints of evolution are universal.  Cultures can grow into dizzying varieties, of course, and as such resist explanation; but, in the end, each must obey the constraints of biology, or the culture will perish, and this provides the common foundation that means understanding must in principle be possible.  Just so, in the end, we can penetrate the purposes of an ant or a vampire squid, and we can penetrate the reasoning of a Yanomamo or Heroic-Age Greek.

I wonder if the idea of the incomprehensible alien is not a part or product of that greater cliche — the Great Cliche, we might call it:  the lazy pessimism of contemporary SF literature.  All is miserable in the future, our most awarded writers tell us.  Even those inclined not to people the future with cannibals roving sunken cities are likely to portray the future as at best incomprehensible (the singularity!).  This social and political pessimism bleeds over to an epistemic pessimism.  And yet, the evidence is against this misery mongery.

So there is here an interesting challenge:  SF that is optimistic, while realistic; that portrays aliens that are genuinely strange, but not incomprehensible.

This is a theme (or is it a meta-theme?) that I want to explore more.

Get off the shelf, sluggard!

I’m reading a Dickens biography (Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, by Edgar Johnson, Simon and Schuster 1952), and found a remarkable thing.  Dickens’s first novel was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, written — as were most of his novels — as a serial.  He wrote each month about 12,000 words, and this formed a chapter that went into a monthly magazine.


Here’s the rub.  The first four issues — even, for a while, the fifth issue — of The Pickwick Club did miserably.  Johnson reports that things were so bad that even for the fourth installment, which eventually took off, they printed 1500 issues for provincial distribution, and 1450 were returned to the publisher.

Then something happened.  People fell in love with the character of Sam Weller, who appears in the fourth installment.  Word got around.  People started requesting the earlier issues.  And it was all good news from then on.   Eventually, Pickwick was such a sensation that there was even an explosion of Pickwick merchandise (Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes, etc.), along with endless copies, knock-offs, and theatrical piracies.  But for four months, even into the fifth month and installment, Dickens’s novel looked to be a certain failure.  Only a more patient time, and Dickens’s immense force of will, together prevented its cancellation long before its explosive success.

It is hard not to notice that today, The Pickwick Club likely would have been a failure.  The big bookstores would pull a book before it racked up four months of bad sales (suppose, for example, that The Pickwick Club had been intended to appear as a trilogy of volumes, which was also a common practice then).  Sure, a genius like Dickens would try again.  But maybe not with The Pickwick Club, and so a comic masterpiece would be lost.

The economy of art has become accelerated; works must be instantaneously successful.  (Perhaps this is a trend throughout the economy; nowadays, employees are not supposed to be trained, they are supposed to arrive at their job already experts.)  The question, of course, is what might we lose — and what have we already lost — to such demands?

Just think: Dune could have come out this year!

Is this a trend?  A few minutes at Duotrope will show you how many magazines have response times of 180, 270, 360 days.  Many of those magazines actually “require” a no-simultaneous submissions policy.  The story is worse for presses.  Most don’t take unagented submissions, of course, but those that do take 6 or 12 or 18 months to reply.

I don’t blame these folks much.  I assume that editors, agents, and others who manage the channel are drowning in unsuitable submissions.

But how does the math work?  Dune, Harry Potter, The Forever War, nearly any decent book you can think of took 15 or 20 or more submissions before being picked up.  If those were serial submissions under a no-simultaneous submissions policy, that would mean about 15 or 20 or more years, plus 2 years for production, until those books appeared on shelves.

Generally presses don’t have a no simsubs policy.  But mags do.  And I’ve had stories that were well reviewed after they appeared, but that took three or four or five submissions before they were accepted.  So must such works now take 3-5 years to find a home?

Why SF is no longer a young person’s game

Those who watch the field have often noticed that the median and mean age of an SF writer has crept upwards for decades.  Anecdotally, this seems to be true.  Let us assume the trend is real.  Some fear that this is a sign that SF is dying, as young people no longer take an interest in SF, and so only old readers and writers are left.  But I think the explanation is much simpler, and does not bode ill for the pipeline of SF readers and writers (that is, I do not believe that young people are losing interest in SF) but does indicate a trend that makes it challenging to produce quality SF.

Short stories and novels are the life blood of SF.  Sure, movies are the main exposure for the general public, but 99% of the movies are trailing indicators (lagging decades behind the written form in their creativity) and are not very innovative.  John Carter is coming to the screen a century after Burroughs wrote the books.  Don’t expect to see The Windup Girl on screen anytime soon, but expect the sequel to Avatar to arrive with fateful certainty some summer or fall.  New and innovative science fiction happens in prose.

So let’s consider stories.  Here’s the rub.  The pro rate as defined by SFWA (as I write this) is $0.05 a word.  And that’s not much different than what some magazines were paying in the 1950s.  In nominal dollars.  Now think about what that means.  A 5000 word story published in Galaxy in 1955 would have earned about $150.  A 5000 word story published in one of the big three today would earn $250 (or a tad more — and in most other mags today it would earn much less that $250).  Again, that’s nominal dollars.  I’ve not adjusted.

In 1955 the median household income was $4,400.  In 2010 it was $49,445.  You see the moral.  A 5,000 word story sold in 1955 at $0.03 a word to Galaxy would earn a writer about 2 weeks of a middle class existence; a 5,000 word story sold today at SFWA “pro-rates” would earn less than 2 days of a middle class existence.  So, in 1955 if you sold two short stories in a month, you made a decent middle class wage for that month.  You could pay rent or a mortgage, eat, go to a movie, buy clothes, and so on.  It would be possible to have a middle class life just writing short stories.  Today, you could not manage a poverty wage selling short stories.

The result is that a young person selling a short story in 1955 could have seriously considered become a full time writer on the spot.  She had a chance.  Today, that same writer selling a story when she is 25 cannot then just drop everything to become an SF writer.  She would starve.  She must pursue a day job.  And that means that she will be producing less, and her production will likely become noticeable when she is substantially older.

I’ve not run the numbers for novels, but I suspect it’s exactly the same.  We’re in an environment where traditional publishers might offer a new writer $2,000 for a first time novel (which they’ll pay out slowly in thirds, etc.).  I suspect in nominal dollars that has not changed much.  The result would be similar:  you could probably make a middle class living as a mid-list novelist in print selling one or two novels in 1955 or the decades that followed.  Today this is nearing impossibility.

(There may be hopeful counter trends, of course.  Indy e-publishing may offer a new alternative to this downward slide.)

My conclusion is that if the age of SF writers creeps up every year, then it is because every year it becomes more difficult to earn a living as an SF writer.