The world of science fiction magazines these days seems to be on the hunt for positive material. When conducting my monthly review of the SF short story market, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in many place, stories that show a virtuous future are preferred. One magazine searches for stories that ‘show us the way back to a livable future’. Another requests stories that ‘celebrate and elevate’. Humor anthologies are in big demand. ‘Nothing dark and gloomy’ is a common refrain. ‘Eco stories’ requested, describing how we can live in a future run by solar and wind power. The list goes on. Once, I found a magazine whose mission of literary depth and engaging characters I felt I agreed with exactly. Then I noticed a small tag, noting that sometimes Vegan themes were preferred. Undeterred, I sent him my best story, at the time. It featured genocide as a major motif, but no animals were hurt, as requested. The editor rejected my story in the strongest terms…
It’s a trend that’s left me feeling a little out of place. My writing can be pretty bleak; though I’m not overly enthusiastic to describe it as such, it probably must be admitted. My proudest achievement has always been the galaxy-scale universe my fiction is set in and, well, it’s a pretty terrible place. Approximately 50% of the time, the protagonist will wind up violently killed. Perhaps it relates to the more British traditions in fiction that influence me, and the more gloomy tone that often involves.
But I believe my work is relevant and creates real feelings in my readers. I have confidence in the validity of what I produce, at this point. The question is what form my writing will manifest in when it interacts with the professional sphere.
Yet trends in the science fiction markets are not good. Short stories markets, in particular, sometimes seem on the brink of annihilation. Many venerable old publishers and publications seem to have gone into deep hibernation, sealing their doors to outsiders. The retreating, shrinking feeling reminds me of a Savannah waterhole, drying up in the summer sun. Nobody seems to have any significant plan to reverse the decline.
I still submit, of course. But sometimes I have to laugh a little, as I imagine an editor’s face as he opens up the file to read. It’s a great story, and I’ve sent it to a great magazine, but he won’t like it. I consider my work to be highly progressive. Others do not. I speculate that my violent or misanthropic themes can alienate some of those whose perspectives I share, but I maintain reporting the horrors that could one day come is indeed an act of subversion against the problems of today.
Speaking of horror, the horror market is absolutely booming. The contrast is stark. Requests for horror and dark writing are everywhere. So what’s a horror story? Sometimes I will be picky over my work, and sometimes not, but this is one area where I’ll do whatever’s needed. Market my work as Horror, with SF elements? Or am I trying to sell Hard SF, with Dark elements? To a certain degree, I don’t care. Straddling genres has always been a virtue, a rejection of arbitrary limitations.
So I produce horror now, even though I produce nearly the same as before. Every story I write has a pretty dark background, though fear is not usually the primary purpose of the story. A small relabel, and my market situation is looking much healthier. These considerations have even produced some changes in my style. Adding in good horror scenes is always fun to write.
One conclusion is that Horror and Science Fiction markets are heading in radically different directions. One encourages visions of a hopeful future, the other almost by definition reaches a bad end. And yet, humans beings will always vote with their feet to some degree. It makes me anxious to imagine that the world of science fiction publishing is preaching to the choir, appealing to an ever dwindling core with no new recruits to replace them. Consider what has happened the the readership of actual Marvel and DC comics, as an example.
Has trends in literary science fiction fallen out of step with the society around them? Should art reflect our culture, or should art drive our culture? These are questions for different essays, of course. Certainly the world of cinema science fiction has significantly parted ways with written fiction in terms of tone and atmosphere.
If my writing reflects the world I live in, and the Horror genre more accurately reflects my writing than the Science Fiction genre, has the Science Fiction genre failed to capture our present reality?
Either way, I struggle to meet the demands of the magazines. At the risk of sounding cantankerous, I’m not going to rub my readers shoulders and tell them everything is going to be ok. Because we’re not going to be ok. It’s a new dark age out there, and it may just be getting started. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.