Tuesday, 25 April 2017


Whilst wandering around cyberspace with no particular place to go, I stumbled across the Wikipedia entry for the sci-fi author Robert Silverberg, which contained this odd phrase: "In 1959, the market for science fiction collapsed..."

Yes, collapsed.  Like October 1929, but for science fiction, not money, although they are, arguably, both abstract and immaterial concepts.

Something about this statement, the unequivocal nature of it, piqued my interest, and I thought that I'd dig a bit deeper and blog my findings.  Except, of course, an explanation far more eloquent - and possibly a tad more embittered - than any I could construct has already been written by Barry N Malzberg at baen.com detailing the various factors at play, not least the forced divestiture of the magazine distribution arm of American News Service.

That last point provides the explanation for the cliff edge nature of events of 1959, but there's a plethora of context to be taken into account as well.  One is that the parallels between 1959 and 1929 don't seem so far fetched: in both cases we're dealing with bubbles with an unrecognised oversupply or overvaluation leading to a market correction.  1929 is well documented; in 1959 it was the belief that the readership of science fiction could continue to grow exponentially whereas, in reality, it was made up of spotty youths who were just filling in the years until the family acquired a TV.

Which led me to wonder why the market for science fiction hadn't moved to television and cinema, rather than "collapsing".  Perhaps part of the reason was that, by Malzberg's account at least, the writers had become somewhat fat and lazy, needing to churn out a mere thousand words, derivative words at that, each day before indulging in whiskey and "wife exchanging".  TV would have demanded more, much more, and the market only actually collapsed for the dinosaurs.  Perhaps it was because, for Malzberg, the market is defined narrowly, as anthology and magazine publishing, and this marketplace was in New York whilst television and cinema was based on the opposite coast.  Perhaps it came down to personalities: the need to collaborate on a TV production doesn't sit well with a person who takes on a blank sheet of paper in single combat.

But I think there's another angle to this.  Compare, say, Melies' Le Voyage dans la Lune with something modern, for example The Martian or Gravity (both of which score virtually the same on IMDB, albeit with Melies' classic ahead by a nose).  There's a sense of utter joyful, ridiculous fantasy to Melies' classic, whilst the modern yarns labour the accuracy of the science and technology.  Sure, there's plenty of cartoon fantasy courtesy of Marvel and DC, but it ain't science fiction in the sense that magic powers ain't science, even when science gone bad is supposed to have endowed them.  Melies takes science - a rocket - and creates a fiction.  And in 1902 that fiction could take us almost anywhere; today we know that a rocket can't realistically take us anywhere other than our nearest neighbours, and they're all barren rocks anyway.  We've lost a lot of the freedom of movement in constructing a story whilst retaining a straight face.

Malzberg alludes to this when he says, "Sputnik in 1957 had made science fiction appear, to the fringe audience, bizarre, arcane, irrelevant.". However, I don't buy this.  If anything, Sputnik should have moved science fiction up the agenda: it showed we could really leave the confines of Mother Earth without suggesting the impending failure to find anything out there.  That all came later.

Classic science fiction up to, say, Star Trek, exists in a Goldilocks zone between technology being invented for us to explore the stars and us discovering that there's nothing out there to find.  The joyful youth of sci-fi, I think, ran until roughly the same time that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon unwatched by native fauna - because there isn't any.  That's a full decade after 1959's "collapse".

Curiously, I found this extended timeline supported by some wonderfully unscientific research by Castalia House.  It makes an interesting read, even if you feel unable to sign up to its findings.

So where does this leave us?  Science fiction is dead?  Not at all.  It's just that the genre has moved on from stories that just happen to be set in space.  Think about how many spaceships are really just sea-going vessels with a different view out of the portholes, or aliens who are just re-employed redskins.  Science fiction in its cynical middle age has had to find stranger stories than a man wearing a goldfish bowl on his head wrestling a sentient octopus.  And, whilst that may make for the niche, cult, and distinctly un-populist, I think it's rather good at it.

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