Big fat old guys with beards

That’s how I remember one of the Harley-Davidson reps saying it, on NPR a few years ago. It was during the company reformation, prior to H-D’s re-rise as the premiere big bike maker in the U.S. motorcycle market. He said, and I quote, “We realized that there were only so many big fat old guys with beards.” Put another way, as long as H-D continued to be the ‘outlaw fringe’ bike for the outlaw fringe bikers — whose numbers were aging and dwindling — the prospects for the company were not good.

I think written-form Science Fiction is too much like that. Not necessarily outlaw, but too often fringe. Definitely fringe. And exclusive. Written by and for a shrinking audience of aging intellectuals.

Oh, without question, the fluctuations in distribution — combined with general economic tumult as well as the e-publishing rush — have made life harder for the average SF author. But these external forces alone cannot explain the general decline in SF readership over the last decade. Especially not when Fantasy — the once kid brother of SF — continues to produce monster blockbusters like Harry Potter and Twilight. Somehow, SF as a written genre is ‘missing’ the market. By design?

Certainly the Old Guard of outlaw bikers enjoyed their exclusivity. Such that when Harley-Davidson began a ‘retro’ mass marketing of the ‘outlaw’ hog culture to suburbia — home of affluent young yuppies with lots of liquid recreational cash — the Old Guard balked. How dare H-D “sell out” the cherished, rough-riding heritage of The Biker to the Izod set? Did H-D have no shame?

What H-D had, in the end, was common sense. Either they took an entirely new approach, in design, in how they appealed to the public, in the way their product was accessible to buyers — or the company was liable to founder.

H-D’s decision to go mainstream could not have been an easy one. As consumers, the Old Guard were fanatically loyal to their ‘hog’ company. But you know what? Once the grumbling was over, I think even the Old Guard liked what happened to Harley-Davidson. The bikes that H-D began producing are some of the finest the company has ever produced. Also, being a biker became respectable again — following the ‘Wild Ones’ outlaw years from the 1950s through the 1970s. Once the suburban campaign was in full swing, it was not uncommon to see a Softtail in the neighbor’s garage. Law-abiding biker clubs — as opposed to straggly, drug-dealing gangs — sprang up all across the country.

For H-D and bikerdom as a whole, the outlaw years — the real outlaw years — were over. More people were selling — and riding — Harley-Davidsons, than ever before.

Unfortunately, written Science Fiction — as a genre — has made no such mainstream commitment. In fact, written SF seems more recalcitrant than ever. While written Fantasy is actively courting and winning new generations of readers, written SF seems content to continue the long evening retreat towards High Literary obscurity. An ordinarily esoteric genre anyway, SF’s Old Guard works to ensure that SF remains esoteric: a closed conversation for “ghetto” members only.

More worrisome still, there are self-styled ‘progressive’ components active within the ghetto who seek to erect and enforce a kind of political purity, almost akin to doctrinal observation within a church — replete with shibboleths and orthodoxies. Thus not only is written SF tough for entry-level readers to penetrate or understand, it’s actively hostile to entry-level readers who do not approach the genre with a previously-conforming set of political opinions.

Kris Rusch and her husband Dean Smith have speculated that the thing which will save written SF, is also the thing which will destroy written SF: the total dissolving of the label Science Fiction into all the other labels already on the shelves: Romance, Thriller, Contemporary, Crime, and so forth. From my very-young-to-the-game perspective, I am hard-pressed to disagree. Those authors who have been most successful writing ‘Science Fiction’ for the mass audience, are those who have done so without needing to embrace or label their work as Science Fiction.

Michael Crichton — whom I have mentioned before — is a good case example. Not always the most scientifically rigorous writer, he nevertheless attained phenomenal audience penetration and connection with numerous books, such as Jurassic Park. Almost nobody who read Jurassic Park or saw the movie, realized it was SF. But it was. Yet neither Crichton nor Jurassic Park were/are common finds in the explicitly Science Fiction section of your local book store. Same goes for some of what Stephen King has written. Books like The Stand are as much SF as they are fantasy, but King isn’t anywhere near the SF shelves. How come?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the SF Old Guard seem to consider commercial success to be unworthy. The more broadly a work sells — especially if it’s made into a successful movie — the more actively the SF establishment criticizes and tears down that work. And the author. Real SF authors are esoteric: not easily read or understood by anyone not already a conversant member of the ghetto. Commercial success is for hacks, or the unserious dilettante writers.

This is especially true for what’s known as “media” fiction: novels that tie into or spring out of a game, television, or motion picture franchise.

Consider Star Trek books. By many standards, the long-running and ever-unfolding series of Star Trek novels are the best-selling and most widely published set of single-subject novels in the entire world — written by some of the most talented authors in the genre. But who among the SF Old Guard will ‘own’ these books, as part of the so-called community? You practically never see a media book win a Hugo or a Nebula, even though such books have been written by Nebula or Hugo level writers. Even though the source material for these books can and often does win awards — in the categories of film and television. So why does written SF have its collective nose in the air?

Especially when media fiction is the most easily portable and marketed of all SF genre fiction: the kind with a built-in platform because it pulls in readers — especially young readers — from the most youth-accessible mediums: movies, TV, and video games. Even the worst media novel is almost guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies, above and beyond an original fiction book, because the “platform” of the tie-in reaches out to touch an entirely different spectrum of the buying public — people who might not ever wander into the SF shelves at a bookstore, or may not even go to a bookstore proper, but who will pick up a copy of a Star Wars novel at their local grocer. Because Boba Fett is frickin’ cool and everybody loves lightsabres and laser-blaster battles, right?

Hey, I won’t lie, I catch myself looking down my nose at media fiction all the time. I can’t remember the last time I bought or enjoyed a media title. Yet media novels were what brought me into the ghetto as a teen: Star Trek novels specifically. I eventually “graduated” to reading Larry Niven and Orson Scott Card, Chris Bunch and Alan Cole, but it all began with Diane Duane and Vonda McIntyre, David Gerrold and A.C. Crispin. I remember loving those media titles, and now I feel a little ashamed if ever I spot a Star Wars or other media novel, and sense the ghetto hackles rising.

Perhaps it’s just human nature, to tend towards elitism. All of us have a desire to feel special — and I am enough of a contrarian to understand the sweetness that comes from feeling exclusive; part of the unique club.

But I can’t see SF as a distinct written genre surviving another decade or two as long as SF as a distinct written genre maintains its current course. Eventually, economics will kill it. Or it will truly become a Literary plaything: a genre so incomprehensible and dense, by general public standards, that it’s only ever consumed by the rare intellectual at the academic level. Or it will go the way Kris and Dean predict: dispersing into the other genres, such that writers like Crichton were merely predictors of the future: when no SF exists independent of an encompassing label.

Or…. the writers and editors and publishers and readers and critics — of SF — could realize that there are only so many big fat old guys with beards.


  1. This definitely resonates for me. I see no reason whatsoever why some of Alan Dean Foster’s novelizations haven’t received critical acclaim the way “original” sf fiction have. For example, no one could have pulled off the level of realism he brought to the Transformers novelizations. Seriously.

    And Matthew Stover’s adaptation of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was the book that got me to really LOVE reading again, in high school. Prior to that, I had been hard-pressed to find anything outside of Stephen King or the novel Fight Club that really struck a chord with me.

    I would love to see a sf saga come along with an audience as widespread as that of Harry Potter or Twilight. The Matrix, in a way, had that sort of following–but there were no books to precede that series.

    I notice that OSC’s Ender’s Game is now being marketed as young adult fiction, with a less-adult-looking cover. That’s a good thing, but more fresh sf aimed at young adults, aside from Star Wars, Star Trek, et cetera, would give the genre a massive boost. The stuff they publish in the big ‘zines is great, but doesn’t draw young or new people to the genre. It’s marketed toward folks like us, who’ve loved sf forever. Since we were KIDS.

    Totally agree with your point. Would love to see sf give a nod to the people who scoff at it. It’s disgusting the way I hear my friends hiss the words ‘science fiction.’ I have friends who think HALO is the only good thing to come from the genre.

    While I agree that Halo is a great game series, and a fantastic universe, it is only one of limitless such possibilities in the realm of sf.

    A sign of what’s to come, hopefully.

  2. Yep, good post, Brad. The “old guys with beards” is something I’ve actually internalized more generally and non-genderly as “white hairs.” I was at a con last year and the majority of the audience and the majority of the panelists were of the ‘white hairs/FOGWB’ mold. Lamenting the slow death of ‘their’ SF (SF specifically, not SF/F) and how annoyed many of them were with the apparent larger focus on media tie-in novels.

    (I don’t know where they got the idea that media novels were more focused on, but whatev.)

    What bothered me most were the panelists/writers. They had the attitude you mentioned, where if you didn’t think like they did, write like they did, read what they did, and didn’t have the same experiences they had, you were never going to ‘get’ their brand of SF. Very much an exclusive club and if you couldn’t show off a certain level of ‘cred’, you were out.

    I’ve seen the same attitude, sadly, on a certain forum of a certain SF/F writing organization, and it really makes me mad/sad that the old guard are presenting such an exclusive attitude. And then they wonder why there aren’t more members. Maybe the new generation wants to read good sci-fi rather than laments about how the good old days were so much better.

    As for modern SF, I’ve found little that actually entertains me. Part of the reason I enjoy reading Trek and Star Wars and other media books is because they’re FUN to read. Once modern SF writers and publishers rediscover how to put the FUN back into SF, I’ll be lining up. In the meantime, I’m content to read and write fantasy and space opera.

  3. Fascinating perspective. I’m not sure quite what the old guard of science fiction looks like, because I’ve never been a big fan of the genre; but the last two novels I read that fall within its locus (with multiple years between them, mind you) exemplify in my mind a humongous difference in styles: “Red Mars” by Kim Stanley Robinson and “Matter” by Iain M. Banks. In Red Mars, there are passages and chapters devoted to industrial processes, like brick-making. In Matter, there are scenes of insane alien vistas, diabolical treachery, and eon-ancient eldritch evil. For me, “science fiction” is the genre that is truly “speculative fiction,” because its literary purview is focused, logical, and scientifically possible future scenarios.

    Personally, I’ve always preferred warpdrives and laserbeams. Perhaps this is “science fantasy;” I just think it’s awesome. Wherever the new science fiction books eventually fall on the shelves, I’ll read the ones that are stuffed with crazy technology I don’t need to think about, only dream of.


  4. Perhaps stories set in space are not huge for the new generation right now, but it seems dystopia-themed novels are pretty big, with things like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Uglies, and The Traveler. These all have sci-fi elements, though are more character-driven than idea-driven like much of classic sci-fi.
    Perhaps space stories will get big again though in the future. I dabbled with Star Trek and Star Wars back in high school, but it hasn’t held my interest since. I may just not care for the setting? I’m not sure.

  5. Great comments everybody. And thank you for contributing!

    Alex, I think Ender’s Game is perhaps more at home with today’s youth market than ever before. Ender’s entire life — texting, the web, immersive computer games — is more or less commonplace now, and the only thing truly fantastical is his life at the asteroid Battle School. And I agree, Alan Dean Foster gets short shrift. He’s been laboring for decades to turn even the worst SF film franchises into literarily solid books.

    Jim, I known what you mean about the cons. I have a love-hate relationship with cons. On the one hand, they’re the only place I can go and rub elbows with other writers face-to-face and get some time with some amazingly intelligent fans. On the other hand, too many fans and writers rejoice in the “peculiar smallness” of the SF world, and kvetch endlessly about how the genre shrinks — at the same time they actively work to keep shrinking the genre, with attitudes I can only describe as counterproductive. In the end, every con I’ve been to has tended to create in me the urge to say, ala Williams Shatner, “Get a life, people!” No wonder SF is shrinking and can’t get market traction when so many con-goers a) bathe infrequently b) are 50+ or older c) and appear to have never kissed nor been intimate with a member of the opposite gender. That’s a rather rude and stereotypical way to call it, but that’s how it seems to me, and I don’t like it. I wish the cons had way more young people, and way more “normal” people in normal clothes, come to see what’s what in a vibrant genre. I don’t like that cons too often represent a literary “cloister” of socially mal-adjusted, closeted genre-lit snobs.

    Ben, I tend to be like you: I seek out the stuff that tends to be “large” on fantastical-type tech. I’m not much for “mundane” SF that is focused almost entirely on the dystopic near-future. Sometimes the dystopic stories get me, but more often than not I find such dystopism depressing. Any idiot can predict a gloomy future. Political pundits have created an entire industry out of such work. When I read SF I like to read about blown-open, wide, spanning vistas.

    Annie, space opera is dead. Long live space opera!!

  6. Nicholas, I hate to admit it, but maybe my generation was the last to truly feel awe at space. For people born in the 80’s and 90’s, space might be just another ho-hum history subject. I’m old enough to have watched the first Shuttle launch on TV — back when it was still pretended we’d be landing on the moon again before the 1980’s were over — and space, all by itself, was an amazing thing. Perhaps space has become boring for younger audiences, for whom the virtual world — texting, VR games, social media like Facebook — is far more interesting. If true, then writers like me might have to spend a lot of time doing mental shift in our topic coverage.

  7. Hi All,

    I have a somewhat different take on this.

    I think as a genre we’ve become too literary and in some ways much too Post-Modern. Nearly everything is social criticism now. To the point that its crowds out heroism. What frequently remains for heroes is to be among the downtrodden, abused, or oppressed.

    A good example of is Palo Bacigalupi’s The Wind Up Girl. It’s a brilliantly written work that held my attention all the way through. But by its end those who are heroic are either dead, deeply cynical and have much blood on their hands, or they are victims.

    The problem with the field being dominated by dystopias, social realism, and social criticism, is that most of our potential middle- and working-class readership (in my opinion) aren’t looking for that. They get enough of life’s many downsides during each workday. I think what they are looking for is inspiration and motivation to meet those challenges, and so they turn to those publishing niches that are the least dominated by current literary conceits: Fantasy and commercial spin offs.

    I see the challenge as one of presenting characters and plots that embody the good and the bad of life, but in which protagonists on some level manage to navigate their way through that complexity. This might go a long way to reconnecting us with what used to be our readership.

    The exclusions of idea-driven stories in favor of character-driven plots is also a part of the problem, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.


  8. Alex, that was very nicely put. You’ve managed to condense a lot of what I feel down into a very cogent series of paragraphs.

    I think what they are looking for is inspiration and motivation to meet those challenges

    Lord knows this is often what I look for when I imbibe any kind of story. I think this is why when I see a movie these days, I am largely looking for a bigger-than-life epic that transports me beyond the present world and all its nagging problems, to a larger-than-present context where heroes and villains battle, like the myths of old. I’m just not very big on dreary, present-tense navel-gazers that fixate on the ‘criticism’ aspect you so aptly describe above.

    Alas, the SF genre does seem to have tipped over largely into social critic mode, wherein everything now must be some kind of critique of our larger culture, and allegory is ever-present.

    Too much of that, I feel like I am lectured to death, when I instead am trying to be inspired while I am also entertained.

  9. Thanks Brad! It seems like there are a number of us who are thinking about the decline of the genre what positive steps we can take to rectify the situation. Hopefully we can address this issue in August.

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