I thought after my post last week I’d said all I need to say about the current Hugo goings on, but then Brad Torgersen came up with a really weird rationalization about why SF sales are plummeting, and why putting all this literary and political stuff in books is a big mistake: it’s a marketing issue. For specfic fans, changing the essence of the genre is like changing a great cereal you love—once you discover there’s something different in the packaging, you’re going to drop it like a hot potato.
“A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.
These days, you can’t be sure.
The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?
There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?”
I think this is a significantly different argument from “fans don’t want to read stories about racism, sexism or political issues.” It’s also nonsensical. For starters, purely as a technical point, specfic covers (Powers above, Gervasio Gallardo below, all rights with current holder) don’t always telegraph what’s inside. Okay, the Lilith cover suggests you’re going to read about a world inside a mirror, with a pretty woman and a raven, but as a description of the book that’s a little lacking. Not that there aren’t plenty of covers where what you see is what you get, but there are plenty of others.
Second, as plenty of people have pointed out, fantasy and SF didn’t start dealing with issues in the 21st century. To take one example, Clifford Simak’s 1951 Time and Again is a complex time-travel story about the struggle for android rights. It’s hard not to read it as a metaphor for the civil rights movement. The MacDonald book in this post is a religious allegory (a good one though).
And of course, politics and swashbuckling adventure can coexist perfectly well. Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is adventurous as all get out (dragons fighting the Napoleonic wars!) but Novik is also very clear that the dragons are indeed oppressed by the European governments.
Most importantly, who is this “you” Torgersen is talking to? Apparently someone who was reading specfic a few decades ago (I interpret that as at least 40 years) and is now dropping it because the genre has changed. But obviously readers under 40, or even 45 or 48 (depending on when they pick up the genre) don’t go back that far, and that’s a lot of readers. Easily half my writing group would be too young for this to be an issue.
And the genre certainly hasn’t been static during those few decades. We’ve had cyberpunk. Steampunk. Urban fantasy. Grimdark. Epic fantasy as a genre—back in the 1970s it wasn’t a genre, it was LOTR and a bunch of bad imitations (and the LOTR covers I grew up with definitely didn’t shriek “epic fantasy” [all rights with current holder]). Not that epic space adventure or military SF have disappeared, but they haven’t been the sum total of the genre in years.
The only people I think would really judge SF that way are the ones who don’t read it, the way the only people likely to think comics today are all like the Adam West Batman would be people who never read comics.