Brad R Torgersen on False Advertising in SFF

Brad R Torgersen pens a clear and brilliant explanation of an otherwise inexplicable phenomenon:

Depending on who you ask, the Hugos are broken because they are either too insular (this is part of the SAD PUPPIES theory) or too easily manipulated by outside voting blocs (the “fandom purist” theory) or because “fandom” itself is still too white, too straight, and too cisnormative (Call this the “Grievance Studies theory”) or even that the Hugos spend too much time dwelling on popular works, at the expense of real literature (the “pinky-in-the-air snob theory”) or that “fandom” simply falls into predictable ruts, and is easily swayed by sparkly bellwethers, such as the Nebulas.

I want to introduce another theory. One that others have spoken of before. I call it the “Unreliable packaging” theory. And it’s afflicting not just the Hugos, but the SF/F literary field as a whole. As witnessed by (yet another spate of) declining SF/F sales at the bookstores.

Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.

Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else …  The contents are something different.


That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. 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.

Read the whole thing.

My comment: The phenomenon of falling SFF book sales at a time when science fiction/fantasy is more popular than ever is inexplicable.

(I am including comic book superheroes as honored members of the SFF clan, on the grounds that any strange visitors from another planet having superpowers may not be Nuts-n-Bolts SF, but it is SF. Aliens=SF.)

I say science fiction is more popular than ever because all the top ten grossing films of all time are SFF, with the single exception of GONE WITH THE WIND. The most popular cartoons and television shows are SFF. All the top selling computer games are SFF. All the top selling Anime are SFF. And, most outrageously clear of all, the popular vote for the best book of the millennium, LORD OF THE RINGS, is SFF.

We slans used to be in a ghetto, picked on by the cool kids, snubbed by Lois Lane, and bullies kicked sand in our faces. Then, in the decades after STAR WARS, we took over the world.

There is a parallel phenomenon in comic books. We live in the Golden Age of Superhero movies and television shows. Everyone catches references to Superman, to Spiderman, and so on. But no one reads the actual paper comic books any more. If you want your fix of TEEN TITANS, you watch the cartoon or play the game.

So, what can account for this?

The answer is simple enough, once you see it. The reason why science fiction books are not popular in a society where science fiction is more popular than ever is because the books published, labeled, marketed and sold as science fiction are not.

They are not science fiction.

They are social justice fiction, or chick lit in science fiction drag, or whining experimental deconstructist folderol and tripe, but not science fiction. If DUNE and STARSHIP TROOPERS and CHILDHOOD’S END and FOUNDATION and other novels from four or five decades ago — you heard me! I said decades — are selling better than the most widely reviewed and praised SFF work on the New York Times bestseller list, then the simple answer is that your book is not science fiction, but Herbert, Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov simply are science fiction.

Likewise with comic books. If you cannot sell a comic where Superman denounces his American citizenship, or Ms Marvel is a Muslim girl, or Batwoman is a Lesbian, or Captain America is shot by a sniper, or Thor is a girl — well, it is because you have stopped telling stories of heroes who fight for truth, justice, and the American Way, and have started telling stories about victims.

Simple as that.