by Don Sakers
In literary criticism of science fiction, one factor that frequently gets short shrift is the audience—the readers, listeners, or viewers who consume SF. Much of the time, critical discussion of audience is limited to the observation that SF is produced for present-day audiences, not for the people of the future. True enough, but also rather trivial.
Even those of us within the field have a tendency to treat SF consumers as a fairly homogenous, unchanging crowd. At most, we’ll break the crowd down by genre or creator: Space-opera readers, Star Trek fans, LeGuin aficionados, Analog readers.
A moment’s reflection reveals the problem. “The SF audience” is not a homogenous group; all kinds of people like science fiction, for a variety or reasons. Nor has the audience remained the same for the nearly 100 years that SF has been a commercially distinct literary form.
No work of SF (story, book, audio or video work, game, etc.) exists independent of an audience . . . at least, none that can be discussed. A work might be hugely successful for one audience, but a total failure for another. As a trivial example, a book written in Japanese might be a huge success in Tokyo, but to an English-speaking audience it would be literally incomprehensible until translated. Similarly, a story that was a huge hit in Astounding Stories of Super-Science in 1930 could well be embarrassingly offensive to readers of Analog in 2020.
It behooves us, then, to have at least a basic knowledge of how SF audiences of the present day differ from those of the past. It’s not an easy question; historically, research on SF audiences has been sparse. A few magazines and conventions did periodic reader surveys; raw numbers are available for some indicators such as magazine circulation, print runs, Nielsen ratings, and ticket sales. Until fairly recently, publishers did little modern-style market research; even the best editors and publishers relied on their own sense of their audiences. Nonetheless, some general patterns can be discerned.
Please note that in the discussion that follows, I’m oversimplifying and making sweeping generalizations. Every statement should be appended with “ . . . of course, many of this group had always been there.” A detailed, more accurate account requires knowledge and skills beyond my abilities.
From the beginning, SF and fantasy were perceived as juvenile literature, on the same level as fairy tales—a literature that one “grew out of.” Some few adults continued to enjoy such tales, but even they kept their interest private.
And here’s a key point to remember as we go along: while many who start consuming SF (at any age) do “grow out of it,” a certain percentage remain SF consumers for life. Whatever attracted them to SF in the first place is what they continue looking for. Thus, the SF audience expanded in a fashion not unlike the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”—at each step encompassing all the “older” folks with their “old-fashioned” tastes.
When Hugo Gernsback established SF as a distinct commercial genre in 1926, his primary audience was radio and electronics hobbyists—mostly adolescent white boys from fairly well-off families. The proliferating early SF magazines also attracted engineering types, both amateur and pro. Along with these came those who fancied exotic adventure tales.
The Campbell revolution added a wave of engineering and science professionals, including many who served in military positions.
In the wake of World War II, the atom bomb and rocketry—both mainstays of SF—slapped the world in the face and brought a bit of respectability to the field. As science and technology became more mainstream concerns, the audience broadened to include laymen concerned with those fields.
The 1950s brought in many—both amateurs and professionals—interested in the “soft” sciences: psychology, sociology, marketing, and the emerging field of futurism. In the 1960s, coincident with the New Wave, SF attracted a more bohemian, counterculture crowd. With beatniks and hippies came also those from the literary and educational worlds, including many college students. Larger numbers of women were attracted to the field, both as consumers and as writers.
Movies and TV discovered “sci-fi” and exposed millions to the field who had not known the magazines and books . . . including a huge influx of (mostly white) women. In general, the SF audience skewed even more mainstream.
Star Wars, as well as inspiring a generation of SF films and TV shows, broadened the mainstream appeal of SF even further. (There’s more than a bit of truth in the old joke that says “Trekkies” is the word for Star Trek fans, whereas the word for Star Wars fans is “people.”)
As SF confronted the liberation movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (civil rights, feminism, LGBT rights, etc.), these marginalized groups began to look for SF that spoke to them. A post-colonial, multicultural population started to want the same. This process accelerated in the following decades, right down to the present day, bringing a generation of SF consumers expecting to see their own experiences mirrored in SF.
The SF-heavy movies and TV of the last two decades resulted in the so-called “triumph of the geeks,” in which SF themes have penetrated and come to dominate the mainstream. In today’s world, one way or another, a large portion of the mainstream audience is the SF audience.
What does all this mean for the field of SF—especially written SF?
Let’s talk about that in the next issue.
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A Song for a New Day
Berkley, 372 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (ebook)
Genre: Dystopian SF, Music & SF, Near-Future SF, Psychological/Sociological SF
Here’s wunderkind Sarah Pinsker again. She’s followed up her stunning collection of short fiction (Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea, reviewed in the Sep/Oct 2019 issue) with a novel reminiscent of the late Thomas M. Disch.
Luce Cannon was an up-and-coming musical star, with a hit song and a clear path to stardom. That was Before.
Before the terror attacks, the bioweapons, the riots and killings. Before the curfews, the emergency laws against large gatherings. Before people retreated into their safe homes, relying more and more on virtual reality to connect with the world.
Before, when there were concerts, when musicians could play with one another, when they could perform for happy fans . . . when an entertainer could dream of a successful career.
Now it’s After, and Luce lives for the occasional illegal concert, clandestine performances for tiny but passionate audiences. Always an eye on the door, ready to dodge the cops and run. It’s not the life she wanted, but it’s better than giving up entirely.
For Rosemary Laws, Before is the nearly forgotten world of her childhood. She works in virtual reality space, assisting customers with ordering their stuff and setting up drone delivery. Safe and antiseptic: no physical contact, no messy interactions.
Rosemary’s trouble starts with a new job. She’s hired to bring her skills to a new arena: arranging concerts in virtual reality. She’ll need to find the performers, pluck them out of their illegal physical world, and bring their music to homebound millions. But first, she’ll have to conquer her fear and do what she’s never done before: leave the house and go out in public.
When Rosemary and Luce unite, Before and After blend, and they have a new mission: to create, through music, a world that brings together the best of both.
Told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Luce and Rosemary, A Song for a New Day is lyrical and compelling. Make sure to block out some free time, because once you start reading you won’t be able to put the book down.
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Tor, 173 pages, $19.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (ebook)
Genre: Psionics, Psychological/Sociological SF
Tochi Onyebuchi comes to us from the world of young adult fantasy, where his novel Beasts Made of Night (2017) won the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African. Crown of Thunder (2018) was the sequel.
Born in Massachusetts and raised in Connecticut, Onyebuchi is a graduate of Yale, NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, Columbia Law School, and L’institut d’études politiques. He has a Master’s degree in Global Business Law. He has worked in criminal justice, immigration law, and the tech industry. His short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Uncanny Magazine, https://www.tor.com, and The Harvard Journal of African-American Public Policy.
But forget all the credentials and impressive background: the most important thing you need to know about Tochi Onyebuchi is that he can write. And I mean the Theodore Sturgeon, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany kind of writing that reaches right into your body and takes you by the heart and gonads for the duration.
Riot Baby, the first of two Onyebuchi books I have for you, is being marketed as a novella. At 173 pages, it’s longer than a lot of award-winning novels of the past, so you don’t have to fear you’re being shortchanged. I suspect that “novella” is somehow deemed more respectable than “short novel”; that’s all.
Kev Jackson was born in the midst of a racial strife, earning him the nickname Riot Baby. Kev and his older sister Ella are a pair of black adolescents trying to navigate the violent urban wasteland of a dystopian near future. Each of them has a Thing: a set of paranormal powers that give them some small measure of control over a chaotic, brutal world. Living in Harlem with their Mama, Kev tries his best to survive the anger and violence around him, while Ella helps protect him.
Then comes the day Kev gets arrested and unjustly thrown in prison. Surrounded by violence, Kev knows that he can’t succumb to the ubiquitous hate and anger . . . or his Thing will feed and grow, and the world will burn.
Ella visits often, both in person and paranormally. She takes him places, shows him visions of the past and possible futures. And Kev comes to realize that the power to burn down the world is also the power to cleanse it. . . .
Reminiscent in many ways of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Riot Baby is an intense story of injustice, anger, and redemption that speaks directly to key divisions in our society today. This isn’t just a powerful book; it’s an important one.
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Razorbill, 450 pages, $18.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $10.99 (ebook)
Genre: Military SF, Post-Apocalyptic SF, Psychological/Sociological SF
War Girls is being marketed as a young adult novel, but it stands equally well as an adult book. While not connected to Riot Baby or part of the same universe, War Girls is something of a thematic sequel. In Riot Baby we stood on the brink of world destruction; War Girls starts in a destroyed world and is all about rebuilding.
In 2172, climate catastrophe and nuclear destruction have rendered much of the Earth uninhabitable. The fortunate have escaped to orbital colonies; the unfortunate remain behind, scraping out what existence they can.
In Nigeria, civil war rages across radioactive wastelands as the separatists of Biafra struggle to keep their mineral wealth from the corrupt Nigerian government. Great flying robots sow destruction, while ordinary soldiers are bioengineered with cyborg parts to allow them to survive and fight in the hostile battleground environment.
A high-tech refugee camp serves to protect former child soldiers and orphans left homeless by the war. There, orphaned Onyii and her sister Ify live a precarious but relatively safe life.
Until a Nigerian attack destroys their home and separates the girls, sending them to opposing sides.
Four years later, Onyii is one of the most successful soldiers on the rebel side, known as the Demon of Biafra. She lives for revenge. Meanwhile, Ify has become a star student at a tech school in the capital of Nigeria. She hopes to escape to space. Both sisters know that they will never see one another again.
Then, a mission gone awry opens the possibility of a reunion. There’s hope, a path to peace and freedom, a future together.
And to get there, they only have to fight through a war. . . .
Mesmerizing and powerful, War Girls is another one you won’t be able to put down.
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Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters
Edited by Sarena Ulibarri
World Weaver Press, 305 pages, $15.95 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $0.99 (ebook)
Genre: Environmental/Ecological SF, Original Anthologies
This is the second Solarpunk anthology; the first was Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (2018). In case you’re not familiar with the term, editor Ulibarri describes solarpunk as “optimistic climate fiction depicting futures in which we have mitigated the worst effects of climate change, or adapted to the changes we can no longer prevent. Rather than total collapse and apocalypse . . . solarpunk futures champion human ingenuity and camaraderie, where we work together to find better days despite the hardships.”
The first volume focused on extreme hot weather; this one features stories dealing with cold. There are 17 stories by as many authors. You might recognize Analog’s own Wendy Nikel (“12:30 Bus From the Basics” in the May/Jun 2019 issue) and Holly Schofield (most recently in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue with “Home on the Free Range”). The others are a mix of newcomers and up-and-coming writers. Of particular interest are two Italian collectives, the Commando Jugendstil and Tales From the EV Studio, environmental groups with a concentration on real-world solarpunk efforts.
The stories range from post-apocalyptic tales to stories of crisis averted; from wilderness to urban life; from disasters to triumphs. In a good theme anthology, authors go off in may different directions; that’s certainly true here.
In “Black Ice City” by Andrew Dana Hudson, an annual meeting at the North Pole has to contend with open water. Shel Graves’s “Set the Ice Free” depicts an alien visitor in a lonely city on a largely abandoned Earth. In “Snow Globe” by Brian Burt, Native American nations have taken refuge in floating cities on the Great Lakes.
If you’re looking for an optimistic take on climate change, this is the book for you. Lots of fun.
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Baen, 320 pages, 25.00 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $9.99 (ebook)
Genre: Prehistoric SF, Trips in Time
Wil McCarthy is no stranger to these pages—he last appeared in the May/Jun 2018 issue with “The Last Biker Gang.” It’s been quite a while since his last novel, To Crush the Moon (2005).
One of McCarthy’s strengths is the ability to take wild speculations and ground them in persuasive science and good storytelling. This time around he doesn’t disappoint.
In Antediluvian the wild speculation is the classic idea of ancestral memory. The protagonist, engineer Harv Leonel, theorizes that long strings of undeciphered DNA in the human genome actually encode the memories of all one’s ancestors. With appropriate equipment, Harv believes he can extract and experience those memories of past lives.
With the help of his girlfriend, paleontologist Tara Mukherjee, Harv constructs the proper gadgets. With himself as test subject, he attaches the device—and goes on to fully experience incidents from the life of an ancestor twelve thousand years ago.
The vision ends, and Harv comes to himself in the lab. Then he’s off on another trip, this one to twenty thousand years ago. Altogether, Harv goes on four trips, each successively further into the past.
The four trips make up the bulk of the book. They’re interesting and engaging, in a Harry Turtledove/L. Sprague deCamp/Jean Auel way. If you’re a fan of prehistoric fiction, you’ll definitely enjoy these bits. By the end, Harv is experiencing the life of early hominids on the brink of setting forth for the first time on the world’s oceans.
Now, there’s a quantum theory justification for all this, which raises the issue of quantum entanglement—a way for Harv’s present to interact with the past times he visits. And that all has implications for the present. McCarthy brings everything full-circle in a satisfying way.
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Denver Moon Book II: The Saint of Mars
Warren Hammond & Joshua Viola
Hex Publishers, 213 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $4.99 (ebook)
Series: Denver Moon 2
Genre: Adventure SF, Mars, Noir SF
We last saw Martian private eye Denver Moon in Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars (2018, reviewed in the July/Aug 2018 issue). Now it’s six months later, and Mars City is even less pleasant a place to live. Denver and her faithful AI Smith are deep in an investigation of a series of mysterious disappearances from Red Tunnel. It’s not as glamorous as her last job, when she saved the planet from alien mind control, but a woman has to eat.
Following a suspect, Denver and Smith stumble across a greater problem. Within the Church of Mars, an android revolt is brewing. Not only does this revolt threaten to topple the precarious balance of power in the city—but its leader is an old enemy of Denver’s. One who is quite willing to add a personal vendetta to the plot.
It’s up to Denver and Smith to foil the androids’ plans and save Mars again. But first they have to live through the day. . . .
Denver Moon is at once an old-school private eye in the Raymond Chandler mode, and a modern SF hero at home with advanced technology. The story’s a page-turner, the setting is well-detailed, and the action is nonstop. It’s a fun thrill ride from beginning to end.
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The Best of Jerry Pournelle
Edited by John F. Carr
Baen, 640 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (ebook)
Genre: Tribute Anthology
The late Jerry Pournelle was an institution in the field. In his solo work as well as in collaborations (with Larry Niven, Roland J. Green, Michael F. Flynn, and Steven Barnes), he produced some of the best-selling SF books of all time, and left an indelible mark on the field.
As writer and editor, Jerry Pournelle had a huge impact on the SF field. As a tech journalist, he was an instrumental part of the personal computer revolution. He served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and remained a strong advocate for writers throughout his life. As a founding member of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy, he promoted support for the space program.
Long-time associate John F. Carr has put together a fine tribute anthology in memory of Dr. Pournelle. Seventeen of Pournelle’s short pieces are collected here, a mix of fiction and nonfiction. Four were written with Larry Niven, and one with Niven and Steve Barnes. Many of the stories were first published in Analog in the 1970s.
In addition, the anthology includes essays by Larry King, David Gerrold, Doug McElwain, Steve Barnes, and Robert Gleason, as well as an introduction by editor Carr.
John F. Carr introduces each piece, setting historical context and discussing what aspects of Pournelle’s life and work are reflected. All in all, it’s a well-done tribute to one of the giants of SF.
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Across the Universe: Tales of Alternate Beatles
Edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Randee Dawn
Fantastic Books, 300 pages, $15.99 (trade paperback)
Genre: Original Anthologies
Theme anthologies can be very rewarding for readers. An editor picks a theme, and writers ring their own individual changes on the idea. And readers get an assortment of tales of all kinds. Part of the fun, of course, is following all the unexpected, bizarre directions that a group of SF writers take a concept.
Among aficionados, some themes are more fun than others. In general, the more unusual the theme, the better. (As editor of 1988’s Carmen Miranda’s Ghost is Haunting Space Station Three, I know whereof I speak.) Thus we have such beloved classics as Great Science Fiction About Doctors (Collier, 1966), The Science Fiction Weight Loss Book (Crown, 1983), and Alien Pregnant by Elvis (DAW, 1994).
On this scale, one has to give major kudos to Michael A. Ventrella and Randee Dawn for Across the Universe: Tales of Alternative Beatles.
Perhaps you’ve never wondered what the world would be like if the Fab Four had been aliens, or magic-users, or American. Maybe you’ve never pondered an alternative universe in which George Harrison couldn’t stand sitar music. Don’t worry, this anthology has you covered.
Here are no less than twenty-five stories by as many authors. Among the many familiar names are Gregory Benford, Pat Cadigan, Brenda Clough, Keith DeCandido, Gregory Frost, David Gerrold, Jody Lynn Nye, Cat Rambo, Spider Robinson, Allen Steele, and Lawrence Watt-Evans. They’re joined by a dozen others. Each story is more outrageous than the one before; no matter what strange things you’ve heard about the Beatles, I can guarantee that you’ve never dreamed half of the outrageous ideas here.
Across the Universe was the second successful Kickstarter campaign for Fantastic Books—over 250 readers pledged more than eight thousand dollars to make the book happen. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be anxiously awaiting Fantastic’s next crowdfunding project.
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The Chronicles of Davids
Edited by David Afsharirad
Baen, 288 pages, $16.00 (trade paperback)
iBooks, Kindle, Nook: $8.99 (ebook)
Genre: Theme Anthologies
And then there are theme anthologies so unusual that the only word is “outrageous.” David Afsharirad carries off the top prize for this one.
When I first saw The Chronicles of Davids, my first thought was “Oh no they didn’t!” But oh yes, they most certainly did.
I won’t keep you in suspense. Just take a look at the list of contributors. David Afsharirad, editor. David Mattingly, cover artist. David Drake. David Brin. David Weber. David Boop, Dave Bara, D.J. Butler, David Carrico, David B. Coe, Avram Davidson, Hank Davis, Dave Freer, David Hardy, David H. Keller, D.L. Young.
Oh, Gregory Benford is there too, in collaboration with Brin.
The final name on the list is Barry N. Malzberg . . . with a piece titled “An Epilogue: The House of David.”
Now, the joke would be wasted if the stories weren’t good. Fortunately, they’re fine. Shape-shifting detectives, sentient tanks, film-writing AIs, freedom fighters—there’s plenty here to justify a purchase that you know you can’t resist anyway.
And now, I do believe I’m out of space. See you next time.
Don Sakers is the author of Meat and Machine, Elevenses, the Rule of Five serial at http://donsakers.com/ruleof5/, and A Cosmos of Many Mansions, a collection based on previous columns. For more information, visit www.scatteredworlds.com.
Copyright © 2020 Don Sakers