So earlier this year I read Retromania, a book on how our culture doesn’t seem to break with its past the way it used to. The 21st century hasn’t produced any radical new styles compared to punk, jazz or rock, and kids these days aren’t rejecting everything more than a few years old as hokey old crap. Author Simon Reynolds focuses on his field, music, but I think it’s also true about movies and comics. And then I started wondering, how do Reynolds observations apply to specfic?
Probably quite a bit, though not reading massive amounts of current stuff may be skewing my judgment. But it really seems like a lot of what’s popular is a continuation of what become popular in the 1990s (urban fantasy and the first steampunk fiction) or even earlier. Lovecraftian horror, for example, goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, and now it’s a subgenre (to which I’ve contributed).
And if there’s any genre that’s not around now, no problem. With ebay, Amazon or the used book stores on bookfinder.com, or the out-of-copyright stuff on Gutenberg, there’s nothing that’s not available somewhere, and possibly quite cheaply. Which is good — I was quite happy to read The Night Land on Kindle for zero cost— but I wonder what effect it has? Reynolds mentions that older stuff actually outsells new music, even though stores don’t keep the same backlist. I’ve heard other music-loving bloggers grumble that buying stuff made by dead artists is cutting into the money that goes to new artists, the ones who actually need it. Does the availability of all the old books affect how new fantasy and SF sells? Certainly my reading choices were influenced for years by what was available in local used-book stores.
What about race and gender? Obviously the roles women and minorities got in, say, 1930s SF, turn off a lot of modern readers. Then again, there’s no shortage of people who insist the genre was better before it took diversity into account. What difference does it make that they can so easily find books from an era when people didn’t take diversity into account?
To paraphrase Reynolds, if we assume the same number of brilliant specfic novels come out every year, then less than 10 percent of the 21st century’s best books will come out in 2017. Does that increase the chance of our reading older stuff instead of newer stuff?
What about stories that knowingly mine the past SF, fantasy or other genres? I’ve lifted from the hardboiled style for No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, from PG Wodehouse for The Wodehouse Murder Case and from 1950s SF for the Applied Science series. As one comic-book writer put it once, if all you do is mine the past without creating anything new, what’s the next generation going to mine? Not that I don’t think I’m creative and imaginative, but still.
Then again, perhaps I’m exaggerating. Sure, people still write Lovecraftian stories (probably more than his imitators and admirers did when he was still alive) but it’s veered a long way from anything HPL would have recognized, like an anthology of Lovecraftian romance (cover by Ignacio Cariman, all rights remain with current holder). Perhaps even if we’re not creating startling new genres, the variations on a form are significant. And certainly things like adding more gay, female and non-white protagonists is not a small thing, even if the story is otherwise working solidly within a classic subgenre and its formulae.
I don’t really have a conclusion to draw here. But I do find the questions interesting, even if I don’t have good answers.