SFF: When Consolation Becomes Compulsion

Imagine, if you will, a world where the greatest SFF book of all time, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, is not the whole of the story. Read it again. Please. Now imagine going into your local bookstore and seeing the First Trilogy of Oceania: the Birth of Big Brother, cheek by jowl with the ongoing exploits of Winston and Julia’s grandchildren as they continue the fight of their ancestors (against, most likely, the blood heir of O’Brien). Imagine an ever-expanding fictional universe in which book after book keeps coming, in order to satisfy the outstanding questions of every last reader, a universe so expansive that no-one ever has to use their own imagination or intelligence to discover “what happens next”. Instead it’s laid out for them on a platter.

Imagine how the impact, the sheer creative punch, of the original novel would lessen with each new addition.

Now go down to that local bookstore and experience the reality. SFF literature today is being homogenised as never before. With a (very) few honourable exceptions, the ability to punch is being deliberately eroded.

Over the past few years a horrible suspicion has arisen within me. SFF authors have forgotten how to stop, and because of it they are also forgetting how to start. Continued world-building – creating an ever expanding cohesive universe, in book after book after book – has become the pinnacle of creation. Imagine one new universe in enough depth, and you never need be bothered with creating another. You’re free to milk what you have unto death and beyond. The royalties roll in: such a comfort! The faithful readers sink happily into familiarity: such a comfort… but is it the right kind of comfort, or merely another opiate for the masses?

In his seminal essay, On Fairy Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien explained the desire for fantasy and fairy stories as the desire for escape, for consolation from the sorrows of the world. SFF as a genre is in a unique position to provide escape and consolation; the archetypes of fantasy and the ethics of science are able to mirror our present-day lives more comprehensively than any other genre.

And yet consolation has become compulsion, with the childish desire to find out “what happens next” being catered to over the adult desire for understanding and illumination. Children need to be given closure. Adults have to learn to find it for themselves, and to sometimes live with the lack. The publishing mechanism behind most modern SFF does not reflect this. Fictional facts are given supreme importance over actual knowledge. Sustained metaphor has been trampled into dust; allegory a useless endeavour. Until today I believed that more and more I was being encouraged to buy as a child, to buy “what happens next”. This irks me, as because I am an adult I would prefer to be challenged rather than fobbed off with the literary equivalent of a mildly exciting cup of cocoa. And yet in my annoyance I wondered if I was being biased, if my sample was inaccurate. Today I got evidence that tends towards the opposite.

It came from an experiment in fact gathering. I visited three bookstores in my town: each from a different national bookselling franchise. In each bookstore my procedure was the same. I counted the number of titles in the SFF section, and then within that group I counted the number of “standalone titles”. By “standalone titles” I refer to those books that aren’t part of a wider universe (they are not prequels, sequels, “Book Eight in the Series of Unending Generic Formula”, etc.). Short story collections were included in the count, whereas graphic novels and adaptations were not.

Bookstore 1 carried 143 SFF titles, of which 11 were standalone (7.7%). Bookstore 2 carried 182 SFF titles, of which 15 were standalone (8.2%). Bookstore 3 carried 327 SFF titles, of which 40 were standalone (12.2%).

The average percentage of standalone fiction in my sample SFF sections is therefore 9.4%. That means that over 90% of available SFF books were from a multipart series or ongoing universe.

Go ahead. Try it yourself. Personally I found it a hugely depressing endeavour. Could it be that with entire universes – scientific, magical, and supernatural – to explore, the SFF genre is in fact the most conservative, and the least creative, in the entire publishing industry? I challenge you to find another genre so dedicated to the preservation of homogeneity.

Yet however depressing, is it really surprising? The stereotype of the socially inept pedant, addicted to science fiction in particular, is well known. Having had frequent interaction – both online and in real life – with sci-fi fans, I can’t honestly say that the stereotype is an inaccurate one. I tend towards it myself. There are exceptions, of course, but for a large proportion the stereotype is a sound one. And undeniably, the scope for pedantry and the ability to lose oneself in another world is more available in a multipart series than it is in a standalone book. It’s certainly more available in SFF than in any other genre, given the illustrated tendency against standalones.

Together these facts indicate to me that SFF is becoming less about consolation, and more about compulsion. No longer is it enough for a good genre story to provide a temporary escape; one that will illuminate the real world upon our return to it. Instead, the overwhelming emphasis on more – more world-building, more words, and more books in which to continue the adventure – is deliberately designed to prolong the escape. Like the themes of virtual or alternate reality, where individuals are pulled further up and further in, SFF literature today is trending sharply into the determined evasion of real life. The consolatory escape has become compulsive avoidance.

Tolkien might have disparaged the simplistic reading of The Lord of the Rings as an analogy for the atomic bomb, but at least using that analogy got people perceiving their real world in a different and pro-active way. If we can let go of the One Ring vicariously through Frodo, it’s possible that we can apply that same ethical decision to nuclear weapons. The consolation is in our ability to make the same choice, not in our ability to avoid the choice altogether. Similarly, the voice of Big Brother has become almost the universally understood shorthand for political oppression and the invasion of privacy, against which is arrayed the rallying cry for personal freedom. Yet how much of modern series SFF, with all its maps, indices, appendices, and entire populations of character has had that same groundbreaking effect? I put it to you that the more convoluted and serialised a story becomes, the more diluted its themes and ability to console – and yet the more its trivialities are heightened to perceived importance. “But on page 779 of volume three, the hero does something which it is plainly obvious he cannot do from the explanation on page 241 of volume six!” Internet wars have been started for less. The mechanics of imagination have overtaken its applicability.

And those mechanics have become more and more homogenised. I can think of more than a few serialised stories where favoured characters are made immortal (or nearly so) so that they can reappear over and over again; or where unending genealogies are explored in lieu of this (often with the grandson’s adventures – and even appearance – bearing a striking similarity to their grandfather’s original). The same stories are told over again, the same battles lovingly described in hundreds of pages of detail – all taking place in worlds where the geography is so deeply imagined that a dedicated reader ends up being able to describe the fictional flora and fauna more accurately than those found in their own back yard. Increasingly, maintaining this over-burdened world-building becomes a cottage industry in its own right, into which relatives are drafted in order to keep the thing going. Must these series drag on, becoming increasingly unwieldy and uninteresting, until the casserole explodes at dinner and takes out every family member capable of holding a pen?

And yet I realise that such series have their fans – both readers and writers. They must have readers, to keep being churned out the way that they are. I am not immune – my life would be immeasurably poorer without Thomas Covenant and Arthur Dent. And yet, as mind-blowing as I found Dune to be, my ardour was considerably diminished with each addition until I gave up altogether – so diminished, in fact, that even now I find it hard to dredge up enthusiasm to read that first book again. The impact is gone.

And yet perhaps what bothers me most about this avalanche of continued world-building is not the soporific effect on the readers, but the soporific effect on the writers. In adult SFF, the series should be the exception to the rule, produced by the best of the best. It should not be the expected standard – it is not so in any other genre. It should certainly not be 90% of what is on the bookshelves. I myself am primarily a reader, and hope to be entertained and educated by what I read. Yet when it comes to SFF, these days I am far more likely to be bored – simply because SFF writers are being trained, like publisher’s monkeys, to only produce one thing: the series. As long as it can be padded to fill three books at minimum, it’s publishable. This is, in my opinion, not conducive to training great writers. Instead it trains mostly mediocre ones; writers who seemingly believe, deeply and with fervour, that they are not “real” SFF writers until they have produced a series of some description. Yet to be blunt, I firmly believe that given an unending supply of paper, any idiot can eventually churn out a series sufficient to satisfy some tastes. Whereas – literally – not one in ten authors these days could write a standalone 50,000 word novel effectively. The majority have been trained to be incapable of producing intense, concentrated and novel characterisation, plot, and setting. The art of producing a novel in 300 pages or less, a novel that can elevate SFF to true literature in the way that Orwell did in Nineteen Eighty Four, revolutionising the way its readers see the world, is an art that is being killed off as we speak.

Instead, in SFF today, the prevailing mantra can be taken from another of Orwell’s books: Four Books Good, Two Books Bad, And One Book Worst Of All.


(Please note: this was originally written back in 2009, so the stats are from several years ago now. I’d be surprised if they were much different now, and am currently doing another trawl through the bookshops to find out. I’m popping the essay up again, however, as its original home is gone and I think the subject matter is worth repeating.)

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