I have only just got round to reading Ursula’s Le Guin’s acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, and what a speech it was – insightful of the current markets. So many sentences rang so true with me, but I’ll concentrate on one:
“Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.”
We are in this situation because of the industrialisation of printing – the more we produce of the same product the cheaper the unit price becomes of that product for the consumer. So we get novels that have as wide an audience appeal as possible – and that usually ends up being the ones that pamper to selfish hedonist desires.
Strangely enough we saw what industrialisation did to science. Anything that was new in science would cost a lot to bring to market. So the potential profit margins have to be assessed up front before the investment is made. That investment usually comes in the terms of loans from financiers who will demand their interest payments in due course. A small part of the investment was speculative, like investing in blue skies research.
The Thatcher government in the UK significantly reduced the amount of investment in research. You only have to look at the story of the UK’s space program. The funding for the Black Knight rocket program was stopped in 1971, with the remaining rockets being destroyed or scrapped. Hotol was rightly stopped in 1988 because there was a fundamental design flaw. But it was not replaced. And that was it until recently.
It took the foresight of several brave engineers to keep the space dream alive in this country – people like Colin Pillinger in leading the way on the ill-fated Beagle 2 lander to Mars (but a lot of the development work he did on that has been introduced on other spacecraft by NASA and ESA), and Alan Bond and his team with Skylon who went back to the drawing board and effectively redesigned Hotol to what it should have been. Now the government wants to take the credit for recently investing in the space program. But without these brave souls struggling against the odds to find the time and money for equipment to work up the ideas, the government would not have had a chance to make those investments today.
The book publishing industry is going through a similar investment arc. They are not investing in the new ideas for stories – in fact if anything they are pulling the plug on that investment. They are concentrating on the mass production, minimum unit price stream. There is no overhead for publishing the speculative novels. Which means they are starving the writers of the future out of the industry.
So what is the prediction if things go on on the path that is being projected now… the publishers will continue publishing the same old stuff with slight variations. They will pick up on the occasional new writer who has the ability to somehow gain the attention of the public, but in this day and age of easy self-publishing how is the readership going to find the gems amongst the hugh morass? There have been efforts to invest in science fiction writing coming from some quarters, like Nature publishing their Futures stories. But because they are coming from a niche area, they seem unable to break much beyond that ‘nicheness’.
The book publishing industry has to change in order to survive in the longer term. I don’t know how it should, but someone somewhere must have some ideas. I can only hope they get those ideas out in time to induce the brave new talented up and coming writers of today to stay practising their art.
If you need reasons of why science fiction should be one of the genres to be encouraged, you need only look at the rest of Ursula Le Guin’s speech. The main reason is that science fiction can offer the smorgasbord of what could happen in the future from which society’s leaders can pick and choose the way forward. Without that capability to see the possibilities, the leaders will be blind to what can happen, and are far more likely to make the wrong decisions.