The Golden Age of Readers

If you look at the top sellers in science fiction at Amazon.com, and subtract any books that have tie-ins to movies or television, what you’ll see is largely what you have seen before: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse Five.  Only a few will be new books with no tie-ins to other media.  Tonight it was The Time Traveler’s Wife, another Dan Brown book called Digital Fortress, and some self-help book masquerading as fiction called The Alchemist.  Otherwise the top sellers on Amazon in the science fiction category were books over fifty years old and tie-in books for V is for Vendetta, Star Wars, and Serenity. Why is this?

Other genres have contemporary authors on the top seller list. In fact, mostly contemporary authors.  Gone with the Wind isn’t perpetually in the top ten of the romance section.  Lord of the Rings didn’t make the top 25 any of the times I looked (about 4 or 5 at different times of day as I was planning this) at the fantasy top seller list.  General literature and fiction had The DaVinci Code which could be called a movie tie-in.  But it was a book first, not the other way around.  What is it about science fiction fans that we don’t read contemporary science fiction books?  We know games.  We know movies.  We know anime.  We know tv shows, even ones that only lasted 14 episodes (yes, I loved Firefly too).  But we don’t know books.

Out a list of the Hugo Nominees in the novel category, how many would you recognize? Accelerando by Charles Stross, A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin, Learning the World by Ken MacLeod, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

I got two: John Scalzi and George R. R. Martin. And I consider myself a science fiction fan.  A fairly well read one.  I have a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and one to Analog Science Fiction and Fact.  I read constantly.  I’ve read all the classic science fiction, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury.  I’ve read Brave New World and 1984 and, hey, even Ender’s Game which is more recent.  And I know some of the contemporary writers (I did after all know of two of those authors).  But I can still tell you more about Cowboy Bebop, Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, and The Matrix.  I can discuss the futuristic worlds of table top roleplaying games and compare Shadowrun and Rifts.  And comic books and video games?  We won’t even start.

So what is it about science fiction fans and actually reading science fiction books?  There is, of course, the theory of “kids these days.”  That the younger generation is more stupid than the older generation.  Too wired.  Too fast paced.  They have too short of an attention span after years of blinking lights and video games.  I don’t buy it.  Any one who can slog through the endless battles of Final Fantasy or reach insane levels in EverQuest definitely has the attention span for a book.  Not to mention science fiction fans, while we get our weirdos, also get the brainiacs.  I guarantee, the neighbor you call when your computer crashes has a
big red circle around September 12th, the day the Star Wars special edition dvd set of the original theatrical versions of all three original movies, comes out.  I rarely run across the computer nerd who reads mostly literary fiction, or even fantasy.

Maybe it is that we are drawn to new technologies.  Geeks that we are, we are the first to embrace technology and the new ways it can be used to tell a story.  Or maybe it is that science fiction comes at us in all sorts of media.  Because, let’s face it, if you are a fan of romance books, the only other media you are going to get that type of stories in, is the occasional chick flick.  And if your sort of romance reading is vampire romance, forget it.  There are only books.  There is a little more with fantasy.  You got Lord of the Rings.  And there are some games, video and table top.  But for the most part, reading is your avenue to new fantasy stories.

But in science fiction, there is always something new.  New anime coming out.  New games.  New comic books.  There are at least a few science fiction movies in theaters every year.  For that matter, there is a science fiction channel on cable.  Most of my sf loving friends are also fairly familiar with fantasy and the books in that genre.  And then we need to learn all the fun things there is to know about the latest gizmos and how to use them.  I spent the evening working on finding and uploading CGI scripts to my website so I can host quizzes and other interactive goodies.  Amount of reading done?  Lots if you include instruction and readme files.  None if you count fiction.  There are a lot of pulls on the science fiction fan.

The time of Asimov, Bradbury, and Heinlein is considered the golden age of science fiction.  I think it was more the golden age of the science fiction reader.  Certainly the science fiction authors of today (what little I’ve read of them) are delving into deep issues and coming up with intriguing and engaging stories that explore our society and the new technological advances that affect us, just as much as the writers of the ’40s and ’50s.  Is there something missing from their stories or did the fans just move on to the next gizmo?  I will tell you that I love books more than anything because it gives me the best experience.  It is my own.  I bet most of my sf loving friends and acquaintances would too. We just get distracted.

So, maybe it is time to start a new golden age.  To embrace Stephen Baxter and Ken McLeod as much as we have Asimov and Bradbury.  To remember that the greatest gizmo out there, the one that can make the story come to life with the best picture and the best sound and the best graphics, is our own imagination.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some authors and read.