Friday, October 15, 2010

Classic science fiction books that were thought to be failures

Two days ago, io9.com posted this list of classic science fiction books that took a while to build a readership.  Among the titles were a few of my favorites, namely...

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.  This would later become the basis for Blade Runner.
Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith.  The space opera that kicked off the Lensmen saga that would later inspire the creation of both Green Lantern and in part the Star Wars universe.
Brave New World by Aldus Huxley.  Sold ok in Britain, but went on to become one of the most banned books there for a while in the U.S.  You mock capitalism?  How dare you!
Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  The fantasy saga that...well you know it well enough by now.
So what are both readers and writers of SF supposed to take away from this?  That people were once unready to accept any science fiction that wasn't from Isaac Asimov?  Perhaps so.  But I believe it demonstrates that age old struggle of art versus commerce.  The writer wants to a powerful book with well-crafted sentences and deep meaning.  The publisher wants a book that will sell.  Those two aren't always the same things, but this list underscores something that William Goldman, ace screenwriter, once said about Hollywood in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade: "Nobody knows anything."
Nobody can know a hit when they see it every time.  Do you know how many people passed on Jaws?  Do you know how many film execs were fired for passing on Star Wars?  A lot.  But that's just it.  Greatness is seldom glimpsed at first blush and the above mentioned books are prime examples of that.

In today's science fiction market, there is both good and bad news.  The good news is that SF is selling and it is one of the largest sections of your local Borders or Barnes and Noble.  The bad news is that most of it is media tie-ins: Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactic, Stargate, basically book versions for any TV, movie, or video game of the genre.  There is little room for original work unless you are already an author with established stature.  Still, the same could be said for the majority of the publishing world I suppose.  
Yes, the colossal amount of these media tie-in books is enough to make one rather queasy.  It's akin to gazing down an endless acreage of PCs.  Sure they're serviceable, but a choice would be nice. There is a small upside.  People who read these books might, just might, then be encouraged to branch out and try other SF.  Maybe they'll discover Dune or another more contemporary book to their tastes.  After all, if I hadn't seen movies such as Star Wars as a kid, it's doubtful I would have gotten into the whole genre and gone on to read Asimov and William Gibson and so on.  Similarly, reading science fiction gave me impetus to research science fact, to learn the scientific principles behind the stories.  I might never have gained my lifelong interest in science without science fiction.
Is there a point to this?  I'm no longer certain, unless it is perhaps "give an odd book a chance."

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