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The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 1

A spectre is haunting fandom: the specter of monoculture.

I haven’t done much in SF for almost two years, having spent a great deal of time learning some new technology and then writing about it. (That saga is painful and may end badly, as I’ll explain when it does end, one way or another.) So I come back and begin preparing several things for publication on Amazon, including Firejammer, The Cunning Blood, Drumlin Circus, and a number of my longer stories. As I flip around the screamosphere seeing what’s up after my two-year absence, wow: A rumble has begat a manifesto that begat an attempt to break out of the worst rut the SFF world has ever seen. “Monoculture” is the polite word for a rut so deep that it threatens the viability of an industry. That’s what we’re up against in SFF, and that’s what I’m going to be discussing for a few entries here on Contra.

One warning: This issue makes people of certain psychologies slobberingly, incoherently, hatefully, murderously, roll-eyes-back-in-the-head angry. If that’s you, well, about face, forward march. You are not allowed to be angry here, and if anger is your hobby, you won’t find much to enjoy.

To begin: I read a lot of SFF. I’ve been reading it for over fifty years. Recently, instead of new fiction, I find myself increasingly reaching back to the 90s and prior for things I’ve read not just once or several, but often many times. I do try new fiction, but I rarely finish it. These are the primary reasons:

  • It’s depressing. Depressed characters with depressing 10,000-word backstories wander around depressing worlds through depressing situations where nothing is learned, no one is redeemed, and in truth nothing of consequence ever actually happens. (Sarah Hoyt calls these “grey goo stories.”)
  • It’s preachy. Good polemic is hard, and should be subversive, not in-your-face. Clever writers can preach via story without being too obvious about it, but sermons in story costumes are dull, off-putting, and in many cases excuses for scapegoating and tribal hatred.
  • It’s slow, and talky. I don’t necessarily demand fistfights and explosions on every other page. Still, shut up, put those coffee cups down and do something!
  • It lacks ideas. I may be peculiar in this, but to me a story without interesting ideas lacks an SFF soul.
  • Humor is nowhere in sight. I like funny SFF. As best I can tell, it’s now extinct.
  • From a height, it just isn’t fun. Fun is what we do this for. Fun is subjective, and hard to define, but damn, I know it when I read it.

When I begin reading a new work of SFF, I start a mental timer. If at some point the fun doesn’t start (and that point depends on my current mood and available time) I put the book down and go on to something else. Such books rarely get second chances. I gave Bowl of Heaven a second chance because it’s an idea story by authors with good records, but the fun took a long time to start and really didn’t go anywhere coherent. I haven’t given it away yet, so a third chance is possible, but as it’s the first volume in a saga, I may wait until the second volume actually appears.

I’ve been slowly drifting away from SFF for a number of years. Discussions with people I know suggest that I’m not alone.We’re all still reading as voraciously as ever, but the reading has gone over to other things, especially nonfiction. Nonfiction matters: I’ve noticed that I’ve become a better fiction writer since I’ve become an insatiable nonfiction reader. Fiction, especially SFF, is not 100% imagination. On the other hand, when you set aside a recent Hugo-award winning novel for being tedious and generally lame, well, that says something.

Note well (especially you hotheads) what I’m saying and not saying here: I’m saying that the SFF universe is losing readers because of a steadily narrowing focus on dark, dull, misanthropic, idea-free titles. I am pointedly not saying that such titles should not be published, nor read. What I want is a broad selection. What I am against is monoculture.

Having given it a great deal of thought, I see the monoculture issue in four parts:

  • Political monoculture. I hate politics and loathe talking about it, so I’ll let others handle this one. It’s just an extension of the monkeyshit tribal wars that seem to dominate our culture right now.
  • Social monoculture. This is tricky, and has to do with the fact that the SFF fan community is aging and grouchy, and young people are for the most part going elsewhere. For example, how many people go to Worldcon? How many to Dragoncon? From what I can see, the dragons have it twenty to one.
  • Industry monoculture. SFF publishing has become a reflection of NYC publishing as smaller presses are engulfed and devoured by conglomerates or simply go under. It’s the same people and the same companies working in more or less the same place, with fewer and fewer gatekeepers who are mostly all alike. There’s a time limit on this one, as anybody who’s paying attention can tell. (Much more on this in future entries.)
  • Technique monoculture. Critics and gatekeepers lean strongly toward literary techniques, and against techniques that emerged from the pulps, and the pulp descendents that many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit. Yes, characters are critically important. Characters are not the whole show.

Whew. That should be enough to get me in serious trouble for the rest of my next three lives. Heh. See if I care, as I go more deeply into these points in future entries.


  1. A depressed character with a depressing background story that doesn’t go anywhere: that sounds like another genre entirely, one that has a bad reputation for navel gazing, producing unreadable fiction /but/ also as an incubator for literary tools.

    It sounds like litfic.

    At its best, litfic is etherial, and as a writer, I’m left in awe, wondering how that story worked, why it kept me engrossed, and why I am so profoundly effected. See also, almost everything by Amy Tan.

    At its worst, litfic leaves me wondering why this goat crap can get published.

    One wonders at what level the litfic folks came to control science fiction? Publishing? (Monoculture of New York houses?) Writers (like me, who came with lit fic training from college?) Readers? (Are we training young readers to prefer angst over story?) D, all of the above?


    1. Yes, that’s certainly part of the problem. The real issue is that not everybody can be Amy Tan, and what works for her will probably not work in less skilled hands, which would be, well, most of them.

      There’s probably some status envy at work here too; who wants to champion the Son (or Grandson) of the Pulps? [Jeff waves his hand, but nobody’s watching.]

      As a publisher, I would also blame the NY houses for not doing their market research, which is not as expensive as they often claim it is, granted that if they got their asses out of NYC damned near everything would be way less expensive.

      You personally have done a pretty good job welding litfic techniques to original ideas. We’ve talked about this many times: What I call “hard fantasy” (that is, fantasy built on a rigorous internallly consistent foundation) is exceedingly rare, especially at the level of rigor you bring to the table. So it’s not people like you, and certainly not you.

      A lot of it lies in the shrinking community of gatekeepers and the floundering print publishing industry, but that’s a whole ‘nother entry, which I’ll get to at some point.

  2. TRX says:

    It’s too bad there’s no “like” button. I’d be hitting it like a starving rat at the kibble dispenser.

    I’ve essentially given up on SF published after the turn of the century. Most of the decent SF I’ve found lately has been packaged as “young adult”.

    1. The best “like” button you could have is to link to this entry from somewhere else, if you maintain a somewhere else. Or just talk about it with your inner circle.

      This is not something I made up, and I’ll have a great deal more to say about it (though perhaps not the politics part) in my next several entries.

  3. Bob Fegert says:

    I agree with all you say here.

    I also have trouble getting through any new SF…the fun is gone.

    And if I see, hear or read about another zombie or vampire I’ll scream.

    The trouble with politics is that even if you take no interest in it it takes an interest in you…. I read that somewhere and it rang true.

    What about that Oscar Wilde book you were gathering info for?

    I’m guessing the painful saga is about the ARM/Pi book… is too bad you didn’t have the Pi2 at hand when you did the book.

    Lately I have been re-reading old SF by a favorite author of mine, Clifford Simak.. he wrote fun stories that always had a faithful old dog in them…

    1. Yes, it’s the RPi book, which may or may not ever see print for reasons that have nothing to do with me.

      The Oscar Wilde story is The Molten Flesh, which is the sequel to The Cunning Blood and centers on a different nanotech secret society, Protea. One reason I haven’t done much with it yet is that I haven’t identified enough cool ideas to put it in a category with The Cunning Blood. It also requires that I understand a little more biology than I’d like. (Carol generally handles such things at our house.)

  4. Have you tried “The Expanse” series (“Leviathan Wakes” et al) by Corey? I think it avoids your pitfalls (although the humor is more dry than in-your-face). You might count it as depressing, especially the first book, which very deliberately mashed-up noir and SF, but it delivers some good-old-fashioned “damn the torpedoes!” space-battles. It’s been pretty well received and they are making a series of it for … urgh … SyFy.

    1. I like dry humor, and given how dry the humor well is currently, I’ll take whatever I can get. Noir done well isn’t necessarily depressing, and I’ve read my share, though not for some years.

      I’ll check out The Expanse books, which sound promising from the quick scan I gave the reviews on Amazon. Recall that SyFy did a TV movie of Riverworld, and did a fair-to-middling job, granted that all I have to watch is a VHS cassette recorded for me by the late George Ewing WA8WTE, back when he had cable and I didn’t. Those guys do run hot and cold…but then again, what doesn’t?

  5. Dave Thompson says:

    Wow…. The last couple of SFF books I read were “The Starbeast” and a collection of short stories “Ancient, Mine Enemy.” Those are re-reads from decades ago. I pretty much gave up on SFF and read nonfiction now.

    Oh yeah, a friend sent me a link to “Brightside Crossing” that was quite good… but very old.

  6. TRX says:

    There are various “science fiction” groups:

    1) the people who actually read science-fiction-as-I-define-it

    2) the people who only read movie spinoffs, “urban” or traditional fantasy, shared-world series, and vampire/werewolf/zombie books

    3) the manga/comics people

    4) the “fans” and conventioneers, who often don’t read at all. And their cosplay subset.

    5) the SFWA, which used to be an organization whose purpose was to keep publishers and agents from abusing authors, but now seems to be gnawing off its own limbs

    6) the “gatekeepers”; the acquisitions editors and the marketers

    7) the authors

    I casually follow a few SF author blogs; most of them have had something to say on the SFWA issues of the last couple of years. I get the idea that this isn’t the first time the SFWA has gone through an “ethnic cleansing” phase; it’s just that this time it is a lot more public. The SFWA, like the “fans” and conventioneers, seems to have the idea that it speaks for SF in general, when the majority of readers have probably never heard of it, nor would they care.

    1. 2) and 3) are actually of a different universe, which I call “media fandom.” They’re doing well and somehow have ginormous conventions where people appear to be having a fine time. Carol and I did a certain amount of cosplay back in the 70s, but probably only because my sister Gretchen was (and is) a marvelous costumer. I prefer hall costumes to stage costumes, both of which were simpler forty years ago. I’ll have to find some of those pictures…

      The real problem with SFWA plagues many volunteer organizations: The people who volunteer to run them are precisely the people who should never be allowed to run anything. Many sensible people belong to SFWA. Their leaders are screaming loons, as often as not. Back in the 80s they wanted to throw people like me out of the group for not publishing often enough, even though I’ve gotten a number of Nebula recs and have been on the final Hugo ballot twice. I still resent that.

      Finally, you’ve put your finger on something crucial that I’m exploring here: People who are unaware of the internal organization of the SFF world and just don’t find the sorts of books they want to read anymore. I think this is a fixable problem, and the germs of a fix are already out there, in the form of Human Wave SF. (Google it, though I’m going to be talking about it in detail as soon as I can pull the entries together.)

  7. jimf says:

    I agree with your comments re: much modern SF …luckily there are authors who still write compelling non-preachy stories. I recommend the Expanse series by S.A. Corey… I also recommend The Martian …I hesitated in reading that one thinking, oh no, Gravity done as a book on Mars…however, it is really well done! Read it before the movie comes out this fall. It will be difficult for the movie to capture the main character’s attitude.

    1. Erbo says:

      Re: Andy Weir’s The Martian: YES!!! I bought that as an E-book on the recommendation of Robert Frost, an actual NASA engineer and astronaut trainer on Quora (and a Certified Space Badass), and did not regret it. The science in that book is hard enough to cut glass, but it’s Mark Watney’s snarky attitude, even as he MacGyvers his way to survival, that really sells the book. I hope the movie’s not a total letdown.

  8. TRX says:

    Most of the post-millennial SF I’ve read has been British. Alastair Reynolds, Charles Stross, Jasper Fforde, etc.

    They were all successful in Britain before getting American publishers, so they passed a different set of gatekeepers to make their first sales.

    The Gatekeeper Problem has been around a long time. Back a couple of decades ago I was in casual contact with Harry Stine. (mostly chatting about old cars; he was a Mopar fan) One day I got a sizzling message from him; he’d had some kind of space book in print for several editions. He’d prepped a new edition and sent it to his publisher, who promptly kicked it back. It was then that he found out the editor he’d worked with for decades had left, and the publisher had turned him over to some Sweet Young Thing fresh out of school. She was outraged that Stine had sent her a manuscript that “advocated polluting space.” I’m not sure he ever dealt with them again; shortly afterward he got a multibook contract from Pinnacle writing what he called “techno-porn”, that they sold on the men’s-adventure paperback racks in gas stations and truck stops. Harry said it was way more profitable than SF or nonfiction.

    1. I barely missed meeting G. Harry Stine when I lived in Phoenix, and a couple of years later he died. Far too many publishing houses (especially the big ones) do not ride herd on their front-line editors at all. This is technically the job of group publishers, but I did it at Coriolis because we weren’t large enough to have group publishers. I fired one editor (a contractor, fortunately) who tried to inject politically correct crapola into my magazine’s articles.

      Lack of adult supervision is one reason I don’t think print’s future is the Big Five, who don’t seem to bring much to the table. See:

  9. Jack Smith says:

    If you rank the four mono-cultures in order of ability to prevent new ideas and authors from becoming known, the overarching problem is unless your work conforms to the views of the publishing house, it’s going no place.

    This is where self-publishing has a chance to break the stranglehold of PC publishers and staff. Write what you want from tentacle porn to hard core right wing military sci-fi and let it succeed or fail on merits and customer desires.

    The economics are not quite there, but assuming there is a market for “ye olde style” sci-fi that is being blocked by publishers for the reasons Jeff identified, eventually market forces will win.

    After reading a couple dozen Kindle Unlimited “borrow for free” books a month for the last six months, whilst there is a lot of dreck out there, there are some surprisingly good books that could be much improved if they were properly edited, e.g., “Joe and me went through the door” seems to be distressingly frequent usage. Or common homophone confusion, there/their and others.

    On the other hand (or perhaps it’s the gripping hand) from my recent reading of hardcover fiction from well known publishing houses, the editorial function has largely vanished.

    1. Bingo. I have personal experience with this, though I don’t talk about it in public.

      There’s hope. There is, in fact, a great deal of hope. Self-publishing and Web communities are doing something I wouldn’t have thought possible in the 1990s: Creating a complete alternate ecosystem for story creation, publishing, discovery, and fan community. Editing is in fact a huge stumbling block, but writers who can’t edit their own work often can’t afford to hire an editor to fix their (avoidable) mistakes. Publishing may well refactor itself into a basket of services offered in various ways, paid for by a cut of the take, as in an agency. It may be a descendant of something that actually gave birth to The Coriolis Group, before we had a corporation or a magazine: book packaging. We would acquire and do all the editorial and layout work on non-star midlist titles and then hand them to larger publishers in boards or (later) digital files, for either a fixed fee or a royalty.

      Ebook generation tools will have to get better, but I could see an author take on a packager as a co-author, if the packager judged a concept sound enough to take a chance on. That may not be the precise future of publishing, but if publishing has any future at all, it lies in that direction.

  10. […] I expected, I’m getting some pushback on the notion that SFF has a monoculture problem. So here’s the deal: If you like what’s on offer in SFF right now, there’s no […]

  11. […] slate and it became Hugogeddon. I’ve already described the Sad Puppies thing here as part of a series that I’d orioginally intended to focus on Sarah Hoyt’s Human Wave SF manifesto. […]

  12. […] Sarah Hoyt’s reflection on the Golden Age of SFF, and how we writers can bring about the second coming of the Golden Age, if we only choose to. It relates to her concept of Human Wave SF & fantasy, which I did a series on some time back. […]

  13. […] back and reread my New Year’s Eve 2014 post, which will be relevant to coming entries. Ditto my series on Sarah Hoyt’s Human Wave idea, at least until you get to the Sad Puppies part, at which point you can stop. I’ve already […]

  14. Mike says:

    > many of us grew up on: adventure, action, and upbeat themes that express the triumph of the human spirit.

    YES!! Thank you for saying this.

    Even more thanks for anyone’s recommendations on novels/stories like this. The Martian was excellent but alas is already read.

    1. First and foremost: Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter books, followed by his Grimnoir series, which as I read through it (on the second volume now) is even better.

      Also Peter Grant. Brad Torgersen. Brian Niemeier. Sarah Hoyt. John C. Wright. More, once I get them all read.

      And if you haven’t yet seen The Cunning Blood, it’s $2.99 on Kindle, and free if you’re a KU subscriber. I’ve heard rumors that it’s not a bad yarn:

  15. […] And if you missed my summary of the Sad Puppies phenomenon last year, take a look. It’s part of an ongoing series that began here. […]

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