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The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 2

As 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 problem…for you. I think it’s a problem, and I’ve begun to hear from other people who also think it’s a problem, along with reading a great many people online (whom I don’t know) saying it’s a problem, and for pretty much the same reasons.

If enough people think it’s a problem, then we really do have an objective problem. Lots of people who used to buy lots of SFF aren’t buying it anymore. Too much of that, and the genre goes into a kind of death spiral. Publishers consolidate, distribution shrinks (and shrinks faster than shrinkage of the retail book business generally) and fewer people find anything that appeals to them, so they drop out. The cycle then continues. We can argue about why this is happening, but it’s happening. I think it’s about monoculture. I’ll hear your explanation if you have one.

What I call social monoculture comes into play here. I encounter it when I go to cons, especially in the midwest: I see the same people I was seeing in the mid-1970s, when I discovered cons. We’re older, grayer, and (alas) more likely to be sick or dead. Young people are scarce. Fandom has no lock on this, by the way. Ham radio suffers from a similar monoculture, though it’s improving now, probably because Morse code has been out of the picture since 2007 and young people are coming to hamming through the Maker movement. ($35 HTs sure don’t hurt!)

SFF fandom has always tended toward cliquishness. Sam Moskowitz nailed it with his old but fascinating book The Immortal Storm, which documents all the fannish palace coups and nerdy attempts to draw lines between True Fans and Mundanes Who Sometimes Read SF, back in the Elder Days from the 1920s to WWII. Half of what I saw in fanzines in the 70s and 80s rehashed all that same material, and SFWA has been obsessed with who qualifies as a “real” SFF writer for decades, which is one reason why I no longer belong to SFWA. (There are others.) I never saw many attempts to welcome obvious newcomers. I have to grin to recall speaking briefly with a young woman at (I think) Windycon 1980, who complained that nobody would talk to her. I spotted her several more times that weekend, wandering around by herself, looking wide-eyed and lost. My guess is that she thought SF conventions were about SF. Well, um, not really…

The problem with social monoculture, especially one dominated by people at middle age or beyond, is that tastes converge on what a relative handful of social alphas deem acceptable. Without a steady stream of new people to challenge the influence of social alphas, uniformity rules, boundaries contract, tribalism emerges, nonconformists are marginalized, and the overall population of the culture collapses.

Industry monoculture may in fact be a consequence of social monoculture. (Certainly, the two feed on one another.) When social alphas work at publishing companies, they become gatekeepers, and their tastes become holes of very specific shapes through which all published work must pass.

Well, there’s a timer running on industry monoculture. Publishing is no longer capital-intensive, and as print book retailers drop off the edge, it’s become less and less distribution-constrained. (Just getting bookstores to shelve our books was a hideous problem in Coriolis’ early years. If we hadn’t had a magazine to do direct sales with, we might not have survived to the Internet era.) Publishing requires skills but not credentials, and those skills aren’t string theory. People I know personally are making money self-publishing, and some here and there are making a lot of money. Obviously, a writer has to produce material that readers want to buy. (Getting your work noticed by those readers is a separate challenge, one I’ll take up over time.) But once you step outside the conventional NYC-dominated world of print publishing, constraints imposed by social alpha gatekeepers pretty much vanish.

So: A spectre is haunting monoculture: the spectre of the Human Wave.

Stay tuned, kids.


  1. Tom Roderick says:

    Your reference to SFF fandom made me flash back to a book that my wife had me read back in the early 1990’s Called Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb. It is more of a mystery set at a SFF convention in the 1980’s that Science Fiction or Fantasy, but it is also a bit of a parody of fandom. I just checked and there is even a wikipedia entry for it.

    I read a good bit of Science Fiction back in the days before I burned out the gray cells reading tech manuals (especially IBM JCL manuals).

    From what I can tell, monocultures are usually not a good thing no matter in what form you find them (think Bot Nets).

    I am looking forward to the next installment on the Human Wave.

  2. TRX says:

    > getting bookstores to shelve our books was a hideous problem

    That was the other side of the gatekeeper problem – not the publishers, but the distribution network, which was dominated be a couple of huge players, to the point where “in print” became synonymous with “still some in the warehouse at Ingram.” The third link was the retail chain; bookcstores in one part, the racks in department and convenience stores for the other.

    In my local area, we have gone from four to zero new book stores, and from a dozen used book stores to one. So, basically, the retail endpoint has ceased to exist; if you want to buy a book, you’re limited to what’s on the aisle at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, or the racks at the grocery store or truck stop. The gas station and convenience store book racks have been gone for a long time, though there’s still some magazine sales at a few convenience stores.

    True, this is just my local area, but it’s a good example of where the publisher/wholesaler/retailer triad has almost completely broken down.

    I’ve been seeing the decline since long before Amazon popped up 20 years ago. Amazon wasn’t the bogey man popping up from under the bed to steal their business; Amazon was what was filling the holes where conventional publishing was collapsing from its own incompetence.

    1. Dave Thompson says:

      Your comment about IBM JCL made me laugh. I actually used to write JCL back in my misspent youth… ๐Ÿ˜‰

      1. I somehow managed to avoid JCL. Instead I fell into the APL tarpit, where I remained until BASIC pulled me out and Pascal brought me back to consciousness.

        1. Whoops. Dave, I think you replied to the wrong comment. (As did I.) Tom Roderick is the JCL guy.

      2. Tom Roderick says:

        I have seen the mere mention of JCL make people cry, but this is the first time I have ever heard of it making ANYONE laugh!

  3. Dave Thompson says:

    Jeff, please keep this rolling. I’m fascinated and intrigued. (The link to the HT made me remember I want to get my license too.)

    1. Help keep it rolling. Recommend authors and stories (anything from flash to novel) that fit the category. Like I said, I’ve got a little list…and don’t intend for it to stay little forever.

      1. TRX says:

        John Varley: “Red Lightning”
        Charles Stross: “The Atrocity Archives”
        Alastair Reynolds: “Century Rain”
        Richard K. Morgan: “Altered Carbon”
        SM Stirling: “In the Courts of the Crimson Kings”
        William C. Deitz: “Runner”
        Jasper Fforde: “The Eyre Affair”

        There’s still good post-millennial stuff out there, but you have to search for it.

        1. Did you not like Red Thunder?

          1. TRX says:

            “Red Thunder” was okay, but nothing to write home about. It went in the trade pile. I thought “Red Lightning” rocked.

            I give all of the above my official seal of approval, but I particularly recommend “Century Rain.” It’s Reynolds’ best work by far, but for some reason not nearly as popular as many of his other novels.

            I’ll make the same offer I did when I tried to get you to watch “Gran Torino.” (which still stands, btw) Give me any valid mailing address, and I’ll have Amazon send a copy to you.

  4. TRX says:

    > that tastes converge on what a relative handful of social alphas deem acceptable.

    Case in point: Mickey Spillane. You don’t hear a lot about him nowadays, so it’s hard to forget how wildly popular he was in the 1950s and 1960s. His Wikipedia entry says 225 million copies worldwide, and that seven out of the top fifteen all-time fiction best sellers in the US were his.

    Over the years I’ve read various horrified diatribes from people who couldn’t understand why Spillane was allowed to write and sell such schlock, and how it was ruining American culture, and causing blood to run in the streets, and then off into real whackjob-land… these rants were mostly written by “scholars” or “writers of literature” who were certain they knew what the lumpenproletariat *ought* to be reading… the reeking schlock they tried to ram down our throats in school, probably.

  5. zeph says:

    “If enough people think itโ€™s a problem, then we really do have an objective problem.”

    Err. “SUBJECTIVE problem.” I haven’t actually seen the problem you seem to see, but perhaps one of us is reading books he doesn’t like? I don’t know why you’d do that.

    1. No. Objective. Sales are not growing, as best I can tell from numbers available. Sales numbers are an objective fact. People all over the Web are complaining that what’s on offer is increasingly narrow in theme and not what they want to read. That, my friend, is an objective problem, because it impacts the future of the industry.

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