Reviews #8

It has been observed by more astute observers of the genre than me that there has been a fundamental change in the way writing careers in SF develop. In the past, a new writer would slave away writing short fiction for the magazines before they got their first novel published. Over the years they could publish novels which sold in the "mid-list". Eventually, if they are good enough, they gain enough readership to become a top author. This was the pattern for Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg and many more beyond counting. Even if they do not make it to the top, there was still a place in the mid-list for an author to make a career.

It has changed now. The magazines are few in number with declining sales - they can no longer serve as a nursery to talent to anywhere near the same degree that they have in the past. At the same time, computerised stock systems allow publishers and bookseller chains to track sales to a much more precise degree than before. This means that an author has two or three attempts to produce a best seller. If they fail then the publishers drop them - there is no longer a full time career to be found on the mid-list.

So how does this affect us as readers. First it means a lot of very good writers have disappeared from the shelves. Second, it means that back numbers have also gone - you can no longer get older works by current authors. Except for special re-releases for top authors such as Philip K Dick, the older works are gone. Sometimes even the earlier works in a series are out of print before the series has finished. The rise of book series is another outcome of the changes. Both authors and publishers pursue the series as a way to generate sales and keep the book seller chains tied to their product.

Its not all bad however. While still very hard, it is now comparatively easier for a new author to break into the field. This means we get to see some exciting new talents. As well, there is still some fine fiction being published in short format - some is still in the professional magazines, some is on-line, some in the semi-pro magazines and some is in book collections of new fiction.

A little while back, Greg Bear took a very ambitious approach to the promotion of talent in the field. In his anthology New Legends, he attempted to showcase talent in the '90s in the same way that Harlan Ellison (Dangerous Visions) and Bruce Sterling (Mirrorshades) did for earlier generations. But he has taken established authors such as Robert Silverberg, Greg Benford and Robert Sheckley together with new writers in order to showcase their talents. There is certainly talent in evidence here - superb stories by some of the new lions of the field Paul McAuley, Greg Egan and good stories by the established writers. But, with the exception of Greg Abraham, the new writers do not really fire. As well, there does not appear to be a cohesive theme to the collection. Ellison and Sterling had a vision to sell with an identifiable common style and linking of underlying themes. Nothing like this is in evidence in Bear's collection. Having said that, it is still the best collection of new fiction that I have seen for some time. And perhaps it is a symptom of the times that no theme exists - take it as a reflection on society if you are so inclined.

One comment that I hear quite often is that there is not much hard SF around these days. The comment being that there are too many crappy fantasy trilogies. But this is not strictly correct as shown by a new anthology called Year's Best SF edited by David G Hartwell. The introduction makes very interesting reading as Hartwell runs through the collections of new work produced during the year - 1996 that is. If you need a guide to finding such collections this is very useful. As for the fiction itself, I have to admire Hartwell's taste - it certainly coincides with my own. I do not limit myself to hard SF, but I do like it and this collection does show just how much quality hard SF is still being written and how wide the themes and ideas explored can reach. The authors in this collection include well known names such as James Patrick Kelly, Stephen Baxter, Joe Haldeman, Greg Benford and Robert Silverberg. Gene Wolfe also makes an appearance - yes, he does write hard SF sometimes!

Of course Gardner Dozois also does a short story collection every year. The 1996 collection was the thirteenth of its kind. It has been extensively reviewed already, but it is worth mentioning that the introduction contains a very comprehensive review of the publishing scene as it exists at the moment. A significant part of what I wrote in the first few paragraphs above owes a debt to his analysis along with the thoughts of Harlan Ellison and George Martin.

So who are the new authors shaking the ground in the '90s? Greg Egan, Paul McAuley, Neal Stevenson and Stephen Baxter are all names that come immediately to mind. Another name you should keep an eye on is Nancy Kress. Her latest novel is called Oaths and Miracles and it can be categorised as an SF thriller. It has some classic, almost trite, elements such as the recently divorced FBI agent and the shadowy Mafia involvement. The SF element is a biotechnology angle - just what is happening in the mysterious labs? Oaths and Miracles has a tightly woven plot and excellent pacing with excellent characterisation. As long as you do not mind the lack of furry feet and pointy ears it is an essential addition to your library.

But if you want more tech in your hi-tech then take a look at another hot new writer Ken MacLeod. The Star Fraction is his debut novel and it comes across as a kind of fusion of the best aspects of Iain Banks and Neal Stevenson. It is a high paced, near future novel written with elegance and humour yet with a hard edge borrowed from the Cyberpunk people without actually being of them. It has something else you do not see so much these days - a strong political agenda. Actually it has several of them - some contradictory. But they do add a very interesting dimension to what is already a very full and complex scenario.

Christopher Evans has been around for a little while with some success in Britain. Now he has getting into the international market with Mortal Remains. Set in a solar system where biotechnology and nanotechnology have made an almost-utopia. But of course there are flaws. Most plots can be broken down to familiar cliches. In this case it is the innocent bystander who makes an accidental discovery and is chased by the bad guys. Evans gives us a chase across the solar system while a war is taking shape. It is an excellent example of consistent and credible world building while keeping a plot going and building somewhat credible characters. This is all done with a very subtle humour mixed in with the tension of the chase.

Least you think that I only consider writers of hard SF among the new talents, you should also consider Sean Stewart's Resurrection Man. Any novel which starts with someone performing an autopsy on a mystically occurring, and dead, copy of his own body has got imagination to burn. The book develops into an intense experience of being different - a psychic angel in an uncomprehending world. There is also a strong story - a puzzle about death which acts as a framework for a personal journey.

The authors I have mentioned above are just a few of the new authors around. But you have to keep an eye out as some of the real talents do not hang around too long. Even the best of authors do not stay on the shelves long. Unless you can sell in the volumes that Terry Pratchett does, you only have a few weeks to get your message across. As a reader it pays to be sharp or read the reviews - it is too easy to miss the good ones.