Barry N Malzberg was the guest speaker at this month's meeting of the Bergen County Science Fiction Association.
Barry was slow to warm up to his audience. He read a short (900 word) piece and insisted that anyone wanting to know the most cursory details of how he began in science fiction should look up his autobiographical essay, more of a biography of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, published several years ago in F&SF.
After this abortive attempt to be gruff, surly, and uncommunicative, Malzberg settled down to an engaging hour and half's conversation on science fiction, his own, its history and probable fate.
Malzberg's basic thesis was that science fiction is a literary genre that was explicitly and deliberately created by Hugo Gernsback. It had foreshadowings in European (Verne, Wells) literature, but as a genre existed to educate the reader in the process of thinking that would be most helpful in a technologically driven society. Society might not have known it needed this education, might have turned up its nose at the field, but science fiction nevertheless succeeded wildly. This 'purpose' beyond entertainment has allowed science fiction to survive, while other forms of genre fiction (Malzberg noted gothic, nurse, and western in particular) have died. However, the genre is threatened, deeply threatened, by several factors.
The first is the success of fantasy, and space fantasy edging out science fiction. This Malzberg encapsulated as "Tolkien, Star Trek, and Star Wars." But the fact that the market for these products exploded doesn't explain why.
Here Malzberg sees two trends. One is that science (and science fiction) succeeded. (Malzberg dates this to the moon landing.) Technology has become such a mainstream concern it is almost unnecessary as a separate field. (So Michael Crichton, Robin Cook, and Tom Clancy are mainstream authors, not SF.) If I read Wired, do I really need Analog? Secondly, the editors of science fiction magazines, books, and anthologies have developed different tastes than the mass-market.
Let me give my own example. Bride magazines can reprint the same 100 articles over and over, because they know that no-one reads a bride magazine for very long. The editor of a bride magazine is actually perfoming a public service to all brides by finding the best set of advice articles and constantly refining and updating them with new artwork, or links to current fashions. "Choose the Wedding Music That's Right For You!" is as valid editorially in 2011 as it was in 2010, 2009, 2008,....
But science fiction magazines that cater to long time readers are different. At least in the minds of their editors, they are. The difference is the difference in desire between wanting to publish the next robot/space ship/alien story and wanting to publish the next _kind_ of robot/space ship/alien story. The trouble is that there are many fewer kinds of stories than there are stories. If your editorial appetite for an entire kind/style/manner of story is exhausted by the first one, you quickly move into a very esoteric and rarefied space.
Seen as a business strategy, it is the difference between selling to an established base and selling to a steady stream of new customers. Even the established base will get fed up and leave (or die) if the editor chooses to please themself rather than the market.
So I see the Malzbergian malaise as an unwillingness or inability to track the Gernsbackian market segment. There will always be smart, introverted 15-30 year old nerds, just like there will always be brides. Rework the publishing channel however is necessary, a story a day downloaded to their cell phone, whatever it takes. Track that market and science fiction can live forever.
Barry also noted that even classic sf has a chance to live forever. As a working example, Barry gave Winston K Marks. Marks published a substantial number of stories in the 40s and 50s, mostly in second tier magazines. Malzberg was undoubtledly correct that until he mentioned his name, no one at the meeting had ever heard of, or read, Winston K Marks. "But if you Google him, you get 10,000 hits!"
A brief digression. The number of hits reported on the first page of a Google search is an approximation. When I first Googled "Winston K Marks", I got 24,000 hits. I went to page 2 of the listing, and the number went up to 64,000. But I know that this number is bogus, because even for a quoted string, Google will start finding partial matches eventually. So I jumped deeper into Google's results. It seems that there are many 'torrents' of science fiction collected from Project Gutenberg and other sources, which you can download if you don't mind also infecting your computer with malware.
At page 24, Google fessed up the truth. There are only 234 references to Winston K Marks on the internet, though publishing this blog entry will change that. As a matter of fact, this entry is destined to be one of the leading references to Winston K Marks, because he is mentioned in the title and very often in the text.
Marks currently has 11 stories available through lapsed copyright on Project Gutenberg. I went there and read "Mate in Two Moves", originally published in the May, 1954 edition of Galaxy. It was a fun and entertaining story. The science was dated but the story was still good.
So Malzberg is right. Lapsed copyright and content piracy will keep the work of Winston K Marks in circulation until the extinction of the species. And if it does that for Winston K Marks, it will also do it for Barry N Malzberg.
There was a lot more to the evening. Barry was a wonderful speaker, encyclopedic in his knowledge of science fiction. His analogies to musical periods and composers were well thought out. Isaac Asimov as the central voice of sf, in the same way as Bach. As Phil DeParto said at the end of the evening, it would have been easy to spend many more hours talking together.