Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Star Trek, WorldCon, & Alien Romance


First I want to say that I won't be posting next week, so someone else can snatch the Tuesday slot in this blog. And then I want to answer, in my usual roundabout way, a question Rowena asked yesterday -- a good question with a long answer.

I will be at the World Science Fiction convention. In 4 days of the 5 day con, I have 15 panels and a 3 hour Writing Workshop, so any of you who are there can find me easily.

On Friday night (you don't need a badge to come to this one) the Sime~Gen fans are throwing their annual Sime~Gen party at WorldCon, and featuring this year (40th anniversary of Star Trek) a tribute to Shirley Maiewski, long-time Chair of the Star Trek Welcommittee.

We've touched on the Alien Romance connection seething beneath the surface of Star Trek's various versions, but if you need a refresher just visit any Trek fanfic site! Whew! I'm scheduled for several Trek panels at Worldcon, no doubt much discussion of such relationships will ensue.

Having been involved in Star Trek fanzine fandom from the beginning (article in Spockanalia called Mr. Spock On Logic) (see my own Trek fanfic at http://www.simegen.com/fandom/startrek/kraith/ ) I watched the evolution of a field with great attention.

Star Trek fanzines arose out of Science Fiction fandom where "fanzines" never carried FICTION -- they were articles, and personal ramblings and letters of comment on novels, and reviews, and Q&A's with authors, and science and criticism and (best of all!) CON REPORTS!

Star Trek fanzines were started by people steeped in that tradition, but whose writers and readers wrote FICTION -- Star Trek fiction with ST characters from the aired shows, plus original characters. And that's what they published. At first many fanzines carried scripts in script format - stories that could have been filmed for TV. They had poetry, artwork, and most of all LETTERS OF COMMENT (LoCs).

At first all kinds of stories glumped together in any 'zine -- the distinguishing characteristic was the quality of the editing and demanding standards of the editors. They might be amateurs in publishing, but many were librarians or English Teachers -- people who knew story-structure and quality and were as qualified to edit fiction as any professional hired in Manhattan publishing. So the stories started good and got better and better -- surpassing in many cases stuff you could buy in Mass Market paperback.

Then a strange thing happened. With print runs topping 1,000 copies, fanzines began to differentiate on the basis of content. Paying $20 for as many words as $5 would buy in Mass Market made readers discriminating -- they wanted to be sure they would enjoy the stories before buying the 'zine. So they looked for subjects they loved -- characters featured, settings.

And fanzine publishers who footed the upfront costs and had to make them back began to invent GENRE -- one step at a time, right before my eyes, I saw market forces creating genre-rules, and I came to understand why genre exists, what it is and where it comes from.

It isn't a marketing tool some businessman invented to impose his taste on the market. It isn't a censorship tool. It arises from the READERS search for what they are willing to pay for.

If the readers searching for something to read can't recognize in the package the signs and signals that they will enjoy the contents, the publisher will lose money and not do any more things like that. If the reader thinks they'll like it, and then finds it's a dud, the reader won't buy anything that looks like that again, and a couple more tries later the publisher stops doing that.

The flaw in this system of developing genre is the lack of feedback from the end-user, the reader, to the publisher via the editor. In ST fanzine fandom, the feedback was immediate and detailed because every fiction 'zine carried LoCs that made it very clear what readers were looking for -- and often spurred writers to writing the next story.

In the commercial world, there was never any such feedback mechanism until the Internet. Even now, though, the feedback isn't making the message clear.

However, foment is churning up the fiction field and redefining genre. The leading edge of this chaotic change is in the e-book field where genres are being mixed, matched, melded and morphed into some totally new things. Alien Romance as a genre is an example -- SF AR takes it further.

The e-book field spawns these new definitions and leaders like Roweena and Linnea blast their way into the Mass Market arena.

[Rowena Asked]
Why should an industry professional who is judging my alien romances become confused and upset if my non-human, interstellar starjet pilot can levitate through the sheer force of his personality and will?

I have touched on the shape of publishing -- and the changes that morphed publishing in the 1980's and 1990's from an industry that served readers to an industry that serves corporate profit motives.

Way back when, editors bought books because they liked the book, because it seemed like a good book to them, because they knew other readers would want that book, or because they saw the book as a contribution of worth and value to the sum total of human creativity.

Today, that kind of editor has been drummed out of the business -- or retrained to think a different way. Today editors don't buy books -- they aren't the people who make the decisions on what gets published. Committees make those decisions, and the most powerful person on that committee is the MARKETER who makes the decision to buy or not buy on the basis of the one-sentence or one-paragraph description of the book -- "what can I sell this as?"

Movies and TV shows are bought or not bought on the basis of the same question. Not "what does this add to the sum total of human wisdom" -- but "what can I sell this as?"

So it's all about the marketer's perception of market (not the truth, the perception) -- and the reader's main tool these days is the internet, blogs, reviews, Lists, Boards, etc. There are websites where you can vote for books you like. There's amazon where you have half a dozen tools to make your opinions of a book or type of book known -- where you can TELL marketers what books are like other books by shaping your Wish Lists.

Some publishers' websites also allow comments and discussions.

As more of us use these tools to give publishers feedback on what we like, but more importantly WHY we like it, we will use the profit motive to supply us with more of what we really want.

Star Trek is a good example. When I started writing the Bantam Paperback STAR TREK LIVES! publishing was solemnly convinced that only adolescent boys watched STAR TREK and it was therefore trash. (that's the truth) The only value seen in that show was either silly, childish adventure wish-fulfillment or the techie yearning for a life without complex relationships (neck-up SF).

STAR TREK LIVES! exposed the content of Star Trek fanfiction which explained exactly why people really loved that show so much they wouldn't let it die.

That exposure ignited a fire by bringing together many more creative people -- people in what Spockanalia dubbed "Spock Shock" -- and what we today call Alien Romance -- that stunning realization of the pure sexiness of a non-human.

Today, TV Guide has admitted it in print, various books of criticism have admitted it in print, at least one TV Producer who worked on Star Trek, Ronald D. Moore, has admitted it, -- it's the RELATIONSHIPS driving the plot that make the action interesting.

At the time we wrote Star Trek Lives! that was a patently absurd notion when applied to science fiction. Today it's accepted.

The real question Roweena should be asking is not why should an industry professional become upset when she mixes levitation with sf -- (the answer is above: because they don't know how to pitch that to marketing) -- the question is how do we create an open feedback channel between reader and "industry professional" such that the "industry professional" and his/her marketer are hearing the same thing the writer is hearing from readers?

This blog is actually a BIG STEP in that direction -- but like the CB radio, blogging produces so much noise, chatter, and nonsense, that the message gets lost.

How can we sift our message out of the background noise and "beam it" directly into the brains of the marketers? How can we be effective at guiding marketers to serve us?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Well, there's always the problem that we, so far, have no hard scientific explanation of levitation. It violates the unwritten rules that divide scifi from fantasy, and edge the work closer to the genre of space opera.

    A work of fiction must be internally consistent, or the reader is forced out of the state of suspended disbelief so important to full enjoyment. Writers of science fiction usually try to not violate the current understanding of physics. The definition of what constitutes reasonable laws of physics may vary according to the understanding of the editor.

    Most scientists can't conceive of any reasonable and scientific explanation for levitation using the force of your mind. The editor in question may have been focused on marketing a scifi book and missed out on the little fact that the romance market is a lot bigger than the hard scifi market.