One of the guests of honour at FantasyCon in Brighton back in Oct 2011 was the ever youthful scifi author Brian Aldiss. During a panel debate, he was asked why he thought the ‘golden age’ of scifi had come to something of an end and why, arguably, genres like fantasy had overtaken scifi. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr Aldiss said he now wrote books on a computer and used a printer that seemed to have an artificial intelligence. He made the point that in today’s world new technologies are introduced with such frequency and quantity that few of us can keep up. In fact, we actually seem to be living in a scifi world, surrounded by things that we can’t quite understand or grasp. Perhaps we don’t need to read about scifi as much we did before, because we are ‘living’ scifi instead.
Mr Aldiss’s answer did of course cause some concern that scifi as a genre was in terminal decline. ‘Fear not,’ Mr Aldiss reassured us, ‘for I don’t know everything. When you get to my age, people often make the mistake of thinking that I am wise and all-knowing, you see.’ Scifi is doing very well in TV and film, of course. And there is always a market for a decent human story with good ideas, whether it is categorised as scifi, fantasy, horror or what-have-you. In fact, Mr Aldiss thought that maybe the label ‘scifi’ was the ‘problem’ rather than the literature itself. Scifi might be a limiting term that turns some readers off and actually does certain books a disservice. Mr Aldiss always saw his books as more than just scifi, particularly as he was writing long before the term was even coined by one Forrest J Ackerman. Mr Ackerman, a magazine publisher, said he thought up the term ‘sci-fi’ in 1954 after he heard a radio announcer say ‘hi-fi’. So just how accurate was the term in the first place?
Genre labels are useful for book sellers and marketing people, of course, because the labels help group similarly themed books and help with associated sales. The genre labels are also signposts and shortcuts for people who are browsing, but perhaps these signposts serve to direct potential readers away from certain books too, books they would like if they would but give them the chance. What do I think? Well, genre labels currently seem limited, because we are seeing more and more ‘crossover’ fiction, books that defy existing labels (unless ‘crossover’ itself is becoming the new label). Suffice it to say with my new book, Empire of the Saviours (release date: May 2012), Gollancz are far more comfortable with the term ‘fantasy’ than ‘fantasy-scifi crossover’.