When I invited SFF authors to write guest blogs for the Hotlist, Peadar Ó Guilín told me he wanted to blog about the security of a long series and the death of short stories. He also wanted to write about the familiarity of the "home cities" such as New York and London versus more unfamiliar locations.
To learn more about Peadar Ó Guilín and his work, check out his official website.
Home Cities and The Death of the Short Story
Why do you read genre fiction?
Are you escaping real life? Are you a lover of stars or fantastical beasts? Is it your childhood that you're reaching for, grasping after the evenings when daddy would perch at the side of your bed with a well-worn book of fairy-tales?
My own answer, is that I'm a Captain Kirk. My mission -- by no means limited to five years -- is to boldly go where no man has gone before. I'm a tourist, in other words. I travel the universe in search of cool concepts, strange worlds and bizarre beasts. Blow my mind, authors! That's all I want.
I'm not alone in this desire, but alas, poor Peadar! I am far more alone than I once imagined.
I used to believe that my reasons for loving speculative fiction were the same a everybody else's. After all, novelty is the USP of our genre, and everything else, from derring-do, to escapism, to romance, grows in plentiful supply elsewhere. Our drug, I thought, our drug, kicks us in the head every day with something new.
Lately, however, a number of anomalies have been poking at my complacency with little claws.
Short-stories, for example, the perfect SFF delivery mechanism. No other format can provide so many startling new worlds between the covers of a single book. Yet nobody* is buying them these days. Magazines are dying all around us and great anthologists struggle to get their pitches heard even with the promise of great names for the cover.
Perhaps it's as simple as the fact that the internet is eating their lunch, that short-stories are easier to read on-line than entire novels. Newspapers are dying for that very reason.** But the cliff-dive in the sales of anthologies seems to be mirrored by a rise in the power of the series: that is, by punters investing more and more money and time and emotion into staying in the same universe -- just the one. Forever.
At a con last week, I spoke to a writer whose most recent thriller had received this tepid response from his agent: "Why did you have to set it in Belfast? Nobody's interested in Belfast." The implication, as I understand it, is that the book would have found a better reception if set in London.
Now, I've been aware of this "London" thing for years -- I even have a name for it. I call it the "home cities" phenomenon, where certain places such as New York, London, Washington and L.A., might be more acceptable to publishers as settings because they are already familiar to every reader in the English-speaking world.
I get that, I do. But surely for a lover of SF, the more obscure the setting the better?
Well, maybe not.
About a year ago, it finally hit me*** that not every enthusiast of the speculative genres got here for the same reasons I did. The best-selling fantasies still tend to take place in faux-Europe because that's just what people want. They want dragons; they can't get enough of vampires.
It's not that readers discourage authors from playing with these settings, and happy are the multitudes thrilled by tiny changes: "ZOMG, these zombies are different because they hop instead of walking!" Just don't add too much spice to that chili, fellah, or you'll drive your customers away -- apart from a tiny number of "real gourmets" raving to each other in their empty chatrooms. I rave quite a bit myself.
Every new world we visit exacts a cost on us -- we suffer through infodumps, or solve the puzzle of a culture as the author doles it out in tiny pieces. We must invest in difficult characters rather than slipping into the more comfortable minds of old friends. We must visualize alien architectures with puny human brains. It's hard work and with a collection of short-stories, we're paying that price again and again every few pages.
This price is well worth paying if, like me, you read in search of novelty. However, if you came to speculative fiction via other routes, you may be more comfortable reaching for volume 6 of whatever it is that floats your boat. I'll be right beside you, browsing the same shelves, trying to make Captain Kirk proud of me. And sometimes we'll pick out the same book and share a smile, with neither of us realizing how different the other truly is.
*Exaggerations are always justified, even when nested.
**Yes, it's a little more complicated than that.
***What can I say? I'm slow.