The New Villain

Written fiction is an industry that expands, not competes, but this is very hard for people to wrap their heads around. Whenever one-three authors are successful at one type of story or another around the same time, it attracts readers to that type of fiction, and then from there, some of them drift on to other types of fiction, related and less so. But the fear is always levied that this will not happen, that the perceived popular type will take over, crush most of the others out there and revolutionize the field, usually in horrible, commercial, etc., ways. Identifying apparent trends is really identifying the enemy. Meanwhile readers have already moved on to try other types of stories. It seems we must have a villain to worry about, the thing that will take over readers’ brains because readers can never be trusted.

In the late 2000’s, the villain was urban fantasy, first as a perceived horde of icky women authors, then just as a horde of fantasy writers. Reams were written on the Internet about what the popularity of contemporary suspense fantasy could possibly mean, and there still remains fear, among SF fans and alternate world fantasy fans, that urban fantasy — dismissed only six years ago as of no importance — will destroy them. The reality — that a third wave of new fans in the late 1990’s and early oughts, plus old ones, went exploring — is apparently considered too prosaic an explanation.

A good chunk of those fans then went on to try out historical fantasy titles, which have also been expanding along with the rest of fantasy, and the most popular era for the historical fantasy novels to start with is the Victorian era and the Sherlock Holmes turn of century, allowing a return to steampunk. Steampunk, a term coined in the 1980’s along with urban fantasy, was applied to certain types of alternate history SF and historical and alt historical fantasy, as well as occasional alternate world fantasy tales that featured a version of Victoriana. It had gadgets, and usually steam trains. The interest in steampunk came initially from fans who were interested in popular cyberpunk SF then exploring various different incarnations of that type of suspense. While never a big sub-field, it was widely respected. A new wave of hard SF/cyberpunk authors have had some degree of popularity in the oughts, especially coming out of Britain, and post-apocalyptic SF, where the more modern world breaks down but gadgets remain, has also been having a good run attracting readers, especially in YA SF, in part catching the readers that flooded in thanks to fantasy titles like Harry Potter and Twilight, as well as new readers interested in SF through YA series like The Uglies. So it was hardly surprising that some authors and readers would return to steampunk SF as well, in both YA and adult fiction. And some of them, such as Cherie Priest with Boneshaker, have had some solid success, supported also to a degree by an aesthetic movement that embraces steampunk and likes to make gadget home decor and wear really cool waistcoats.  (And seriously, even if you aren’t a steampunkian, who doesn’t like a cool waistcoat and tophat?) China Mieville’s earlier respected forays returning to steampunking in alternate world fantasy also laid some ground.

Despite this success, however, the steampunk trend in fantasy and SF is not terribly huge, (some people don’t like waistcoats.) And if you look at SF, steampunk is really not the hot factor right now compared to zombie SF. But perhaps because zombie SF is always, often incorrectly considered to be part of horror, that invasion hasn’t registered or at least is not that much of a concern yet, (kind of like the early stage of a zombie movie.) But steampunk has recently been made the villain du jour on the Internet SFF community, the thing that is polluting and diluting the beautiful science purity of SF. (It’s not yet considered a huge threat to other versions of fantasy, but give it a few years. Also, zombie fantasy may start to be considered a threat down the road.) Some people are complaining about it, (not steampunk again!) including the very bright author Charlie Stross, and others are pointing out that this is kind of a ridiculous complaint. (Welcome to success, Cherie Priest!)

Ben Peek has done a reasonable job of assembling links to some of the key threads of debate:

My friends, you will have to decide whether it’s worth your time to read such back and forthing that sounds exactly like the same back and forthing on all the other proposed past villains. It might perhaps be better to wait for the next villain, possibly the zombies, or alien SF which readers are pursuing, or environmental SF or comic fantasy or alternate world horror fantasy, or anything female SFFH authors are doing that sells well. If nothing else, it’s a sign that SFFH is doing relatively well in a difficult economic and retail world. And it is a break from all the complaints about vampires. Unless they have waistcoats.




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