On 20th of January 2016, David G. Hartwell died after a fall the previous day. He was 74. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes him as “perhaps the single most influential book editor of the past forty years in the American sf publishing world”.
I had the pleasure of meeting him during the Science Fiction Foundation seminars at the Royal Observatory in 2014 and at Fantasy in the Court. His book Age of Wonders (1996) remains an incredible observation of the genre at the time and inspired my presentation at Nine Worlds 2015 on the podcasting track. As a tribute to David, here it is in full. Thank you to Geek Syndicate for agreeing to publish it.
The State of the Playground – The Modern Experience of Fantasy and Science Fiction across Media
How now is our playground?
‘How now’ is a middle English greeting, meaning ‘How are you’ or ‘what is the state of’. It was well used in the time of Shakespeare.
At the science fiction conventions of the 1950s and before, people shared a common experience. Most read the same books, watched the same films and listened to the same stories on the radio. The science fiction conventions of the early and middle part of the twentieth century held a defining characteristic. Most of the ‘omnivore’ fans as described by illustrious editor David Hartwell (Hartwell: 1996) who went, shared direct experiences. For them, the convention became a praxis of identity where people found their community through exploring their remembered libraries and formed friendships based on the value they placed in each story they shared. Finding new stories in any medium during this time was like finding gold or rare pearls, particularly if you were already well read in the genre, or later, genres.
However, over time as science fiction and fantasy has grown and diversified, the shared experience has changed. In 1996 when David Hartwell revised Age of Wonder’s he exclaimed that “more science fiction has been published in the 1980s and 1990s than ever before.”
Nineteen years later, I would make a similar sweeping generalisation. More science fiction has been published in the 21st century that ever before!
Our mediums are more diverse and interrelated as well. We experience narratives in a multiplicity and those multiplicities inform on each other. We imagine spaceships and planets derived from these multiplicities, so films, comics and games give us the images for books, interactive stories and audio drama. These interactions are not new, but they are being understood and used. The dominant worlds of science fiction loom over each new creations and this has its positives and negatives as I will talk about.
But first I’ll turn to the medium this Nine Worlds track is concerned with; Podcasting and Audio Drama.
The medium of audio has undergone a mini evolution following a similar and different path to the rest of the genre. Some of this is down to cheaper and cheaper technology to record and edit.
Some of it down to the increasing diversification of accessing an audience, which in turn can be argued as being partially down to our access to cheaper and cheaper audience technology too.
However, this access to a potential audience does not guarantee the presence of a real audience. Today it is easier to reach people than ever before, but also easier for people to find other things to do. Even your friends may not be interested in what you have made. Should they still be your friends? An interesting question to ponder.
In my life I can remember the seminal audio fiction that I first listened to. Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (1978) spirited me away for a Sunday afternoon at my uncle’s house when I was seven or eight and lay on the couch engulfed by a huge pair of headphones. I remember thinking at the time I didn’t know what to do with my eyes! I didn’t want to close them and fall asleep.
Asking other people of my age brings more impressionable gems. The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978), the BBC version of The Hobbit (1968) the BBC version of Lord of the Rings (1981) and more. Going back further there are more highlights, but not at this time the same collective evolution of connected work as we see in written fiction. Douglas Adams aficionados were less vocal in their appreciation of other earlier audio works. Then again, that may be down to the ability of people to share and communicate with one another with the technology they had at the time.
Cassette books were the next revelation for me. Action Force: The Baron’s Revenge (1984), Ladybird’s Transformer series, Autobot’s Lighting Strike (1985), Megatron’s Fight for Power (1985). Some of these were examples of transmedia storytelling before the term had been coined. Books and cassettes packaged together with the imagery of a cartoon series watched on Saturday mornings worked to activate the imagination within the correct frame of reference. I closed my eyes and saw new cartoons as the stories unfolded or I sat and read the book along with the story. Action figures and vehicles pushed the connection further, allowing me to invent my own adventures with my favourite characters from each fiction. All of these entertainments further concretising my imaginings in a familiar part of the playground.
Experiments with a tape recorder and my action figures produced disappointing results. I learned that my voice wasn’t as nice as it sounded to me when I spoke. I also didn’t understand how to structure a story properly, but then I was eleven and few children do. From there, as I got older, I went into music composition and struggled with four track and analogue recording degradation. I never tried to make audio fiction again when I learned what my voice really sounded like.
Fast forward to now and more audio and fantasy science fiction is being published than ever before!
We live in the narrowcasting age, where we make connections and share content almost simultaneously. Our social media creates rippling trends where once vast waves crashed against our definitions of the world. The difference lies in applicability, frequency and availability. The ripples wash over us faster and faster, day after day, wiping away what came before.
The rituals of the spectacle that was a part of the content in many mediums are also gone and are replaced with our own personal rituals. We watch films on the laptop when we want, not at 7.30pm without fail or at the cinema. We listen to downloaded audio on an MP3 player when we find time instead of arranging our day around when our favourite programme is being broadcast on the radio. Sometimes this can change the way we perceive value as an audience, sometimes it changes the way in which others perceive value in what we create.
Up until 1838 in the United Kingdom, production of fiction in any medium allowed for the continuation of stories. Bards invented new tales about the same favourite characters and writers had less control over the fiction they had invented. Even after this, popular works spawned connected sequels from other writers; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) being an example of a much derived work.
Today our relationship with intellectual property is also evolving. The major fiction franchises can no longer contain our appetite and so we have fan fiction; the re-appropriation of our favourite characters into new stories of our own devising. This is not the sole preserve of the imagining child playing with toys in their room. It is also of much better quality than the days of pressing record and play on a tape recorder. Fan fiction allows us to develop our own imagined narratives for characters who appeal to us unburdened by the constraints placed upon production schedules. Fan fiction enriches the experience of the reader/audience but also looks inward, towards the existing audience. Few newcomers experience fan fiction before they experience the official fiction and few fan fiction creators are able to realise the value of what they make when often they are the ones who are most passionate about the imagined world in question.
So despite our new imaginative freedom, some of our most popular creations remain within the boundaries devised for us by the content creators we now rival. We perpetuate their worlds for them by investing our time and energy into works that we cannot wholly own. We do this for a number of reasons. One might be because we love what inspired us and look to inspire others; or another because we see an established audience and wish to attract it to our other original work.
There is a dichotomy at the heart of this. Franchises need us to maintain the attention of their audience and to win the funding of investors by demonstrating that a market for their work remains. Anything we do that perpetuates their narrative, from cosplay, to conversation to fan audio and fan films. In turn, we feel we have contributed something to the mythos, which we have. The ultimate expression of this lies in crowdsource funding, where the further development of a narrative is reflected back on the consumer again with the additional lure of being in some way part of its official revival. This is wish fulfilment in some ways and brings us back to the imagining child playing with toys.
The relationship of audio fiction to other mediums is particularly important. The lack of specific visual stimulus in the medium means, to highlight the problem my younger self had, you need something to do with your eyes or with your mind as you imagine the narrative. Some of us are capable of inventing these images as we go, but many creators have thought about this carefully and turned the absence of image into a transmedia storytelling opportunity. The presence of a graphic novel (as with Barry Nugent’s Unseen Shadows) alongside an audiobook provides an image to start from and both expressions support each other in establishing a deeper world narrative. The television series and audio book as with the BBC and Big Finish creating Doctor Who stories takes matters further, extending the range of actors to fulfil the demand for new material. The relationship aids in encouraging the reader/audience to transition between the different forms as well. There is a security and familiarity about the process as the initial ‘risk’ has already been made in trying the first expression.
It is here where our appetite has evolved from our predecessors. The golden age of the fifties encouraged writers and audiences to dream big. We didn’t know much, so we painted with broad strokes, casting humanity out into the furthest reaches of space. The modern inheritors of the genre have diversified their interpretations of our future. Some are meticulous about the science and technology of their fictional some imagine an escapist past full of the creatures of myth. Others operate in a middle ground, describing a fiction that cannot exist, but that we want to exist and we would want to live in.
It is here where audio fiction comes into its own. It takes the intimacy of our relationship with books and connects this with the power of film. No other medium can affect its reader/audience as audio fiction can. Where some suffer at the decoupling of ritual from content, audio has been enhanced. The multiplication of production has not seen a sharp decline in quality; in fact in some places it has seen the opposite.
A brief glance at the nominations list for the Audioverse Awards in 2014 scratches the surface of diversity of audio fiction being produced. A vast array of drama and narrated work was submitted to the exhaustive number of competitions reflecting a small portion of the massive amount of work going on in the field. The complexities of voting in 2014 also encouraged people to listen to more of the nominated work, an exhaustive process as well.
Our appetite for non-fiction has expanded too, drawn again from the talk shows of radio and as an antidote to the continual loops of music that dominate the popular stations. Hartwell’s science fiction exploring omnivore might seek out The Nerdist, Tea and Jeopardy, Starship Sofa, Dissecting Worlds or Dataslate. Listening to others discussing books and happenings in science fiction allow us to connect remotely with a community like this one, the presenters validating our opinions or contradicting them. These podcasts cannot hope to encapsulate all of our expanding genre or genres, but they can dive down and find pearls for us, just as we find pearls for others.
Guest Blogger: Allen Stroud