In these troubled times, whether you're looking for some simple escapism or a vision of how things could be even worse, science fiction has the answer. And book sales are starting to reflect that.
An article in today's Publisher's Weekly traces how the economic crisis and all the resulting social instability have led to two opposite but complimentary trends in book sales. On the one hand, there's the more obvious public interest in flights of fancy to happier, less complicated locales, which present clearer heroes and villains than what people get from the murky financial scandals that dominate the headlines. Seale Ballenger of HarperCollins's Eos Imprint explains:
"We are seeing the trend toward escapism across the board in all areas of publishing right now due to the faltering economy. People really want to focus on something other than the nonstop woes of the world. The escapist nature of SF and fantasy gives readers a doorway into a world very different from their own."
As we saw earlier, that mostly takes the form of urban fantasy. More traditional science fiction dominates the reverse trend, which has seen a huge increase in interest for dystopian fiction. Michael Homler, editor at St. Martin's, says:
"As a recession happens, there is a certain segment of the book population that likes to see it somehow mirrored in the entertainment that they buy....Paranormal, horror and especially apocalyptic-themed novels seem to draw a lot of attention. It hits home with some sort of psychological unease people have and also fits into our still-present fears of terrorism."
Though the impact has been on a smaller scale than that of, say, Twilight, the sales of such books have been exceptional relative to normal expectations. The article singles out the post-apocalyptic reprint anthology Wastelands as one such success story, which is heading into its fifth printing. The 30,000 copies already sold may not necessarily sound like much, but for its publisher, the relatively small Night Shade Books, that's far beyond even the wildest expectations. Another one of their big sellers, the zombie anthology The Living Dead, has already sold 45,000 copies in just six months, partially because readers respond to the thought of a zombie apocalypse, which Night Shade editor-in-chief Jeremy Lassen says is really "a secular rapture." I don't know about that, but whatever the underlying motivations, readers are responding to some zombie gore, which can never be a bad thing.
Still, as much as it's tempting to draw a direct connection between social and literary trends, a lot of publishers think the truth is more complicated. The editor-in-chief of Penguin's Ace and Roc imprints, Ginjer Buchanan, says post-apocalyptic and dystopian ficton are more compelling to average readers because they're more instantly relatable than the latest space opera or science fiction offering:
"I'm not sure that the increasing market for apocalypse stories has much to do with the current state of the world....It's science fiction that's accessible to a wider readership. The singularity and nanotechnology can be hard to grasp, but people who have experienced a natural disaster or loss of electricity don't find it so hard to take the leap to thinking about the entire earth flooding, or about electricity not working anywhere."
Even so, it's probably fair to say that recent events have sadly made such scenarios more relatable to more people, and as a result these books now have a larger built-in audience than in the past. But it's not only a question of demand; the supply of potential books has definitely been affected, as publishers are now seeing far more pessimistic submissions:
"We're certainly seeing more submissions of novels with apocalyptic themes-whether it's the general feel of the world in which it's set, or specifically related to an apocalyptic event," says Orbit's [publisher Tim] Holman. "We're also noticing a definite trend toward fantasy that is more bloody, more brutal, and that doesn't end with a magical sword saving the day."
Don't dispair completely, fans of happy endings - the darkness of the setups for these books can also be to make the eventual triumph all the more heroic and inspiring. When the stakes in the real world seem so high and the odds of success so small, it's only natural fiction has to go even further to stay ahead. Also, much as it might be horrible to be stuck in a zombie apocalypse, at least one's goals are pleasingly simple: go kill some zombies. Night Shade's Jeremy Lassen probably puts it best:
"This isn't just about wanting to see people suffering. It's about seeing a protagonist overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles; in this case, the complete breakdown of the social order. When people are losing their jobs, and banks are failing, and they have no agency or control over their lives, the fantasies of simple problems with simple solutions and of protagonists with agency are very alluring, and apocalypse literature has them in spades."
A final sidebar in the article also explores the current state of race in science fiction. A new boon to the ages-old struggle to improve the diversity of science fiction comes from the current boom market for escapism. Multiple publishers and editors point out the rather obvious fact that people of color are just as interested in escapist fiction as white people, and futuristic or fantastic settings overwhelmingly dominated by white people may not be ideal for that purpose. Verb Noire publisher Mikki Kendall distills the problem to its essence:
"Do we really believe that only white heterosexuals with no physical or mental impairments are worthwhile representations of our future?"
Taken as a whole, there still seems like there's plenty of territory for science fiction to explore, and readers might well be more receptive to the genre than any point in recent history. Although it does seem as though sprawling, morally ambiguous, science-heavy narratives might want to run and hide from the oncoming zombie hordes and dry-humping vampires, at least until the Dow Jones gets back to 9,000.