Archive for September 15, 2009

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then, the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that a given work ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the  – still relatively recent  – history of geekdom, things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and even straight fantasy were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is something which, it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently occurred to the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by network politics from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows – once computer processing power made the concept seem more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since the established stereotypes of Who Buys What went flying out the window – and though this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the blurring of genre lines, far from deterring potential readers, has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did Anne Rice.

Both despite and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right. But if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why, to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully feminine – and proud of it. More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance feels like the response of a market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent, imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it – have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust. 

Ironically, it’s taken a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of grown women lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly, passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.