Norman Spinrad: corporate publishing oligopoly dooming science fiction novel

Just read the latest “On Books” column for Issac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, written by Norman Spinrad (author of, among others, the classic SF novels “Bug Jack Barron” and “The Iron Dream”). In it, he details the sorry state of science fiction publishing (one look at the lousy design of the IASFM web site is worth a thousand words on the economic state of the industry… not to mention the lack of interior illustrations in recent issues), and a very sad and woleful tale it is. Major publishers count themselves lucky to distribute 15,000 copies of a “mass market” publication. Small press publishers deem 1,000 copies a major success.

“Major publishers seem to be in the process of dropping literarily ambitious science fiction from their SF lines. I see the best minds of my generation and the ones that followed surrendering into small press publication in order to be published at all, or adapting their talents to fantasy, or in my case historical fiction–to earn a living, to be sure–but also to reach a readership of any meaningful size.”

The ultimate result, in his view, will be the death of “science fiction” as we know it… and the loss of our society’s primary vehicle for cultural transformation. Here’s what he has to say on the subject:

Science fiction can envision not just technology and science beyond that presently existing in the universe of the reader, but cultures evolved beyond our own, and create a belief in the reader that such things are possible, indeed must demonstrate that they cohere with the realm of the possible in order to do so.

And if one believes that something is possible and it really is, one can be moved to attempt to make it so. Thus science fiction is not only a visionary literature that can transcend the culture in which it is created, but a transformational literature that can, and has from time to time, evolved those cultures onward.

An inherently revolutionary literature, in the macrocosm and the microcosm. For while it is said that no consciousness can comprehend a consciousness evolved beyond its own, science fiction readers are gifted with that comprehension all the time by writers who create such fictional characters. And by inhabiting the consciousness of such characters, armed with the belief that they exist in the realm of the possible, cannot readers aspire to attain the next level?

A revolutionary literature. A visionary literature. A transformational literature.

The one and the only.


If you have no means of imagining and communicating a vision of something above and beyond the present state, you end up with a culture with no means of even conceptualizing it, let alone calling it into being.

You can log one more negative side effect of corporate consolidation and media monopolies… the potential death of our culture’s ability to evolve and respond to new challenges.

This from someone on our side of the fence – he participated in unauthorized street protests during the Republican National Convention last year (just before he wrote this column). There’s a hint, earlier on, that perhaps some of the small press publishers can grow themselves into “independent” publishers… perhaps the answer to the call to revolution he ends the column with is for us, the readers, to set up our own self-contained economic ecology (much like the Christians have done).

Santa Cruz’s resident curmudgeon columnist, Bruce Bratton, has written for three weeks straight about Jennifer Nix’s challenge to major figures on the left, Sleeping With The Enemy, asking why folks such as Michael Moore, Amy Goodman and Jim Hightower choose to make fortunes for media conglomerates rather than helping small independent publishers such as Chelsea Green (her company) grow… even writing these authors and getting no response from any of them.

Its a serious question… how addicted are we to the corporate culture we inhabit? Can we really envision an alternative? One for which we’d honestly be willing to put our money where our mouth is? If folks as eminent as the ones Bruce mentions in his column can’t do so, what does it say about the chances of the rest of us?

Thomas Leavitt