We May Have Reached Series Overload: A Trawl Through Small-Press and Self-Published Science Fiction

The world of small-press and self-publishing isn’t perfect, but it is democratic.

In terms of self-publishing, nowadays literally anyone who has written a book and has access to the internet and some spare cash, can now deliver their work unto the world. Gone are the days when a self-published book looked like nothing more than a fancy zine; print-on-demand technology ensures that the finished product looks and feels as good as any ‘properly’ published book. Gone, too, are the days when a minimum order numbered in the hundreds, if not the thousands – most print-on-demand companies happily produce as many or as few copies as an author likes.

The small-press world is structured differently, as an author must still undergo the processes of traditional publishing: Submitting a manuscript and collaborating with others on the book’s editing, format and design. But it contains a vast landscape of publishers; no matter how obscure the genre an author works in, or how ‘out there’ their writing, a small-press publisher specialises in it. As well, the small-press author often finds a supportive and encouraging community of fellow authors writing for the same publisher, and pre-existing networks that they can use to help promote their work.

Which brings us to, well, us. In our world, all we have to do is gorge on the bounty provided by small-press/self-published authors. Without having facts or figures at hand, I’d wager that at no other point in history has so much new science fiction been available. And without investing much time at all, we can find innumerable marketplaces and promotional sites featuring fiction of every kind. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice, so much so that there even exist promotional sites which give away free books every day, or email a daily list of new books under $1.

To catalogue this deluge of new books would be an enormous undertaking. To get through a To-Be-Read pile made mammoth by the ease of click-and-collect digital purchasing, often seems a pretty-much impossible task. But to complain about the availability, accessibility and diversity of contemporary science fiction seems churlish.

However, there is an actual downside. Whether we like it or not, books are commercial products. Of course, they are also much more than that: magic doorways that transport us to different worlds, repositories of wisdom, voices of past and present generations, histories of our collective imagination, and so on. But they are still something that we can download, or walk into a shop and buy. They are an act of creativity that simultaneously exists as a commercial product, much like clothes, CDs/digital music, and DVDs/digital media. And just like these other creative-commercial products, books are subject to the vagaries of society and the marketplace—which we more commonly label as fads, phases and movements.

This has been happening to science fiction since the early twentieth century. Some of these labels were applied retrospectively, to delineate both generational change within the genre and the genre’s early evolution, as is the case with Silver Age and Golden Age science fiction. Some emerged during massive shifts in the genre’s focus, such as New Wave and Atomic Fiction. Some were initially used snootily by the old guard to describe younger writers refashioning the genre—Cyberpunk, Eco Punk. Which labels apply to which books doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that these genre aren’t static, but are instead constantly evolving and renewing.

This process still occurs. However, the phases and movements that occur today are often much more niche. As well, ‘fads’ are now a cultural factor coursing through science fiction. In the past, what might have been called a fad at the time—Atomic Fiction in the 1950s, Cyberpunk in the 1980—actually proved, in hindsight, to be a thriving subgenre that enjoyed continued popularity. Will people one day say the same thing about Paranormal Romances or High School-set Fantasy? Or will they be viewed as historically-specific artistic phenomenon that were over almost before they began?

As an example, take the gulf between a movement such as New Wave science fiction and a contemporary fad such as Zombie/Undead fiction. The former swept through the genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, reshaping its parameters. The latter is an offshoot of science fiction and horror, and has been contemporaneously popular in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. The real difference, though, is that New Wave was a philosophy, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a specific genre with specific rules. New Wave science fiction can be as fantastical, space-oriented and out-there as the work of Michael Moorcock; or as cold, psychological and Earth-bound as that of J G Ballard; or as deranged, chaotic and inspired as that of Philip K Dick. But Zombie/Undead fiction has to be about the dead returning to life, no matter whether it’s tricked up in a literary fashion a la Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or meticulously journalistic a la Max Brooks’ World War Z. In short, New Wave was a label applied to mid-century authors who were breaking science fiction from its past, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a singular genre that just happens to be flavour of the month.

The same contrast applies to many modern subgenres—they are mistaken for movements or phases, when in reality most are simply fads that have had their time. Even a cursory search of small-press/self-publishing marketplaces shows the slow decline of Zombie/Undead fiction and other fads popular over the last decade—Paranormal Romance, Historical-Horror Mashups, High School-set Fantasy. In contrast, movements devoid of an actual genre—Eco Punk, Postcolonial Science Fiction—are proving surprisingly resilient.

One fad that we’re still feeling the effects of is the predilection of many modern authors to create series consisting of 4 or 5 (or more) enormous door-stoppers containing hundreds of thousands of words and entire forests of pages. More-than-likely a continuing aftershock of the post-9/11 boom in Big Fat Fantasy, and no doubt heavily influenced by the runaway success of authors such as J K Rowling, James Dashner and Rick Riordian (et. al.), the series has moved away from the world of Young Adult fiction and now reigns supreme in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. As any subscriber to one of the innumerable small-press/self-publishing promotional sites out there would know, in your regular newsletter will be a plethora of new works of science fiction. Amongst them will be the latest book in Mystery Author X’s self-described ‘epic’ space opera series, or the 10th instalment in Unknown Writer Y’s self-described ‘sprawling’ cyberpunk series. There will 2 or 3 of them or even more, in every newsletter you receive—series you’ve never heard of, by authors that you’ve never heard of. This same dictate applies when visiting small-press/self-publishing markets. Amongst the showcases of niche genre-works and jobbing writers building a name for themselves, you’ll find authors whose sole dedication and focus is the series they’ve created, their stands crowded with copies of the latest instalment, be it book 5 or 9 or 11.

The current popularity of the series raises some interesting questions, the least of which is: Why? Most science fiction authors have, historically, avoided writing series. In fact, the few historical science fiction series that are still remembered are either so monumentally intricate and expansive that the form is the only way to do them justice—the works of Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock—or are inextricably linked to the genre’s roots in serialised pulp fiction, such as the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And to name a few science fiction titans who rarely ever wrote sequels to their works, and never wrote entire series: Margaret Atwood, J G Ballard, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut and H G Wells. All of these writers—and many others who only wrote standalone books and the occasional sequel—produced substantial bodies of work, and each book within was different, featuring a brand new science-fictional world and brand new science-fictional concerns. Doing this allowed them to further the development and exploration of the themes that interested them, by focusing them through a wide variety of perspectives, locations and situations. In contrast, the length and sprawl of a series generally allows, and indeed often encourages, a drawn-out exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation.

Case in point: J G Ballard. Chief amongst Ballard’s varied interests and themes were the dehumanising potential of artificial and highly-technological environments; the psychological implications of what might be called ‘typical’ science fiction scenarios (drowned worlds, desert worlds, dystopian worlds); and the resemblance between our ‘present’ and a science fiction ‘future’. By writing standalone books rather than entire series, Ballard was able to thoroughly explore these themes and interests in a number of different ways. Hello, America, taking place in a devastated world in which a charismatic madman rules over the partially-rebuilt ruins of Las Vegas, allowed Ballard to position the technological and commercial totems that we take for granted as quasi-religious relics, and to examine the ‘psychological hangover’ that these relics might cast over the generations to come; The Drowned World, taking place in a future in which global warming has melted the poles and flooded the planet and turned the drowned cities into tropical throwbacks resembling the primeval past, facilitates Ballard’s exploration of the differences and conflicts between natural and artificial environments, not just materially and historically but also psychologically and philosophically. Even from these oh-so-brief descriptions, we can see the thematic and symbolic connections between the two books—the juxtaposition of decaying artificial environments and flourishing newly-wild ones, the individual as both history’s witness and history’s victim, the undeniable influence our surroundings have over our psyches, technology’s severing of the ties between us and the natural world. However, the shared concerns are examined in vastly different ways, precisely because they are lensed through vastly different perspectives.

For an author, confining each perspective, location and situation to a single book can be seen to act as a helpful constraint—its length and nature forces an author to both build their world quickly and economically and to establish themes early and intelligently. This is exactly what Ballard—and other authors who only wrote standalone books with the occasional sequel thrown in for good measure—does in his work. Rather than drag out an exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation (which the nature of a series demands), they do the reverse: They examine themes from as many different perspectives as possible. And this has historically been the norm. But not today, where the series rules over all. Which brings us back to the question of ‘why’?

This is, of course, a question without an actual answer. We can speculate and interrogate, but in the end it’s for nought. All we can really do is state the obvious: there is a real joy in well-written standalone books. The pleasure and immersion they deliver is different to that of a series, and self-contained stories have for the most part been the ‘staple’ form throughout history. Think of the classics—almost all exist as works unto themselves, devoid of the need for a single sequel, let alone a number of them. The same rule-of-thumb applies to science fiction. Would The War of the Worlds have been a better book if the story had kept going? How about Slaughterhouse Five? Or The Handmaid’s Tale? And yet nowadays it’s often more difficult to find a good standalone work of science fiction than it is the continuation of an existing series or the birth of a new one. In fact, many contemporary authors are setting out to write part 1 of a series as their debut, rather than ‘cutting their teeth’ on standalone fiction and seeing if they’ve metaphorically got what it takes to justify a series. Are their themes deep enough to withstand numerous book-length interrogations? Or are they merely drawing things out because, for a writer, staying immersed in the one world can often be easier than going out and creating more? These questions are the ones an author needs to consider, because a great book is always better than a good series.

(Originally published in Aurealis #121, June 2019)

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