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1993: The Dark Side of the Force
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1994 by Robert J.
All Rights Reserved.
First published as a "1993 Year-in-Review" essay in Nebula
Awards 29: SFWA's Choices for the Best Science Fiction and
Fantasy of the Year, edited by Pamela Sargent and published by
Harcourt Brace in 1994.
Any year that sees new books by such brilliant writers as William
F. Wu, Timothy Zahn, K. W. Jeter, Roger MacBride Allen, and
Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens should be noteworthy. Add to
that the long-awaited first collaborative novel by Kristine
Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, and 1993 should have been an
auspicious year indeed.
(Wu, of course, is known for his wonderful short stories,
including "Wong's Curiosity Emporium." Zahn's "Cascade Point"
won the 1984 best-novella Hugo. K.W. Jeter's Dr. Adder
(1984) was an outstanding early cyberpunk work. Roger MacBride
Allen's The Ring of Charon (1991) was one of the most
inventive hard-SF novels in many a year. Gar Reeves-Stevens gave
us Nighteyes (1989), Dark Matter (1990), and
several other excellent mainstream SF novels. And
multiple-award-nominee Rusch and her husband Smith are the
energetic team responsible for the Pulphouse Publishing empire.)
Yes, a distinguished group of authors indeed and yet not one
of their 1993 books made even the preliminary
Nebula Award ballot, let alone the list
of five finalists.
The reason becomes clear when we mention their 1993 titles: Wu's
contributions were Isaac Asimov's Robots in Time #1,
#2, and #3, plus Mutant Chronicles Volume 1: In
Lunacy (based on material from Target Games). Zahn weighed
in with a couple of Star Wars novels. Allen gave us
Isaac Asimov's Caliban. The Reeves-Stevenses wrote The
Day of Descent, first in a series of books based on the TV show
Alien Nation; Jeter's book was
also in that series. And Rusch and Smith served up a frothy
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel called The Big Game.
SF used to be about exploring strange, new worlds. But 1993 was
the year in which it seemed to give up the good fight, and
finally admit that it had become devoted to exploiting tired, old
The phenomenon of SF being "product" instead of literature began
with Star Trek novels. When these first started
appearing, authors used words like "homage" and "nostalgia" to
describe their motives for doing them. But in 1993, that
pretense was finally dropped: Pocket announced a forthcoming
line of books based on Voyager, a new Star Trek TV
series that will hit the airwaves in 1995. No one outside of the
Paramount studios knew the premise of the show, no one had seen
even a single frame of it on film, no one could possibly have any
sentimental attachment to the material. But the feeding frenzy
of authors on GEnie (the computer network on which SFWA has its
electronic home) clambering to sign contracts to do books based
on that series was a sight to behold.
I don't (much) blame the writers, of course. We've all got to
eat. No, the publishers are the culprits here. They pay less in
real dollars now than they ever have before for original SF
novels and they often keep those novels in print for only
months, or even weeks.
Not that publishers can't get behind books when they want to:
Pocket mounted a campaign in 1993 to get the first
Alien Nation novel onto the Nebula ballot, sending out
copies to SFWA members in hopes of getting Nebula
recommendations. But how does one assess a volume whose
characters, premises, and backgrounds were created by other
writers working in other media? For that matter, how does one
assess the contributions of writers to books that have a
possessive form of
Isaac Asimov's name as part of the title?
I'd love to say that 1993 was an aberration. But it wasn't:
1994 and future years are shaping up to be more of the same.
See, in 1993, Roger MacBride Allen signed a contract to produce a
trilogy of Star Wars novels, and another couple of books
about Asimov's robots.
More power to him but I'd rather have
the rest of his saga of "The Hunted Earth," the ground-breaking
original series he began with Ring of Charon. Also in
1993, Kevin J. Anderson signed to do a trilogy of Star
Wars novels. Good work if you can get it, I suppose but
I'd much rather see another mini-masterpiece from him, like this
year's Nebula-nominated Assemblers of Infinity, which he
co-authored with Doug Beason. Dave Wolverton, one of our
absolute best authors, has signed on to do a Star Wars
trilogy, too, while Barry B. Longyear, whose "Enemy Mine" landed
him both a Hugo and a Nebula in 1980, has re-appeared on
bookstore shelves with an Alien Nation book.
The SF author I feel sorriest for is John E. Stith. He was a
Nebula nominee for 1990's brilliant Redshift Rendezvous,
and he had an even better novel in 1993 called Manhattan
Transfer. But that book didn't make it to either the Nebula
or Hugo ballot and I think I know why. Many bookstores have
taken to treating the terms Star Trek and Star Wars
as authors' names. Stith's work was no doubt lost in the
alphabetical limbo after row upon row of media tie-in books.
Indeed, it's getting hard to find any original SF on shelves
groaning under the weight of Star Trek, Star Wars,
seaQuest, and Quantum Leap novels; of products
licensed by Target Games and TSR; of books in the universes of
Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury,
Arthur C. Clarke, Anne McCaffrey, and
Larry Niven; of false collaborations between big-name authors and
newcomers; of sharecropping, franchise fiction, and packaged
books. It used to be that such fare was the province of hack
writers, those who needed a quick buck, and Trekkies who got
lucky. Now, though, it's where many of the best and brightest of
our younger writers are spending most of their time.
Pocket Books failed in its bid to get an Alien Nation
novel on the Nebula ballot but, if things continue, it's
inevitable that someday, all too soon, the Nebula Award
will be won by a media or gaming tie-in product. The year
in which that happens will be the year in which SF literature
will be said to have truly died but when literary historians
look back, they'll mark 1993 as the year in which the field's
condition became terminal.
[1997 bionote] Robert J. Sawyer is the author of the
science fiction novels Golden Fleece, Far-Seer,
Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era,
The Terminal Experiment, Starplex,
Frameshift, and Illegal Alien. He has won the
Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year (for The Terminal
Experiment) and been a finalist for the Hugo Award.
More Good Reading
Rob's essay on The Death of Science Fiction
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