[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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1993: The Dark Side of the Force

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
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 worlds instead.

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.

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