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Unsettling Futures - Influence vs fame in science fiction and fantasy

Unsettling Futures - Influence vs fame in science fiction and fantasy
By Matthew Claxton • Issue #21 • View online
The books that sell aren’t always the books that inspire more books

Before the iconic movie poster, there was the iconic book cover
Before the iconic movie poster, there was the iconic book cover
I keep meaning to re-read Jurassic Park. I keep not doing it.
I should be eager to do it! I mean, I’m a dinosaur nerd, I’m a science fiction nerd, I’m an advocate for repeatedly re-reading books to suck the narrative marrow from their bones… but I don’t actually remember the book version of Jurassic Park all that fondly.
It has a lot of the thrills of the movie, but those thrills are embedded in a narrative that (going off of fuzzy 20-year-old memories here) includes kids who are extremely annoying, big, unwieldy chunks of exposition, and a rather negative view of the dinosaurs as monstrous, i.e. the tiny Compsognathuses being treated as land-based piranhas.
Jurassic Park, even before the movie, was a massive hit, as were most of Crichton’s novels from the 1980s on. So why can’t more modern SF be traced back to his influence?
This is all inspired by a bit of a Twitter discussion the other day that began with this tweet:
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne 🎭
Question for SF readers/enthusiasts. Why isn't Michael Crichton discussed as part of the canon of SF? Arguably he has been more widely read than most writers held up from the same period of writing.
There’s two implied questions here:
1) Is Crichton considered a science fiction writer by other science fiction writers and readers?
2) If so, why isn’t he talked about more now?
So to answer question 1, yeah, I think Crichton is undoubtedly a science fiction writer, much like Margaret Atwood and Emily St. John Mandel and Stephen King. They’ve all written stuff that meets the strict definition of science fiction.
But those are also writers who are usually shelved elsewhere, because strict genre definitions are not the same as publishing definitions of science fiction. Publishing genres are based on the perceived audience – once it gets big/broad enough, the book isn’t shelved (or isn’t only shelved) in the science fiction section. It’s out on the big pile of hardcovers at the front of the store!
So, Crichton is definitely a science fiction writer because… that’s what he wrote, at least sometimes. But many, almost certainly a large majority of his readers are not science fiction fans. They aren’t part of the ongoing fan/writer conversations within the genre at all.
And that dynamic matters for question 2.
Why doesn’t the science fiction community talk as much about some writers as others?
Well… lots of reasons?
Some writers are very popular and sell lots of books and are highly influential.
Some writers are not nearly as popular and sell very, very few books and yet are still highly influential on other writers.
Some writers are very popular and sell lots of books but break little new conceptual or artistic ground in the field.
Some writers are wildly influential for a time, but their influence wanes for a host of reasons (changing trends, works going out of print, turning out to be a homophobic shitbird, etc.) and just ten or twenty years later, few writers or readers are talking about them.
If we’re talking about Crichton in particular, well, in some ways he’s among the most influential authors in the world, even more than a decade after his death. The Jurassic Park/World franchise keeps chugging along, cranking out movies and animated shows and LEGO playsets, and Westworld has been turned from a deeply mediocre 1970s movie into a much talked about prestige TV series. Heck, his work on ER arguably helped kick off the era of prestige TV itself! More broadly, there are anthologies and video games and roleplaying games that rely on Jurassic Park for inspiration without being direct adaptations.
But that’s an influence of the films and TV he wrote, or works adapted from his writings. What about his books, especially beyond Jurassic Park?
Well, Crichton was not among the great stylists of his era of science fiction, and he wasn’t exactly breaking new ground with his ideas.
The Andromeda Strain is not even close to the first novel about a plague from space. Westworld is about robots rebelling or running amok – which is what the very first robot story ever told was about, too. Jurassic Park is probably his most unique idea, and resurrecting extinct species has become a widespread trope in SF, but that, too, existed before Crichton’s book. He deployed it on a grander scale and with a more plausible explanation for how it might work, but he wasn’t the originator.
There’s also a persistent anti-science strain in a lot of Crichton’s later work – he was a global warming skeptic – and Rising Sun is just deeply racist.
So the long answer as to why Crichton isn’t talked about more is that his ideas were seldom original, his prose doesn’t inspire imitators, his political views have not aged well to say the least, and many of his readers were non-SF fans to begin with.
Meanwhile, Gene Wolfe probably sold fewer than 1/10th the books Crichton did. His works have never been adapted into a movie or TV series. (He did help invent the Pringle, so at least one of his “adapted works” is very popular, I guess?)
But while Crichton’s influence is diffuse and mostly limited to “Dinosaurs, yay!” Wolfe’s is still very much alive, so much so that whole categories of science fiction and fantasy can be traced to his works.
Most influential are Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun novels. Without The Shadow of the Torturer and its follow ups, you don’t get Paul Park’s Charn, or China Mieville’s New Crobuzon. You don’t get the New Weird or its offshoots at all, arguably.
But even some of his shorter stories have managed to inspire what amount to small subgenres!
Premee Mohamed’s excellent new novella And What Can We Offer You Tonight was inspired by the mood and setting of Wolfe’s 1972 novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus, as was Michael Swanwick’s Nebula-winning 1991 novel Stations of the Tide. Was the late Eugie Foster’s likewise Nebula-winning novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast inspired by Wolfe? I can’t say for certain, but I suspect it may have been, in part. Everywhere you find science fiction of a society in lush decay, baroque and deadly, you are likely seeing the influence of Wolfe’s novella.
There have been entire anthologies in tribute to Wolfe. And although he died in 2019, there is little sign of his influence waning any time soon.
But Wolfe has his own influences, too! Without Jack Vance and Michael Moorcock and Mervyn Peake, does Wolfe ever begin The Book of the New Sun?
Wolfe’s work was in conversation with science fiction’s past; science fiction’s present is in conversation with Wolfe. Crichton’s work stands somewhat aloof from that dialogue – undoubtedly involved, but at a greater remove.
There is not necessarily anything fair or unfair about Crichton not being that big a part of the SFF conversation. As was pointed out to me on Twitter, neither writing racist novels nor being a clunky prose stylist has been grounds for exclusion from the club of famous SFF writers. And there are lots of writers who undoubtedly deserve to be more talked about than they are.
But that’s influence for you. It jumps about wildly. A relatively little-known writer can light a fire in the mind of someone else who goes on to crank out bestsellers. Writers can be forgotten and then rediscovered when culture and politics of a new era make them look prescient.
There is a peculiar populism that has been bubbling up for years in parts of the nerd-culture space, that questions why there is sometimes a disconnect between “popular” and “influential.” It helped spark the Sad/Rabid Puppies attempts to manipulate the Hugo awards with block voting. It is the source of much discontent for online MCU/DCU stans who berate reviewers for not lauding movies that have made millions of dollars.
Eli: You never gave me the time of day until I started getting good reviews.
Margot: The reviews aren’t that good.
Eli Cash: But the sales are.
The Royal Tenenbaums
The idea that because something is popular, it deserves to also be critically acclaimed is weirdly persistent. Sometimes critics change their mind about popular but derided forms of pop culture, like cheap B-reel noir films, rock music, jazz. But not always.
In music, at least, there actually seems to be an understanding that influence can be wildly out of proportion to sales. The Velvet Underground’s first album sold 30,000 copies in its first five years. It’s widely considered one of the most influential albums of all time, because, as Brian Eno famously said, “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”
There are authors, like Michael Crichton, who inspire readers to keep turning the pages, maybe to buy the next book with their name on the cover. And there are authors who inspire people to lunge for their keyboards. Influence is measured in the latter, not the former.
Obligatory Awards Eligibility Post – Kind Of
Ugh, it’s that time of year again, when people are urged to post/tweet/promote the stories they published in the past year for consideration as Hugo nominations begin.
I had exactly one (1) story published in the last year, The Acheulean Gift, in Analog Science Fiction and Fact’s March/April issue. I am proud of it! I think it’s a pretty good story!
I have no expectation of it making anyone’s shortlist.
The “you NEVER KNOW, you ought to PROMOTE YOUR STUFF!” thing on Twitter is a little oppressive, honestly. If The Acheulan Gift was going to be award nominated, there would be some, y'know, buzz by now? Most authors who are on social media have a pretty good idea if a lot of people are talking about their stories, and the vast majority of stories, even very good stories (better than mine) don’t get talked about much.
So! If you read and liked The Acheulean Gift, I am thankful and humbled. If you haven’t, and you have any interest in a story about a kid dealing with adolescence, Neanderthal DNA, and kidnapping attempts at a peculiar summer camp, let me know. I can always re-post the whole thing here. I’d rather get at least a few more readers than worry about awards nominations.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Matthew Claxton

Unsettling Futures

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