Story-teller and general wordherder-for-hire J. C. Hutchins tweeted about a blog entry by Charles Stross that got me thinking. In the blog, Mr. Stross talks about how he’s annoyed with “glut of Steampunk that is being foisted on the SF-reading public via the likes of Tor.com and io9.” Particularly, he’s upset because he believes there’s far too much of the genre on the market, and that the genre is running the risk of obsolescence due to the “second artist effect.” Apparently, that’s basically copycat storytelling.
Now, here’s my disclaimer: I don’t read steampunk, mostly because I’ve never had the opportunity to pick up anything in the genre. I’m not disinterested – in fact, I’m rather interested based on the costumers I see at Dragon*Con – but rather swamped in higher priorities. But, in fairness, it wasn’t the genre aspect that captured my attention with this blog post.
My first contention is the idea that anyone is “foisting” anything on anyone. Last time I checked – which was one paragraph ago for those keeping score at home – no one was holding a 9mm Beretta to my temple and forcing me to read anything, let alone io9 or Tor. While this isn’t his chief complaint, I’ll still coming back to it later.
My second contention was that this complaint, however well-researched and thought out it may be, is a reminder of the short-term memory issues of the internet and the cyclic nature of markets in general. I quite clearly remember complaints of a similar nature about vampire fiction, military science fiction, urban fantasy (particularly those with “headless” women on the cover), sword/sorcery/epic fantasy, and even bodice-ripping romance novels. Let’s face it, folks: Any market, whether it is stocks or novels, will balance itself out by the principles of supply and demand. If you put a lot of widgets on the markets, the cheap low-quality versions usually get snapped up first in the initial rush. After R&D takes over, higher quality widgets hit the shelves, people buy those, the reviews show how much better they are, and the cheapos are dumped. Replace “widget” with “book” and see how it works.
Since io9 and Tor aren’t holding me hostage, I’m not obligated to buy and/or read every steampunk/vampire/zombie/whatever novel on the market. I am free to choose the ones I want to based on reviews and advice, resulting in the best bang for my buck when it comes to entertainment in a different world. As I mentioned to J.C., the crap will settle to the bottom and eventually get buried while the stars rise and shine. This goes for every market, not just books, which is why houses nobody wants are eventually torn down, lemon cars don’t go very far, and craptastic movies usually don’t make back their budgets. There are always bottomfeeders who love the refuse and keep our ocean clean, but they’re not the prime market. They just keep Tor’s lights on.
I don’t disagree with Mr. Stross that there is a lot of junk out there, but the truth is that there always will be, just as there will always be posts like his and mine that highlight the pros and cons of that constant. What I do disagree with is that it is the end of the world. Cyberpunk and vampires will return, just like James Bond and bellbottoms. If there is a demand, supply will eventually catch up to match it, and no amount of garbage will prevent the diamonds in the rough from eventually surfacing and shining.
The junk is a necessary evil. Wade through it, pick out the good bits, and keep moving. If the shelves are full of junk and you want something better, then do something about it. After all, necessity is still the mother of invention, isn’t it?