The streaming TV boom, science fiction storytelling and advertising, and fan fiction
|Andrew Liptak||Mar 31, 2019|
I hope that you're doing well. I've been jotting down ideas for this column the last couple of weeks, and I keep coming back to a topic I've been thinking about a lot over the years — how we pay for science fiction, and how the fiction we consume is dependent on a bunch of external sources, namely, access to said fiction, whether it's magazines, streaming TV platforms, or bookstores. It's those mediums that provide access that can steer the shape of the genre in a lot of ways. Let's get into it.
The Streaming TV Boom
Last week, I wrote about two new streaming services that have recently launched: Epix Now, an online service from premium channel Epix, and Apple TV +. Epix Now recently launched — this week's announcement was about Amazon Fire TVs and Roku launches, while Apple announced… that it was doing a streaming service, but didn’t offer much beyond a brief glimpse and a bunch of A-listers talking about their shows. It was strange.
Every time I write about a new streaming service, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll get a response along the following lines: I’m not signing up for that, I already subscribe to too many things. BTW, cord-cutting is dead.
We’re in a pretty extraordinary time when it comes to online entertainment. Subscriptions to streaming services have surpassed that of cable television (however, cable still pulls in more revenue), according to a new MPAA report. And the industry has been growing — fast. It jumped by double digits around the world. If you’re tired of seeing word of yet another streaming service, I have some bad news for you: there are going to be more of them. The report said that in the last year, there were more than 500 scripted dramas across the entire industry, way more than anyone could possibly hope to watch or even really sample. There's a lot of things to watch, and I think that's a good thing — there's a lot of competition for eyeballs, and there's a lot of money going into the production of these shows. It feels that in most cases, the production quality is improving, but the stories are as well, in some cases.
Right now, we subscribe to Netflix, Hulu (with live TV), and Epix Now (I’ve been wanting to watch Berlin Station, but it has a decent movie selection.) I’ve also subscribed to Stargate Command (since lapsed), Comic Con HQ (subscribed to Alan Tudyk’s entertaining webseries Con Man, now defunct) CBS All Access (signed up for Star Trek: Discovery, since lapsed, buuuuuut should sign back up because The Twilight Zone looks great), and DC Universe (Trial / Press access, since lapsed, although I want to check out Titans / Doom Patrol / Swamp Thing). NBCUniversal is jumping in on the streaming service thing next year, which might be interesting, but the one I'll almost certainly sign up for is Disney’s Disney+.
There’s a sort of arms race going on between streaming companies. Netflx is far out ahead, but it’s pivoted in recent years away from a place to conveniently stream movies to a provider of original content, as studios and distributors wised up that they could also do the online streaming thing. Netflix has seen big partners like Disney leave its platform. The result is a push into original programming, which has created an environment where there’s a lot of really good programming out there, especially when it comes to genre stuff. Off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of shows that I’m really interested in seeing coming up — there’s Apple’s For All Mankind, an alternate history space series from Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore, as well as an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. Netflix has a second season of Altered Carbon coming, Disney has two (TWO) live-action Star Wars shows coming, as well as a finale to The Clone Wars, and Amazon has a shitload of genre shows in development, including adaptations of Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, William Gibson’s The Peripheral, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Not to mention, they’re continuing The Expanse.
That flood of original content is designed to do one thing: entice viewers to plunk down money and become paying subscribers (there's also growth in ad-supported services.) Existing television can be found just about everywhere — what will get people to sign up is something that you can’t find anywhere else.
As the shows and services mount up, so have the complaints that streaming services are no longer a good way to save money. Netflix was originally the bargain when it came to drifting away from cable, because cable’s expensive. But when you add up 4-5 streaming services, that price point climbs back up.
I haven't thought of streaming services as ways to save money in a while — I see them as specific content providers, and people will sign up for them until they’re no longer of value. Certainly, you can do a round of free monthly trials, and streaming TV hasn’t implemented the pain points that cable TV has, something I would imagine will change with time.
All of that, I think, is good for storytellers. There’s some good-to-great genre TV out there right now, stuff that I would never in a million years imagine hitting screens with proper budgets, casts, and the right treatment for the story. Long-form TV is an excellent medium for science fiction and fantasy, and audiences are primed for it. And, I think that predominantly, it’s worth signing up for things like CBS All Access, Netflix, Hulu, and others, because the shows that they’re producing are generally worth it, because you’re pretty much paying directly for the content, rather than allowing third-party advertisers to subsidize it.
This leads me to another thing that I've been thinking about for a while now: science fiction has always had some sort of commercial component to it that's supporting its creation.
Science Fiction Storytelling as a loss leader
Let’s go back to the beginning of the modern science fiction genre: Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. (I know, that isn’t *really* the start to SF as a genre, but it’s a touchstone for everything that came in the 1920s / 1930s.) Gernsback was a business guy who was fascinated by the new field of electronics, and set up a number of magazines aimed at amateur electricians and inventors, like Modern Electrics and The Electrical Experimenter. He was also a fan of the early science fiction stories from writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. It was in Modern Electrics that he began serializing a novel that he wrote, Ralph 124C 41+. This is pretty remarkable for the time, because you have a fictional narrative drawing from the decidedly real things covered in the magazines. Gernsback was extrapolating forward, imagining the value of the field that he was promoting in his publication. And presumably, as a serialized story, he hoped that people would be interested in enough to pick up the next installment from the newsstand.
He went on to start Amazing Stories, one of the first big science fiction publications, which was followed by numerous imitators, all in a system supported by ad and subscriber revenue. Over the coming decades, science fiction developed as a lead product designed to pull in consumer attention to advertising for other products. For the most part, those ads were pretty minimal: a handful of full-page ads in the back of the magazine, with others on the back cover. That’s carried over in pretty much the same way in magazines still around in 2019.
An illustrative example of this is the collapse of the American News Company — a major magazine and book distributor — in 1957. When it folded, a number of pulp magazines also went under. According to Mike Ashley in his book Transformations: The Story of Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, when the company was liquidated after being acquired, “the consequent scramble was disastrous,” and while magazines went to other distributors, they were forced to adopt new requirements, like going to monthly schedule or changing their paper stock, which put a considerable financial pressure on publications. Many went under, save for the ones with high circulations. “The cost of a monthly schedule and a format change were too much for these small publishers to bear. In fact they had been too much for some of the major publishers.”
Around this time, we see the genre begin to shift mediums from magazines to books, driven by new markets and a booming middle class in the post-war era. Paperbacks were cheap, and thus were more accessible to consumers, as publishers and new types of bookstores (chains that specifically sold paperbacks in places like malls) arrived to fill that demand. This sort of decoupling from the ad/subscriber-supported pulp and magazine era to a consumer-supported novel era brought about very new types of stories to readers. Editor David Hartwell told me that he was able to publish novels that wouldn’t have found an audience anywhere else in this new model. Bookstore chains have also seen their own collapse of sorts. Walden Books and Borders went under, and Barnes and Noble isn't looking too good these days. Those vacancies in the marketplace have had, and will have a profound impact on novels and books — it's another reduction of access, although the indie bookstore marketplace is improving quite well, which is nice to see. Another big shift came as special effects improved in Hollywood, which opened the genre up to even wider audiences, and again in the 1990s for television. We're seeing another one of these shifts as new outlets open up. We're not just seeing this in streaming TV and short fiction — podcasts are another avenue in which we're seeing this happen as well.
The model for print science fiction these days is a mixed bag, especially when you figure in the internet. Certainly, you have traditional-style magazines that rely on subscribers and ads, but they’re few: Analog Science Fact and Fiction, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction are the big ones, and their numbers are dwindling. The internet has created their counterparts: magazines like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and numerous others, which rely on ads and subscriber revenue. But there’s other avenues as well: Tor Books set up its own website a decade ago, Tor.com, which posted up stories on the web as a way to draw in traffic and ultimately promote its catalog of titles. Barnes & Noble’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog did the same thing with a series of short stories and commentary, as did the SCI-FI Channel years ago, MIT Technology Review, and even The Verge, with Better Worlds. Other sources come from companies themselves, like Microsoft’s anthology of science fiction: Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft, while IEEE Spectrum released its own anthology, Coming Soon Enough.
The internet has also afforded authors direct access to fans. Authors like Kameron Hurley and Karin Lowachee work through Patreon to produce short stories for fans who pay them directly for their work.
A cynic might say that these artist works are mere commissions to draw in people to promote their products (thus, not much more than advertising), while an optimist might say that companies are affording writers a unique opportunity to write. Both are true. There are very few instances that I can think of where writers — especially science fiction writers — are afforded unfettered resources to write whatever they want — Maybe Kelly Link and Octavia Butler, both MacArthur Fellows Programs.
All along the way, I see a common thread with print genre storytelling — a sort of loss leader for a larger suite of products. This isn't universally true, as you have consumers paying a bit more directly when they buy a book or movie ticket, but even then, there's ane element of support from a larger industry. Publishing famously operates on thin margins, and a massive bestselling book like Michelle Obama’s Becoming will subsidize the other books that Crown / Penguin Random House is selling that doesn’t turn a profit. When looked at as a commodity, short fiction (which, I might add, are enormously undervalued — the professional rate as set by SFWA is $.08 a word) is not something that’s terribly profitable, but which is incredibly valuable for both the author and publication — if not in actual hard currency, in experience, experimentation, intellectual property, and in some cases, acclaim.
There’s a lot of demand right now for storytelling, and this streaming service arms race seems to represent a huge opportunity for authors and creators. It feels like there’s more opportunities to develop a series (especially one based on existing IP), as providers throw money at them to make something that will draw in users. There’s certainly authors out there working to take advantage of that while it lasts, and ultimately, that’s good for fans.
Just call it what it is
The Guardian ran a story recently: Francis Spufford pens unauthorised Narnia novel, and goes on to talk about how this author took a break from “writing award-winning adult literature” to write a novel set in the world of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.
The book that he ended up writing is The Stone Table, set between Lewis'The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The Guardian says that he wrote it for his daughter, a bit for himself. He apparently worked to try and get Lewis’s writing style and voice just right, and the article laments that it might never be published, given that Lewis’s estate has resisted commissioning any further installments of the series, and his works won’t hit the public domain until the 2030s. The 75 copies he printed up and distributed to friends is probably the only form that it’ll exist in.
What bothered me about this is that the article doesn’t mention one thing: it’s fan fiction.
There’s a lingering stigma about these sorts of fan works, because it was primarily a women-driven domain for a long time (and still is, from what I know). The science fiction publishing world was dominated by men. Sure, there were women publishing — C.L. Moore, Leslie F. Stone, Katherine MacLean, Francis Stevens, Margaret St. Clair, Leigh Brackett, and others — but they were greatly outnumbered as professional / published authors. But if women weren’t represented in the pages of magazines, they were still fans and writers.
Fan Fiction as a term was introduced in the 1939s as a way to differentiate “professional” stories that appeared in regular magazines, and fan-run publications called Fanzines. Fanfiction would later take off in the 1960s and 1970s when people started writing their own Star Trek stories. Because they weren’t part of the regular publishing industry — and not really subject to the tastes of anyone but the individual editors and readers — they covered a lot of other topics than you’d see in SF. Slash fiction, where you pair up two male characters in a romantic relationship. You’d never see Spock and Kirk hook up in regular Star Trek canon. But fan fiction allows creators an incredible amount of freedom to operate in, even though it’s in a pre-existing world. The same can be said for tie-in fiction.
With the introduction of the internet, you see places like FanFiction.net and Archive of Our Own become online spaces where people publish their own stories about their favorite properties. And again — this is largely a women-led thing. Some broke into mainstream success: Naomi Novik famously started out here. E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Gray had its origins in fanfic. John Scalzi wrote Fuzzy Nation, a fan fiction of H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy, which was later published with permission of Piper’s estate.
What’s irritating about the Guardian piece is that intentionally or not, it lends the appearance that because it’s this established, male writer, what he did is somehow different than what any number of authors have done for decades. The Guardian is a major publication, and lends this particular book a very high profile, something that isn’t usually afforded women in the same position. Because on the face of it: this is Spufford’s personal project based on a beloved children’s series that he happened to print up and distribute to some friends. Go to AOC or FanFiction.net, and you’ll find literally thousands of the same thing. Sure, you’ll have a huge range of quality there, but there are authors who are writing some really good stories online that are deserving of attention.
This piece in Grist came up back in February, but I just discovered it the other day: How sci-fi could help solve climate change. It’s a cool overview of how science fiction tackles larger issues like climate change, (and nicely name checks Better Worlds, Laura Hudson, and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination.)
Another thing I want to point you to is this outstanding high school in New Jersey: they staged an adaptation of Ridley Scott’s classic film Alien, and did so with nothing but recycled parts that they cobbled together.
As I noted in the article, it’s definitely something that goes well beyond the typical plays that high schools put on, and this particular production shows a couple of things: out-of-the-box thinking and creativity. Alien is a particularly challenging story, technically, because you have so many special effects and sets, and judging from the pictures, it looks as though they pulled it off wonderfully. This is a fantastic example in motion where these sorts of skills are put to use, and if they keep up that sense of creativity and practicality, it’ll help those kids out in the long run, well after high school. Plus, director Ridley Scott gave it a thumbs-up.
But what’s also heart-breaking is that they did this in a school that’s underfunded and impoverished, at least according to the students who have talked about this project online. Sure, there’s something to be said for constraints breeding creative solutions, but if these kids and teachers could do a project like this on a tight budget, imagine what they could accomplish if they actually had a proper drama department. Too many schools have cut “extracurriculars” such as art, music, and tech.
Oh, and I got another household robot. Meet Robbie.
I finished Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, and man, it’s a fantastic read, and as I noted on The Verge, it’s a worthy successor to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. On a military front, it’s great, and she works in time travel in a really intriguing way, while also providing a really sharp commentary on unfettered capitalism. Go read it.
With that off my plate, I’m reading Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night, and James S.A. Corey’s Tiamat’s Wrath, which just came out. City in the Middle of the Night is delightful thus far — another one that’s examining income inequality and power struggles, while Tiamat’s Wrath is doing some interesting things in The Expanse universe. It’s the second-to-last book in that series. I’m going to really miss it when it’s over.
On top of that, I really want to read Elizabeth Bear’s Ancestral Night, Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, and G. Willow WIlson’s The Bird King and Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire. I also recently got all of Emma Newman’s Planetfall books, because they’ve been so highly recommended. April will see a bunch of good-looking ones (look for my book list on The Verge tomorrow), and hopefully, I’ll get back on balance for setting aside more time to read in the mornings.
Places I’ll be
At the end of this week, I’ll be presenting at the annual Tolkien in Vermont conference at UVM, where I’ve got a talk about how World War I impacted the horror genre, and how Tolkien fits into that. Here’s the full schedule.
In Mid-April, I’ll be at Star Wars Celebration. If you’re going, let me know! I’d love to say hello.
Looking further afield, I'm hoping to be at Escape Velocity in Washington DC in May, where I’ll be heading up a panel about military science fiction on Sunday, May 26th at 9AM. Still working out travel arrangements for that, but fingers crossed that that'll work.
And, that's all for me today. Thanks for reading — let me know what you think, and what's on your reading list.