Media Tie-Ins and Mainstream SF
A note before I begin what may make me sound like an apologist for media tie-in
novels. I am not a media science fiction fan. I rarely see science fiction films
or television shows and have even more rarely picked up a media tie-in book, and
then only because of the author's name, not because of the world in which the story was set.
If you enter a bookstore and wander over to the science fiction and fantasy section, you'll find something, which you won't see in the mystery, romance or crime areas. Row upon row of books with the names of television shows and movies prominently displayed on their spines. Star Wars, Star Trek, Predator. Even cancelled shows like Alien Nation have books dedicated to continuing the adventure. Fantasy, which has never done quite as well as science fiction in Hollywood, has its own version of this phenomenon in the form of game tie-in books.
For the purposes of this article, all tie-in books, whether game, television, or movie, will be referred to as media tie-ins. The remainder of the books will be called "mainstream SF."
Although the statement is frequently made that media tie-ins permit the publisher to release mainstream SF which they otherwise might not be able to publish, a look at the publishers does not indicate this is the case. Pocket Books, which publishes the Star Trek tie-ins publishes very few non-media books. Bantam, publishers of the Star Wars novels, as well as books based on Predator, still publishes mainstream SF, although the number seems to be on the decline. In the first quarter of 1994, Bantam released 24 books, including 5 media tie-ins (21%). In the first quarter of 1999, the same company has a ratio of 13:4 (31%).
The question of why readers pick up media tie-in novels should be self-evident. They pick them up for the same reason they pick up any other series. The characters and situations are familiar. Sure, there are readers who will complain that there is little suspense because you know that Kirk, Leia and Xena will still be alive at the end of the novel, but the number of non-tie-in novels that kill off the main characters are relatively small. When one fantasy author killed off his main character, several of his readers turned their backs on the series, upset at what they viewed as a betrayal of their emotional tie to his books.
In a bookstore I used to frequent, the increase in shelf space devoted to media tie-ins corresponded in an increase in shelf space devoted to other types of science fiction and fantasy. In the mid-80s, the store had about 48 shelf feet devoted to science fiction. About 6 feet of that space was given over to Star Trek books (this was before the explosion of media tie-ins and Timothy Zahn had yet to have published Heir to Empire, 1991). By the mid-90s, the store's science fiction section had expanded to 128 feet of shelf space, an increase of 267%, while the tie-ins increased to 16 feet, an increase of... 267%. This is despite the addition of lines promoting Star Wars, Dragonlance, Magic, Alien and other science fictional and fantastic franchises. I'll admit that when I started crunching the numbers I was very surprised to discover the increase to be the same.
In a letter to Locus (Jan 4, 1999), John Ordover, who edits the Star Trek line for Pocket Books, asked, "Could it be that the drive toward 'literary' SF has left behind the core of the audience?" He points to the popularity of such space opera as Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series and David Weber's Honor Harrington books to support his supposition that today's fans yearn for the "simple" days when "Doc" Smith was telling stories of the Lensmen and Captain Future ruled the spaceways. He may have a point. One recent Hugo winner was a tribute to Captain Future (Allen Steele's "The Death of Captain Future," 1995), a character who has faded into the woodwork and who was probably unknown to many of the Hugo voters until Steele's story appeared.
According to Hugo Gernsback's traditional definition of science fiction, the genre was intended to instruct as well as entertain. In fact, few of the stories Gernsback published were educational. In the 20s and 30s, readers read science fiction for the sense of adventure. If they happened to learn something, that was secondary. Of course, the impression that they might learn something from these adventure tales is different from actually learning.
In the 60s, science fiction began developing a social conscience. This was due, in part, to Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, but it also saw the rise of feminist issues (Joanna Russ's The Female Man), specific concerns about overpopulation (John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar) and other contemporary issues. While I would never suggest that tackling social issues is not an important thing for science fiction to do, it can come across as preachy. For people looking simply for escapism, as many science fiction and fantasy readers are, books which don't have a strong dogma to push are exactly what they are looking for: a return to the "more innocent" days of The Skylark of Space.
On an economic level, the media tie-in books serve a useful function. While I don't believe that publishing a media tie-in gives the publisher the opportunity to publish other books necessarily, it does give the author the financial freedom to write other books. Kevin J. Anderson has commented that writing a Star Wars or X-Files novel pays him enough that he can then write one of his own novels, such as Ignition. If Roger MacBride Allen can write another novel in his Hunted Earth sequence because of the money he made writing a Star Wars novel, why would any reader have cause to complain? Fans of the media tie-in have a book and those who are looking for fresh situations will also have a book to read.
Many of the supporters of media books make the claim that readers who begin by reading these novels eventually "graduate" to mainstream novels. While this may be the case, there are no hard figures to support this contention. In fact, there is anecdotal evidence, which may support the opposite viewpoint. When I was working as a bookstore manager, I would frequently point out an author's mainstream SF novels to a customer purchasing their media books. Invariably the reader would glance briefly at the mainstream SF novel and put it back on the shelf. The author wasn't the important part of the decision; the familiar characters and situations were the deciding factor. However, this may have been a specific trend at the particularly bookstore where I worked.
The bottom line is that media books have a targeted audience, which they reach. In doing so, their effect on mainstream science fiction appears to be negligible. They don't cut back on the number of books purchased, nor do they seem to push the mainstream novels off the shelves. Whether they bring new readers to mainstream science fiction is debatable, but it really isn't the issue. Media tie-in books successfully provide entertainment to a portion of the market and should not be begrudged. If you don't like them, don't read them, but also, don't denigrate those who are just looking for escapism in a familiar world.
Steven H SilverSteven H Silver is a Contributing Editor to the SF Site, and one of our most prolific contributors. At his own website he has posted over 300 lengthy reviews of genre books. He is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History, is the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000, and maintains the official Harry Turtledove website.
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