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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Flipping Genres for Fun and Profit


MY CAREER and future security were in the crapper, and all because I wrote science fiction rather than fantasy.

No one wanted to read science fiction anymore, it seemed. Fantasy ruled. Oh, sure, millions of fans would watch bastardized versions of sf in other media. But read the hardcore stuff? Never!

And I was approaching the age where I had been planning to enter into a genteel retirement supported by my backlist. I was reconciled to not writing and selling any new science fiction in this turbulent marketplace. After all, I had done my share already in the Great Work of the genre, conducted my part in the Big Conversation. I admitted I was pretty dry of inspiration and new ideas. Fifty books over forty years. An award-winner or three. Lots of fans—at one time. No Grandmaster award, but the respect of my peers. So, all in all, a proud lifetime of solid achievement.

Thus, with my reputation as an Elder Statesman of the genre secure, and my old sales figures in hand, I had projected out a future income of royalties from my backlist which, with my social security check and the occasional short story sale, would have allowed me to live in a modestly comfortable fashion.

I had not been so blind or foolish as to think my backlist would continue in physical form. At no small expense I had had all my rights-reverted work professionally converted to e-books across every platform, and made them available at all the major vendors. Then I waited for the sales to rack up.

But for a disappointing year now, I had moved hardly any ethereal units. By inquiry among my SFWA peers who were similarly suffering, I soon discovered why. The rigorous, although not daunting, classical kind of science fiction I favored—entertainments that honored the scientific worldview, and the only kind of imaginative literature I enjoyed writing—had fallen out of favor with readers, who all seemed to prefer Tolkien-style multivolume series, or paranormal romances, or occult conspiracy thrillers, or Lord knows what else. Anything that wasn't quintessential sf. The type of research-honoring, ingeniously extrapolative science fiction pioneered by John W. Campbell was out of favor, and me with it.

I really was left grasping at straws to stop from drowning in anxiety and uncertainty, until one of my fellow writers (who shall remain nameless) pointed me quietly to a service that seemed to offer me a way out of my dilemma. But the agency's online prospectus was deliberately vague, and I eventually had to place a call to their offices.

"Good morning, this is Dr. John R. Bender, President of Fiction Retooling and Retrofitting, Limited. How may I help you?"

I explained my quandary.

"Well, Mr. Steffano, you've come to the perfect source for a solution to your problem. Basically, what we offer is a complete remodeling job for your old books. Think of me as Henry Higgins, and your novels as so many uncouth Eliza Doolittles."

I wasn't sure how I felt about the characterization of my books as any number of ignorant Cockney flower girls. But before I could protest, Dr. Bender had moved on.

"As you may have noted from our discreet website, Mr. Steffano, we don't publicize this service overtly, since most of our clients prefer to keep a low profile. New ones generally arrive via word of mouth. But let me assure you right now that we are completely capable of shifting content from any given genre to any other. In your case, we'd be converting your books from science fiction to fantasy, to appeal to the current marketplace. It's a mostly automated process, with the bulk of the work done by sophisticated software. A final polish is given by our legion of recent graduates from Clarion and many Ivy League MFA programs."

"It doesn't seem possible. And I can't believe any writer of stature would fall for such a scam."

Dr. Bender grew haughtily miffed. "Sir, I assure you, our clientele includes many of the biggest names in science fiction. Allow me to offer a few examples, with the understanding that they shall remain confidential.

"We've done lots of work for the Philip K. Dick estate. Frankly, while Dick's books have a lot of cultural cachet, his sales are not what they could be. For instance, we retooled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into Do Hamadryads Dream of Eclectic Keeps? A big labyrinthine castle is infested by changelings, and Sir Ricardo Deckard is tasked with hunting them down.

"We adapted Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination into The Starry Destiny of Gulliver Foyle. Our hero is a seventeenth-century pirate, castaway on a desert island, who learns supernatural secrets from a witch doctor and is able to return to civilization to seek revenge and avert a global war among the Illuminati.

"Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy becomes a classic Sleeping Beauty tale, Quest for the Hidden Key. Princess Shari Seldon is plunged into a cursed sleep by her enemies, while all around her the Trantorian empire, of which she is the rightful ruler, goes to pot. Searching for her and her magical powers of establishing a new foundation becomes a quest across the centuries. But who will reach her first? The noble Lord Ebling Mis, or a greedy illiterate blacksmith named Mule? The whole series has a lovely George MacDonald tone to it now!

"It was quite simple to turn Larry Niven's Ringworld into a portal fantasy similar to Alice in Wonderland or the Oz series, Ringland. Ten-year-old Teela Brown finds a magic ring that transports her to an odd dimension that seems like a wide, endlessly unrolling carpet. She meets charming creatures such as the elderly and daft King Louie Wuey, the Hungry Tiger named Speaky, and a cowardly two-headed whatchamacallit beast named Nessie.

"Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl easily metamorphosed into a Pinocchio fable. It was simplicity itself to shift Frank Herbert's Dune into an Arabian Nights-style entertainment. We applied a heaping bucket of Thorne Smith and Leonard Wibberley to Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. A ghost named Mike comes to inhabit a nerdy fellow's iPad, and involves our hero in a revolution in the little African country named Selenezia. And then you should see what we did to the cyberpunks! Can you picture William Gibson refashioned into Charlaine Harris? Bruce Sterling revamped into Neil Gaiman? Greg Bear cut and trimmed to fit the Stephenie Meyer template? Well, we managed all that, and more!"

By this point in Dr. Bender's sales pitch I was thoroughly convinced, in a horrified fashion, that his firm could—and had done—all he claimed. I knew that my books, too, for all their supposed speculative integrity and hard scientific rigor, could be repurposed with trivial effort into novels of fantasy. Whether I would submit them to such a profitable indignity I could not now say. It depended how desperate I got.

But one matter intrigued me more. "Dr. Bender, why is this process so easy, given the seemingly huge disjunction between science fiction and fantasy?"

"Ah, Mr. Steffano, there you've hit upon the dirty little secret core of the whole industry. Aside from vocabulary and some special effects, there's no real difference at all!"

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