Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 Round-Up, Part II: Reflections on the Year That Was

On the whole I read, and even watched, less science fiction this year, and little of this year's output. To be perfectly honest, I needed a bit of a break after the work involved in getting my essay collection After the New Wave into print.

As you might expect, I got in my two cents about the year as a whole over at Strange Horizons' "Year in Review," where you can also check out what all the other site's reviewers and writers have had to say about it for a really comprehensive picture of 2011. Beyond my comments there, here are my thoughts.

The broadcast of the last episodes of Caprica and Stargate: Universe (the cancellations of which were announced in late 2010) have left North American television without a first-run space opera on the air. (By contrast, the boom years of the '90s often saw four or more such series airing at once.) Indeed, the genre's profile in this medium hasn't been this low since before Star Trek: The Next Generation helped launch a TV revolution in 1987 (which is only one reason why I'll miss SGU at least a little).

Syfy's Eureka is also on its way out (just one more season to go), though the channel's Warehouse 13 (a fantasy version of Eureka, which benefits from its chucking the nonsensical view of scientific R & D, and the tiresome scientist cliches), however, will be coming back, and the same remains at least a possibility for Sanctuary (best enjoyed as science fiction about science fiction, reminiscent of Warren Ellis's Planetary). (While I was initially ambivalent about both shows, and still regard them both as far from perfect, they got better as they went along, and have certainly grown on me.) Syfy also premiered Being Human (which I didn't watch, though not out of loyalty to the original, which I didn't see either), and Alphas (which certainly isn't ground-breaking, but managed to be more entertaining than I'd guessed another show about superheroes would be), and is set to offer more of the same, not only second seasons of these two shows, but another urban fantasy series with Lost Girl (which premiered in Canada in 2010), and a second superhero series, Three Inches (which, to go by the commercials, offers somewhat more parody than most of the recent shows with that theme).

NBC has put an end to the Monday science-fiction line-up which during the past five seasons offered viewers such shows as Heroes (2006-2010), Chuck (2007-) and The Event (2010-2011). The last season of the last survivor of this wave of shows, Chuck, was kicked over to Friday night, where it has been paired with another new urban fantasy series, Grimm. (Indeed, the famous "death slot" has been crowded with genre programming this fall, with CW airing the second season of Nikita head to head with Chuck, and the seventh season of Supernatural in the same time slot as Grimm, while FOX airs Fringe at 9 PM – which has all of them are fighting that much more over the same fan base, but then the reason they are in this slot in the first place is that the networks aren't all that invested in them.)

Smallville wound up its long ten season run, the remake of V died (unlamented by this reviewer), and the more recent The Cape (yes, another superhero show, but one which just about managed to get me following it) aired its tenth and final episode online only. On the other hand, FOX launched one of the most technically ambitious (and hard-sfish) science fiction shows to air on a major network in some years, Terra Nova. The show, which initially attracted a great deal of excitement in the entertainment press with its promising premise and abundant spectacle, finished its first season in December - without a decision on whether there will be a second, not a good sign given the (unrealistically?) high expectations which surrounded the premiere, big budget, and of course, FOX's well-known track record of killing off genre shows.

In short, I think I was right when I said that we are going to see less science fiction on the major networks for a while. But we are seeing something of a mini-boom of the genre on cable, where Falling Skies (TNT), Camelot (STARZ) and Game of Thrones (HBO) won second seasons, while The Walking Dead (AMC) and True Blood (HBO) continue to draw audiences.

The end of the Harry Potter series, and new Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean and Twilight movies were, as everyone expected, huge hits. Superhero movies were a presence too, with several making decent money, but they didn't hit the highs of previous years (the biggest hit, Thor, fell well of the $200 million mark domestically, and the half billion dollar mark globally). Retro-sf and fantasy, and period adventure more generally (including the X-Men and Captain America movies, Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, Hugo and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows) were quite abundant, but drew an ambivalent response from audiences, particularly in the U.S.. Three-D may be wearing out its welcome (as 3-D surcharges certainly are). Indeed, such may have played a role in the relatively weak earnings of theaters over the year, with one weekend after another lamented by industry-watchers as a disappointment (the weekend of December 9-11 judged the worst in over three years, and one of the very worst over the past decade). This entailed some exaggeration, recent ticket sales apparently still within the normal range from the last three decades (four to five per capita annually), though there are signs that the demographics of the movie audience are changing, with young males becoming a tougher audience in the United States. (However, this seems unlikely to reduce Hollywood's emphasis on action and effects-heavy blockbusters, as these continue to do well globally, making for a record three movies breaking the billion dollar mark in ticket sales this past summer.)

It is probably my reading that has been affected most of all by my break from the genre. In any given year, most of the science fiction I read is older material – often classics I never got around too, like M. John Harrison's brilliant The Centauri Device. However, in 2011 even the work I reviewed for outside venues tended to have been published before – as with the stories in Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 (a best of 2010 anthology), and Pat Cadigan's final novel, 2001's Dervish is Digital.

Still, it did seem to me that good genre books (and even though it seems less abundant now, good hard science fiction), are still being published, and even if the lists of releases I saw didn't tempt me enough to go back just yet, I did see some of this year's new stuff, including interesting signs of the times in editor Gordon Van Der Gelder's climate change-themed anthology Welcome to the Greenhouse (uneven, though it contains some interesting pieces), and the issue of two prequels to David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series. (I reviewed the first, Son of Heaven, for Strange Horizons.) Similarly worth mentioning here is the debut of a new genre magazine, Fantastique Unfettered (my review of the first issue of which you can find here).

Also notable (if comparatively marginal to a discuss of speculative fiction) is the release of a new Bond novel during the past year – Jeffrey Deaver's Carte Blanche, which instead of continuing in the retro approach of Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (which picked up after Fleming's last book, The Man With the Golden Gun), did a reboot of the series comparable to Casino Royale (with similarly mixed results, in my view).

However, as I've said elsewhere, for me the really big story in publishing has been the explosion of the e-book, and its implications for "indie" authors, who may be a long way from displacing traditional publishing (even Amanda Hocking's ultimately capitalized on her indie success to make a deal with St. Martin's), but from which we can expect to hear more. At the very least, it's probably going to play a bigger role in the apprenticing and initial exposure of new authors, given how averse traditional publishing has become to this crucial aspect of the business.

Of course, a principal reason for considering what we've seen is always the better consideration of what we might see. What are you looking forward to seeing and reading in 2012?

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