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What Is DarkSF? As I like to tell it, DarkSF is 'The Dark Chocolate of Speculative Fiction.' That is, from my perspective, it encompasses the finest of artistic, poetic, atmospheric fiction and film. The quickest way to understand my drift is to imagine films like Blade Runner or Dark City, to name just two movies; or the fiction of great (often obscure) writers like Cordwainer Smith, and Alice Sheldon ('James Tiptree, Jr.'), along with many others (I'll name more names soon, including leading surrealists like Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and others of the mainly Latin American magic realism movement).
Rich Atmosphere, Attention to Artistry, Mixed Reviews. In 1982 or so, as I watched Ridley Scott's Blade Runner for the first time, I knew before the curtain closed that my life was being transformed. I was a writer, a story teller, an imaginer, and this was a film that expanded my horizon of possibilities more than almost any other. I've seen and loved all seven versions, and it remains my all-time favorite movie, even beyond faves like Alfred Hitchcock's suspense thriller North by Northwest. The critical and popular reception of Blade Runner is typical of so many DarkSF films and fictions. While I fell in love with the movie in its early minutes, I was shocked to learn that many viewers and critics hated it (read: didn't understand it; blank looks; 'too slow'; 'what's with that weird music?'; 'no action'; 'no plot'; yadda-yadda, blah-di-blah
). That included SF authors and readers from whom I would have expected more. Belatedly, even some top commercial critics eventually came around to reluctantly accepting Ridley Scott's masterpiece as a cult classic, and even one of the top 100 movies ever made. I can relate to that, given the mixed reactions to many of my own novels. I can talk about my own work, since I know it intimately as its creator. Maybe the best and most constructive way to approach this as a learning experience is to talk about (a) what DarkSF is *NOT* and (b) what DarkSF actually is.
DarkSF Is Not Juvenile, Gory, or Gruesome. The word 'dark' must not be mistaken as meaning gruesome and shallow in some cheap, vulgar sense. By Dark, I mean to convey a sense of richness, of swirling texture. It's a story that takes its time, builds a good wallop of suspense, and reaches a rewarding climax (often beyond the comprehension of impatient critics and readers or viewers). I hesitantly use the word 'literary' here, since that term is often associated with pretentiousness and stuffiness. The quickest and kindest way to move past this is to simply admit that many readers and critics are enthralled with what I call the 'fast food' formulaic fare. At the same time, speaking as one who enjoyed movies like Predator and Terminator as good, hard-hitting fun while not artistic in the same sense as Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis or William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies (or the 1963 movie based on the novel). Any facile talk of 'commercial' and 'literary' creations as belonging to separate value systems is fundamentally ignorant, since most 'famous' novels and authors were smashing commercial successes in their day, from Charles Dickens to F. Scott Fitzgerald (at least, in the Jazz Age period). I will discuss all this at greater length in an upcoming blog. So again, DarkSF is rich, poetic, artistic fare and probably beyond the reach of those readers and movie goers who seek something fast and easy, like so-called 'sigh fie'a contemptuous term for SF in our inherently puritanical U.S. culture, where imagination and talent are often viewed with suspicion, especially if the story does not serve some dead-on-the-nose moral or utilitarian purpose.
What It Is: Ars Gratia Artis. There are those among us who passionately create art, because we love it, and because we must. It's called Art for Art's Sake. Our numbers include painters, musicians, poets, sculptors, and writers. Most of us probably do labor in obscurity and either starve to death in garrets (creating romantic ideas in the moth-lantern lives of English majors and their institutional mentors) or else turn to more monetizing careers to table the proverbial loaf. Sometimes, critics and readers can be brow-beaten over time to recognize the artistic value in a more literate novel or film, as happened with Blade Runner. Ironically, the punch and payoff are in the best such creations, but not so easily approachable to the large number of consumers who simply want something easy, approachable, and not challenging to either taste or intellect. It has nothing to do with elitism. It's just that a smaller audience or readership bring greater expectations, sensibilities, and critical thinking or aesthetic dimensions to the feast. The truth is, writers, you can have your cake and eat it too.
Ultimately, it is wise for the artistic creator to gain some perspective. On the one hand, we cannot abandon our passions and prerogatives. On the other hand, what's wrong with taking a shot at satisfying popular tastes by writing the next magical fantasy or fifty shades or novel or zombie characterization? The truly talented author can do both. I always think of a certain Rolf (not his real name) from Germany, with whom I shared an apartment in New Haven when I was in my early twenties and a starving writer, driving a taxi. Rolf was a post-doctoral STEM genius at Yale University. He owned a 300 year old violin, and played first violin in the Yale New Haven Symphony. Very lah-di-dah, right? Evenings, our boisterous young friends would show up with cases of beer, and we'd sing into the night until neighbors and landlord shut us down. And old Rolf would borrow my cheap Sears Roebuck guitar and make excellent folk music while one guy banged on an upside down trashcan and someone else rattled the spoons. I just wish I'd realized the metaphor much earlier as it applies to being both a writing artist and a popular, more accessible story teller. But I have no regret about any of the novels I have published, of which I'm quite proud.
Bookstore Metaphor. Of late, in the current swamped and impenetrable market, I've gone back to an invention I pioneered in the 1990s. I had a sparse but global audience of avid readers for my online novels, before the arrival of e-commerce and e-books. I call it the Bookstore Metaphor. You walk in (free) and sit down (free). You read all day to your heart's content (free) and may leave without buying a book. But the bookstore still thrives, because enough readers do buy a book now and then. On this website, and at Galley City, I offer many of my novels free to read, under the slogan "Read Free or Buy." Start reading one of them now: Woman in the Sea (SF)definitely original, creative, and challenging. You've had plenty of fast food. Now try something different. Happy Reading! (More info soon).
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