MIND MELD: How Do Media Tie-In Novels Affect SF/F?
Read on to see a variety of viewpoints…and be sure to tell us your opinion!
This question is one of great concern to me, having received the odd jibe for doing tie-in work alongside “real” fiction (for the record, I have four media novels to my credit and twenty-three original novels). My first introduction to SFF came through Doctor Who in the 1970s, particularly the novelisations of the show, which I read and re-read obsessively, and still own as it happens (this came in handy last month, when I was writing a paper on atheism). But for those books, and my parents’ awareness that I was becoming interested in the genre, I might never have encountered writers such as Clarke and Heinlein, through their juveniles, then Asimov, Pohl, and the rest. As an introduction to the genre, then, I think tie-ins function as well as magazines, movies, television, anime, manga, slash, fanfic, or any of the other entry points we can imagine. Why single out this one for condemnation, as some people do?
Love of ideas, sense of wonder, open-eyed speculation–personally I don’t care what particular media encourages such traits in people. That it *is* encouraged is the important thing.
For instance, I have two books out this month. One is a fantasy novel for kids. The other is the novelisation of the latest LucasArts game, The Force Unleashed, occasionally billed as Star Wars: Episode 3.5. As part of the Big Book Club, a national literacy initiative, and in parallel with National Science Week, I’ll be touring several states alongside representatives of the game developers who worked on the project, talking to kids about computer science and the animation industry surrounding it. Star Wars therefore will be helping involve kids in science, which can only be a good thing, for the wider community as well as SFF. Star Wars will also be raising awareness of my other novels, and through them the rest of the genre. I see no harm in that at all.
People like reading tie-ins, and we should let them do so, without rancour or envy at the sales they generate. It’s easy to imagine the industry cynically producing crappy clones just to satisfy the market, but as younger writers with proven track-records–like myself, Tobias S. Buckell, Steve Savile and others–become increasingly involved in the sector, it’s hard to make that claim stick. We work as hard at these books as we do at our own. Indeed, these are our own books in a very real way, since we grew up with the franchises and we have investments in them. I would never write a book I didn’t love. That applies to Star Wars just as much as it does to Astropolis, or the Broken Land, or anything else I’ve written. Anyone suggesting we do it solely for the money doesn’t know us well at all.
Well, the caveat here is that I never read media tie-ins myself (as there’s way too much other stuff that I don’t have the time for reading), so I’m going to avoid making sweeping statements about writing quality or literary worth. Essentially, though, I think media tie-in books are a double-edged sword.
The good thing about them is they can entice people across the borders from TV and gaming into reading – and, more specifically, reading genre fiction. Anything that gets more people reading (in general) is a good thing in my ledger.
The downside I’ve observed is that they tend to end up as the book equivalent of the shallow end at the swimming pool – a point at which less experienced swimmers feel comfortable, but beyond which they are unwilling to venture without the comforting logos of their water wings. The already familiar settings and characters act as a crutch of sorts, a lessening of the amount of imaginative effort that must be expended to read a book completely. In many cases the characters are already fixed in the reader’s head by the original format, as is the setting, and those are the two vectors wherein our best writers (not just in genre) do their best work – while I’m not belittling the amount of work and craft required to write a tie-in successfully, I think it’s fair to assume it calls on, if not a different set of skills, then a different ratio or balance of the same ones.
Real-world example – a very good friend of mine of a similar age to myself absolutely devours the Black Library/Games Workshop Warhammer 40K novels. I mean, seriously – he waits outside shops on launch days, takes ‘em home, reads ‘em in an afternoon and starts them a second time immediately afterwards. Totally hooked.
But I’ve utterly failed to entice him to read beyond them. I’ve tried giving him Charlie Stross’ Singularity Sky, pointing out that Mr Stross was an early writer in the W40K canon; no dice. Hell, I’ve tried him on the Solaris catalogue – put out by a different branch of the same bloody company! – and he’s not interested. He can’t explain why, and I can only guess…he’s perfectly happy, of course, but I can’t help but feel he’s missing out on a wider world of more writers, more characters, more settings. Go figure.
The other perceived (and admittedly minor) downside is a function of embittered ghetto thinking, which I try to avoid because I increasingly believe it does genre fiction (and fandom) a huge disservice. But the fact remains that the highly visible profile and brand recognition of certain franchises beginning with the word ‘Star’ demonstrably causes people who don’t read genre at all to assume that non-tie-in novels are actually the inferior form – because, y’know, you never see Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling’s name on the teevee, do ya?
Not to mention the syndrome whereby a book you’re reading can be an object of derision one year, but once the (utterly plot-butchered) movie or TV series (loosely) based on it comes out, everyone starts waving the cut-down novelization version at you, “coz you like a bit of that sci-fi/fantasy stuff, don’t you?”
As mentioned above, I’m not going to argue for the superiority of non-franchise fiction, because I know not whereof I speak…and the sales figures speak for themselves, so there must be merit to media tie-ins. But some parity of respect from non-fans would be nice, at least…
Generally speaking I believe that tie-in novels have had a positive impact on science fiction and fantasy because they:
- Bring new readers in from games, TV, and movies.
- Help to fuel the science fiction/fantasy genres by keeping them connected to popular culture.
- Enrich shared universes with stories characters and situations that wouldn’t otherwise be available to readers.
There are exceptions of course, truly awful tie-ins that should never have been published, but the same can be said of original novels!
I first entered SF/F through tie-in novels. Star Trek books lined my wall as a kid, and all I wanted was more of the same. Eventually, my parents forced a copy of a Feist fantasy into my hands, and with that book came the realization that maybe there were other good things out there worth reading.
I’ve been talking about tie-ins a lot since returning from GenCon. One of the most interesting arguments I’ve heard from booksellers is that the proliferation of tie-ins is squeezing more and more original SF/F off the shelves. A bookstore might receive one or two copies of my book (to pick a not-so-random example), which will sit on the shelves for 3-6 months. Then, if they haven’t sold, they’re stripped and shipped back. A typical Wizards of the Coast book, by contrast, might ship a dozen copies and stay on the shelves for years.
I’m not a bookseller, so I can’t say how widespread this is. I’ll admit feeling a little envious when I walk into Barnes & Noble and find a single copy of my latest book, whereas the next shelf over has Wookies and Dark Elves as far as the eye can see. Like every other author in existence, I want more of that shelf space for myself, and I wonder if they’re pushing me and other “original” writers out of the stores.
But can we really blame tie-ins for squeezing of the midlist? Bookselling is a business, and I’m not convinced bookstores would return my wonderful books to make room for more tie-ins if those tie-ins weren’t selling. I know I spent years devouring them until my parents arranged their intervention to show me this wasn’t the only kind of book out there. I think tie-ins have a large, loyal readership, and that’s one reason they get more shelf space. (I’d love to see actual research showing how much overlap there is among tie-in readers and readers of non-tie-in SF/F.)
I do think you can make an argument that tie-ins have contributed to more and more trilogies and long series in original SF/F. Tie-ins take you back to a familiar world and characters. It’s true that some readers do get bored after a while, but many can’t get enough. After all, are your average readers more likely to buy a new story about a world and characters they already know they love, or something completely new where there’s the risk they’ll hate the whole thing? Writing longer series is one way for us non-tie-in authors to try to steal some of the success of the tie-ins.
Well, that’s sort of a no-brainer. Before the real surge in tie-in novels occurred in the 1990s, most bookstores (chain stores and independents) had only a tiny SF section, a few shelves of mixed midlist titles and old classics. Then Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, and other franchise novels started hitting major bestseller lists; Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire hit #1 on the New York Times; my X-Files Ground Zero hit #1 on the London Sunday Times. SF sections in bookstores doubled, then tripled in size because more and more readers walked into the stores. Even bad films (such as Starship Troopers and The Postman) propelled the original novels onto the bestseller lists, once they were reissued with tie-in covers. A rising tide lifts all boats.
For many readers, tie-ins are a “gateway drug” to get them into the genre, filling the same role that the Heinlein juveniles did in previous decades. The fans who come in for media books DO notice the authors they like, and they DO read our other novels. I have fifteen years of royalty statements to prove it. Sales of my original novels increased immediately and substantially once I started working in media books. A large percentage of the readers of my Dune novels with Brian Herbert have also followed my Saga of Seven Suns (enough that those books are now hitting general fiction bestseller lists). Anybody who claims that tie-in readers don’t read other novels is simply misinformed, but many of those readers would not have come to the genre without the catalyst of wanting to read new adventures starring their favorite characters. We have a lot more readers now than we would otherwise have.
The simple answer is that it means there are more Science Fiction and Fantasy books on the shelves. More books are a good thing right? The grain of salt to add is that 90% of everything is crap and media tie-ins are no exception. Let’s look a little closer, though.
In a lot of ways, the media tie-ins serve as a “gatekeeper” for the genre, inviting readers familiar with a franchise or property to our playground. Granted, some of those readers aren’t going to venture outside of the confines of the property that invited them. As a reader, and I speak from personal experience here, some of the earliest and most accessible stuff for younger readers (at least way back when I was a younger reader) was the plethora of novels under the (then) TSR banner. Of course I’m talking about the early Weis/Hickman DragonLance novels and Forgotten Realms. What happened after I read DragonLance? Well, I liked Weis & Hickman, so I ventured to their Darksword series where all the non media-tie in stuff was shelved and haven’t left since. I’d always had a proclivity to reading this stuff though, being a long-time comic reader and RPGer. From moderating the forums at SFFWorld, I’ve come across a lot people who have led to the genre along a similar path. Of course I know that isn’t the only path.
Media tie-in novels work in a similar way for the authors, too. A lot of people were introduced to Matthew Stover’s writing through his Star Wars novels, which are the cream of the crop in media-tie in fiction, IMHO. Monitoring discussion boards and hearing Stover himself state that people searched out his non-SW fiction (like the excellent Heroes Die, Blade of Tyshalle and forthcoming Caine Black Knife) just shows how well that idea works in practice sort of proves this point. Same goes for Greg Keyes who wrote a couple of well-received Star Wars novels and I’m sure the same will happen to Sean Williams because of his SW novel, The Force Unleashed. Though I can’t personally speak for Star Trek novels, I’m sure the same reciprocity can be said for a writer like Peter David, though his legions of comic book fans read his original stuff, like the Sir Apropos novels and his recent novel Tigerheart.
By bringing writers from the genre at large to media tie-in fiction, and I’m thinking Star Wars New Jedi Order here, Del Rey attracted a lot of readers. The series was, for the most part, a success. Stover, Greg Keyes, Walter Jon Williams, and the team of Sean Williams/Shane Dix are probably the most significant writers not normally associated with Star Wars who brought some clout to the table with their Star Wars novels. The early Star Trek novels are a virtual who’s who of talent and award winners: James Blish, Joe Haldeman, Vonda N. McIntyre, Greg Bear, and John M. Ford. Even before media tie-ins were the major aspect of the bookstore shelves they are today, it becomes pretty clear this cross-pollination has been going on for quite some time.
Media tie-in authors didn’t push the others off the shelves, which seems to be one of the perceived negatives about this subset of the genre. If anything they created more of a genre fanbase and clout in the bookstores before the internet in 1980s and the early 1990s. The funny thing is that the perception of non-genre readers towards “us” is not too different than how genre readers look down upon media tie-ins.
A writer like Paul S. Kemp has written some very well-received Forgotten Realms novels. Just google his name and you’ll come up with some good reviews of his Erevis Cale novels, though those reviews do have the placation “Not just good tie-in fantasy, but good fantasy period.” Either way, nowadays the good writers of media tie-in fiction are getting noticed outside of the circle of fans of the media property.
Where does that leave us now? Well, the media-tie ins are taking up considerable room on the shelves and the bestseller list, but the writers on these books are going back and forth from the media tie-ins to the main SF shelves. Will media tie-in fiction ever get the respect from SF genre readers that SF genre people think they deserve from the general reading public? Probably not but they will likely always be a familiar looking invitation. Who knows, but there will always be people who decry it without even reading it and the media tie-in fiction will have its supporters.
To answer the question, after all of that, I think media tie-in fiction has a positive effect on the genre – it brings in new readers and can help to broaden the audience of established writers
I think media tie-ins are good for sf. They bring in new readers. I wrote an entire essay on this for BenBella Books a few years ago and resold it to Asimov’s. You can access the essay here. (And while you’re on the Asimov’s site, subscribe.)
Those are all my thoughts on the issue–several thousand words worth.
First, I think it’s important to make a distinction between game tie-ins and the others (i.e. movie, TV, and so forth). For a long time, I lumped them all together but a conversation I had recently made me reexamine that assumption and I’ve concluded that there is a difference. Game tie-in work allows the author to create their own characters and, to a great extent, build their own setting within the larger game-world. In this, game tie-in work is more similar to the shared universe projects that were popular in the 80′s like Thieves’ World or George R. R. Martin’s Wild Card series. In contrast, other tie-in work usually requires that the author use the characters from the film or TV series as their primary cast of characters (though my friend Jeremy Lassen of Nightshade books points out that there are exceptions to this rule, notably the Star Wars franchise novels which are not associated with particular characters) and, in terms of world-building, any deviation from the “bible” that accompanies such projects must be approved. Because of these differences, I’m going to limit my comments to the more typical film and TV series tie-ins.
So, how do media tie-ins affect our field? Negatively.
First, they contribute to the increasing tendency of readers to expect “same-book different-cover” in their reading, rather than stretching and reading original material. This tendency leads to stagnation in the genre as a whole.
Second, the contract terms are typically work-for-hire, which means that the author does not retain any rights to their work. This prevents the author building on their successes and moving towards a financial position where they can write full-time. Since an author who can afford to write full-time produces more work and has more time to hone their craft this progression, which is hindered by tie-in work, tends to improve the quality of work in our field.
Third, authors who are working on tie-in work which is, essentially a dead-end, creatively speaking, are not working on their own, original work. Net result is one less imaginative and creative novel being written — a novel which might contribute to the development and maturation of our field. In addition, tie-in work takes up space in publishers’ schedules and space on bookstore shelves that might otherwise be occupied by more original work.
Finally, media tie-ins, due to all the inherent limits to the form, present the poorest face of the genre to non-sf readers. This reduces the credibility of our field and also reduces the number of “converts” to science fiction.
In the defense of tie-in work many people comment that it provides authors with steady, relatively simple work that allows them to write full-time. But, I think authors might be far better served by writing part-time, writing less, but doing work that will build them a solid, sustainable, career.
In 1991 Star Wars was, as these things go, fairly dormant: Everyone knew about it, but the movies and toys were old news. Coming onto the scene that spring, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire was a New York Times bestseller for several months, peaking at #1 in June: the leading edge of a resurgence. That December, I was 13, bored, and out of books when I picked up my father’s copy of Heir; within a week I went from mildly interested to addicted. For the next few years I noted release dates only to obsessively lurk in bookstores hoping for street dates to be broken, bought Locus to glean bits about new author deals, and eventually even got online to find that there were other people just as crazy.
While we waited for movies – first the Special Edition re-releases of the original trilogy, later the prequels – Lucasfilm continued approving books that carried the story past Return of the Jedi. The license passed from Bantam to Del Rey in 1999, and Del Rey began publishing books based on the new films. (Terry Brooks’ The Phantom Menace novelization was another #1 bestseller, in no small part because it predated the movie release by about a month.)
I won’t lie: Not all the books were stellar. Star Wars books have always been something of a crapshoot, and from the few forays I’ve taken into other tie-in lines that seems to be pretty universal. A bad tie-in novel can be immensely frustrating, but a really good one can give the franchise an added depth and new perspective. Perhaps the most accessible example of this in Star Wars is the Revenge of the Sith novelization; Matthew Stover reverse-engineered an actual novel – not a play-by-play – out of the script, giving the storyline and characters an added polish that might make even the most cynical prequel-hating Star Wars fan feel at least a little sorry for Anakin Skywalker. (Or at least, Count Dooku.) Other books have given the Imperials (or at least some of them) a touch of humanity, given us Force-users beyond the Jedi and the Sith, and taught us about Hutt reproduction. (Okay, so maybe that last one was more than anyone needed to know: Welcome to the Expanded Universe!)
And the fans will follow particularly beloved authors to their original work – Mike Stackpole’s Star Wars and BattleTech novels gained him additional readers for his DragonCrown War and Age of Discovery books; Zahn’s Conquerors’ Trilogy and Dragonback series also have a large crossover following. This year, I’ve seen fans mention Stover’s October Caine Black Knife in the same breath as December’s Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor as books they can’t wait to read.
What the main appeal of the Star Wars novels has always been for me is that they are a continuation of the characters that I fell in love with on screen. I could never really get into the prequels, so most of the stuff in the galaxy far far away that I care about has taken place in the novels and comics. I love the original movies, but the Expanded Universe has been the focus of my personal fandom since before I even had any concept of fandom as a community.
And to me, it’s the fandom community itself that is most enriched by tie-ins.
Anyone who frequents the major Star Wars book forums is probably laughing their pants off at me right now: in the wake of the last Legacy of the Force book we’re currently going through a cycle of hate-on-the-series. (Like brushfires, they’re a regular occurrence, and often necessary to clear out the angsty debris of an aging, overstuffed fandom.) But isn’t a strong, vocal base the strength of any niche group? Whether it’s a massive multi-format franchise like Star Wars, or one with a more single-author focus like Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire, fans are the ones poring over every detail online and attending book events, even without the author present. Without the Expanded Universe and the people I met via it, I would never have attended a con or learned what a filk is, much less wrote a few (very bad) ones myself. And hell, it’s hard to be scared of your average science fiction convention once you’ve participated in a mock funeral for a dead Wookiee.
Tie-ins might not be great literature, but that’s not the point. Star Wars was never meant to be 2001, and neither are the books sporting its shiny foil logos. Consider tie-ins the literature equivalent of popcorn flicks: They might not actually teach you anything except how to swear in a made-up language, but they sure are fun for a couple of hours, even if it’s the kind of fun that you get from an MST3k-style mocking.
Tie-ins are merchandising. They are marketing. They are also a particular kind of advertising, using the bookstores as additional channels to raise consciousness of the primary product. Just about every big-budget movie, TV-series, or video game also has a novel, a making-of book, an “art of” book, a graphic novel, a prequel, a sequel, a few tie-ins about background characters, you name it. The goal is to create an “event” feeling about the movie or TV show or video game.
Now all of these tie-ins might provide interesting backstory that there isn’t time for on the screen, but the franchises also compete with all of the books and stories that aren’t derived from movies and TV shows. So the audience is being pulled into a lot of second-tier storytelling instead of finding the real treasures that come from authors who write from their own personal passion.
The best science fiction has always been courageous, dangerous, even subversive. The legendary science fiction authors took chances, not just thinking outside the box, but thinking outside the box factory. We have great authors today. A lot of them. They’re still working, still stretching the event horizon of the imagination, but the machinery of big-budget franchising has made it a lot harder for those authors to get shelf space, and it’s even harder for readers to get past the tie-ins to find those new books and new adventures that challenge them to stretch their vision of what’s possible in the universe.
Tie-in fiction hasn’t changed written science fiction at all. Written SF, and the people who read it, are too insular a group to be changed by much. They continue to live in their isolated subculture, sublimely unconcerned with what goes on outside their world.
What tie-in fiction has done, along with other media-based SF, is to change the composition of science fiction fans.
When I attended my first science fiction convention, thirty-odd years ago, the convention was built entirely around fiction. A couple movies were shown, sure, but the panels and discussions were based around the books and the sort of people who read them. If I walked into a room full of strangers, I could be sure of having maybe 200 books in common with them- all the core texts of science fiction. I could be reasonably certain that, if no other topic presented itself, I could start a conversation about Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, or Gordon Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, or Ursula Leguin’s Left Hand of Darkness.
Media science fiction changed all that.
Star Trek lasted for three years on a major network in the late Sixties, and veteran SF writer James Blish was invited to write novelizations of some of its episodes, and other authors continued with new, original tie-in novels, and it wasn’t long before the novelizations outlived the series itself. Trek reruns became nothing less than hour-long advertisements for Trek fiction- and the commercial advantages of having hour-long ads for your fiction soon became apparent. Trek fiction outsold original science fiction. Trek fiction outsold original science fiction by a lot.
And the media fans soon began to have their own conventions, which were bigger- by a lot- than SF conventions.
And then Star Wars happened, and it all got bigger. More people attended the last Star Wars movie on its opening day than have ever read a science fiction novel.
If you want to consider how thoroughly media SF is dominating the landscape, consider the title of this column. Mind Meld. It’s not called “Sietch.”
I rest my case.
When I attended my first science fiction convention, the average fan’s first exposure to SF came through fiction, and through reading they acquired a first-hand acquaintance with science fiction’s history, tropes, and its specialized vocabulary. They were able to place each work, each idea, in its context, to relate it to other work, to traditional themes in science fiction, and to the contributions of individual authors, editors, and magazines.
Since the 1970s, a fan’s primary exposure to SF would most likely have come from film or television, and latterly computer games, anime or manga. While TV science fiction can be good science fiction, it come free of context, all the minutiae of the history of SF- the average Star Wars fan doesn’t know, and probably doesn’t care, how George Lucas borrowed most of his good ideas from EE Smith, or that Star Trek is a lineal descendent of Edmond Hamilton’s tales of the Interstellar Patrol.
I no longer have 200 books in common with everyone I meet at a science fiction convention. I no longer can be assured that the next stranger I meet at an SF convention will have read a science fiction novel at all.
The success of media SF is on the whole a positive thing. It shows that there’s an audience for SF, and that there’s money to be made on science fiction ideas.
I only wish it was the creators of science fiction- the people who put all this stuff in books for people to find – who were making the money, and not the people who use their ideas without credit
That’s a very thorny, interesting question, and I’m not sure I could list all of the ways that tie-ins have affected the larger field, or figure out what it all has meant for SFF. But you asked, so I’ll start listing. I’ll throw a whole lot of things at the wall, and hope that they start to form a picture eventually.
The influence of tie-in prose fiction, specifically, can be difficult to separate from the influence of the things they’re tying into – for example, Star Trek and Star Wars have had various effects on SF stories over the past forty years, but the effects on the field as a whole have mostly been from the movies and TV shows. This is mostly in the sense of standard props, settings, and themes, which can either become more common in non-media books (because they’re obviously popular) or less common (because they have the stink of other media on them). Space opera became the literary subgenre that dared not speak its name for a decade or so in large part because of Star Wars, for example.
Tie-ins are mostly a science fictional form – there are some moderately successful fantasy tie-in series, and one or two examples of successes in the world of mystery (such as Murder, She Wrote and Monk), but, generally, SF has been the prime mover here. There have been many attempts to explain this, but none have rung entirely true to me. But there clearly is something about popular SF in moving-picture form – whether it be worldbuilding, characters, or whatever – that makes a substantial audience want more of that, and willing to take that more in prose form.
Tie-ins allow journeymen writers a chance to get paid and to work in the field; they’re generally not open to brand-new writers, and writers with strong careers only rarely dabble (exceptions: the early Timescape Star Trek novels and the novelizations of the last Star Wars trilogy), which leaves them mostly as an option for people who’re either using them as a career or for writers regrouping after something didn’t work out as planned. As such – and combined with the last point – they’re a kind of safety net for SF writers willing to do them.
Tie-ins give writers in unpopular genres someone to look down their noses at, which relieves their existential misery somewhat. There’s only so many disparaging comments one writer can make concerning “books about college professors screwing their students,” so being able to also disparage books with Wookies in them gives non-tie-in writers a vital dose of superiority.
Readers have found their way into written SF (and, to a lesser degree, genre fantasy) because of tie-in novels, but what they’ve mostly found there is…more tie-in novels. Despite a couple of anecdotes otherwise, tie-in readers are much more likely to be fans of the property than they are of the genre – they want Star Wars stories (or Supernatural, or Babylon 5, or X-Files) rather than SF or fantasy stories. That’s an effect as well – tie-ins tend to create a stable subgenre for a while (as long as those fans keep wanting more of that thing) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the genre.
Some people think that tie-in books have siphoned readers who are “rightly” readers of “real” SF away, and poisoned them with inferior goods – as you might guess from my scare-quotes, I don’t agree. Avid tie-in readers are, again, fans of the property rather than of the genre as a whole, and expecting them to suddenly jump to books that aren’t about that property is unlikely.
There may, perhaps, be the possibility of tie-in readers broadening their horizons once they’re not as interested in a particular property – that could be a point where they look around the rest of the SFF section and try out a non-tie-in book. But I suspect that it’s much more likely that they’d instead start following a different media property, since that’s what they’re really interested in.
Really, media tie-ins aren’t closely bound to the core of the genre – they’re more related to their original and to other media properties than to pure novels in the same genre. (Although, of course, the SF and Fantasy genres are larger, wider, and full of more warring or just different camps than they used to be – so the ways that the tie-in audience is different from the “standard” audience isn’t as strong as it was ten or twenty years ago.)
I also expect that the existence of tie-ins led, more or less directly, to the existence of fan-fiction, which opens up that whole barrel of worms as well. (Here, as with so much else with tie-ins, Star Trek is the ur-text.)
All of that is mostly about series tie-ins, rather than one-offs like movie novelizations. Novelizations of popular movies used to be an important way of extending the experience of a film, but they’re much reduced these days, with quick DVD releases and the omnipresence of the Internet. But those, too, were mostly for people who were big fans of that one thing, and wanted to stay inside the world of that one thing as long as possible.
So those are some of the ways that tie-ins have affected SFF – they haven’t damaged it, or really expanded the non-tie-in side of the genre, but they have dragged a lot of people though some of the same literary hallways as pure prose writers have, and reminded us, as often as we care to notice, that there’s a much larger world out there (in several dimensions), whether we’re choosing to interact with it at the moment or not.
Pardon me, if you will, while I climb into my WABAC machine and set a course for the late 1970′s. While I would like to argue that they cheapen the genre, I have a very strong conviction that my 11-year-old self has a differing perspective on the issue.
Like many of my generation, Star Wars was my first true introduction to science fiction. Recall, if you will, that these were the days when you could only see a film as many times as your parents, or your friends’ parents, would load you up in the station wagon and drop you off at the theater (presupposing you had saved your allowance, had earned money picking up aluminum cans, or had generous parents). Once that initial run was over, the only film that remained was the one in your imagination. Enter media tie-in novels.
It could be argued with relative ease that it wasn’t the celluloid glory of George Lucas’ initial creation but the Han Solo novels of Brain Daley-”From the adventures of Luke Skywalker, based on the characters and situations created by George Lucas”-that fueled my life-long passion for science fiction. As a young man I borrowed my uncle’s well worn copies of Han Solo at Stars’ End and Han Solo’s Revenge (I later bought my own copy of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy) and lived adventure after adventure with Han and Chewie in their days before that fateful meeting with Obi Wan Kenobi. Along with Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, with Luke’s [now] creepy incestuous longings for Leia, made up a large portion of my 11 and 12 year old reading. When Return of the Jedi was finally removed from theaters, it was the novelization that kept the Star Wars universe alive in my heart and mind until the day, much later, when the films were finally released on video. In fact, I read Return of the Jedi so many times that summer that even now I watch the films and recall things that I actually read in the book that my faulty memory would swear were once in the film (and with George Lucas’ constant trickery, I could be right!).
It is difficult to know what would have become of my reading life had I not been exposed to those novels at such a young age. To this day I have a wide range of interests when it comes to reading, but although I do not live and die in the science fiction aisles of the local bookstore, it is still far and away my favorite genre of fiction. I give media tie-in novels the bulk of the credit for that fact. As I sit here typing this with a copy of Han Solo at Stars’ End on the desk beside me, it takes just one glance at the cover to transport me back in time to my grandparent’s farmhouse and to the bedside bookshelf of my teenage uncle that became my source of interstellar travels for years to come. If media tie-in novels have that same value to a 10 or 11 year old boy today, then I would have to argue that they are the best thing in the world for the genre. Even as an adult I enjoy the occasional Star Trek novel which allows me to go on new adventures with characters I have grown to love over the years. But it is the affection for the media tie-in novel born in the heart and mind of that young child in the late 1970′s that would most loudly proclaim me a hypocrite were I to criticize that subgenre of science fiction and fantasy today.
My answer might well be titled, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the tie-in.” Not a great title, but you can’t have everything…
I’ll be tackling the question — “How do you think media tie-in novels affect the genre of sf/f?” — in two parts.
First, “How do you think?”
This is a question that has plagued mankind for millennia, and luminaries from Plato to Rene Descartes to Roger Penrose have weighed in with an opinion. I’ll simply take it as a given that I do think, and leave it for wiser heads than mine to address just how.
Second, “Media tie-in novels affect the genre of sf/f?”
Well, of course they do.
The question is, are the effects of media tie-in novels positive, negative, or indifferent?
There was a time that I railed against media tie-in novels (I usually call them “franchise novels,” but a rose by any other name…), insisting that they were bad not only for the writer, who invariably is laboring under a “work-for-hire” contract in which they have no ownership stake in the novel, and bad for the reader, who should instead be reading more “challenging” work. And I think that both of those are valid concerns, as far as they go, but that I was overlooking two important facts. First, that it isn’t always necessary for a writer to own everything they write, and that not all readers are looking to be “challenged.”
The most important thing I failed to consider, though, was how important media tie-in novels had been to me personally, once upon a time. In renouncing media tie-ins in my twenties-and in particular looking at many of them as being childish – I’d forgotten that there’d been a time when the vast majority of media tie-in novels had seemed to be aimed directly at me. Namely, when I was a child.
I came to science fiction and fantasy in prose form at odd angles. As a child of the seventies I was already saturated in sf/f-as someone (William Gibson, maybe?) has said, science fiction was my native culture-but primarily in the form of television, movies, and comics. I’d read a bit of prose sf/f aimed at kids, probably, but then sidetracked into Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. By the time I was in middle school, the only contemporary science fiction and fantasy novels I was reading were, get this, media tie-ins. Huge stacks of Alan Dean Foster movie novelizations (Krull was a particular favorite), Star Trek and Star Wars novels, Elliot S! Maggin’s Superman novels, even Scholastic Book Club adaptations of Disney films (I still have my copies of the Condorman and Unidentified Flying Oddball novelizations). Those books were my entrée into contemporary science fiction, my first glimpse of what the field had become in the days since Jules Verne set down his quill and ERB hung up his typewriter for good.
Not all readers of media tie-ins are kids, of course. There are times when I want nothing more than to visit a familiar world, and pick up a novel set in a franchise I’ve followed for years to see what’s been happening. I still think that televised Star Trek has never been better than the novels of writers like Peter David, Diane Duane, and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens (and it’s a telling fact that Star Trek: Enterprise didn’t get good until the Reeves-Stevens came onboard as “story editors”), and that novels like John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection rank among the best science fiction published at the time, media tie-in or otherwise. Arguably, the Star Wars novels of people like Michael Stackpole and Sean Williams are better than the films ever were. The writers of Star Trek and Star Wars novels have long proved that there are things that can be accomplished on the printed page that tv- and film-makers are still unable to duplicate, and fans of those franchises looking for something better than they find on screen are rewarded by a visit to the media tie-in shelves.
But while media tie-in novels aren’t only for young readers, my experiences and the experiences of countless others like me show that a non-trivial percentage of media tie-in readers are young people. Would I have gone on to read “real” sf/f novels had I not been drawn in by media tie-ins? Probably. With me it was already imprinted on my DNA. But there were doubtless other kids browsing those same stacks in the Waldenbooks and in the wire racks at the grocery stores who wouldn’t. And despite the fact that I’ve been known even now to bemoan the amount of real estate in chain stores given over to media tie-in novels, how many future sf/f readers would we lose if those media tie-in novels were to disappear?
You hear a lot about the “graying of fandom,” and there are eternal cries for new fans and new readers. As nice as it would be to think that we could simply hand young readers the smartest, most “challenging” novels that our genres have to offer, it seems unlikely to snare more than a bare handful of them. How much better to hit them where they live, to take franchises they already enjoy-in tv, film, video games, you name it-and offer them more of the same?
“Hey, kids, do you like that [game/show/movie]? Then you’re going to love this…”
Tie-ins are like masturbation: many people do it, they generally enjoy it, but they’re reluctant to admit in public that they do it.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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