Tech Scifi: the challenge of finding an audience

Last week I finished the second draft of my next science fiction novel. My goal now is to find a publisher for it, which probably means I’ll need to find a literary agent. If I don’t manage to do either, then I’ll go down the self-publishing route again. But I’d really like to get my book in front of a readership that appreciates tech science fiction (tech scifi, as I term it). That was the hardest part of self-publishing Presence: getting my book in front of readers in the science fiction community. I have a strong network in the tech industry, but I discovered that most people in tech don’t read science fiction (even though they really should). The few that do gave Presence a positive review, but it wasn’t enough to give my book momentum in the Amazon sales charts.

Another reason why I write science fiction is to create meaningful work that will stand the test of time. I’ve just started reading a nonfiction book by Ryan Holiday, called Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work that Lasts. I’m only about a quarter of the way through, but already several things have jumped out at me. One is this:

An editor once told me, “It’s not what a book is, it’s what a book does.” Jerry Jenkins, creator of the Left Behind series, has said that regardless of what we make or what we make is about, our work must “always be for the purpose of something.”

I think Presence had a purpose, but the trouble is it didn’t resonate with enough people. My goal with Presence was to write a technothriller that imagined what the Facebook of 2051 might be like. The book relied on a particular conceit about the future of VR: in order to achieve true presence (meaning that your brain believes it’s in a real world), a user’s VR avatar must match what they look like in real life. In other words, anonymous and fantasy avatars simply don’t work. I felt this conceit was worth exploring in a novel, especially considering all the issues around identity and privacy in today’s tech world. Unfortunately, it didn’t resonate much with readers. Judging by the trailer for the Ready Player One movie, released over the weekend, what people want from a futuristic VR story is the complete opposite: make VR into a fantasy, game-playing world.

The Ready Player One movie looks cool, and I admired the imagination of the novel when I read it. But both the book and the movie are more a commentary on pop culture and gaming than a realistic speculation about the near future.

With my second novel, which is about Artificial Intelligence in the year 2042 (25 years into the future), I’m once again exploring futuristic themes that I hope will resonate in today’s world: what happens if/when we lose control of our AI, and what does the ongoing merger of humanity and technology mean for society. I think this is a stronger platform for my fiction than a VR world that eschews fantasy, so I hope it does better than Presence. Also bringing it into a nearer future means that it won’t be such a magic leap for the imagination of readers. AI is going to hit society hard, and much sooner than VR will.

I should note that I also learned a great deal writing Presence, and I expect my second book will be stronger – in both a structural and literary sense – as a result. With my new novel, I’ve tried to go deeper with the characterization. I’ve also tried to explore the societal ramifications of new technology, in the manner of JG Ballard or Aldous Huxley (two of my favourite authors). So I’ve made a concerted effort to step up my game as a literary writer.

But going back to the topic of this post, my challenge will be to find an audience that is willing to read a tech scifi book. People like Brad Feld, for instance. A noted tech investor and scifi fan, Brad wrote a post in 2009 explaining why he reads science fiction:

When I think about all of the information I synthesize both by going backward in time and reading forward (Dick, Vonnegut, Heinlein, Asimov) as well as starting today and going forward 5 – 30 years (Clarke, Suarez, Stross, Banks, Stephenson, Gibson, Sterling) I realize that I’m creating a subconscious framework in my brain for a lot of the stuff I’m investing in. Sometimes it maps directly; sometimes it’s the stuff that misses that it so interesting.

I’d be keen to hear from other current – or potential – readers of tech scifi. What are you looking for in a work of fiction? What writers, past or present, have made you think about the ramifications of technology on society?

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