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Genre Fiction in the '90s: Looking Backwards
A decade filled with blockbusters and movie-tie in novels.
By Denise Dumars
February 09, 2000
The 1990's were a curious time for imaginative fiction. In the '90s horror came back from the dead; fantasy produced a few diamonds amidst the general muck; and science fiction very nearly disappeared under the weight of media tie-in novels.
To get a perspective on just how lackluster the decade was in terms of fiction, let's compare it to the 1890's. The last decade of the previous century gave us such seminal works as Bram Stoker's DRACULA; H. G. Wells'THE TIME MACHINE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU; Robert Louis Stevenson's THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE AND OTHER FABLES; and the first science fiction stories of Jack London were also all published in that decade. By contrast, in the 1990s we had...tie-in novels! (To paraphrase Allen Ginsburg: I have seen the best minds in science fiction, fantasy, and horror squander their talent on tie-in novels.) No wonder SF authors John Kessel and Sheila Finch predicted the death of science fiction literature as early as 1996.
What's going on here? Why, for instance, have blockbusters like the works of Michael Crichton and Neal Stephenson been marketed as mainstream fiction instead of SF? ? Would a non-SF reader be prepared for the quantum physics in TIMELINE? Would the mundanes even understand the allusion in the title CRYPTONOMICON. (It's the year 2000, duh; maybe we're already living in the future, so science fiction is irrelevant.) So one trend of the '90s has already been established: books that are considered to be blockbusters or books by authors who have made a name for themselves in entertainment (such as Wes Craven, Mark Frost, and Stephen J. Cannell) are not marketed as genre fiction.
In the '80s, horror supposedly died. But anyone who's ever seen a horror movie knows that the monster is never really dead. And in the '90s, slowly but inexorably, horror came back, even as bookstores were cleaning out their horror sections and shelving everything in with general fiction. Stephen King gave up his S&M/spousal abuse tales for a moment and truly touched the hearts of his readers, in a way he had not done for many years, with THE GREEN MILE, first published as a series of chapbooks. But it was the content of THE GREEN MILE, not its format, that proved King is indeed the modern equivalent of Charles Dickens. He followed THE GREEN MILE with other heart-felt books such as THE GIRL WHO LOVED TOM GORDON and HEARTS IN ATLANTIS.
King's sometime collaborator, Peter Straub, made a strong showing with the brutal but un-put-downable HELLFIRE CLUB and the cleverly Lovecraftian MR. X. If there's anyone we'll be still mentioning from the 1990s horror scene in 2090, along with the obligatory King, Koontz, Rice, and Barker, it will be Peter Straub.
Elizabeth Hand managed to bring atmosphere back to horror in her book WAKING THE MOON and the collection LAST SUMMER AT MARS HILL. It looked like the supernatural was back in horror, and the serial killers were largely, thankfully, given the decade off. RELIC and its sequel, RELIQUARY, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, made us realize that we still love good old-fashioned monsters.
The '90s were a curious time for the top-seeded horror writers. Along with a slew of unreadable new vampire tomes, Anne Rice gave us her own paean to the loved dead with SERVANT OF THE BONES, her most readable book since INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. Clive Barker mixed an animal rights message into his dark fantasy novel SACRAMENT. Thomas Harris kicked his fans in the gut with HANNIBAL, probably the most-anticipated sequel in horror novel history, and Dean Koontz was still writing in '80s-style serial killer mode.
Meanwhile, scholars like Michael Marano, with his first novel DAWN SONG, unearthed new horrors from our mythological heritage to help reinvent the genre, while the hardest working man in horror, Douglas Clegg, kept on plugging even as his hardcover debut, BAD KARMA, was published under the pseudonym Andrew Harper. Clegg followed up with THE HALLOWEEN MAN, another well-researched book that tweaked our collective cultural and religious mythology as well as Marano and Hand had done in their works.
Science fiction kept on plugging, behind the scenes perhaps, but even in the midst of STAR WARS tie-in books there were important contributions made, if anyone was noticing. Bruce Sterling, the most humanistic of the cyberpunks, kept up his end of the genre with HOLY FIRE and the collection GLOBALHEAD. And Octavia Butler, the most literary and indeed, probably the most important science fiction writer alive today, contributed the dystopian PARABLE OF THE SOWER and its follow-up PARABLE OF THE TALENTS. She continued in dark, dystopian mode with her collection BLOODCHILD, which pegged her as one of the few SF writers who can write both jaw-dropping short fiction and novels.
Neal Stephenson, who burst onto the scene with the cyberpunky SNOWCRASH, made a huge impact with two, well, huge novels: steampunkish THE DIAMOND AGE and the near-mainstream code-breaker CRYPTONOMICON. Connie Willis wrote perhaps the best time-travel novel of the century with THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, and followed it up with TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, a much-lauded but quite unfunny sequel meant, perhaps presumptuously, to also be a sequel to Jerome K. Jerome's THREE MEN IN A BOAT. THE DOOMSDAY BOOK foreshadowed TIMELINE, Michael Crichton's opus of time travel effected in the story though the means of quantum mechanics.
Fantasy limped along through endless clones of the thud-and-blunder school of bad magic, poor swordsmanship and even worse historical accuracy, until a children's book author named J. K. Rowling broke the mold with the HARRY POTTER novels, and breathed fresh life into the genre (even if her motifs of young witches and their dotty witch-school professors weren't exactly cutting-edge originals). But the true trendsetters of fantasy were authors like Neil Gaiman, who managed to take the tropes of fantasy and make them fresh and new in books like NEVERWHERE and STARDUST. And much to everyone's delight, Peter S. Beagle was writing again, garnering kudos for THE INNKEEPER'S SONG and THE UNICORN SONATA, which mixed his two great loves: fantasy and music.
Looking back over these lists it all seems a bit more hopeful. This is not--by any means--the end-all and be-all of recommendations from the '90s, but it's a start. Short fiction has always been the home of the best and the brightest of imaginative fiction, and throughout the '90s the biggest seller, off and on, in the short-fiction arena was the magazine REALMS OF FANTASY, which gave us everything from standard sword-and-sorcery to vampire tales. Anthologies came back a bit toward the end of the decade, after languishing badly. But overall, short fiction held on by its fingernails, as the reading public more and more seemed unable to understand or appreciate the short story form. Anthologies tied in to role-playing games and suchlike took up much of the dedicated space on the shelves, even as tie-in novels took up novel space.
But surely some of the mid-listers mentioned in this article will go on into history along with the H. G. Wellses and Bram Stokers. And so will others who have slipped the mind of this reviewer. There's just so much stuff out there--some of it's bound to good, and a bit is surely to be great.
Maybe the 1990's weren't such bad years for genre fiction, after all.