Sci-Fi TV and Novels — Yin and Yang?

This post will be a break from our irregularly scheduled CV Series, for my attempt to analyze the relationship between science-fiction television and novels. Not necessarily how TV adapts novels, but how they influence one another in theme and popularity. Read on if you like pseudoscience.

Authors and readers alike have long pondered where ideas come from. The answer is an enigma, not easily explained by any confluence of data. That, of course, doesn’t stop us from trying. One element that all artists can agree on is the value and influence of works that came before. No artist can create a masterpiece without first studying the masters. In today’s world, globalization doesn’t just effect market economies, it broadens our access to new cultures, and thus new art. One medium in particular has capitalized on this era of internet-fueled instant gratification, and that’s television.

We’re living in a golden era of television where creatives aren’t as beholden to network executives and Nielsen ratings as they once were. Film is caught in the stranglehold of tentpole pictures and remakes, leaving only one place for original stories to land—straight to our laptops, phones and home theaters. But at the root of any television series is a script, a story. And how do you write scripts without first reading them? How do you read scripts without first reading books? This has led to an interesting symbiosis between adapted material and original storytelling in no genre more than science fiction. In a chicken or the egg-like dilemma a rash of new science fiction television has emerged, both borrowing from and lending to the masters that came before—novels. So which came first? To answer that, I will attempt to do what all artists abhor and apply numbers to the current trends of the science fiction genre and determine what patterns, if any, exist between the stories of the page and the screen.

For almost as long as cameras have been rolling, novels have been adapted into films. The current generation of sci-fi television is no exception. The Expanse, Westworld, The Walking Dead, and The Man in the High Castle all find their origins on the page. Part of this tendency to remold previous stories comes from good business. Established works have an established audience. They’ve already proven they can captivate. It makes investors a little more confident about pouring millions of dollars into an imaginative enterprise (pun intended). And there’s no doubt that sales on both sides of the equation increase whenever a new Star Trek or Star Wars film graces the screen. But now that television is catching up with novels in terms of relative quantity, how sales and adaptations are effected becomes the less interesting question. More interesting, and more relevant, is the question of influence. Are trends emerging in novels as a response to what’s happening on screen? Or is novel still the source from which to mine all original stories?

After scouring “Best of Science Fiction” lists for the past five years and documenting reoccurring themes, my attempts to tie novel trends to television themes came up muddled. Adding to this confusion is the fact that both books and television are a long time in production. So to determine if novel trends have an influence on current television, one has to go back at least three years. And to determine if current television will have an impact on novels one would need a crystal ball. Though it can be safely assumed from the precedents set by previous smash hit adaptation TV shows such as Game of Thrones and Outlander that any such success will only fuel novel sales in their respective subgenres. Just as sales in space opera novels soared after the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Anders, Wired]. When I asked renowned literary agent Ian Drury whether he sees sci-fi television influencing literature, he said, “Vice versa, I’d say. In that so much of the TV is book-based.” A survey of booksellers at Truro Waterstones yielded a similar result. When asking if customers ever inquire after book recommendations that are similar to television shows, the answer was a resounding, “No.” But I wonder if these responses are cases of invisible marketing at work.

Amongst literary circles online, television shows are continually used to frame and describe the latest novels. Revision by Andrea Phillips was described by Barnes and Noble as a, “…romantic comedy crossed with Black Mirror, and begging to be made into a movie someday,” and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, “this addictive, expansive, character-based tale reads like a Netflix binge of your new favorite space opera series.” It has even become the habit of querying writers to use television as one half of their comp-title equation. At the very least, television has become the lens through which we analyze other media.

Looking at the numbers from the opposite perspective, however, offered up an enlightening picture. After dividing the top sci-fi novels of each year into the subgenres of Space Opera, Alternate/Virtual Reality, Clones, Dystopian, and Time Travel, several patterns began to emerge. For instance from 2013 to 2014 there was a particular influx of (as I like to call them) “identity novels,” or stories that make us question who we are as human beings. This topic was frequently examined through specific sci-fi mechanisms such as being reborn as a clone [vN by Madeline Ashby], living in a video game reality [You by Austin Grossman], and the dilemmas of memory from an adult who was experimented on as a child [We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler]. These are just a few examples of the reoccurring themes that appeared in science fiction novels for those two years. And these examples can be almost directly correlated to current science fiction television. Life as a clone: Orphan Black. Life in a video game reality: Westworld. Dilemmas of memory: The OA. The timing coincides so precisely with the typical television production schedule that it can’t be dismissed. Readerships and writers were particularly consumed with questions of identity during those two years, and now television audiences have been brought into the discussion. While books published in 2016 and 2017 have journeyed away from these topics, I wonder if their reemergence in television will prompt another wave of identity stories hitting shelves in a few years.

The reality is neither publishing nor television exists in a vacuum. It’s possible the reason the identity stories are coming to television is because they’re easier and cheaper to make, as they’re often set in recognizable worlds and easily filmable locations. The big-budget space operas, of which science fiction novel readers will never tire, are saved primarily for the safe bets—Star Trek and Star Wars, hence the new Star Trek: Discovery series coming this fall. But as more and more science fiction shows hit the airwaves, and with the continued success of streaming sites, the hunger for new stories is out there. This demand was particularly illustrated by Netflix’s presence at the 2017 London Book Fair. The Bookseller wrote, “Hannah Griffiths, head of literary acquisitions at production company All3Media, said the ‘exponential growth’ in hours of airtime, owing to the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, marked an ‘optimistic moment’ for the trade. She added: ‘It’s like if five major dedicated book chains opened up in Britain tomorrow, each needing to fill the shelves… and with loads of money to spend on stock.’”

So do novel themes influence what’s explored in television? Or does television influence what’s popular in novels? As with most things, I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle. No one summed it up quite as well as science fiction author Ed McDonald, “I think that all art influences all other art. Artists create within the zeitgeist, no matter the medium they produce it in. We probably don’t even know our influences. When we have an original idea, it didn’t manifest at random, something caused it.” Whether science fiction novels and science fiction television are influencing each other is not in doubt, the greater revelation is that television has finally crossed that illusive border from entertainment into art.

Thanks to author Ed McDonald @EdMcDonaldTFK and Literary Agent Ian Drury @litagentdrury for their comments. Follow them on Twitter!


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