by Sherwood Smith
At a LosCon panel a few years ago, a surprising number of people said that they don’t read science fiction any more. They read mysteries—fantasy—historicals, whatever. Not SF.
The thing that surprised me was that these were former fans. Granted, people can get tired of mainlining any genre. But to say “I don’t read it anymore”—that surprised me.
So ever since then, I’ve been keeping an eye out for similar discussions, asking if people read SF, and if not, why? Where has science fiction failed you, or ceased to spark the sense of wonder, or failed to engage your interest?
Answers vary all over the map, as usual, but there were a few general observations to be gleaned. The main one seemed that at least these readers are no longer intrigued by the possible.
So many of my generation delighted in fiction that furnished the tantalizing sense of peeking round the corner into the future. Trying the future on for size. For many that’s no longer fun, or even interesting. In some, it generates a feeling of anxiety, as if the future is bleak any way you approach it.
Some said that future-guessing is no longer fun because the technology of Now is changing with a rapidity that feels like we’re already living in the future.
I am not attempting to predict that SF is dead. SF has been around for far too many centuries; just the other day I saw a reference to a science fiction story published somewhere around in the 200s A.D, in which dog-faced men fought on the backs of modified beetles against invaders. In another post I mentioned a French science fiction novel that was a best-seller not only right before the Revolution, but all during it, as the writer hastily emended editions to incorporate the latest political turns of the Girondisten, etc.
There are plenty of readers who love their nuts’n’bolts, the more the better, and plenty who want those grim dystopias, the darker the better, because (as one person said) when I get done reading one, it’s like waking up from a nightmare. I might not be able to fix the future, but at least today doesn’t seem so bad by comparison!
But the majority who exclaimed that they love their SF said that they get their SF fix from space opera mode, that is, the tropes of SF but presenting a universe that is just as improbable as fantasy. In space opera, there remains that sense of wonder that they had as kids.
I’ll come back to space opera, but first, what about kids and SF?
Though my sample is confined to kids I’ve taught and spoken to, I’ve come to a tentative conclusion that sense of wonder shapes differently for kids now than it did for us forty years ago. Just generalizing here: they don’t want scientific discovery as a goal—that’s too much like the slog of science class. What they really want is the impossible.
One year fairly recently, just before I retired, I asked a class about this, after I got a forest of hands when I asked “Who likes fantasy?” but only a lone hand when I asked about science fiction.
So I asked why. The most frequent answer was some version of: People in science stories are always boring. All they talk about is the stuff they are learning.
“What about cool experiments?” I asked, and got a shrug. Experiments aren’t cool, they’re something you have to do for school, and get graded on. But if I rephrased the question along the lines of “You want the experiments to do something, right? You don’t want to read about experiments being the thing the kids do,” I got a chorus of Yeah!s,
When I asked, “Don’t you like stories where the people go to interesting places?” The answers centered around the fact that the kids wanted other worlds, not Earth—or if it had to be on Earth, they wanted jetpacks, hovercars, invisibility beams, blasters. And in one class discussion, when one boy said, “I want dragons!” there was another spontaneous “Yeah!” They just had to be science fictional dragons.
One can say that kids are pretty straightforward in their tastes. They haven’t been alive long enough to form sophisticated needs in their fiction. They preferred fantasy because you didn’t get science teacher lectures about how the world is ending and there’s no way to fix it, they got action from heroes with agency—and cool creatures, like dragons.
Space opera seems to map over epic fantasy reading, for adults. Space opera is set so far in the future, or so distant from Earth, that it leaps over all the anxious questions about which we feel so helpless now. The canvas is vast, the trappings fantastical. As my co-writer and I have been in the process of rewriting a space opera (the first book of which goes live here at BVC on May 17th) that my co-writer and I first published in the nineties, I’ve been thinking about the elements that make space opera so much fun.
It really does map over a lot of the same territory as epic fantasy—vast landscape (worlds and worlds! All reachable by FTL, so you don’t have to waste generations of travel time between planets), complicated storyline, big cast, larger than life heroes and villains, the full roller coaster of emotions, from humor to horror, interesting relationships, fast action, maybe even a touch of the numinous. Sense of wonder as well of sense of fun. In both epic fantasy and space opera there is room to slip in those what-if questions, and play out possible answers while slamming around in high-speed action.
Anyway, if you like science fiction, what kind, and why?