I just finished reading Jo Walton’s marvelous book, Among Others, and was delighted at the many references to science fiction in 1979/1980, when the story takes place. At that time, I was an avid reader of sf like the protagonist, and I well remembered the excitement of discovering new authors, new books, the exhilaration of new ideas and the idealist belief that through science and technology, we could build a better world (not to mention explore strange new ones and seek out new civilizations).
Walton’s book made me want to run to my shelves and re-read all my old favorites. Then I wondered what had happened to the love affair with sf. Did we all grow up and give up, or did we get lost in Mirkwood and never come out? Is today’s sf too technological for new readers? Has the sense of wonder disappeared? Or merely gone sideways, so that instead of tuning into Star Trek confident future, we are wallowing in angsty vampires?
In the past, the genre of science fiction received two enormous cultural boosts to its popularity. The first came at the end of the 19th Century, with the Victorian love-affair with invention and scientific discovery. This was the era that gave us Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and inspired spawned the next generations of writers. It also continues to generate tales of mechanical gee-whiz, romance, and adventure through the current steampunk genre, which hearkens back to a time when technological marvels — steam engines and the like — were understandable by the ordinary person. The era had its version of the Renaissance man (or woman) – someone knowledgeable and skillful in many fields, often a person who pursues knowledge for its own sake. This sort of education presupposed a certain amount of leisure time and financial stability, which meant the characters were free to take off on adventures because they didn’t need to earn their bread. (Few complained that the poor were largely excluded, except as secondary characters.)
The second boost came with the space race of the mid-20th Century and the focus on science education, plus the coupling of astronomy, post-World War II pyrotechnics, and old-fashioned derring-do. Physics, chemistry and mathematics became glamorous, or at least more glamorous than they had been before and were since. Biology and social sciences took second seat to the disciplines everyone said we needed to beat the Soviets to the Moon. As an interesting side note, this emphasis on hard science and individual ruggedness created a resistance to the use of psychology in understanding the personal and group challenges of space flight, a trend that has now fortunately been remedied.
Then came a period of disenchantment with technology and with hard science itself. It seemed that technology created more problems than it solved, and the future no longer looked so shiny. Average people could no longer understand everyday devices — remember the jokes about how many PhDs it takes to program a VCR? People longed for times and places where both problems and solutions were simpler. Frodo might have had to struggle mightily to haul the Ring up the slopes of Mt. Doom, but he didn’t have to worry about AIDS, global warming, or the newest IRS regulations.
Not so long ago, there was lots of “science fantasy,” of fantastical space tales and blurring of today’s marketing distinctions. (Consider, for example, the Darkover and Pern series, both of which began as science fiction but are now shelved with fantasy.) It seemed to me that the genres divided, that once people read both, and now they tended to read one or the other, and more of them read fantasy. Certainly, this separation is reflected in the diminishing sales figures for science fiction.
Is sf dying? Has it become commercially unfeasible to publish?
As to the unprofitability of science fiction in a traditional format, I sadly fear this has become the case, at least for new and midlist authors. Notable exceptions include media tie-ins, books by Big Names, and steampunk. My own suspicion is that this does not represent a true disaffection with speculative fiction, but rather having to split that pie into too many pieces.
I believe there are plenty of readers who love science fiction exclusively, and even more (like myself) who read widely across genre lines. Such readers may not equal those who create New York Times Bestseller lists, but they are numerous enough to support the field. Until recently, the challenge has been to connect such readers with great new science fiction. Bookstores, particularly those catering only to high-volume best-sellers, made it more difficult to find such books. As major traditional publishers devoted less space on their lists to science fiction, those authors have migrated to smaller presses, which are less likely to be carried by chain book stores.
Recently, on an online forum, an otherwise well-educated reader asked if there was any good science fiction currently being published. I was able to write back with a couple of dozen authors, some of whom have been around for quite some time, others a middling time, but very few very recently debuted excellent hard sf writers.
I propose that the internet can be the salvation of science fiction as a genre, allowing (tech-fluent) readers to discover and discuss both new and classic works. At least, I hope so.
The image of the exploding planet is by Mico Niemi and is in the public domain.