The State of Science Fiction

My fellow Codex Writer, Rick Novy, posted a pair of blog entries on the relative decline of science fiction compared to fantasy. He made a clear distinction between the written word and movies: both genres do well in theaters, but for some time F novels have sold better than SF. I think the revitalized LOTR franchise and the wildly successful HP franchise explain some of the current popular interest in F as a genre, but they don’t explain the decline of SF.* (Read Rick’s comments: F Vs. SF, and Who’s Right?)

I agree with Rick that the “new wave” of SF, while it freed SF to tackle things it hadn’t tackled before, also hurt the genre in a fundamental way. I discussed this with Alethea Kontis and Edmund Schubert last year at Dragon*Con, and said then I’d like to see some research into the number and circulation of genre magazines year-by-year from the pulp days to today. I contend that the numbers — which no doubt fluctuated year-by-year due to natural variation — probably fell off precipitously around the conjunction of the “new wave” with the success of the Apollo program. That is, just as the core readership of SF saw the realization of a SFnal dream, their own literature seemed to turn against them and delivered a completely new reading experience that they didn’t appreciate as much.

Maybe I’ll do the research myself, in my copious spare time. [:rolleyes:] Oh, yeah, I’ll get right on that.

With respect to the movies, I’ve pointed out to many people that a great many of the top grossing films are SF or feature SFnal tropes, and they’re usually surprised to realize it. It’s easy to say that movie audiences tolerate SF because the movies make the SFnal elements more accessible than do books — you can see the starship, rather than just imagine it — and that’s why SF readership has declined. But I think there’s more to it than that. If most of us read in order to escape our humdrum, workaday world, F now offers us a clearer escape path: we see items every day that populate many SF stories — computers and cell phones and other gadgetry from which we might be happy to escape for a little while — but not many of us see elves or wizards in the office or the house.

I hope Rick is right, and SF as a genre has matured rather than having died. After all, the novel I’m trying to write is pure SF about environmental engineers working to keep a lunar colony alive. Not exactly riding the current wave, am I?

* For non-fen, LOTR = Lord of the Rings, and HP = Harry Potter. For the really acronym-challenged, F = fantasy, SF = science fiction, and SFnal = science fictional.

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0 Responses to The State of Science Fiction

  1. Gray Rinehart says:

    Thanks, Rick. I agree with your assessment, and that’s part of why I think the “new age” hurt more than it helped — the writers were so busy trying to do “new” and “different” and “edgy” things that the stories just weren’t as fun. Or maybe not fun in the same way, and therefore they didn’t meet audience expectations.

    It’s interesting that you referred to Mr. Ellison, since he was one of the primary authors of the “new wave.”

    Are SF audiences more sophisticated now, having held SF in their hands (cell phones) and seen it played out on the big screen? I think so. But do they still hunger for stories that are “just plain fun”? Yes, I think they do. And someday I hope to produce some. 😉

  2. Anonymous says:

    Gray, I think the success of SF (and to a far lesser extent, fantasy) stems largely from the “wow” factor–what Harlan Ellison calls flashing lights. They are just plain fun. I think that part of the reason Firefly lasted only one season. It was too deep and rich for the average person who just wants to sit back and have their senses rocked.

    Look at the success of Star Wars Episodes 1-3. The plot weaknesses have been discussed to death, but people still love to watch them for the action and special effects. They are just plain fun.