Monday, July 7, 2008

Does Science Fiction (Still) Matter?

It might seem like an odd question to ask, given the prominence of science fiction and fantasy in popular culture, and that part of the answer to the title of this piece is still "Yes." Science fiction still matters in the way that popular culture matters, as a shadow play for the popular psyche, as a common narrative language, and insofar as it provides insight into the way that people think and feel about various subjects in the conventional wisdom. It's only a short trip from science fiction to something like 24, where Jack Bauer does his duty and tortures the information about the ticking time bomb from unwilling subjects. It's relatively easy to find current SF that covers the same territory.

But in "Why Science Fiction Matters," I argued that science fiction is (or was) more than an escapist literature of popular culture, that it fulfilled a central role in the lives of at least one major segment of the post-war generation, the upwardly mobile children of working class (or agrarian) parents. For the tech oriented Baby Boom generation, plus a segment of a couple of generations before and after, SF provided a world view, including a program for the future, access to a social network, and a window into transcendence of the sort that usually falls to religion and philosophy.

The period of SF ascendance can be demarcated by the two major science fictional events of the 20th Century, the advent of nuclear weapons and the Apollo Space Man-in-Space Program. In truth, I would tend to move the starting point a little earlier, to the beginning of World War II, because that war was, in many ways, a science fictional war. New weaponry, especially radar, but also missiles, submarine technology, and so forth, played a major role in the fighting and winning of the war. Moreover, commentaries prior to the war speculated on whether or not the next war would be the end of civilization. And the savagery loosed during that war met or exceeded the most nightmarish visions of pulp literature.

At the other end, the lunar landings and the space program generally seemed to validate everything that had ever been written about space exploration, and an entire generation was sure that colonies on the Moon and Mars were just around the corner. That they were disappointed in this contributed to the anti-government backlash that occurred thereafter. To this day, there are SF fans who are sure that it was only the incompetence of U.S. bureaucrats that stood in the way of their dreams of interstellar civilization.

In fact, it was reality that nixed the deal. Space if far bigger and more hostile (and less economically valuable) than most people imagined.

That's the problem with reality. It keeps intruding and messing up our dreams. There was a time when it seemed like science and scientific authority would loom large on the political landscape. But science kept delivering bad news, like warning about environmental degradation, limitations on energy use, changes in the global atmosphere and the implications thereof.

And, in truth, SF had always been a bit anti-establishment when it came to science. Astounding, under Campbell, spent over a decade pushing ESP/PSI, to no good effect. Then there was the entirely embarrassing Dianetics episode. Toward the end, a good many SF types jumped on the SDI bandwagon, as yet another excuse for space research, just as solar power satellites (a truly silly idea), had gripped imaginations earlier, and still do, to this day.

But subsequent generations took a look at all this and saw what was basically an escapist literature that had been co-opted into a number of big budget motion pictures. Fun, but nothing to wrap your life around. Now, things like World of Warcraft take more of the escapist freight than does reading SF. For religious transcendence, people are showing a disturbing tendency to turn to—religion. And, as I say, the Authority of Science has a lot of people claiming to speak for it, or attacking it outright.

So where does that leave science fiction? The aging of the SF fan community has been much remarked upon, and it's a fact of life. To my eye, it doesn't really look like SF is currently the place where someone with something to say goes to say it (I suspect that blogging now occupies that ground), nor is it the place where people go to read what such people have to say. SF has spawned several sub-genres, like military SF, alternate history, paranormal romance, and the like, so maybe that is where the energy has gone, into smaller and smaller niches.

The center no longer holds, or at least it no longer holds that much attraction. But maybe that's just me being an old fart.

10 comments:

black dog barking said...

That's the problem with reality. It keeps intruding and messing up our dreams.

Ain't that the truth. Of course, the real reason that's a problem is that reality didn't deliver the answer we were expecting. Yes, we had a preconceived notion of what the next step from Apollo should be, colonies etc like Europe expanding to the "New" World. When the universe clued us to the enormity of the task, well, that wasn't fair, we whined. (One of the real shortcomings of human civilization to date is the enormous sway we give to the truly clueless.)

Those among us that chose to work with reality recently presented rest of us with an image of sunset on Mars. It makes no difference to me whether a human being held that camera or not. To me that image is just as real as a shot of the sun setting over the Gobi Desert, another place I'll only visit through these images.

It appears that electronic data collection devices are better suited for space than human beings. I can live with that.

Livingsword said...

Hi James, nice to meet you…

Interesting article….

I am a big time sci-fi fan….

It seems that largely science fiction has failed to engage mainstream females as often sci-fi is weak in the relationship department, and has actually lost some of its edge ironically because of rapid technological innovation. The future technology has lost some of its mythos and “wow” factor.

It has also proven to be lacking in the area of religious transcendence….indeed its often outright hostility to present day mainline “religion or “spirituality” has damaged its ability to penetrate that segment of society and has…”alienated” them….

That being said sci-fi has a large capacity to dream weave…if properly applied…as say represented by the new Battlestar Galactica….

Cool blog I have bookmarked it.

Pete said...

Very good article. I guess the only place in which we disagree is where you suggest that the focus has shifted from science fiction to blogging.

I think blogging works on a whole different level than science fiction (blogging, like so much of the internet, is the evolution of vocal communication, rather than written, I think).

I think that right now, we are seeing a resurgence in fantasy literature of all forms, whether it's urban, or high fantasy, or Harry Potter-esque young-adult fantasy. Right now, you go to fantasy, and you dress what you think and feel up with magic and ancient cultures, rather than starships and faster-than-light drives.

That's my view, anyway. But regardless, a very nicely done article on your part..!

David B. Ellis said...


SF has spawned several sub-genres, like military SF, alternate history, paranormal romance, and the like, so maybe that is where the energy has gone, into smaller and smaller niches.

The center no longer holds, or at least it no longer holds that much attraction. But maybe that's just me being an old fart.


Science fiction has had a wide range of subgenres for most of its history.

It has throughout the period you think of as its heyday of pertinence.

The center never held. So this fact can have little relevence to the question of why SF fiction is less popular today.

And even in the past you describe I dont think SF had a central role to any but a very small subgroup.


The period of SF ascendance .....


is as fictional as the warp drive. There never was such a period.

Heather said...

Great article! I linked to it in a discussion we're having over at The Galaxy Express. I'd like to reiterate some of my own comments that arose from my reflection of your piece.

Where one age ends, another begins. I can understand why many SF readers grieve over the end of SF as they know it, but there are many others (and new readers join the community all the time) who embrace the changes--it's the same genre but different.

I think SF definitely matters. Imho, because of the many subgenres and niches, SF has gotten increasingly more creative and vibrant, not less. Yes, there are folks who will get their dose from just video games and film, but there will always be people invested in books/short stories (and I'd wager many others get their SF from *both* sources).

The center you speak of reminds me of something I once learned in grad school. From birth, human beings are taught to separate and individuate from their parents. We're taught about how to survive and be our own persons from day one. Perhaps this shift from the center represents a similar step in SF's evolution. Maybe the parent is having to say farewell and let the child go.

James Killus said...

I don't have much to add to the various opinions expressed here, given that we all agree that I expressed my own viewpoint well enough in the first go-round.

I will note that I've been re-reading a lot of "classic" science fiction lately, such as Norstrilia, by Cordwainer Smith. In real life, Smith was a fellow by the name of Linebarger, a heavyweight in Asian studies (he was born in China) and his knowledge of foreign cultures informed his fiction. It's hard for me to come up with an equivalent contemporary counterpart, yet Smith was only one of a number of fairly accomplished men who once wrote science fiction because they thought that what they had to say could best be expressed in that format. Again, it's hard for me to find contemporary parallels, but that may simply be ignorance on my part. The current market for SF and fantasy is so large that one cannot keep abreast of it, and that may be my problem in a nutshell.

J Thomas said...

The current market for SF and fantasy is so large that one cannot keep abreast of it, and that may be my problem in a nutshell.

I'm sure that's part of it. There used to be a common science-fiction culture. Whatever people thought about _Starship Troopers_, mostly all of them knew about it. That's gone.

What's left are two things. There's a large collection of science-fiction cliches that readers accept. Blasters, rayguns, nano, superintelligent computers, aliens who are like human foreigners in clown suits.

And there's a way of reading. You look at the information the writer sneaks in and figure it out, so he can tell his story without expository lumps.

If you write science fiction that uses something other than the usual cliches -- and it matters -- then people have to think about how it works. A lot of readers don't like that.

Modern science fiction works best when readers don't have to read like science fiction readers. My type example of that is Lois MacMaster Bujold. She set up a science fiction universe with plausible wormhole transportation, stun guns, disrupters, plasma arcs, ecosystem construction, etc. She wrote romance novels etc in that universe. My wife read them as romance novels. When she ran into a space battle she didn't figure out the logic of it, she just skipped over it. She wasn't interested in that kind of thing. You can do that with everything about her stories that are actually science fiction and still have good stories.

If you read it like starship pilots are truck drivers, it all makes sense. The technology really doesn't matter at all. And Bujold got tired of it, she switched to writing fantasy.

Science fiction that's written so only science fiction readers will read it, cannot be particularly popular. It's a small niche market. Science fiction that attracts people who can tolerate the science fiction bits or skip over them without losing much, that's what wins.

There used to be a science fiction community. Now there mostly is not. What's left of that community is marginalized wrt science fiction publishing. Its cliches have been watered-down and its reading style is also marginalized.

I don't see anything taking its place. One of the things I valued science fiction for was that often authors created artificial worlds where things made sense, and where you could reason out how things worked from the clues the author gave you. That was fun. A large minority of science fiction stories had the central value that figuring things out was worth doing. I don't see that so much now.

What I see more is identity politics. Military SF is about soldierly ideals. SF Romance is about romantic ideals. Alternate history has a lot of figuring things out but it's different somehow. SF detective stories are about detective ideals. SF hardboiled detective stories are about hardboiled ideals.

I don't see anywhere else where the big value is thinking-it-out ideals. I miss it.

James Killus said...

Older SF actually had a lot of "expostulatory lumps," and I rather liked them (you can find some of the same sort of writing in the parts of Moby Dick and Les Miserables that are usually abridged out of those works).

"Identity politics" sums up the current situation pretty well, I think. And yes, it's hard for me to find my own niche in the array, so I sometimes go off and write it myself, e.g. Dark Underbelly.

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J Thomas said...

Yes, SF used to have expository lumps. But it was declared bad and writers were supposed to learn how to avoid it.

If you have those lumps then publishers are likely not to tolerate it and a fraction of readers won't tolerate it.

If you carefully interweave the info into the story, some readers won't get it and won't tolerate it.

If you restrict yourself to established cliches that your target audience already expects, you're not writing what I think of as science fiction. You're just writing in an established science fiction background.

Looking more carefully I'd guess there's a marketing problem. SF used to be a fairly small niche market. And now publishers have merged it into a much larger niche market, that overlaps with romance, historical fiction, military fiction, action/adventure, etc. It isn't enough to meet the needs of the small niche, to do well you have to crossover to some of the other niches too. And the needs of the small niche mostly yield to the current commercial needs.

There might be a place for online noncommercial science fiction. It probably doesn't pay. But then, novels that publishers reject don't pay either. I dunno.