The Future of Futuristic SF
Posted by hyperpat on April 9, 2007
There’s been a fair amount of blather lately about the general health of the fantasy/science fiction market, which by just about everyone’s account is not doing all that well, and sf worse off than fantasy. Publishers are deliberately trying to present such books as something other than sf, or at least are doing covers for them that don’t scream SF! Don’t Touch! to the prospective buyer. Circulation figures for Asimov’s and Analog are down, as are overall sales of sf books. Why?
At least part of the reason can be traced to my last post on the SF info dump. New ‘hard’ sf is tackling concepts, gadgets, and environments that are well beyond the average reader’s comprehension and comfort space, and these concepts are complex enough that short, simple explanations just won’t do. The writers are left with a choice of trying to educate the reader, normally to the detriment of the story, or self-limiting their audience to those who already have some idea about these things, which is a very small (and probably shrinking) set of people. I certainly would not hand anyone not already steeped in sf some of this year’s Hugo nominees: Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, Stross’s Glasshouse, or Watt’s Blindsight, regardless of how well they are written, or what neat ideas they contain, as they would be nearly incomprehensible to the average man in the street.
Beyond the ‘hard’ sf realm, there is also a paucity of books for younger readers. While David Gerrold and John Varley have added a few works to this area, the days of the Heinlein and Asimov juveniles are long gone, and it is difficult to find books that are captivating to young minds that are not outdated.
Which leaves us with only a very few modern entries that still have that ‘gee-whiz’ factor without blowing the reader’s mind. John Scalzi’s efforts of the last few years certainly qualify in this regard, with his Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Androids Dream, but he seems to be something of an exception, as he deliberately is trying for something that is accessible, part of what he calls the ‘New Comprehensible’. Fantasy is another part of this group, not surprisingly, as in general fantasy doesn’t have the same problem, and can present settings and story arcs that have large elements of familiarity (or at least don’t require a Ph.D. to figure out). And then there are the series related works, the Star Trek/Star Wars/Game-Inspired stuff, which are ok are far as they go, but leave little room for true innovation or possible great literature.
Perhaps science has reached the point where Mr. Average Joe simply can’t assimilate not only its current state but projections of what it will mean and the effects it will have in the future, though at least some of the blame for this state of affairs can be laid (at least in the US) to an education system that is doing a poor job of getting kids excited about the possibilities inherent in current scientific and technological research. Clearly, if sf is to survive as a viable genre of literature, there needs to work done by the authors to make it more interesting without being too complex, the marketing of this stuff needs to try and grab readers who would never normally touch the stuff (and it looks like they are making at least some attempts in this area), and our schools could do a better job of introducing young people to the wonders of the field. But most importantly, we, the science fiction fans, need to spread the word to our non-sf fellows, finding works that will interest and captivate them, while not being beyond their capabilities to understand or believe in, till they can graduate to the cutting edge of today.