Science Fiction, The Undead Genre
Posted by hyperpat on August 26, 2009
Probably somewhere around 1930, someone was stating that science fiction was dying, that all the story lines had already been mined for whatever treasure they might contain, and science was overtaking all the good ideas. They’re still saying exactly the same things today. Is there any more cause to believe these doomsayers now than way back when? Let’s examine the issues:
1. Print magazine sales numbers are down. And not just down, but way down. And the number of magazines devoted to SF has tailed downward since the mid-fifties. Surely this is an indication of a moribund and comatose field? I would argue, however, that to some degree this decline is a product of SF being too successful (see also my prior post on the death of the sf short story). Back in the fifties SF was almost totally a ghetto, written and consumed by a very insular group that had almost no contact with the larger literary world. Then came the New Wave, a few SF authors hitting the best-seller lists, a smattering of critical analysis of the field that didn’t totally dismiss it as fantasy for little boys, a few mainstream authors who gingerly put their toes into speculative waters, and the ghetto walls started to crumble. At the same time, real, visible scientific and technological advances and a couple of spectacular movies were making the general public aware that that crazy Buck Rogers stuff wasn’t totally crazy. From the sixties through the late eighties, this broadening trend continued. A few colleges started to offer SF as a course in literature. Science fiction has become at least somewhat ‘respectable’, or at the very least not easily dismissed as just ‘adolescent male fantasy’ . Nowadays a writer has far more potential markets for his science fiction writing than just those magazines that specialize in the form.
2. Science marches on, and stories that dealt with simple rockets to the moon have obviously been overtaken by such advances. This is a congenital hazard to writing stories in this field – regardless of what scientific concept is the driving force for a story, at some point in the future it’s entirely possible that new scientific theories and actual technological gadgets based on those theories may make the story obsolete, old hat, or worse, shown to be impossible. But people forget (especially those who claim that SF is running out of ideas) that SF is not just about possible new nifty gadgets, but rather about how humans live and react and form societies based on such gadgets (or the gadgets’ long term effects, such as all the A-bombs in the world being set off), and that viewpoint, which is outside of what can be achieved via mundane fiction, will never lose its impact or relevance. Which is why it’s still possible to read and enjoy something like Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A corollary to the continuing advancement of science is that new concepts and theories appear, such as string theory or quantum entanglement, which can become fodder for new SF stories based on same. As long as science doesn’t run out of new things to discover, or the engineers can no longer design new gadgets that impact how people live, science fiction writers will have new things to incorporate into their stories.
3. There are only a limited number of human-centric plots (I think it was Heinlein who boiled it down to just three actually different plots), regardless of what genre it is being written in. SF, however, has a greater range than common mundane fiction, allowing for plots that deal with man (or alien) vs universe as their conflict point, rather than just man-vs-man. But within that limited number, there is room for an infinite amount of shading and subtlety. This applies just as much to sf as to mundane fiction; clearly, there will always be room for a ‘new’ story.
4. Some writers and publishers are scrupulously trying to avoid the label ‘science fiction’. Partially this is due to the still not-totally-respectable odor associated with that label in literary circles, and partially due to the general reading public’s impression (still, even after thirty years of acknowledgment that there is some mature value to things written within the genre) that it’s ‘kids stuff’. There’s also a fear by many potential readers of just not being able to understand the concepts and science in today’s works, a fear which is at least partially justifiable, as there are certainly some (but also certainly not all) sf works today that call for far more understanding and knowledge of modern science than the average man in the street has. However, whether works by such writers are labeled sf or not by either themselves or their publishers, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t actually sf. Cormac Macarthy’s The Road is definitely sf, regardless of how academics or the general public view it. Perhaps, however, it does mean that sf, as a distinct, easily separable and identifiable genre of writing, is disappearing, becoming more and more incorporated into the general field of just ‘fiction’, another tool for certain types of story ideas to be used whenever appropriate.
Science fiction is not dying. It has matured some; it has become more ‘literary’, its minimum standards have improved drastically, its markets have broadened and become less easily identifiable. None of these are bad things.