Is Science-Fiction Dying?

A Dystopian ClassicIS SCIENCE FICTION DYING? The question may seem dubious or melodramatic, but there’s been a fair amount of talk on the internet about this over the past few years. People in the Yahoo science-fiction discussion groups have discussed it, and bloggers, some of them pros, have  written about it. Myself, I don’t know if SF is dying, but it sure seems a lot less popular than fantasy these days. I base this on looking over the books-sold section in Locus, the trade journal of print SF, the last several months: Something like eight fantasy books are listed for every science-fiction title. Similarly, in lists of agents, those interested in fantasy far outnumber those interested in science-fiction. Fantasy movies released probably far outnumber science-fiction releases, too, this past summer being a possible exception. Those  who’ve read fantasy and science-fiction since the nineteen fifties or sixties (you know who you are), of course, can remember the situation reversed, lots of SF in print and little fantasy, but the wheel has turned big-time, it seems. If SF’s popularity has declined relative to fantasy’s, why?

I’ve been giving this a little thought. The first thing that occurred to me was The Harry Potter Effect. I mean by that that J. K. Rowling’s hugely popular series has spawned a generation of fantasy aficionados, while nothing has done the same for science fiction. The series has spawned a legion of young fantasy fans.

Another thought that occurred to me was that given the current pace of technological innovation, people who want their sense of wonder titillated by science don’t need SF; they can just follow the news. John Prine said, “We’re living in the future.” In fact, I bet a lot of people suffer from future shock and don’t particularly care to imagine more change. One more cause for science-fiction’s decline in popularity has occurred to me: The genre’s decades-long dominance by dystopian and post-apocalyptic visions. Let’s face it, though they provide valid warnings, dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales are a bummer, especially as a steady diet. After watching the news, who needs to be warned about the hazards of the future? And anyway, the present is plenty bad enough, thank you.

Why has science-fiction become so dystopian in its outlook? It wasn’t always. Early science-fiction often celebrated the marvels science might bring. And even through the Sixties, the visions of the future weren’t consistently bleak, even when crises were envisioned. All the post-atomic war stories were balanced with societies and worlds far less apocalyptic. I’ve heard the dystopian trend blamed on Blade Runner’s success: that ever since its release SF has trended darker, grittier. That’s simplistic, unfair, I’m sure, but was Blade Runner possibly the start of the ascendance of  the bleak vision in SF? Actually, I think that the cynicism that has grown up since the Sixties at least partly explains the genre’s dystopian/post-apocalyptic bias. Writers can’t imagine humanity and our leaders not screwing up the world completely. I also think that writers might feel it’d be a cop-out to write anything non-dystopian. People have to be warned; the possibilities are too dire. I don’t know, though. From the point of view of social responsibility, maybe SF’s production of a uniformly dismal views of the future is unhelpful. If you imbue the collective consciousness with the expectation of an excrementious future, what you may breed is apathy. Perhaps it’d be better to balance the warnings with occasional hopeful or inspiring visions or at least ones of a world that is in some ways better and in some ways worse than what we have today. It’d certainly be less monotonous.

What do you think?

About kentmcdanielwrites

Writer and musician.

2 Responses to “Is Science-Fiction Dying?”

  1. I do think science fiction literature is in crisis, though of course you see the stand-out novels that don’t follow the dystopian trend, but even the biggest retailers are lumping fantasy in with SF. Getting an sf novel published has for years meant having the fewest options, certainly in terms of literary agents. Are they looking for a variation on the zeitgeist believing the readers to be of a narrow demographic – 25-40yr old males? I hope not, but i think very few younger than that are not even reading fiction.

  2. Hi, Adrian. I thought I’d replied to this earlier, but I just noticed that my reply never hit. What I said was just that I agree wwith all your points-unfortunately.

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