Let me preface some of what I am going to write in this post by saying that I am still researching and processing things– in other words I am not done yet and there will be further posts on this as I read more and think more. Also, I am certain that there will be people who have their own thoughts on the state of science fiction and can more readily point to examples of “whatever” than I can. I am not claiming expertise, but rather just expressing my opinion.
I saw the latest addition to the Star Trek franchise last week. For me it was a slightly disappointing, nostalgic experience. Whereas The Watchmen movie took me back to the late eighties, reminded me of when the series first came out, and made me contemplate the difference in the political atmosphere of that decade to the current decade, the newest Star Trek movie only reminded me of the importance of the original series. It also made me sad because I left thinking that it held in some ways too many self conscious nods to the original series for me and also hinted that it was reinventing the new series for the commercial purpose of making more movies and a truckload of money. This may be harsh but to me it was a gutted, soulless endeavor only made more palpable by the performance of Zachary Quinto. The story felt uninspired–a vengeful time traveling Romulan mining ship captain who sets out to wreck havoc. How many Star Trek movies involving time travel and the potential destruction of the earth need to be made? I want a fresh story with an interesting script. How about boldly going forth, rather than rehashing the past of what was once a truly dynamic television series that inspired a potential vision for the future, and making some outstanding new science fiction that pushes the boundaries and further drives the imagination of what could be? How about showing us a story set on a truly alien planet? Perhaps showing us a scenario where the human heroes have inadvertently violated the prime directive. Perhaps a story where the aliens are not the bad guys.
I read and write science fiction and fantasy and I have been to several lectures, presentations, and conventions where I have heard quite a few different authors and speakers adamantly assert that science fiction as a genre is alive and well. The very fact that this assertion keeps being put forth makes me suspicious of its claim. This morning after being awoken by a window rattling thunder boom, I began cruising the internet and just doing some casual research about the genre. While there are some marvelous authors who have been consistently writing well written short stories and novels, notable among them in my mind are people like Connie Willis who has won nine Nebulas and six Hugos and Ted Chiang whose short stories and novellas are incredibly well crafted pieces, the number of names showing an unwavering presence in the field is not as large as was the case in decades past.
I began wondering about this. There are the popular phenoms like Neil Gaiman whose work is outstanding and J.K. Rowling, but both are really fantasy writers. So I began to try to break this down for myself.
The first conclusion that I came to was that since the 1970’s science fiction being presented on television and in the movies has grown. In the decade between 1960-1970 there were approximately 35 science fiction television series. From 1970 -1980 the number jumped to approximately 52. In the years between 2000 and 2004 this number jumped and I counted approximately 186 television series internationally and I am not going to stand by that count as an accurate number. Further, many of the television series that I counted were anime, loose fantasy series, and others dealing with themes of the supernatural. In addition to the number of television series dealing with science fiction or fantasy themes, there has been the growth of video games over the last three decades. Now the question that springs to my mind about this proliferation and popularization of science fiction in media other than print copy, is whether or not this helps or hurts the genre. It certainly indicates a mass appeal for the flavor of science fiction and fantasy. In regards to the publication of printed material, I think that this has hurt the genre. Fans can simply get their fix in a different form. Further, I think that we are in the midst of an information evolution and visual media has become much more readily available. Kind of like when the printing press suddenly made printed material much more available. I could cry out about the evils of visual media but I think it would only show that I am a dinosaur to be left behind. I do think that we are in the beginning stages of developing the art forms of the feature length movie and the episodic television series. We haven’t begun. Currently, I think that the novel in printed form is much more sophisticated and offers a greater depth for artistic expression to the author and meaningful engagement for the reader.
I will advocate as Norman Spinrad did that novelizations of television series or movies should not be eligible for Nebula awards. The award is given for outstanding writing and I think that any piece deserving of this award should have fresh ideas and original characters.
The second conclusion that I came to after researching for a bit was that the number of names writing science fiction seems to be greater but they are publishing slightly less than authors in the past and they don’t seem to have the stamina of authors of the past for decades long writing careers. I am not sure what to make of this. I read one article that described how in the decade of the 1990’s many authors who had had little problem getting their books published previously suddenly were without publishing contracts or their advances dropped in value dramatically. I have read many articles about the plight of the mid-listers who languish at a mid level of sales. They make enough to keep writing but barely and they don’t receive the support of their publishers. Further, in recent decades the mid-list crowd has been thinning. Two thoughts that occur to me are that it takes time for an author to reach a certain level of name recognition and become a thing and, secondly, that it takes time for an artist to mature in their craft and become truly outstanding. As a society driven by quick profits, it may be that we are not offering enough monetary incentive to beginning authors and they give up the dream of being a writer before they have matured in their craft out of economic necessity.
The third conclusion that I thought about is still swirling, but I noticed that while science fiction seems to be dwindling, fantasy is experiencing growth. This could be that the kids who grew up with Harry Potter are looking for what’s familiar and continuing to read fantasy and hence there is a market for fantasy which fuels the production and publication of more fantasy. This doesn’t so much address the dwindling amount of science fiction as it does the growth of fantasy, but allow me to turn this one around and look back at the past for a moment. When I was growing up, Sputnik propelled the U.S. education system into creating a more rigorous science curriculum. Because of my introduction in elementary school to the ideas of space exploration, model rockets, beautiful pictures of nebulas in space, astronomy field trips to learn the constellations, I began to read Heinlein’s juvenile novels. I grew up with science fiction. I also grew up in an era when science seemed the limitless answer to a thousand possibilities. There was an optimism about science and its potentialities that came through into the science fiction. A future could be envisioned.
Now, educational funding has been cut. This morning I read a blog post sighting Norman Spinrad, who was a president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, as follows:
“In a society where the distinction between astronomy and astrology is probably blurry in more minds than not…where very few viewers see anything wrong in spacecraft executing banking turns in a vacuum…and where the teaching of science in primary and secondary schools is itself in steep decline, surely the potential readership for hard science fiction must be dwindling even faster than that for science fiction in general.”
Further, while one can still find Heinlein’s juvenile novels, there aren’t many science fiction novels for elementary students and young adults. The only ones that spring to mind are Scott Westerfield’s novels–Uglies, Pretties, and Specials and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The kids aren’t inspired by science. There is not a great abundance of science fiction for them to read. And we are not growing avid science fiction readers.
This is bad for the genre. The genre of science fiction needs more readers to support it and flourish.
I am going to take this another step farther. In the past there was a cycle where science fiction offered a vision of the future and science pursued it. I have written about this before. Currently, it seems to me that the discoveries of science over the last few decades have been extraordinary and growing at a dizzying rate. But at the same time one hears constant stories about potential pandemics, global warming, the mass extinction of species, etc. There is a proliferation of doomsday stories. This is nothing new. The 1950’s had constant stories about The Bomb and the potential of nuclear war. The difference was in the level of optimism. In decades past, science was going to be the high achievement and saving grace of humanity. Our science would save us. Our vision for the future would lead us past our troubles. Currently, there is a pessimism that pervades and while science makes leaps, it seems that science will not save us, science has caused many of the problems by injudicious application, and the vision is lost. I am not going to naively suggest that if writers of science fiction offer glowing proposals of utopian dreams where science has salvaged the environmental ruin that we have made of our planet all will be well, but perhaps a new vision of possibility needs to be created. Perhaps, science fiction has lost some of its readers simply because of a lack of forward thinking. Where are the visions of future science? What will our society look like in 3010?
Again, this is a long and rambling post. I am still thinking and probably will revisit this topic at another time. Any thoughts that anyone has for me to consider would be greatly appreciated.