These aren’t the best of times for science fiction.
The magazines, from the venerable Fantasy and Science Fiction to the once-dominant Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine are at astonishingly low circulation levels, and even that bastion of idea-oriented (“hard”) science fiction, Analog, is hurting.
But those are the short stories, and they have long been an anomaly inside the genre. Long after short stories became a dead issue in popular reading, and the old fiction magazines either died or found new kinds of content, science fiction stories persisted. It’s possible that the decline of the magazines only means that science fiction is catching up with—or falling down with—the rest of the literary world.
When you look at the science fiction section of the major bookstores, it can seem that science fiction is doing just fine. In Barnes & Noble there’s a healthy section labeled science fiction, with lots of titles and …
Oh, wait. It’s labeled science fiction and fantasy, and when you look at the covers of those books, what do you see?
Trees. Horses. Mythical beasts. The only sheet metal seems to be on medieval armor.
What happened to the science fiction? Oh, wait—there’s a Benford. And ah, yes. We have a spaceship here on this Niven, and that Barnes, and … and the very fact that we can count the covers with a science fiction look tells us something.
It’s a conspiracy! Fantasy is crowding science fiction off the shelves!
Relax. There are no conspiracies, except insofar as capitalism might be considered one. Bookstores and publishers are in the business of making money by selling books. If the reading public were snapping up science fiction books in numbers anything like the sales of big thick fantasy trilogies (or infinite series like Jordan’s Wheel of Time), then science fiction’s space on the shelves would not be declining relative to fantasy.
The only part of the science fiction market that seems impervious to this decline in sales is that portion devoted to Star Wars, Star Trek, and other media-based fiction. And in some ways those are the opposite of science fiction. For science fiction has long functioned, not as a predictor of the future (we usually get it wrong), but rather as a rehearsal for it.
That is, when readers plunge into a science fiction novel, they set aside at least some of their assumptions about the present reality and try to absorb a new set of rules. Whether it’s the physics, the biology, the psychology, or the history of the world that is transformed, the very thing that makes it science fiction is that the story takes readers out of this world and into another.
The very process of picking up the cues and learning how the world differs requires that readers be observant and analytical — they have to notice changes and induce new rule sets and deduce new conclusions (or, reasoning backward, premises) in order to navigate in this invented environment.
In effect, then, the process of reading a science fiction novel prepares you to adapt to the changes that are coming at a rapid pace in our world. That’s one reason why adolescents are much more likely to read science fiction than adults are — because that adolescents’ world is already in flux, as is their role within it, and exploring alternate realities is in some ways closer to the practical issues of an adolescent life than strictly realistic fiction.
But science fiction is not, contrary to some assertions, a branch of children’s literature. There have always been adults who continue to thrive on the fiction of reinvention and transformation long after their adolescence is behind them. The best science fiction is almost always written for those adults, and adolescents only adopt it as their own after the fact. (There are exceptions, of course, like the great William Sleator; nor can we forget Heinlein’s and Andre Norton’s “juveniles” from fifty years ago.)
So … what has happened in the past decade or so?
The world hasn’t stopped changing. The need for transformative literature can’t have disappeared.
I’ve heard (or thought of) several speculations:
1. Science Has Moved On. The cutting edge of science has moved to theoretical or submicroscopic or beyond-cosmic levels that don’t lend themselves to storytelling — because they don’t lead to new machines or cool new creatures. We don’t even understand the science when you do try to use it in a story. So we turn to fantasy or alternate history to give us interesting stories contrary to the present reality. Therefore science fiction isn’t so much dying as changing clothes, because we ran out of science that was accessible to readers.
2. We Used Up the Ideas. All the really cool stories that were possible within science fiction have been written. With the exception of Carter Scholz’s unforgettable “The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke,” you really can’t rewrite the classic idea stories. “Nightfall” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “To Serve Man” have already been written. Now we’re just getting retreads of the same old stories: Another time travel paradox story, another persecuted mutant story, another meet-the-aliens-and-find-out-they-really-are/aren’t-trying-to-kill-us story.
3. The Good Writers All Got Old (or Died) and the Younger Ones Suck. Depending on whether you class me as old (I’m over fifty) or young (compared to Bradbury or Clarke), I can’t help but take this one rather personally. Still, the idea is that without the real masters to lead us, we’ve lost our way, and now the best new writers simply refuse to keep company on the bookshelves with the a genre that has become so much worse than it used to be.
4. Science Fiction Was Always Lousy. I really hate this one, but I hear it a lot, so I have to include it. Science fiction was never good, but it felt new, so it attracted a lot of attention. Now it doesn’t feel new anymore, so it’s more obvious than ever how very bad it has always been.
5. Print Sci-Fi Can’t Compete with Computer Graphics. Readers are now impatient with science fiction that can only hint at fantastic new worlds; they’re used to seeing those fantastic places and devices and creatures on the screen. So the audience that used to read in order to see wonders in their minds eye now buy DVDs or videogames to get that thrill.
6. Women Prefer Fantasy. This might sound sexist, but it’s a publishing reality that most books are bought by women. For decades, however, science fiction remained a bastion of primarily-male reading. Women began reading sci-fi in greater and greater numbers from the sixties on, and they brought their tastes with them, so tech-centered stories began to give way to character-centered stories. But character-centered stories can be written as easily in a fantasy world as a science fictional world, and so the women readers have caused fantasy to rise as a portion of the speculative fiction genre.
7. Writers Are Lazy and Fantasy Is Easier to Write. After all, you don’t have to know any science, you just make stuff up. In fantasy, anything can happen.
8. The Audience Has Moved On. The new generation of readers is either too lazy to do the work required to process science fiction, or has such elevated tastes that sci-fi is now beneath them. I hear both theories, and sometimes from the same people.
Which, if any, of these explanations is true?
1. Yes, a lot of exciting science is in areas where it’s hard to explain them to readers and harder still to find a compelling story to tell. It’s not as if you can put your characters back at the Big Bang. (I refuse to count the story where a spaceship slips into a black hole, goes back in time, and causes the Big Bang.) But the fact is that there are still plenty of great stories left to tell in all of the subgenres of the field. We haven’t thought of every alien race or transformed human society; we haven’t dealt with ever scientific point of interest or every biological oddity that might be thought of. We have not run out of science.
2. Nor have all the good ideas been told. It’s true that the pure idea story, in which characterization does not matter — “Nightfall,” “The Star” — is harder to come up with nowadays, in part because the more obvious ones have been taken. But there are still inventive writers who spew out ideas like a leaky firehose. To claim that the good ideas are used up is to be like that legendary patent official who resigned in 1800 because everything had been invented.
3. It’s simply not true that the younger generation of writers cannot compare with the older ones. Good new writers come along every year, and great ones show up, too.
4. It is true that when you go back to some of the early sci-fi that first created an enthusiastic audience for the genre, much of their work does not hold up well. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s work does not hold up well compared to later writers. But it’s worth pointing out that he was helping invent a new genre, pioneering new ground. As was once said of the classics: “If we see farther, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants.” When they were busy inventing science fiction, our literary forebears did not think of everything at once. But it is an arrogant epochist who sneers at older writers for not being modern. I personally find Slan unreadable — but van Vogt changed science fiction and like it or not, I am one of his heirs. There was an audience for my work because he created it. Besides, what does that have to do with today? Anybody who knows the average quality of high school and college graduate today has to laugh at the idea that the new generation is so sophisticated that they’ve finally caught on that sci-fi has always been lousy.
5. This one has some truth to it. When a new art form emerges, it sometimes forces the older art forms to adapt or die. The advent of movies began to kill vaudeville, and talkies threatened to kill theatre. Why see local actors perform when you could see world-famous movie stars every time? And once color film came long, neither plays nor fiction could compete for sheer spectacle. Once you might read a book in order to imagine faraway or magical places. Now you just went to the movies. In response, plays stopped trying to be realistic and concentrated on dialogue, while books retreated to the one place where movies can’t go: inside the characters’ minds. The same thing happened to movies when television came along — the intimate comedies and dramas became far more rare, since television could take you closer to the actors and put them in the living room or bedroom; movies became dominated by the movies that showed things you couldn’t put on tv. So now, with computer graphics allowing movies and games to show things that have never existed and could never exist, print science fiction has less to offer. It has to find something that films or games just can’t do in order to continue to exist.
6. Blaming the decline of sci-fi on women is just silly, I think. It might explain why fantasy sells more than sci-fi, but since I don’t know of any women who’ve gone around killing male sci-fi readers, their entry into the audience can hardly explain the decrease in sci-fi readership.
7. Maybe there was once a kind of fantasy that was “easier to write,” but it sure isn’t the mammoth eternal epic that is selling is such vast numbers today. Today, in fact, what’s making the best fantasy literature so good is the fact that fantasy is finally being written to science-fiction standards. That is, instead of stealing the tropes of Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien, changing the names, and pumping out words, fantasy writers today are required by their readers to account for the economy, to carefully think through the rules of magic, to create plausible multi-layered societies — in short, to fully invent their worlds, just as good sci-fi writers have to do. It’s every bit as hard to do what Robin Hobb or George R.R. Martin do in fantasy as to do what Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle do in science fiction. (And it’s worth pointing out that even less-talented writers usually sweat just as much blood to create mediocre fantasy novels as mediocre sci-fi novels.)
8. Today’s college and high school grads are, in fact, less well-educated and seem, at least, to be lazier than their predecessors. I have written diatribes elsewhere on the reasons why our schools are training a lot of kids to hate literature; this isn’t the place for that. But this still wouldn’t explain the relative decline of the science fiction audience. While those graduates who do strive to be part of the literary elite have always despised science fiction or appreciated only those sci-fi stories that are least like sci-fi and most like li-fi, and as li-fi writers and editors will tell you, that audience has not increased in numbers at all in recent decades.
There are some vaguer theories, too — so vague as to be impossible to prove or disprove. Like the idea that sci-fi is declining because instead of being excited about the future and eager to move on into it, the general public is now more likely to be discouraged and pessimistic, especially with science-centered futures, since science in so many ways seems to have failed to live up to the high expectations that people were led — in part by older sci-fi — to expect.
I suspect that it might also be a generational thing. It is still possible to write great science fiction, but many young writers may feel that the field has been saturated, that they cannot compete with the great ones who went before. So it’s possible that a higher proportion of our talented young writers are simply moving into other genres where they feel it’s more possible to do important, original work.
Or it might be a different generational shift. Maybe it’s just that fantasy seems to offer clearcut moral decisions to a world that has lost hold of any sense of universal verities. While some kinds of religion make a lot of news, the fact is that in the Western world, belief in traditional religion and scripture has radically declined in the past decades, leaving people hungry for religion but unable to believe in the old ones. Good science fiction doesn’t fill the void, but good fantasy can. So fantasy isn’t a replacement for sci-fi, it’s a replacement for the Bible.
Or it might be that sci-fi has simply run its course and it’s time for another revolutionary wave to transform American literature. Just as science fiction was the revolution after Modernism (“post-Modernism” is just Modernism with a new tie), perhaps the new wave of realistic character-centered mysteries are the revolution after sci-fi; or perhaps the new realistic fantasies are; or both. And perhaps the next literary revolution already has its seeds planted somewhere else, and we simply haven’t noticed it yet. These things move in cycles that are beyond our control and are rarely identified until well after the fact. Maybe sci-fi simply got old and is now on life support simply because the life cycle of literary revolutions is only forty to sixty years and we’ve already had longer than we could have hoped.
Pick-your-speculation is a game we could play all day without coming up with a useful answer.
But let me suggest another set of possibilities:
1. Maybe most or all of these ideas contain some speck of truth, but the real fact is that all we need is some brilliant writer to bring science fiction back into preeminence, the way that J.K. Rowling put children’s literature at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for so many months that the big whining babies in the New York literary scene were able to pressure the Times to create a special children’s list in order to get Harry Potter out of the way. (To which my response is, why not give Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham emeritus status and open up even more slots on the list to those pathetic, needy writers who think somebody is cheating them out of their rightful measure of fame?) All it would take is one great writer to make all the hand-wringing about the death of sci-fi seem … premature.
2. Maybe the writer who will do that has just had his or her first story published in the annual Writers of the Future anthology, which continues to thrive, continues to discover eager and talented new writers, and continues to please thousands of readers who become the audience for yet another generation of sci-fi writers.
Science fiction has always happened first in the short stories. Novels bring each new movement to fruition, but the new ideas, the new trends, the new techniques have always surfaced first in the short form.
And if newsstand science fiction dies, maybe that’s because the newsstand itself is dying; maybe the internet will eventually become the new home for sci-fi short stories.
The internet—and Writers of the Future I tell my writing students that they owe it to themselves to submit their stories to this contest and, therefore, this anthology first. Because Writers of the Future actually delivers on the promise. When you win, it can build you an audience; it can lead you to a career.
So. Maybe science fiction is dying. If it is, you’ll find the best last gasps of the field here in these pages.
And if it isn’t dying, it’s in large part because of this book, this series of books devoted to the science fiction short story and the newly-hatched writer, revivifying the field year in and year out. Perhaps not quite like the Nile flood or the monsoon, but at least like the April showers that bring May flowers.
In 2006, Writers of the Future judge Orson Scott Card addressed a very simple if not vital question which was published in Writers of the Future Volume 22