Science fiction is apparently dying, or at the very least it will die unless it changes. Mark Charan Newton says that as a commercial literary genre, sf has had the crap beaten out of it by fantasy and now lies bleeding on the floors of book shops around the English-speaking world. Jetse de Vries says he’s not surprised sf is declining because it’s lost its relevance.
Lots of other people disagree.
I can’t deny that written fantasy appears to be in ruder commercial health than written sf. Nor do I think modern science fiction is especially relevant.
These days, sf is more of an entertainment genre, a cross-media genre. And while that’s true, written sf will live on. After all, the vultures have circled overhead before, but it’s still here. For some people, cinematic spectacle, FPSs set in post-apocalyptic wastelands, and spandex-clad loons singing about space unicorns are not enough. They need a regular fix of the pure strain: the written form.
But even as a written genre, sf covers a wide field. The interesting, exciting stuff – the smart stuff – has always been a minority within sf. The populist stuff has always been, well, the most popular. Obviously. All that’s really changed is that much of the populist sf is now media-driven. As sf fans, we like to think that we’re smarter than the average reader – all those Big Ideas, the universe our playground, science… But sf readers are no different to mainstream readers. The majority like escapism, mind candy; they don’t want to think too hard while slurping down their tales of spaceships and robots. They want colourful tales and bright futures. Which just happen to be set in galactic empires or on alien worlds.
It has always been thus.
Which means that sf as a whole has never really been especially relevant. It’s not becoming “increasingly irrelevant” as Jetse would have it, because it’s only a small proportion of the genre which has ever tried to be relevant. Of course, increasing the size of that minority, making more of the genre relevant, is certainly worth doing, and is something I certainly think should be done.
Which is why I feel “Strange Sci-Fi” is a step backwards. Pretending it’s really fantasy, or disguising sf as fantasy, is not doing science fiction any favours. Sf has its own toolbox – why do we need to steal tools from fantasy? It not only obfuscates the story’s genre credentials, it often obfuscates the story itself.
What sf needs to be is real. We need Real SF. Not Mundane SF – there’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The genre has a large catalogue of literary devices, from AIs to faster-than-light travel, and I see no reason why they can’t be used to populate the sf landscape. But they’re devices to enable the plot – not background, not setting, not colour.
There’s a lot we know about the universe, there’s undoubtedly a great deal more we don’t know. But that doesn’t mean sf should go backwards and unlearn what we do know. That way lies fantasy. It’s not just the authorial handwaving, or the bollocks science – if we’re calling FTL a literary device, some of either, or both, is going to be necessary. But I’m a firm believer in rigour. It has to be airtight, it has to be turtles all the way down. You don’t see mainstream authors winging it. Well, yes, all right, you do: Dan Brown makes it up as he goes along, and then claims it’s historical fact. But you certainly don’t see writers of literary fiction doing that.
For sf to show that it’s not at death’s door, it needs to up its game. It needs to ditch the dynastic struggles in galactic empires. It needs to boot the giant space crabs into touch. It needs to forget the kindergarten politics and early 19th Century science. There are ways to write about the Now using the tools of sf. The genre needs to take note of the world around it, and then write about it. If it wants to do so in a story set on an alien world, then fine. If the plot requires FTL in order to make a point about the Present, then no problem. The devices are there to be used.
There’s also the writing itself, of course. In this area too, sf covers as wide a range as mainstream fiction – from the top prose stylists to those whose lack of facility with the language is frankly embarrassing. But I think the bar needs to be raised across the entire genre. Likewise, for characterisation and other hallmarks of good writing.
I agree with Jetse that science fiction as a whole needs to become more relevant. I don’t agree that it’s dying, nor do I think making it relevant will necessarily re-invigorate it. But I’d certainly like to see a shiny new science fiction genre in 2010, one that’s healthier, more relevant, better-written, more insightful, and with much more rigour.
One that’s real.
How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?