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Science fiction is dead, long live science fiction


You can almost set your watch by the regularity with which claims that “science fiction is dead” appear. Except, of course, that wouldn’t be a very science-fictional metaphor in these days of atomic clocks and NTP. The latest iteration of this moan appears here. Certainly it’s true that fantasy outsells category science fiction, but to also claim that “half … of what is being sold as sci-fi is actually fantasy with some sci-fi elements” is risible.

Science fiction still lives but, more than that, it has also colonised the mainstream. In the cinema, sf is the genre of choice for tentpole releases. On television, it may have a less successful track-record, but many sf series have proven popular with non-genre audiences: Dr Who and Life on Mars, for example. Literary writers have in the last decade quite happily appropriated ideas from the sf toolbox for their novels – just look at this year’s Clarke Award winner, The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers. (Though Roger’s usual publisher refused to take the book because it was sf; I bet they feel like complete plonkers now.) But even this is hardly new: John Fowles did it back in 1985 with A Maggot; Lawrence Durrell did it even earlier with Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). There are plentiful other examples.

Science fiction is changing, that much is true. But it has been doing that since Gernsback published that first issue of Amazing Stories back in 1926. For one thing, he called it “scientifiction”, which happily never caught on. The genre has undergone numerous irruptions and make-overs during the course of its ninety-year history, and the fact it is now so widespread and so varied only demonstrates its rude health.

True, we’re not living in a science-fiction world. If we were, we’d have food-pills and jet-packs, there’d be a colony on the Moon, and most people would be wearing tinfoil jumpsuits. Or something. Instead, we have a dozen tin-cans strung together in Low Earth Orbit, only robots have gone further than cislunar space, and pills invented to replace food tend to get repurposed as recreational drugs and then criminalised… On the other hand, we do have smartphones, the internet, digital cameras, cars that cost as much as the turnover of a medium-sized company, pre-cooked bacon available in supermarkets, a climate we are slowly destroying so that multinationals can continue to make profits greater than most nations’ GDPs, and television shows more fatuous than anything George Orwell at his most cynical could ever have imagined.

The problem is that the dreams of science fiction from past decades have proven either unachievable or unsustainable. Is it any wonder then that the genre has turned increasingly escapist? This doesn’t make it fantasy, by any stretch of the, er, imagination; it does mean, however, that sf is no longer predicated on dreams of a better tomorrow created by science and engineering. Genre writers now – and those literary writers who dabble in genre – are putting the tools of science fiction to other uses.

Samuel Delany once said that one of the beauties of sf was that it could literalise metaphors. The example he used was “her world exploded”. You won’t find much in the way of metaphors in sf of the 1950s and earlier. Those so-called classic stories are pretty much straight up and straight down. WYSIWYG. But that doesn’t work anymore. What was designed to be plausible has become implausible. Such optimism in scientific solutions is now unconvincing. We know that science is only a tool, and not always used with the best intentions. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, so to speak. We also know that even the laws of nature are apparently open to interpretation when there’s enough money involved.

I admit I am fascinated by the optimism inherent in science and engineering of past decades. That’s why I put up my irregular The future we used to have posts. I’ve explored that optimism in some of my own fiction – Adrift on the Sea of Rains is perhaps the best example so far. I am fascinated by the achievements made using raw engineering in the twentieth century: putting twelve men on the Moon, sending two men to the deepest part of the ocean in a steel ball, the numerous attempts to go faster and faster in wheeled vehicles or boats…

The one thing science fiction initially refused to acknowledge, and which we’re only belatedly beginning to accept, is that there is no escape. The universe is too vast and too inimical. We can only populate it using our imaginations. The fact that sf now uses more and more imaginative and fantastical inventions to do so doesn’t invalidate the genre. Sf may not reflect the real world as often as it should, but by ignoring the limitations placed on us in the real world the genre is responding to those limitations. Sf hasn’t forgotten the science, it’s just finding different ways to incorporate it into its stories.

10 thoughts on “Science fiction is dead, long live science fiction

  1. We didn’t get the science fiction future we were promised, but we got one anyway. And we’re living in it now. And it will be always thus.

    And it is always thus that people think SF is dead. Its a bad joke at this point.

    • “We didn’t get the science fiction future we were promised, but we got one anyway.”

      Boy is this true. We may not have made much forward progress in manned spaceflight, but the flow of media and information in the world we live in is truly astounding.

      I was feeling disgruntled the other day because I wanted to watch something on my PHONE, and it was taking its time buffering. Then it hit me, like it often does, that my phone is an absolute miracle and I should quit whining and read the issue of Clarkesworld that was just automatically delivered to my Kindle.

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  4. Hello Ian,

    The relationship between science and science fiction is complicated enough, without taking into account the complicated and sometimes apparently serendipitous way science progresses. I suspect you may be underestimating where science will lead us in the long term.

    The reasons why we haven’t colonised space yet are nothing to do with the engineering and science, but more to do with society and its needs. The relationship here is only really starting to be understood and I would not at this juncture like to predict where that will end up. (You may enjoy my forthcoming short story in autumn issue of Jupiter in the light of this discussion.)

    The original article that triggered your blog was written in Australia and it appears that Sf there is moribund according to the blogger concerned. Here in the UK, it’s a very different matter, I’m rather glad to say. Although I’m not sure why there is such difference, I suspect it has something to do with the difference in the economic situations of the two countries.

    • A move beyond LEO may have been blocked by politics – though even now we couldn’t send a mission to Mars with an acceptable degree of safety or success – but that wasn’t my point. Too much sf, both of the past and the present, pretends that the universe is some great easily-accessible outdoors ripe for exploitation. The distances and timescales are blithely ignored. And I think it is people’s increasing realisation of that which has affected sf. Even at lightspeed, which we can currently no see effective way to reach, nearby stars are beyond our capacity to visit or colonise.

      Storr’s article may have moaned that the sf market (in Australia) is dying, but it sounded like a general moan about the genre – and that’s what I responded to. I suspect the Australian sf market is suffering simply because it is smaller – 23 million to the UK’s 62 million to the US’s 314 million.

      • Hello Ian,

        Sadly, I have to agree with you about a human mission to Mars, where there are difficulties like inter-planetary radiation.

        The principle of science is that you will get the same result from the same set of start up conditions. It’s like saying all swans are white… well they did until they discovered Australia with its black swans. So at the moment we know of no way to travel in short time scales to other stars. It does not preclude that in the future. True, the general opinion is that it is unlikely to happen, but then the medieval times thought similarly about travelling to the moon.

        Interestingly, Alastair Reynolds in his Revelation Space series suggests a way inter-stellar travel can happen in slower time, which would lead to colonising the stars.

        I think we need to understand the causes for Australia’s SF market being moribund, and I’m the first to admit I would not know where to start looking for them.

        We also need to understand what exactly is the difference between the UK, USA and Australian SF markets to see if one market can learn lessons from the other markets. Again, I’m not the person to do such an analysis. The catchment population of these countries does play a part, but in today’s internationalism it is less so than it used to be.

        One thing I think we can both agree on is that UK SF is alive and kicking in its various guises. But it would be useful to know why the Australian SF market isn’t, so that the UK market can avoid the same pitfalls.

        • We know a bit more about the universe than we did in the Middle Ages. True, it’s possible someone may discover a way to circumvent the speed of light restriction, but our current models suggest not. And given that, the rest of the universe is forever out of reach.

          The internet is not a level playing field. The US still dominates it – which is why US sf still sells heavily in the UK and, I suspect, in Australia; but the reverse is not true. Even Sean Williams, an Australian sf author who had several books published in the US and UK, is now out of print on both countries.

          • I think we agree with where science stands with all its provisos. However, I find your comment about the internet interesting, given that my C.A.T. series e-books are published by an American publisher! Furthermore, several of the authors in his stable are also British.

            I wonder if this is because the UK publishers have not yet caught up with the changing face of technology or whether the US publishers are more adventurous than their British counterparts. This could of course also apply to the Australian SF.

            • The US market is bigger, so it has a bigger supplier pipeline than the UK market. I also think US genre writers are less prone to submit to non- or low-paying markets than UK writers – possibly because non-paying markets have played a more important role in genre short fiction here. After all, the US has always had multiple pro-paying magazines, whereas the UK rarely has more than one or two at any one time.

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