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.