As a longtime genre fiction book reviewer and a moderator for BarnesandNoble.com’s Fantasy/Science Fiction and Paranormal fantasy book clubs, I’ve asked myself these questions countless times over the last two or three decades: is science fiction dying? And if so, why? Over the last 30 years, I’ve seen the number of science fiction works released on a yearly basis decrease dramatically while the number of fantasy novels (especially paranormal/urban fantasy) increase exponentially. But even more significant – and disturbing – is what I’ve witnessed over the years moderating BarnesandNoble.com’s book clubs. When I feature a work from a new fantasy author – like Ken Scholes or Patrick Rothfuss or Jeaniene Frost – readers typically show up in droves to talk about the book and discuss the characters, the themes, their favorite sequences, etc. (When Ken’s debut novel Lamentation was featured last March, that thread got more than 300 comments and almost 5,000 visits!) But when I feature a science fiction novel, even if it’s a critically acclaimed masterwork like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, I’m lucky to get a handful of people to read it and post comments.

 

 

So why aren’t people reading science fiction like they used to? Quality or lack thereof is definitely not the issue here – there are exceptional science fiction novels being released every year. It’s something much deeper, something more culturally significant…. I’ve talked with literally hundreds of people about this subject – fellow readers, book reviewers, bookstore managers, editors, publishers, etc. – and the opinions have varied wildly.

 

 

Last year, George R.R. Martin – who is a master of both science fiction and fantasy – was interviewed on Public Radio International and was asked a similar question about the future of science fiction. He began his response by stating the obvious: that science fiction is struggling commercially and that “it’s not nearly as popular as it was.”

 

 

But when he was asked why science fiction wasn’t as popular as it was just a few decades ago, his response was – in my opinion – profoundly enlightening and spot on.

 

“…social changes over the last 50 years have made the future something that we no longer want to go visit the way we did when I was a kid. Back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s when science fiction was perhaps as popular as it has ever been, we really had a lot of belief in the future. I mean, we couldn’t wait to get to the future. The future was going to be much better than anything in the present. We were going to have robots and flying cars and all of these labor saving devices and we were going to take our holidays on the moon and space stations and we were going to go to the stars. When they took polls, everybody gave the answer, ‘yes, yes, my kids are going to have a better life than I do and my grandkids are going to have an even better life than they do and we’re going to go into space and we’re going to go to the stars.’ Well, some of that came true but also things happened to change that. We went to the moon and then we stopped going. That still boggles most science fiction writers and readers of my generation to think: we stopped going to the moon. There are grown adults today who have never had a man on the moon in their lifetimes because they were born after 1972, which was the last trip. I grew up thinking, “will I live long enough to see a man on the moon?” and for these people it’s history and maybe it’s a closed chapter of history. I mean, are we ever going to go to Mars? Are we ever going to go to the stars?

 

 

Also, people take polls now and most people think that their children are not going to have better lives than they do; they think that their children are going to have worse lives. They’re worried about things like ecological problems, global warming, the growing instability of the world with nuclear proliferation, more and more nations having the bomb…. We had the Cold War when I was growing up, we could duck and cover and stuff like that but there was still in some ways more optimism about what the future was like. So I think this is part of the stuff that has affected science fiction. People no longer believe on some level that the future is going to be a good place and they prefer to read about other times and other places that are maybe not so scary as science fiction.”

 

 

And Martin’s response – particularly the last line – exemplifies what I’ve been hearing from regulars in the book clubs. It’s all about escapism. Fantasy is what people are reading now. Fantasy writers are today’s literary rock stars – Laurell K. Hamilton, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Kim Harrison, Brandon Sanderson, Jim Butcher, Cherie Priest, Ken Scholes, R.A. Salvatore, Patrick Rothfuss…

 

 

Interestingly enough, George R.R. Martin wrote a short essay entitled “On Fantasy” in 1996 that perfectly describes why we love fantasy – and it may also explain why science fiction is experiencing an extended season of wither…

 

 

“The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real ... for a moment at least ... that long magic moment before we wake.

 

 

Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?

 

 

We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.

 

 

They can keep their heaven. When I die, I'd sooner go to middle Earth.”

Comments
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎10-02-2009 05:20 PM

I've been dreadfully remiss in my science fiction reading (I've never been a big fantasy fan outside of Tolkien, even less of paranormal/urban).  I was a huge science nerd so SF was always interesting to me in how authors could push boundaries in fiction that weren't possible in reality.  Basic science literacy is a declining part of American education - do you think that could also have something to do with the decline in SF?  Since it's had to get even good basic science writing these days.

by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎10-02-2009 05:22 PM

PS: Windup Girl looks fantastic and it's worming it's way onto my TBR list.

by plaidfroggie on ‎10-02-2009 05:35 PM

I was eager to read this and I wanted to comment that the blurring of genre lines is also responsible in some ways.  When you look up Stephen King's The Tommyknockers Wikipedia lists it as a horror novel.  When you look up Dean Koontz's One Door Away From Heaven it doesn't list a genre, but at my local Barnes and Noble store Koontz is classified as a horror author and all his books are in that section.  Many people believe that Stephen King is only the King of Horror and even books in his collection that have nothing to do with the supernatural are in that section of the bookstore.  I believe that publishers and society are discrediting some science fiction by confining it to the horror section.  At the closest B&N store to me the horror section has gotten very small, but the sci/fi fantasy section of bookstores swelled fast enough that it did split off to the paranormal/urban fantasy section. Only one story out of four in Different Seasons by Stephen King contains any supernatural element yet in my high school it was on the paperback horror shelf segregated.

 

Ray Bradbury wrote very chiling stories but he is classified as a science fiction author.  If I go to my local B&N I know I could find at least one of his books on the sci-fi/fantasy shelf and that is true for other authors who wrote "scary" stories as well as alien invader stories.  Anne McCaffrey wrote a series about telepathic powers and while from what I can see because she mixed in sciecne it doesn't qualify as a horror or paranormal series.  Stephen King's Firestarter talks about how psychic powers were awakened by government funded experiments into recreational drugs, and yet even though the government is hunting down a pyrokinetic daughter from two lab subjects it is considered a horror story.  It has been stated before on various forums that publishers pigeonhole authors whether a label fits or not.  Andre Norton wrote both science fiction and fantasy and her books are grouped together under a combined genre.  However an author who writes both science fiction and horror is limited to the rapidly shrinking horror section.

 

My high school English teachers completely dismissed Stephen King as a horror writer.  I couldn't believe that there are people who have seen Shawshank Redemption and are unaware it was written by that nasty, creepy Stephen King.  At one time it was a sound financial decision to put the horror novels on display separately if you were a bookstore.  They had a loyal following.  The Green Mile though in my opinion would fit the paranormal genre since John Coffey is not even explained by science.  He has an ability to heal, and the horrific aspect is how society destroys him.  That doesn't mean that it was a scary story that should be dismissed.  I don't understand how some books I have seen labeled paranormal made the cut since they can have persecution by the government as a theme.  Pegasus in Flight and Pegasus in Space are by Anne McCaffrey and feature psychically gifted children/teens.  If a high school or tween age or older fan of that topic is looking in paranormal/urban fantasy for a new author they won't find her.

 

There are authors who mix magic and science fiction together in the same series.  L.E. Modesit Jr does that in his Saga of Recluse series.  He also writes both fantasy and science fiction that don't mingle the two themes.  In part this series makes me think of the third law proposed by Clarke.  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  In the book Fall of Angels a space ship is thrown into an alternate universe where they can manipulate reality without technology similar to how they did with the aid of technology.

 

Really the problem isn't just that we are even more fatalistic than other generations, we are also victims of labels more than other generations.  Fitting in has always been a large issue, but frankly as far as I can tell it is getting more and more difficult for the individual to hold out against peer pressure.  When you can read any claims that a teen or child thinks they were forced to read a popular work of fiction by threat of ostracism and ridicule to a degree that I have read posts by minors saying they are in tears at school because they aren't allowed by their parents to read something that is sad.  We are allowing American society to take one of the greatest treasures of all, literacy, and turning it into a socially acceptable form of hazing.  I know that they have done it with many other things clothing, video games, cars etc, but to force someone to read genre fiction or you will be mocked is just puzzling to me.

by on ‎10-02-2009 06:20 PM

You know I see this as the time cycle effect on books. It's very easy to chart societal behavior shifts along each century. The effect where on the century roll over has on religion, clothing, sex, music, literature, and art.

 

A century goes from the half way mark like this 50s a time of general contentment, confidence, positive, progress. 60s cultural advancement, a desire for change, progress. 70s are always a sexual boom, moral shifts, abundance, progress. 80s economic advancement, technological leaps, heavy scientific discussion. 90s economic stressors, end of the world hysteria, religious fundamentalist rise. 00s world shock that it didn't go boom, the beginnings of anti religious shift(we all calm down), economic hiccups, progress. 10s economic rise, technological boom, progress. 20s sexual boom, pretty happy world, openness, progress. 30s economic hiccup, nearly always a big wide war, technological boom, progress. 40s rising contentment, hostility's calm down, progress. And it all starts again.

 

This isn't just our past century, this has been the world wide trend in behavior since at least 200BCE perhaps before, records further though are a little sketchy. And Judeo/Christ/Mus.. hasn't helped, blame it on the rapture enthusiasts.

 

Be patient there will be a place for sci/fi again. It just the majority of it's next crop of legendary authors haven't been to preschool  yet.

 


as a side note Paul you been picking great sci/fi books but... great post apocalyptic books. My main concern is how many of us are in a mood right now for a lot of end of the world as we know it entertainment?

 

by Moderator paulgoatallen on ‎10-02-2009 06:35 PM

Melissa_W wrote: "I was a huge science nerd so SF was always interesting to me in how authors could push boundaries in fiction that weren't possible in reality.  Basic science literacy is a declining part of American education - do you think that could also have something to do with the decline in SF?  Since it's had to get even good basic science writing these days."

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Melissa:

I think, yes, the decline in basic science literacy has had an effect although I can't say how much of one – I do know that some readers are scared off by hard SF. Since they may have no real knowledge of the sciences, reading a novel like The Windup Girl may seem too much like work.....and it seems that less "scientists" are writing SF today than, say, in the 1960s and 1970s.

by Moderator paulgoatallen on ‎10-02-2009 06:43 PM

plaidfroggie:

Great comments, although I respectfully disagree. Yes, the boundaries between genres is blurring into nonexistence – and has been for decades. I am a huge supporter of this genre hybridization – just visit the Paranormal fantasy forum! – I think it makes for unique storylines and highly entertaining reads. But here's the thing – the majority of these genre transcendent reads have little to no SF. It's mostly a blend of fantasy, romance and horror. I'd love to see more SF elements in these hybridized novels but so far I've only run across a few... and I think a big reason for this is the whole literary escapism theory. Just like GRRM said: "People no longer believe on some level that the future is going to be a good place and they prefer to read about other times and other places that are maybe not so scary as science fiction.”

by on ‎10-02-2009 08:30 PM

I agree with what George R.R. Martin had to say. Not that I am happy with it.

I have heard the comment from friends that science fiction is too much science, too complicated, not a fast fun read, etc.

But I can't imagine the world without science fiction. When I reach for one of those books that is like an old friend, I will always have Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Niven,etc. to keep me company.

pen21

I am sure I will kick myself for an author I should have mentioned as soon as I hit Post.

by on ‎10-02-2009 08:47 PM

Paul,

 

I know that when I was younger Science Fiction depecticted the advances that would be made in a lot of areas.  I think now that we have a lot of that people are not working or coming up with a lot of new ideas.  Or at least not pusing science as much as they use to .  I know I would like to watch Newton's Apple and Scientic America Frontiers which you very seldom see now days.  They also had Bill Nye's the Science Guy.   Young people are just not exposed to the Sciences now like they use to be.

 

Toni

by plaidfroggie on ‎10-03-2009 12:12 AM

Melissa,

 

I do agree with you about not being in the mood to read postapocolyptic science fiction right now.  I also am not in the mood for 1984 Big Brother scenarios either.  Mostly because the other spectrum end of the spectrum is not there as much anymore. There have been several movies along the lines of "technology to spy on us being utilized by evil branches of the government" and while I have seen some of them now that illegal wire tapping by the US government has been confirmed it is entirely too depressing for me to think about going to see movies where you learn about new spy gadgets real or imaginary.  I would like to see something less hopeless and I miss the more comedic science fiction as well.  Even Douglas Adams ended Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on a giant down note.

 

Paul,

 

Though it is softer science fiction The Talent series would be a great Paranormal/Science Fiction crossover because it represents a hopeful launch into space and it isn't until The Tower series that aliens are even introduced to that particular "world".  Also the Dragonriders of Pern contains a paranormal theme of telepathic contact with the dragons.  Dragonsdawn does get to the point in saying just how dragons were bred from the native fire lizards, by genetic engineering, but humans just plain had the abilities to begin with.  I can't help but think that if a book had witches, elves, vampires etc fighting space aliens that it would automatically be classified science fiction just because aliens were thrown in.  I just know that if I am reading a certain genre I might be more likely to buy a book by a new author that happens to be on the science fiction shelf than I would be to wander the bookstore at random.  I do believe that if the boundaries are going to blur into nothing that it is interesting that they do still have classifications other than fiction.  My high school only separated out horror and romance and that was because they were primarily paperbacks that had never been offered in hardcover.  There were exceptions like Stephen King and some others, but really I don't recall seeing Harlequin romance novels published in hard cover first since they are churned out so rapidly.  The same was true for many of the cheesier horror authors who were published by smaller presses.  Unfortunately even when they did get a hardcover Stephen King novel my high school chose to put a small bookcase in as well as the wire racks to keep him segregated.  Mercedes Lackey is still in the sci-fi/fantasy section with her Serrated Edge series and Diane Tregard both of which are urban fantasy and were in fact the first urban fantasy series I had read.  Yet the only science fiction book I can think of that she wrote is The Ship Who Searched with Anne McCaffrey.  I started reading other books by Mercedes Lackey because I was a fan of The Brain and Brawn series.  I don't understand why Lackey's two series have not been moved to the Paranormal/Urban fantasy shelves at my local bookstore now that it has a separate location.

 

To those who say literacy especially science is on the decline:

 

My school district only required two years of math and science unless a student flunked the math competency exam and had to take basic math their senior year.  I took all the science classes my high school offered including fighting to be allowed to take comparative anatomy both with my mother and my high school.  My mother didn't want to pay a lab fee for me to "cut up a cat" and my high school guidance counselor told me that my AP classes interfered with taking comparative anatomy.  As a solution I said I would drop down to a regular senior college Prep English class and I was told I was not allowed since English was required and the teacher would not allow me to drop the class for my senior year.  The issue was that I would not have a lunch period and I bluffed and won, which was a relief.  I told them that while English was required 4 years that AP English wasn't and my mother would be happy for me to drop down to a regular section and not have to pay for an 80 dollar textbook, the AP test fee, and the paperback novels required for the class.  I was bluffing since my mother would not have backed up my wanting to take comparative anatomy, though it was true she wasn't thrilled about the AP English expenses.  Quite honestly there were two boys who had the same schedule with me and I didn't hear that they were called in to their guidance counselors and told the same lie.  I graduated in 1990 and I don't know if female high school students are subtly discouraged to drop out of any science classes now or not.  My senior year the physics teacher divied up the seating arrangements with the girls on one side and the boys on the other and let the boys cheat and take their tests as a group.  He was a football coach and there were a couple of football players in my physics class.  Basically the smartest boy did all the problems and the rest pretty much just copied off his paper.  After the first test a few of the girls dropped the class.  Our high school was ruled by football enough to know if we complained that nothing would be done about it, the boys wouldn't get zeros, the teacher wouldn't get reprimanded and change.

 

They should require math and sciences all through high school, although they don't bother as far as I have been able to tell.  There are people who will argue they never use Geometry in day to day life, but I have to wonder exactly how often you analyze a poem and break it apart by all the literary devices on a day to day basis in most fields as well.  I don't know too many engineers, doctors, lawyers, business people etc that would list that on a job resume.  Even the girls who took the same math classes I did from the 8th grade on when they did the pilot 8th grade Algebra class elected to take pre-Calculus instead of Calculus senior year.  The only other girl in my Calculus class was a transfer from another school district who decided to take it to be with her boyfriend.  I hate to say it but as far as it went I was glad to see them go, they punctuated the Advanced Math lectures with whispers and giggles though they didn't behave like that in any of the other classes like history or English I had with them.  I found out later that I was the subject of hatred for not dumbing down and causing some of the boys to end up with B's instead of A's in English and still being the only one in Advanced Math that finished every night the leap of logic most difficult question of the homework assignments.  The other girls didn't want to be like me though my best friend didn't tell me until after my freshman year of college.  It was instigated by the two most popular boys of my graduating class, the twins who were on the football team and apparently there was a schoolwide moratorium amongst the "in" crowds that I should be snubbed.  It might have bothered me if anyone had informed me, but I hadn't fit in with even the most popular of the "smart" crowd because we moved to the school district when I was in the 4th grade and they had known each other since kindergarten.  I might have gained acceptance but I was "too smart" and teachers kept trying to turn me into teacher's pet and the other "gifted" kids resented me from midway through 4th grade.

 

We only had one female science teacher and she taught both chemistry and comparative anatomy.  She was hated because she suffered migraines and we had substitute teachers often and on tests when the whole class missed the same questions because she didn't mention it in class and it wasn't in our books, she staunchly maintained that the entire class was not paying attention to things that we didn't see until the test reviews.  This was including middle school science teachers for our school district.  Our school district had its ways of discouraging female students from majoring in science in college as well as both my guidance councelor (yet another football coach) and my AP English teacher discouraged me from applying to colleges with science programs.  Even though my AP English teacher did assist me with my applications for engineering programs at the 3 in state colleges he pushed really hard for me to apply to a liberal arts college as well even after I got a full academic women in engineering scholarship, well it didn't include room and board, he still acted like I needed a liberal arts college backup.  Between peer pressure and male faculty discrimination I can see why many of the teenage girls in my college prep classes were saying "I am going to college and becoming an elementary school teacher so I don't have to take a bunch of math".

 

 

 

 

by on ‎10-03-2009 03:59 PM

Paul,

 

I'm not a participant in your board discussions, but I was fascinated by your article.  Just reading the title.....Why is Science Fiction Dying sent me thinking.  My first thought was:  We are now living the science fiction of the past.  I agree with what you've said, and what George R.R. Martin says. 

 

We read for enjoyment, or knowledge, and if we are living in this current state, it's not all that enjoyable to 're-live' it over and over again.  It was like living during the war in Vietnam.  How many books, and how many movies do I want to subject myself to, over and over again, of something that was so terrible?

 

Science is changing at an incredible rate, but it's serious stuff.  I lived through going to the moon....with the knowledge we have now of what's out there is space, - is there life on other planets, solar systems, etc., or do we see the dread of black holes?   It doesn't look like it promises much at this time....but, the real science is zeroing in on the mind.  I've noticed more TV programs center themes around what and where our minds will take us.  I'm not a reader of either sci fi, or paranormal/ fantasy fiction.  I read mostly contemporary novels, dealing with human relationships in the present time.  Although, when I started the Wordsmithsonia thread in the Com. Rm., I wanted to delve into the fantasy writing genre.  It made me live in the past, to write in that period.  Gothic, knights, and dragons...periods that I really know very little about, but fun to take the imagination to, and write about.  It is a way of getting out of the problems of living in the now, it's a fun way of escapism.  We got through those periods, so maybe in the future, we'll look back on this period in time, and write about it.

 

So, what ever belongs in the escape mode, that's where you'll find both readers and writers.

by Moderator dhaupt on ‎10-08-2009 11:21 AM

Wow Paul another great article, sorry I missed it until now.

I am a great big fan of fantasy/urban fantasy/paranormal and only a small fan of main stream science fiction. And I think Mr. Martin's answer to that question is not only profound but very true. But let me put my two cents in also.  As a reader I want escapism and if that doesn't include some kind of eventual immortality, fairy mound, gotten bitten by a paranormal creature or even a trip to middle earth all the ray guns and moons of jupiter just don't do it for me unless you put it in the form of a romance. Now if you put a shapeshifter on another planet or send an alien here with special powers AND and yes that was a BIG and make it some sort of paranormal/sci-fi romance you'll hit pay dirt. So maybe Science Fiction isn't dying it's just taking on another facet maybe if the authors have the characters suck face (or wherever) and have that all elusive HEA (happy ever after) then they'll sell all the copies they can print.

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