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.”