The Sky Isn’t Falling: Science Fiction as a Genre

Lately, it seems like there have been numerous article and opinion pieces on the state of the science fiction genre, as opposed to the fantasy and horror genres, with science fiction losing out to both and declining as a field. More women make up the total readership, and tend to read more towards the fantasy genre, while commercial ready fiction such as True Blood, The Dresden Files and Twilight have pushed their respective genres towards audiences that are highly receptive towards what they have to offer. Speculative fiction as a genre is not going away: rather, it seems to be growing stronger, with more ties towards the literary fields and with a growing readership. Science fiction is not a genre to be counted out, but it is a style of fiction that will need to undergo much thematic change in the future in order to remain relevant to readers.

Science Fiction as a whole is one that covers a wide range when it comes to themes and topics, and simply stating that the genre as a whole is failing is a rather meaningless, if somewhat dramatic statement. To say that people will stop writing about the speculative future is to say that people will stop imagining what will happen next: that is simply not going to happen. Rather, it is more realistic to assume that some of the more traditional stories might go away as our understanding of the world around us changes: this is a natural expectation.

Science Fiction is a genre that acts as a mirror for the present. It acts as a rare opportunity for creators to examine commonplace issues in a way that it relates to the present; viewing current events out of context as a way of examining them from afar. This is something that I don’t believe is new or revelatory when it comes to analyzing the genre, but it is something that bears reminding as people attempt to predict the future of the genre as a whole.

The future of science fiction isn’t limited to literature.

Amongst other articles that I’ve heard reiterated most often is the decline in the fiction that is presented in book (or soon, in virtual book) form. While that might be the case, especially compared to the rise of competing genres, science fiction is not limited to the printed page. As technology progresses, new avenues have presented themselves as methods for the genre to thrive. Content-wise, science fiction is a genre that fits very well with any number of video game systems, and the rise of games with larger story arches, such as Mass Effect, Halo, Gears of War and others demonstrate that science fiction has moved forward with interactive stories that have appealed to a very large audience. I don’t believe that I’ve seen a comparable success with the any sort of video game that follows ‘high-browed’ literature style to tell a dramatic story.

Similarly, while the same isn’t true with films, it’s very clear that while they don’t win awards as consistently as dramatic films, they can still do very, very well when it comes to earning money for their creators and generating a wide following. One doesn’t have to look far beyond Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and Avatar in recent years to realize that people do like science fiction and fantasy in large numbers. Even looking at the critical reception of films such as Inception, Moon, District 9, and Pan’s Labyrinth to see that the genres are capable of being far more than ‘just’ crowd pleasers, but can also act as an introspective on the problems and conflicts that surround us in everyday life, addressing themes on identity and culture, morals and ethics, just to name a scant few.

Speculative fiction hawks have to get away from academic acceptance.

Listening to a piece on NPR the other day, I listened to Margaret Atwood note that it paid to be somewhat cautious when labeling works of fiction. She herself was caught up in a bit of drama when she characterized her works as being speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, characterizing her work as speculative fiction, creating a distinction between the genres, which rubbed numerous science fiction fans the wrong way, prompting a lot of speculation as to the nature of the genre. Reading over numerous book blogs and talking with fellow readers, it’s clear that there is a large rift amongst people as to how to accept science fiction.

Science fiction seems to largely be unclaimed by the literary academic fields, dismissed from major awards on numerous grounds. I noted the bitterness in an acquaintance’s words that a literary award was left devoid of science fiction and fantasy works, and I have had to wonder there is such attention paid to the status of the genre in these fields as other books have gained considerable attention in the mass media, such as Cormic McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, both of which seemed to fall under a more mainstream section of the genre, while enjoying what appears to have been quite a lot of critical and commercial success. At the same time, other books, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, and Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora seem to have done very well within their speculative genres, if the outcry of fans over the delays in the third book of Lynch’s stories and the quick sellout of Priest’s sequel novella are anything to go on.

Obviously, labels matter to an extent, but only when it comes to the marketing of said fictions, which makes the complaints about the literary discrimination seem only stranger to me, from both sides of the spectrum. While Atwood’s remarks seemed remarkably short sighted for an established storyteller, numerous science fiction novels that line my shelves are ones that I can point to as superior works of literature, groundbreaking even outside of their own genres. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was a series that provided some profound philosophical and religious points for me as a high school student, while Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 provided an understanding and appreciation for knowledge that remains with me to this point. The fantastic fiction that is out there provides argument and understanding on par with numerous works of literature, and I heartedly believe that genre snobbery is something that is largely baseless and short sighted.

Despite the labels that are out there, books like The Road and The Year of the Flood demonstrate that there is a leaking out of the genre to other genres, and one doesn’t necessarily have to go to the science fiction section of the bookstore to find books that could largely fall within the genre. The label on the back of the book matters very little, and readers should be more aware of what else is out in print, especially as regular fiction catches up to the present. Given that we are increasingly living in a world that is science fictional, it stands to reason that some of that will bleed into our entertainment.

That all being said, the genre has survived for going on a century at this point, often as a crowd-pleasing genre, and one that certainly wouldn’t attract any academic or critical interest at various points in its history.

Fans need to understand that Speculative Fiction is about change… and it is changing.

If there is any one lesson that Science Fiction as its own, self-contained sub genre can impart, it is that the future is going to present a changed reality for all of those who inhabit it. The stories tend to follow how the protagonists can change their world for the better, usually based upon their actions. (This is a broad assumption, but one that I feel is valid) As such, it needs to be understood that the environment that fostered the genre in its earlier, formative days has given way to a world that has been drastically changed by economic, environmental and political events that leaves the current generation of readers with a vastly different understanding of the world as opposed to those who grew up during the Cold War.

Science fiction of the recent past was heavily influenced by world events: a book such as A Canticle for Lebowitz is one that likely could not have been written in the present day, ground breaking as it is. Fiction generally relates to its surrounding cultural contexts: It comes as no surprise that a film such as District 9 would succeed commercially and critically in today’s present environment, whereas a film such as Star Wars did the same in the 1970s.

As such, the works within the genre should be expected to change with times, as our understanding of the present (as well as our understanding of technology and the things that surround us) changes. Works of epic space opera such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and some of the minor space arcs such as Timothy Zahn’s Conqueror’s Trilogy or Ender’s Game fit within their own contexts.

A common argument that has been talked about is that the futures presented in the past tended to be optimistic, with people believing that the future held a brighter future for humanity, which in turn translated into works of science fiction. Today, the opposite seems to be true, and as such, the fiction that tends to look backwards towards better days – fantasy – seems to be on the rise. At the same time, the science fiction that seems to be garnering more attention is the dystopia stories: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl and assorted stories, Cormic McCarthy’s The Road, and the multitudes of zombie novels that predict our demise in the rise of undead and lone libertarians seeking to preserve the American way of life out on their own. In a way, the most successful form of science fiction to come is likely Steampunk, which presents a darker form of science fiction, set in the past, where readers can feel comforted that their current world of advanced technology (or at least medical science) leaves us much better off than in the Victorian world.

Science fiction isn’t dying, dead or going anywhere.

I don’t believe that this is the case, at all: science fiction is a genre that has been seen to present some utterly fantastic and relevant stories for readers, addressing concerns of the present day in a twisted context. Looking beyond the artificial walls that genre terms provide, it’s likely that the stories that we grew up with are likely going to change a bit: the random adventure in a space ship with strange aliens and laser guns might not be quite as common in the wider genre world, but they’re likely to be replaced by stories that offer far different visions and interpretations of the future, by simple virtue of being written and created in the present day. ‘Real life’ is rapidly becoming something out of a science fiction novel, with hand-held computers, global positioning sensors and advances in all sorts of other technologies.

While some of the subject matter is changing, so to is the mediums that we can see the genre, and by this virtue alone, science fiction and fantasy is a genre that is here to stay, simply because it is a resilient genre that can fill numerous forms. Life itself spreads and survives on numbers, so to does the speculative fiction genres, where massive franchises of video games, movies and tie-in fiction enthralled millions of fans each day, generating excitement at the box office, blogs and conventions, where people look to the next really cool thing that they can take in. In its popularity, it is already bleeding into the mainstream consciousness through any number of forms. At this point, do mainstream literary awards matter for the genre as a whole, or signal some form of mainstream acceptance of the genre? I doubt it.

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6 thoughts on “The Sky Isn’t Falling: Science Fiction as a Genre

  1. This trend is actually making it easier for people like me (working on projects like gaming in schools) to come up with storylines that don’t seem as blatantly absurd as they might have 20 years ago. Overall, the ubiquity of science in contemporary culture makes science fiction seem more relevant to John Q. Public, which (in turn) manifests as a direct correlation between science in our day-to-day lives and a positive view of the sciences (compared to non-scientific endeavors).

    The trick now is to use this as a foundation to encourage more young people to enter the biology, chemistry, and physics as long-term career paths.

    • It is far more acceptable, which I think is great. I can get away with reading a hefty-SF/F novel in public, and I can also use said texts to speak intelligently about the future, or at least the present.

      • It has a lot to do with the major culture shift taking place right now; the blending of 90s punk culture with what can only be described as “nerd culture” has led to a major revolution in what we see as socially acceptable. The increase in the population participating in this “geekchic” culture inevitably led to mainstreaming of the participants’ values, and thus we have major corporations catering to those individuals (look at how popular comic book conventions have become in the last ten years compared to the years prior; the stereotyped image of lonely-Joe-35-year-old-living-in-his-mom’s-basement has become antiquated and replaced with youthful, vibrant people showing that they’re not only interesting and vibrant, but well-educated, capable, creative, and innovative). Science and science fiction are no longer just for pocket-protector nerds – it’s for everyone.

        I’m just glad I’ve gotten to experience a point where my hobbies and values are finally appreciated rather than being scoffed at. :P

      • Indeed – I see it as a certain amount of momentum that had to be pushed forward: with people getting interested on a larger level (beyond one medium) the genre as a whole is strengthened and reinforced.

        I think that a lot of the distress is over SF/F moving on from literature as a dominant form of transmission – video games and movies are a bit element here, and I suspect that books will never fully go away, which is always good.

        I think that another element of worry is that the genre will be dumbed down as it enters new mediums. That’s certainly true for some things, but it’s also not like the genre hasn’t been dumbed down before.

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