In its introduction to its list of the best science fiction and fantasy of the year, the io9 website says 2012 was a great year for books that transcended genre boundaries. I had no problem with them talking about science fiction that turned out to be fantasy (not sure what they actually meant by that, since it’s all fantasy in the dictionary sense of the word, rather than the publishing category). But I do question their statement that “stories that began as outer space battles turned into thought-provoking meditations on the political future of humanity.” Seriously? But, doesn’t the best science fiction do that anyway? And has it not always done so? This kind of disingenuousness is one of the issues that plagues the image of science fiction nowadays.
Leaving aside those who simply don’t want to read science fiction, there appear to be two schools of thought about the genre’s relative value. One, that it can (should?) extend beyond its genre boundaries. And two, that there’s nothing wrong with straight science fiction that’s simply for fun, and providing that sense of wonder that originated in the pulps. Here at AISFP we’re debating the apparent decline in adult SF readership, with authors turning to YA, which apparently sells better. Having no evidence to back this up, I suspect that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “reports on the death of science fiction have been greatly exaggerated.”
What are we actually discussing here? The decline of “hard” SF, or pure scientific/political extrapolation? Is fun space opera on the way out? While it’s true you’re unlikely to find Walter John Williams on the same bookshelf as JK Rowling — other than in the homes of those of us who read that widely — it’s surely true that the Star Wars books continue to sell well, and even game tie-ins like Tobias S. Buckell’s Halo novel and others of its ilk. This begs the question of whether movie and console game tie-ins are a good or bad thing. My own view is that, if it encourages people to read, there’s nothing wrong with the tie-ins. As to whether this moves people to seek out more SF, by different authors, unrelated to a film of TV series, that’s debatable.
In my short tenure as a reviewer for AISFP, and looking at the advance catalogues from publishers, I am seeing less of what I would call science fiction per se, though there is still quite a decent amount of that around. Instead, there appear to be more crossovers and pure fantasies these days (most recently, Kay Kenyon’s A Thousand Perfect Things). Frankly, I found this a little surprising. And, looking at some publishers’ advance listings, what comes under the general science fiction banner contains more fantasy than what I would deem science fiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If anything, the publishing labels “science fiction,” “fantasy,” “horror,” and even “literature” are just that: labels. I believe what is happening these days is often a mélange. Science fiction-cum-fantasy-cum-horror (the current vogue for zombie books and films is the perfect illustration of this). As for the literary value of science fiction, why is that so important? Isn’t it okay that science fiction can simply be for fun, while also leaving room for the literary end of the genre.
Margaret Atwood, so beloved of the literati and an author for whom I have the highest regard, once denied having written science fiction, but later moderated her comments somewhat. Oryx and Crake, a recent novel, is absolutely science fiction — okay, purists, maybe there’s some fantasy in there as well — and The Blind Assassin has many science fictional passages and pays homage to pulp SF of yore. Not forgetting The Handmaid’s Tale – also science fiction. And, in response to a question show host, Tim Ward, sent me by email, these are the very types of novels that would appeal to readers who claim despise science fiction. I’d also add Audrey Niffenegger’s wonderful The Time Traveler’s Wife.
To come back to the question of authors changing horses from adult science fiction to YA, what’s wrong with that? Sure, they want to make some money. But it’s not as though YA is a downgrade. I feel confident in saying that YA at its best can appeal to adult readers as much as teens. For my own part, it was Robert Heinlein’s books for teenagers (we were not back then called “YAs”) which introduced me to the wonders of science fiction. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy, which went to prove one can actually write morally complex, dystopian science fiction marketed to young people.
So, let’s not be afraid of the potential death of science fiction, but instead welcome the evolution of literary forms. In much the same way that music continues to change and grow, with techno tracks meshing with folk and world music, for example (Afro Celt Sound System, Nitin Sawhney, et al.), science fiction also is bound to change with the times.
The closure of the major bookshop chains such as Borders, and suggestions that literacy levels are dropping, haven’t helped the sales of books generally, and certainly not science fiction in articular. However, the popularity of reading devices such as the Kindle and the Nook are driving an upsurge of sales of e-books, and it tends to be the SF geeks who are first to adopt any new technology. Which means that, if SF as was generally understood has an evidently lower profile, we can’t blame readers. People are certainly reading. So it may be just the current zeitgeist that’s to blame.
Bookshops and publishers will push the flavor of the month at the expense of equally worthy material. Interestingly the bookshop chain in Scotland, Waterstone’s, has good, varied science fiction shelves, while their fantasy and horror shelves tend to be dominated by the Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings. If science fiction is indeed declining, why then does Waterstone’s offer such a great choice, if it’s down to economics or reader disinterest?
I suspect that uncertainty, suspicion, or even embarrassment, has something to do with the poor image of SF. I knew a rabid SF fan, who would shove his latest read behind a cushion if his wife, or friends, happened on him reading on the couch. Embarrassed to be caught reading science fiction. Then there are those who view the genre with suspicion or uncertainty: if it’s set in the future, or about something that doesn’t exist, why would it interest me? In much the same way that some people who love Stephen King claim they never read horror novels.
I’m not convinced that non-SF readers understand the delights the genre holds, and may even have some fixed ideas about it being spaceships and aliens, or something of the sort. All us SF fans could do worse than introduce our non-fan friends to some of the literary works I mention here, and even some of the great short stories in the genre that prove that 1) you don’t need to know any science to enjoy sf, 2) that it is worthy of respect and enjoyment as any other literary form and 3) remind them that some of the films they enjoyed are actually science fiction (Inception, The Adjustment Bureau, Gamer – all fine examples of films that are respectful to science fiction).
Another problem is that mainstream newspapers rarely review science fiction. The UK’s Guardian newspaper does, but I can’t think of others, off the top of my head. A more mainstream presence, whether in the broadsheets or the tabloids, would potentially give the genre more credence that it’s credited with right now. If only science fiction were talked about in the open, rather than hidden in a cupboard (see my own blog posting, The SF Word and More Hollywood Curses) the situation might change. AISFP listeners and readers could do worse than direct their friends to the show, too (shameless plug)- and listen to some of the incisive interviews which demonstrate even more of the things that can potentially improve the image of science fiction with a wider audience. The science fiction community, as I know it, is generous, widely read across different genres, and themselves would make great ambassadors for the genre – if for no other reason than to prove that cosplay and trekkiedom is only a populist misconception about what science fiction really is.
Finally, while I would welcome more straight-ahead science fiction, I don’t believe we need to cling to the old tropes. Genre lovers can be every bit as hidebound in their thinking as the literati. But I also agree with io9 that the best science fiction does indeed transcend genre boundaries.
Instead of desperately clinging to the wreckage, why don’t we just gather up all that splintered wood and floatation and build a new boat? Or, at least, a liferaft.
John Dodds is the author of The Kendrick Chronicles crime novels (Bone Machines and Kali’s Kiss ) and, under a pseudonym, JT Macleod, has written a collection of historical/paranormal/erotic/romance stories called Warriors and Wenches, as well as the first novel in YA steampunk series called The Mechanikals.