Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If Science-Fiction is dying, let it...

it'll only find a way to resurrect and come back with awesome super powers.

I don't usually get involved in internet debates because, well, I never know about them until it's too late but this was brought to my attention by different people over the past couple of weeks and the subject is close enough to my heart that I've decided to butt in.

In yet another display of rather SF-ish non-fatal spontaneous combustion, the blogosphere is alight again as everyone tries to decide whether Science-Fiction is or is not “dead” as a genre. Number are being bandied about showing (usually) a decline in the number of sales of SF books and comparing those to other genres, including its close relative, Fantasy.
The truth, as I see it anyway, is that this debate has been had before and there is very little new to say about it. First off, you can't really compare SF to most other genres, especially giants like Crime and Romance.

This is because SF is a completely different beast that is aimed at a very particular sort of market. It takes completely different thinking muscles to absorb SF and see it for what it really is: the human condition, taken away from its natural environment and poked, prodded and probed into showing its true colors. A lot of people, intelligent, educated people even, just can't wrap their heads around it. Okay, their loss, but they are the majority and book sales are naturally going to reflect this.

Secondly, yes, Fantasy is gaining in popularity and there are huge amounts of new titles making the shelves. This is also natural, especially after the popular success of Harry Potter. Fantasy is much more accessible than Science-Fiction. People who previously would not have been caught dead in the Nerd section of the bookshop are now seeking it out. Does this mean that SF will die and only Fantasy will remain? I don't think so. After all, there have been some huge success stories in the genre but that's driven by a massive number of people buying books from a very small number of authors rather than wide success of Fantasy titles in general. The truth is that most Fantasy novels do as well as most SF novels, maybe they do worse actually, except perhaps in the YA market, it's just more showy.

SF is not a genre given to massive success in its literary form. It's a genre where success is measured in longevity and influence. Some books do well financially but because its not easily accessible to the masses like some Fantasy can be, you will simply never see the same kind of numbers. SF has been proclaimed moribund regularly for decades but if you look at pop culture, at life itself, you see that the great works of the past are everywhere. They have infiltrated almost every aspect of life with the stealth of a ninja. Compare the contributions of the Romance genre on the world with that of SF. People quote SF every day, use SF every day, think cellphones, cyberspace (a word and concept from Gibson's Neuromancer), the moon landing... Even Fantasy which is so commonly associate it with it that they often go together as SFF has not been assimilated as much into our collective consciousness. That's why SF cannot die. Because it touches people in ways they don't even realize. It's a slow process of contagion. All it needs is one Typhoid Mary.

Carrying on with the disease metaphor (because in SF we like our diseases, what can I say?), the virus has to mutate over time in order to defeat what we will call drug resistance. In this case, that means outdated tropes. SF flourished during the Cold War but we've moved on from those times and those worries. The things that scare us now, the things we need to strip of the real world so we can see it more clearly, are completely different therefore the genre naturally changes to speak to these new visions of the future, of humanity and the universe. What was relevant back then, is not relevant now and that is what SF is basically all about, being relevant. Some subgenres of SF are more popular and others that used to be are not. That is true of every literary genre. It is necessary to renew the genre, revitalize it. Maybe your favorite subgenre is not what it used to be, your space operas are darker or heroes less heroic but this is just a reply to people's needs changing. There are so many new subgenres of SF that there has to be something out there that speaks to you, just consider all the “something”-punk variety. There's something for everyone whether you want something that reminds you of Jules Vernes' books or you're more of an Asimovite.

Perhaps this is part of the problem. There is so much now that can be classified as SF that people just don't know anymore what is SF and what isn't. What is your criteria for what constitutes Science-Fiction? Does it have to have aliens? Does it have to be in the future? Consider Steampunk, that's still usually considered SF but it's usually set in an alternate past. Maybe the genre has become somewhat diluted and people are losing track of how much of it there is and the confusion comes from there. Personally, I think this is a very good thing. SF is not a genre that should be limited. On the contrary, it should be free to diverge, converge and diverge again. The ideas behind it should mix and hybridize like a million Captain Kirks set loose among the women of the galaxy.


Conojito said...

Chanters, that last image will haunt my nightmares for months!
However, gotta say that I totally agree with everything you've said here, and that SF's ability to mutate and survive will outlast any detractors. I responded to Figure's initial post on his LJ saying much the same as you, but with significantly less erudition.

Melissa in England!! said...

Agreed, on all points! :o)