Wednesday, April 22, 2009

SF Is Dead -- Again

Last week there arrived in my mailbox Nebula Awards Showcase 2009, the annual volume featuring the 2008 winners and runners-up, this time edited by Ellen Datlow. Ellen has, per tradition, also included brief essays from various writers. Barry Malzberg's is especially provocative.

Barry starts by quoting Brian Stableford, with more recent back-up from John Clute, that SF from about 1950 to 1980 served a particular purpose: a means to mentally integrate the explosion of twentieth-century technology (cars, radios, TV, antibiotics, space flight) with the human verities. That's why it enjoyed such unprecedented popularity. Now, however, Barry says, we've pretty much accepted that tech will keep coming and changing society, so SF as a genre has lost popularity. Witness, he says, the contents of this Nebula anthology, most of which are really fantasy, like the rest of the genre: "replete with zombies, voodoo, strange doings in basements, vampires, space travel accomplished through psychic means, alternate histories...This is not your grandfather's or father's science fiction, and much of it is not science fiction at all."

A few points here are unarguable. Fantasy is now exponentially more popular than SF. There are a lot of hybrid stories (although my own in that volume, "Fountain of Age," is not one). But I would disagree that the reality of technological change is "integrated" into our society: We're still fighting about evolution, for heavens' sake! I think actual SF is still being written. Here are three critical points: (1) If the audience for it is small, it always was. Those magazines that published SF in what Barry calls "those halcyon days" never had a huge circulation. (2) Hybrids such as he describes were also an important part of The Golden Age: witness, as just one of many examples I could name, Sturgeon's More Than Human. (3) The basic purpose he describes -- the means to integrate human verities with things that are new and strange -- is served by good SF, by good fantasy-SF hybrids, and by pure fantasy. The form may have expanded -- not "degenerated," as Barry says -- but the end is still the same.

Still, the essay is definitely worth reading, as Barry always is. Recommended.


David D. Levine said...

Well, Barry's always been a curmudgeon, and so old-fashioned that he still types a lowercase L for the numeral 1 (a habit so out of date that proofreaders no longer seem to check for it -- this has been a constant issue in the Resnick/Malzberg Dialogs in the SFWA newsletter, and take a close look at the introduction to Malzberg's essay). Provocative, yes, but I find I tend to discount his rants because he's so habitually negative.

Daniel said...

I was talking to someone about SF now vs. fifty years ago (I know, I'm not that old). It seems to me that old SF was about wonder and new ideas. Now days, no one is awestruck. No one is impressed anymore. The idea of aliens or space ships or robots no longer seems unreal. I don't know, maybe it's just me.

Mark said...

I'd say that SF is becoming *the* dominany genre in art & literature, more so because of ever faster technological advances. Witness all the CSI type shows & how much they lean on technology.

Good literature will always be good literature, no matter the genre :-) Keep writing the good stuff!

cd said...

Consider the huge volumes of sf consumed in other media. This is probably the time in which SF is most widely consumed -- a veritable golden age. There are SF tv programs on all the endless cable channels; sf movies do very well and are frequently made.

It's only SF fiction that has been squeezed, right? And not squeezed in terms of numbers of books printed, but in terms such as subscriptions to the print magazines or average pay-per-word to writers of print sf.


Datlow said...

I really would like to point out that the next essay in the book, by Kathleen Ann Goonan, responds to Barry's essay about science fiction.

Pipedreamer said...

Honestly, I wish people would stop saying SF is dead. It isn't dead or even dying. It's evolving, integrating, perhaps, but certainly not dying.

Yes, classic space operas and hard SF seem to have passed out of vogue, but the trade off is that sci-fi is creeping into everything else. For instance, most television series incorporate gadgets that don't exist yet.

Characters in the TV series Bones use a holographic display. Shows like CSI and NCIS employ wildly advanced software to catch criminals. The topic of future genetic engineering feats are regularly incorporated into drama series.

It's not that sci-fi is disappearing. It has just become so common in our tech-jaded world that we don't notice it in small doses anymore.

JDsg said...

SF is not quite dead, but it's most definitely on life support. After spending about 20 years reading SF (almost exclusively) starting in my teenage years, I began to read other subjects (mostly non-fiction) from about the early 90s through the early 00s. So there was this 10-15 year gap where I missed the SF to Fantasy transition. Around 2002, after having moved to Asia, I began to rebuild my SF collection, being primarily interested in re-reading old favorites, but finding that bookstores were loaded with crap, at least to me. My taste in SF is strongly toward Hard SF, the more realistic the better (e.g., KS Robinson's Mars trilogy). Fantasy has almost become unreadable; even a classic like LOTR, which I've always loved, is becoming more difficult to endure. So I came to the conclusion several years ago that SF was dying, and have my own pet theory for why this is.

Basically, the theory boils down to science education. I believe that the abysmal state of science education in the West has created an illiteracy in the topic among the book-reading public. Likewise, the authors. I believe we've seen a trend since the 40s/50s among authors (with some notable exceptions) who had a solid grounding in the hard sciences to those in the late 60s/early 70s with more of a grounding in the soft, social sciences, to those who now have no grounding in any science. (Once again, to reiterate, there are notable exceptions.) These last, the non-grounded authors, who might wish to write SF but can't because they don't understand science or how it might affect the story, moved into fantasy instead where no such limitations hamper them. Younger readers, not being any better than the authors, followed suit. (It didn't help matters that the older generation of SF writers began dying off or retiring. It's not that new writers didn't come up through the ranks to replace them; some did, but not enough. And other authors, like CJ Cherryh, began writing more for fantasy because that's where the market is.)

As to this being a "golden age" for SF TV and films, yes and no. In terms of special effects, yes, of course. But in terms of the types of work being produced, no. There was a story a few months back, perhaps on one of the Yahoo boards, that complained that SF movies were not "fresh," that the variety of SF movies coming out was limited and where were the new SF stories? And I thought, there are literally hundreds of SF novels and shorter works that would make for excellent movies or TV episodes, but they're largely undiscovered. That, to me, is the larger problem, not that SF isn't being translated into different, visual media, but that there's a lot of SF that could be adapted but isn't. The writers are being short-changed.

Mark said...

Pipedreamer & JD: Agreement.
While I must say most skiffy on tv is bad, *science* fiction is being integrated into drama, etc. as a result of our accelerating technological advancement. Unfortunately, most people who watch the kind of shows mentioned do not realize just how much science fictiony those shows have become.

More critical thinking and hard science education is required obviously. So is financial education, but that's a topic for a different blog....

Unknown said...

"We're still fighting about evolution, for heavens' sake!"

Only in the States, my dear. Only in the States.

JDsg said...

@ Mark: Unfortunately, most people who watch the kind of shows mentioned do not realize just how much science fictiony those shows have become.Visually, science fiction-inspired? Yes. "Science fictiony?" Maybe. I think this depends on your definition of science fiction. If you use a weaker (more inclusive) definition of SF (say, "any use of real or imagined science and/or technology within the story"), then many stories outside the bounds of traditional SF might be included; e.g., Pipedreamer's example of CSI. I brought this up with my wife yesterday as she's a big CSI fan, but mostly avoids SF (especially in the written form, although she'll watch SF movies and BSG with me). When I asked her if CSI could be considered SF, she also replied that it depended upon the definition being used. (Great minds think alike. ;) ) For me, I use a stronger definition for SF (say, "where the primary emphasis of the story is told through the use of real or imagined science and/or technology"). Thus, a series like CSI would never be SF to me (crime/mystery, instead), although individual episodes may occasionally fit the stronger definition. The James Bond movie, "The World is Not Enough" used a holographic projection of Renard's (Robert Carlyle) head, but that didn't make the movie SF in my eyes.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the use of this "covert" means of making TV/movies more "science fictiony," but it's not SF to me.

James A. Ritchie said...

Wasn't it Peter Graham who said, "The golden age of science fiction is twelve."

I believe this is why real science fiction has lost much of its popularity. Most science fiction today, and in the last twenty to thirty years, comes in thoe form of stories and themes a twelve year old wouldn't go near.

TV tends to deal with sci-fi, action/adventure, thud and blunder stories.

Real science fiction just seems to take itself so damned seriously that it often bores me to tear. I don't read because I want a political view, because I want to know how this or that religion is gouing to enslave us all in the future, or because I care a whit about dire warnings of any kind.

Science is good, but I read fiction because I want to be swept away on a great adventure. I want to be a twelve year old when I read science fiction, but I find this in very, very little science fiction today, and I doubt younger teens do, either.