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.