Science Fiction's attitude problem
I'm not dead yet.
Every few years someone in the literary industry asks the question - Is science fiction dying? And in the fanzines and the forums the issue is discussed and agonised over, only to always reach the same conclusion - No it's not.
One would have thought that the constant reappearance of the question itself is a sign that something is not right with the genre, regardless of the constant reassurances from fans and writers. And for those who blame its niche status on its seeming inability to break out into wider acceptance or mass market territory, the solution seems to always be that the readers out there need to recognise just how great science fiction is. This of course is a fan view, and the solution involves marketing, often with the view that publishers are simply not pushing science fiction enough or spending enough money on it.
And then of course there's the view that it's the fault of the masses, who are all dumb Dan Brown readers, and that science fiction is overlooked because it's actually a superior genre. The expectation then is that either the masses convert, or that the Booker Prize Literary establishment desist from their snobbish refusal to open the golden gates to their coveted green pastures and recognise science fiction to be their equal. And the irony of accusing one group of snobbery while looking down on others as inferior goes unnoticed in a genre that adopts an identity of such desperate seriousness that it often resembles caricature.
And yet no one has ever worried about the longevity of science fiction in the movie or game world, where it provides healthy returns year on year. For some reason the angst remains confined to the literary world of science fiction.
The rearguard actions fought within literary science fiction to shore up the walls that, apparently, are not coming down, border on the comical. First there was the desire to show off science fiction's uniqueness. Then there was the desire to widen its definition, calling itself Speculative Fiction, presumably to fend off the accusation of being narrow and irrelevant. From there it was a short step to attempt to drag in every other genre within its lofty confines, with a grab bag of great novels past and present being called speculative, and therefore SF. Suddenly
Also dragged into the SF umbrella is the sister genre of Fantasy, in spite of science fiction advocates in the past vociferously denying any connection between the two, though publishers and book sellers begged to differ. The latter won out and we now have the acronym SF & F in marketing. Fantasy of course massively outsells science fiction on all levels, and always has, so if the two are going to be lumped together under one roof, surely SF should become known as Fantasy, rather than Fantasy being known as SF. Because outside the walls of the fan fortress, the average reader sees all science fiction as pure fantasy. And no attempt to macho up SF with the addition of the term Hard Science Fiction appears to be altering that fact.
We are different.
Literary SF has always seen itself as exceptional, with advocates claiming that it is important because it explores the future. Concepts are seen as more important than plot. Fans have written that they want to see 'new ideas', or often just new gadgets. Wafer thin characterisation and dull plots aren't seen as much of a problem by 'proper' SF fans therefore.
Movie and game versions of science fiction however (and their book spin-offs) tend more towards the pure entertainment side of the spectrum. They embrace the simple desires of the masses, who want fun and thrills.
Literary SF's sense of exceptionalism lends itself to elitism. Elites often see themselves as leading the way and setting the trends. There is undeniably an intelligence involved in elitism, but co-existing with that is snobbery and a disconnect from the masses. This disconnect often leaves elites slow or unable to adapt to change, for elites believe that they create their own reality and thus ignore or fail to see larger or deeper trends that can leave them stranded, or simply extinct.
The movie and game versions of science fiction, in embracing the desires of the masses, tend to be more democratic as a result and, rather ironically, tend to birth the trends that literary SF then needs to adapt to. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep did not really change much in the genre, in spite of being much lauded. The movie version Bladerunner on the other hand, with its more traditional, character based plotting, did, and was thus a massive influence on science fiction.
In the ghetto.
The hardcore of science fiction, whilst bemoaning its siege status, has often looked upon its fortress walls with pride. Outsiders to the SF bunker are known as mundanes. Or simply derided as idiots. Science fiction novels that simply want to be entertaining are dismissed as mere tricked out fantasy. Movie and game science fiction is belittled as mere 'sci-fi', with the label being seen as a term of dumbed down ignorance. Authors from outside who dare to write a science fiction novel are criticised for not being well versed enough in the SF canon of venerated tropes. Insiders meanwhile claim that a lifetime's reading of SF gives them a superior perspective that allows them to assess events in the real world with greater percipience.
Hardcore advocates see themselves as enlightened, either defending themselves from the unenlightened or feeling honour bound to preach to them. The echo of their own voices from the fortress walls becomes a form of adulation that confirms their convictions.
And meanwhile science fiction sales fall and science fiction publishing opportunities dwindle.
Being niche isn't a problem if there are enough fans within it to create demand for what's already being written. Science fiction is just one genre among many and there's no suggestion that there isn't room for them all.
It only becomes a problem if one desires science fiction to grace the fiction best selling lists with the same frequency as the other genres, something that is more of a problem in the UK than in the US, where the market appears to be a little more diverse.
A sense of entitlement will get science fiction nowhere, because nobody is listening. Readers are not stupid. They know what they want. Give a few of them what they want and you have a small clique. Give many of them what they want and you have a mass market. It really is as simple as that. Wanting a prize for being different however is just illogical, especially if the prize givers are those whom you loudly proclaim to be morons.
Literary genres such as Westerns or Second World War adventures have disappeared. No genre is so precious that it can be considered immortal. Science fiction may never again be as great as it was during its golden years. But if it wants to survive at all, the first step should be for it to remember one important and frequently overlooked point: that, for all its pretensions and prognostications, it is just fiction.
And there's nothing wrong with being just fiction.
But if that isn't self-important enough, the earnest types should perhaps consider religion or politics.
This article was originally published in my other blog Musings on April 16th, 2012.