OSC Answers Questions
You mention that Science Fiction was the vibrant literature of the last 50
years but that it is now dying. What made is so vibrant, and what is it now losing?
And what are young writers like myself to do, if we would really rather write
Fantasy-SF and not another genre?
-- Submitted by Adam Greenwood
OSC REPLIES: - September 25, 2001
Fantasy is not dying -- fantasy is in the best shape it has ever been in. In
fact, that's one of the reasons science fiction is dying -- it has to fight for shelf
space in the sci-fi/fantasy section with all those big, thick multi-volume fantasy
There are several reasons, I think, why science fiction numbers simply
aren't what they used to be. First, science itself is not offering as many really
exciting new technologies with the scope and grandeur of the new ideas available
from the 1930s to the 1960s. Also, even in technologies not yet achieved, we've
seen so many science fiction variants, each one so often repeated, that they feel as
old hat as if they really existed. Is anybody really intrigued by yet another
Second, most of the tropes were invented two generations ago and they are
now so overused that many readers start to yawn just from the mention of them.
Oh, time travel, right, he goes back and changes his own past, yeah ... That's why
alternate history has blossomed -- at least there's plenty of history in which to
make alterations, whereas we can easily feel as though we've seen all the futures.
Third, in reaction to these problems many science fiction writers have
become either more technical, as they try to explain sciences and technologies that
are really really hard, all the easy ones having been taken, or they have become
more literary, trying to "freshen" science fiction by using techniques the writers
learned from English literature classes. Both tendencies are stultifying, leading to
stories that only ever-smaller audiences can stand to read.
Fourth, cyberpunk just about killed science fiction. This one vision of the
future, a sort of hard-boiled-detective version of sixties drug culture, appealed to
one subset of the science fiction audience but rarely offered one of the strongest
driving forces of science fiction: The hero you can love, admire, care about, root
for. Most of the "heroes" of cyberpunk were lowlifes that, if you saw them on the
street, you'd lock your car doors and drive away as fast as you could. Such heroes
have their place -- but they don't build a large audience of enthusiastic dreamers.
When cyberpunk was new and all the rage, it looked like it was the salvation of
sci-fi. But it's like a hot new restaurant. After the first wave of enthusiasm is
over, you find out how good the cuisine really is by seeing whether it has staying
power. And cyberpunk doesn't. It's an empty future.
Fifth, it's not just that the new wave of fantasy is taking up shelf-space. It's
that fantasies like those of George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, and Robert Jordan
are satisfying many of the cravings that drove science fiction -- they have the
heroes, the world-changing events, and magic offers avenues of exploration that
have been closed off with technology. Some of these fantasies are obviously
science fictional in their handling of milieu and the underpinnings of magic -- it
is arguable that Robin Hobb's brilliant series are science fiction pure and simple.
So those who are reading Ship of Magic or Game of Thrones are satisfied, and
therefore aren't yearning for the next Dune or the next Foundation. Indeed, you
can make a good case for the idea that Ship of Magic is the Foundation and Game
of Thrones is the Dune of our generation.
Sixth, many of our best new writers have been seduced by either fantasy or
literary writing, and so we've lost them.
Seventh, most of us don't really care about the boundary between sci-fi and
fantasy anyway, so as long as one of them is thriving, we don't much care which
one. What matters is that there remain an audience looking for stories that are not
the same old thing every time. I daresay most sf and fantasy readers are in fact
looking for a repetition of the same book over and over again (which is why I have
to hear people talk about how "Shadow of the Hegemon" isn't as good as "Ender's
Shadow" when in fact it's merely not identical, and may even be better); but
science fiction became the most important branch of literature for a time precisely
because that's where the open-minded audience was. While the "literary"
audience prided itself on being avant garde as it read endless repetitions of the
same "experiments" certified by the Modernists before 1940, science fiction
actually was doing new things, stretching boundaries, finding new stories to tell
and new ways to tell them, all with the collaboration of a vibrant, interested
audience. That audience may have moved on.