Science fiction is dead… or is it?

science fiction is dead

Listen. I can see three possible arguments against the idea that science fiction is dead.

1. It’s everywhere

Yes, I readily admit that it doesn’t immediately look like SF is dead. Bookshop shelves groan and Kindles and iPads are filled to their sticking points with trad and indie SF novels of all sorts. Screens of every dimension flicker with SF staples like strange new worlds, aliens, time travellers, post-apocalyptic dystopia and psychedelic supertech. With science fiction nearly ubiquitous in popular culture, how can it be dead?

2. I am old

Kingsley Amis brings this one up in his introduction to The Golden Age of Science Fiction:

Before I try to justify this assertion, let me concede that after about the age of forty (I was born in 1922 [1967 for me, NB]) one’s capacity to take in new stuff, stuff markedly different from the stuff one is used to, diminishes.

There’s definitely a case to answer here, as well. I am without doubt a curmudgeon. Could it be that I’m just too old for the new stuff?

3. Hm, well number three.

Let’s leave that one for now. However, I’ll address each of these – including point three – points when the time comes. First, let me state my argument succinctly:

Science fiction is dead. It died because the culture that sustained it no longer exists. SF grew to maturity in the technocratic west – and particularly in the USA – in the first quarter of the twentieth century, as the influence of science and technology transformed the infrastructure of daily life.

The themes that interested authors then – and gripped the wider culture – are no longer relevant to our worldly hopes and fears. Our cultural relationship to science and technology has changed since then and so has our relationship to science fiction.

In the twenty-first century, an era it so often anticipated, it’s become an unavoidably nostalgic genre. There’s nothing new to say about its driving themes and SF imagery has adapted to become a form of fantasy. It no longer engages with possible futures, but is just an effect to aid suspension of disbelief in other aspects of a story.

This was all inspired by The Widening Gyre, Paul Kincaid’s review of several best science fiction of the year anthologies that appeared in the LA Review of Books in September 2012. Kincaid’s idea is that ‘the genre has become a set of tropes to be repeated and repeated until all meaning has been drained from them.’ The very title of his piece (taken from Yeats’s The Second Coming) implies a new era, and his idea of an ‘exhausted’ genre implies revival. But I don’t think these things are coming. I think it’s basically over for science fiction.

In my annual summing up of my year’s reading I’m going to ignore all else and try and explain why I think this is the case.

(Although this doesn’t preclude the possibility of an annexe a bit later highlighting some of the other interesting whatnots I encountered this year.)

(Nor guarantee one, for that matter.)

When I started thinking about what I wanted to say on this topic I realised that before I could declare science fiction dead, I needed a clear idea of what it looked like when it was alive. Like everyone I try and engage with the cutting edge or breaking wave of new writing, but when you spend the whole time scanning the horizon for the next path it can be easy to forget to look back and see the ground you’ve covered. To make sure I understood what science fiction meant when the genre was in its heyday, I decided to get back in touch with our genre roots.

I started with I, Robot at the end of 2012. I continued this year with three volumes of The History of the Science Fiction Magazine, edited by Mike Ashley, which collects representative stories from the years 1926 to 1945. And finally I read The Golden Age of Science Fiction, edited by Kingsley Amis, which has a number of classic stories, mostly from the 1950s.

Each of the Ashley volumes has 10 stories, one for each year it covers. The Golden Age of Science Fiction has 17, and there are nine in I, Robot. So, in the last year and a bit I’ve read 56 golden age stories, plus a few not catalogued here either from Project Gutenberg or print anthologies I already own. Is this a representative selection? I don’t know. It’s good enough for me, though, and to be honest I think I’m done reading classic SF for a while, so that’s all we’re going to get for now.

Having read all these stories there are a few themes that really stand out. The most important driver in early SF – and an impulse that flirts around the edges of many stories – is the urge to articulate the new world view of science. Gernsback’s scientifiction was explicitly intended as a way of bringing scientific ideas to life.

It’s important to remember what a mind-fuck the idea of a rational, mechanical universe was back then. I don’t want to paint the people of the early twentieth century as bumpkins, but at the turn of the century, rural populations outnumbered urban areas and most people’s work was still mostly unmechanised. Education wasn’t widespread, and the expansion of the middle classes – and subsequent increase in literacy – that occurred in the nineteenth century was just beginning to mature. The level of basic scientific knowledge among the general population was very low.

Mike Ashley’s anthologies begin with the publication of the first dedicated SF magazine – Amazing Stories – in 1926; the Scopes monkey trial happened just a year before in 1925. Even then, after at least 200 years of thinking and demonstrable proof of the aptness of the scientific world view, people were forced to go through the courts to win the right to even talk about scientific theories of the history of life on Earth. (And before anyone says, there’s a very different context to this when some school board in backwoods USA decides that intelligent design must be added to the science syllabus.)

Science revealed that the world was bigger than anyone ever realised. Space was vaster, time was deeper, the structure of matter unimaginably more minute. The staggeringly high numbers are hard to grasp, and so early science fiction in particular is concerned with relating these abysmal concepts to a manageable human scale.

The vastness of space is implicit in stories like Kaleidoscope and The Game of Rat & Dragon, while Specialist, Earthman Beware! and The Wager go one better by depicting Earth itself as a kind of cosmic backwater. At the other end of the scale, the atomic world is the backdrop of Out of the Sub-Universe and The Voice From the Ether. The huge gulfs of geological time are addressed in stories like The Coming of the Ice, The Machine Man of Ardathia, The Eternal Man and One Prehistoric Night.

In relation, humanity can seem tiny and the universe impossibly huge. On the one hand this created the cosmic horror of H P Lovecraft, an idea echoed in a number of these stories where humanity finds itself wiped out by uncaring natural forces. HPL imagined them as drooling space demons, but here we’ve got the weird change to physics in The Xi Effect, the unknowable alien killer in Hermit of Saturn’s Rings, the random death of humanity in The Fires Within and The Last Day or the entropic forces of The Voices of Time. The callous human-hunting aliens of The Wager are cut from the same cloth – they’re just predators on a higher food chain.

On the other hand, though, it’s a liberating idea, for the prospect of scale also opens up another of science fiction’s thematic mainstays: the frontier. Genre science fiction evolved just as the colonial phase of history was coming to an end. By the early 20th century pretty much everywhere worth raping and despoiling had been discovered and exploited. But science now promised a new and infinite frontier in space.

Colonial fiction of an earlier era was easily refitted: sail ships became space ships, exotic fauna became bug-eyed monsters, quirky aliens took the place of colourful natives. Not for nothing does the TV show originally pitched as ‘Wagon Train in space’ begin with the famous words ‘Space. The final frontier.’ Lots of these stories exude this kind of frontier spirit. Notable examples include The Streets of Ashkelon, The Asteroid of Gold, Hermit of Saturn’s Rings, Hands Off!, Specialist, Student Body and Sister Planet. It’s implied in a post-apocalypse tale like The Quest for St Aquin, too.

Less literal frontiers lay in the idea of the advance of scientific knowledge. Mankind can now take the role of God and create life of by itself, most obviously in the many robots in I, Robot and in Almost Human, but also the duplicate Joan in The 4-Sided Triangle and the Tech-Men in The Dead Spot.

However, where one might expect optimism, in these collections one more often finds warnings. From early on we have a number of ‘things man was not meant to know’ stories, like The Power & the Glory, The Eternal Man and Memorial. These warnings also seem to implicitly address the dilemma of living in a Godless universe – as well as creating life humanity now has the power to bring about Armageddon.

The other type of warning story addresses the threat of rationality and unchecked technological advance to the essential human vitality. Stories like The Machine Man of Ardathia, The Island of Unreason, The Country of the Kind and The Dead Spot argue that an over-reliance on technology and an obsession with perfect efficiency and contentment will rob humanity of its natural élan.

In the last thirty years or so – perhaps since the end of the space race – western culture has largely, taken the scientific world view on board to the point where it’s not questioned in polite society (while admitting that there are a lot of impolite societies in the world, but they’re not really interested in science fiction either). Even those who argue against evolution these days do so without the bible-thumping rhetoric of yesteryear but with the pseudo-scientific double talk of intelligent design.

‘Warning’ stories are still popular, but they’re just variations on a theme now. The question ‘how will mankind cope with the power to destroy itself?’ has been more or less answered, both in terms of fictional explorations and in a real world where this power exists, by and large, for a number of governments of varying degrees of derangement. Not just is the idea exhausted – as Kincaid might observe – it’s of little interest any more. It’s not a quality of the stories but the audience: time has passed the idea by. While stories like this still get written, the idea lacks the urgency it had when it was new.

Similarly, many of the technologies that it was imagined would drive the world of the future never turned up. Artificial intelligence and space travel – even interplanetary travel, let alone interstellar – have turned out to be more difficult and less rewarding than anticipated; elsewhere aliens remain elusive, and time travel and ESP are almost certainly impossible.

We’re remote from science. Science itself has ceased producing miracles. It hasn’t caused the massive transformations in our lives of the sort that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century – electricity, radio, television. Science now is too slow, too abstract compared to the dizzying rush of new gadgets. We live in a time where no matter how much science advances, things will always be largely the same or, indeed, worse. The cyberpunk vision of the future – jaded street heroes and mega corps – is a capitulation to the most brutal capitalist agenda.

Unlike the ‘if this goes on’ satires of old, cyberpunk tales of the grittier type – think early Jon Courtney Grimwood – are nihilistic thriller fantasies. They’re painted as dystopia, but come with an air of world-weary inevitability, while the characters Richard Morgan novels, say, absolutely love their hard-ass world. They’d be bored to death by the bureaucracy of US Robots.

Our culture is no longer threatened, or confused or even excited by the promises of science. We’ve either absorbed it all to the point where we can’t even be bothered to even shrug our shoulders or made cynical by the broken promises of star ships, robots, and aliens. The ideas that SF once seemed uniquely placed to answer have either been answered or are – it turns out – irrelevant.

Any remaining questions about the future – the environment, the distribution of political power and economic power – are better addressed outside the insular culture of science fiction. We’ve seen this in the last few years, with books like Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart or Solar by Ian McEwan. The allegorical questions that far future fiction once entertained are now the province of fantasy and have gone mainstream in the guise of Harry Potter, A Game of Thrones and Neil Gaiman novels.

This addresses point one in the introduction – remember that? Popular science fiction now doesn’t exist in the same context as Lost In Space and classic Star Trek: our culture has lost any faith that these stories could actually happen. The idea of a distinct fiction that addresses the future as an actual potential place or thing that might happen rather than a play ground for adventure stories is no longer of any interest.

Changes in our culture – not all of them bad, and most of them neutral – mean that we don’t need stories explaining and contextualising the big ideas of science. The rapid technological change that so alarmed and excited the world in the twentieth century has now been completely accepted: these days the future isn’t a jet pack and a moon base it’s an upgrade to your phone.

While many of the ideas of science fiction have been normalised into mainstream culture, the imagery has gradually dissolved into the popular vernacular. This started more or less with the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the movie that turned an eccentric one-off hit movie into the foundation of huge cultural shift. It turned the genre into an enormous commercial enterprise, driven not just by movie tickets but by a cloud of tat: action figures, models, toys, pencil cases, lunch boxes and drink bottles and perhaps most importantly for us, long series of poorly written stories that take place in the same setting.

The law of commerce is unforgiving: it grows through constant expansion. The genre exploded into other mediums but also new audiences. And so, the texture of science fiction was stretched across traditional adventure stories to attract the broadest audiences. This has always been the case to an extent – Flash Gordon was never remotely a serious extrapolation of the consequences of alien contact. But in the post-Star Wars era, this type product has come to dominate the genre and its representation in the culture at large. Visit your local Forbidden Planet – that’s the cutting edge of contemporary science fiction!

And I suppose my somewhat unconvincing defence against point two in the introduction is that I have lived through this cultural shift, been a part of it – an enthusiastic part of it! – and watched it happening. In my lifetime this obsession with science fiction (which you likely share with me if you’ve read this far) has gone from being a mark of outsiders and oddballs to being a billion dollar industry.

And so we find ourselves now in a world where genre walls defend a garden that harbours only relics that thrive under the most contrived conditions. The only way to save science fiction is to kill it. Bring it all down. Destroy the cons and the fanzines and the blogs. Dissolve the BSFA and SFWA and Hugo committee. They’re traps now, backward looking and inevitably nostalgic because nostalgia is all there is left.

There’s no point haranguing science fiction writers to write something more relevant; science fiction will never be relevant again. For a while the apprehension of the changes that science was making to our conception of the world was an urgent creative endeavour; that’s no longer the case. The cultural shift brought about the rise of scientific thinking is complete and change is now driven by other forces the science fiction isn’t equipped to address.

Or is it?

Because this is point three: that in fact new exciting and dynamic themes animate SF and are pushing it forward today.

How to find out though? I’m in a similar position to where I was when I started reading classic science fiction in 2012. I’m reasonably well-read on contemporary SF, but I don’t feel I have the specific knowledge to really test this idea. I know, I could just read a bunch of current stories, online or in magazines, but it feels unfair to put random pickings against I, Robot and the Amis anthology. I’d been struggling with this question for a while when I happened upon this:


This covers 1985 to 2005, which is almost precisely the era when I think SF finally ran out of anything interesting to say. It’s a great opportunity to look at stories judged as being at the peak of the genre and think about what they’re saying and whether they express the concerns of the world at large or are just a kind extended in-joke.

And I’m looking forward to it, too: even if the stories aren’t thematically fresh they’ll at least be well-written and have more to offer than simple thrills.

I’m going to read this in the coming months and blog about each story as I read it, in my by-now familiar style. This will give me a chance to gauge whether science fiction truly is deceased or is still fighting fit.

So, keep reading chums – the truth is now surely within our grasp!

The image at the top of this post is the sculpture Dead Astronaut by Brandon Vickerd.

Posted in books, geek culture, H P Lovecraft, History of the Science Fiction Magazine, I Robot, reading log, science fiction is dead, SF, short stories, The Golden Age of Science Fiction

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