Science fiction appears to have two big problems in the marketplace. One is that fantasy is outselling it by about 3:1. The other is that at least half (possibly more, depending on your classification criteria) of what is being sold as sci-fi is actually fantasy with some sci-fi elements – meaning the sci-fi market is actually much smaller than the stats suggest. Of course, I’m only talking about books here. In the world of films and video games, science fiction is doing very well indeed.
To many of us who love the genre, it looks horribly like sci-fi is withering on the vine and it is very hard to see why that might be. For a start, the sci-fi books that are published seem to be pretty good. All the sci-fi writers whose names start with B (Benford, Bova, Brin, Baxter, etc., etc.) are still writing excellent novels, as are several authors with different initials (the end of the alphabet is well represented with Robinson, Reynolds, Simmons, Scalzi, and co.). However, nothing much seems to have happened in the genre since cyberpunk, except that the ideas of the singularity and transhumanity are still being worked through at the leading edge. Much of the current output of the genre involves a major space opera revival and the ever-popular military SF. None of which is a bad thing. I’m just saying, we’re not really seeing a fall-off in quality but we are seeing a lack of new ideas coming through and a major rehashing (sorry, development) of old tropes.
Thinking about this – as I often do, because I write sci-fi and I worry that my market is disappearing – it occurred to me to wonder if the fortunes of science fiction and of science itself are not linked. In fact, it may be possible to make a case that they are in lockstep. Of course science itself is still doing extremely well, there are more scientist at work in the world than there ever have been and it continues to attract gigaheaps of money. What is strikingly different between now and, say, the Fifties – the Golden Age of science and sci-fi – is that science is treated with suspicion and hostility now while back then it was treated with respect and reverence. Looking back at science in the first half of the 20th Century it’s astonishing just how much respect it did get. You might say the whole world was in the grip of scientism - and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
The thing is, to many, science looked like it might just be a viable alternative to religion. It might provide The Answer. And, in the spirit of that age, science fiction might be seen as a collection of parables for the new religion, a vision of Heaven recast as the World of the Future, an exegesis of the works of Einstein and Schroedinger and Freud. The three laws of robotics were moral laws, the Overlords of Clarke’s Childhood’s End were just a bible page thickness short of being benign deities, and Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Do Androids Dream…? were morality plays.
These days scientism is a minority religion, science is seen as a golden calf to be cast down, and the scientists we once placed on pedestals are fallen idols. We’re disappointed and disillusioned. We didn’t get answers. We didn’t get squat except Windows 7, genetically modified corn, and electronic trading. Our gods failed us and so we turn our back on them and reach out to new saviours for the New Age.
That’s why I think science fiction is in decline. It no longer serves the purpose it once did – to provide the everyday acolyte’s access to the mysteries of scientism. Readers find it hard now to see the message, writers don’t believe with the fervour they once did. We’ve moved beyond the Age of Enlightenment into a more spiritual and superstitious age. And the vague spirituality that now pervades the zeitgeist is revealed to us in new Texts – stories of heroes and magic, sensitive vampires, angels who have lost their way, other realms, better in so many ways than this one.
That’s why Fantasy is so popular, that’s why science fiction is confused and diminished. That’s why I, a devout believer in the True Path that only science can reveal, worry about my market share.