Sunday, March 9, 2014

Is Science Fiction Dying?

A couple of weeks ago, I heard someone ask a question that I had never before heard anyone ask: Is science fiction dying? So I did what we all do in this age of digidiocy: I Googled it. Even before I finished typing out my search words, Google had the question for me, ready and waiting. Evidently I wasn't the first person to pose it. Today I asked Google again and got back 21,000 results. So, no, I'm not the first.

I had never before thought to ask: Is science fiction dying? I didn't even know it was sick. After all, we live in a science fiction world. Everybody and his brother is carrying around a communicator, like Captain Kirk. (The difference is that Captain Kirk put his communicator away occasionally. He had plenty of outer-space babes in sparkling outfits to look at--he didn't need an electronic binky to keep him happy.) And, like on Star Trek, we're all enslaved--or at least made mindless--by our computers. We could probably use some rescuing from our machines in the same way the captain and his crew saved so many extraterrestrial civilizations from theirs. And how can science fiction be dying when every movie and every TV show is science fiction or has science-fictional elements? Some people are even asking: Is science fiction dead? Not just dying, but already dead. So I guess these are serious questions, and people have reason to address them. I guess I'll weigh in, too.

So I asked the question and read through a few articles addressing whether science fiction is dying. The oldest article was from 1993, so if science fiction is dying, it has been at it for a long time. My first thought was that nothing could take twenty years to die, but then I have to remember that some things, the Roman Empire for example, hang on for decades or centuries before giving up the ghost. Most people who have asked themselves this question seem to think the answer is: Yes, science fiction is dying. Not being an expert, I can't say. But even before I heard the question, I was thinking of the flying saucer phenomenon, which is of course an outgrowth of science fiction, and I realized that flying saucers are not only dying, they are dead, dead, dead. At one time, some serious and respectable people were willing to believe in them, perhaps for good reason. No more. That's not to say that people have come to their senses; instead, they have simply transferred their belief in flying saucers to wacky beliefs in other things. I won't give any examples.

The problem with this question and with similar questions from fans of science fiction and fantasy is that they have separated the question from the wider culture. What I mean is that, if you're going to ask the question, "Is science fiction dying?", then you should understand that dying is a part of the history of every living thing, every organization, every institution. Although science fiction originated before World War II, it flourished only after the war when science-fictional ideas seemed ready to leap out of the pulps and into real life. I think the war helped in that. After all, we suddenly had atomic bombs, rockets, radar, jet power, pressurized cabins and suits, faster-than-sound travel, and on and on. In a few short years, there would be hydrogen bombs, atomic power, artificial satellites, and men in space. Science fiction became real in the postwar world. For people other than fans, science fiction was new.

Other things were new in the postwar world, too--and a lot of them are dead, dying, or pretty darned sick. If science fiction is dying, it may be only because so many aspects of postwar culture are at or near their end. Here I will give some examples: men's adventure magazines; paperback books of a certain type; the Golden Age of Heterosexuality; youth culture; the culture of hot rods, custom wheels, drag racing, and muscle cars; homogeneous habits of watching television (three networks have given way to a gazillion); bebop and cool jazz; the culture of the road, of traveling, camping, hitchhiking, and so on. And what about rock-and-roll, soul, and rhythm-and-blues? If these things are not dead yet, they seem to have one foot in the grave and maybe the other on a banana peel. The larger question it seems to me is not, "Is science fiction dying?", but this: Are postwar culture and all of its great and wonderful aspects dying? And if so, how soon will it be before they are in their graves?

I don't like the likely answers.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I don't think it's a question of dying so much as SF evolving into forms not recognizable by the old definitions. It won't be the heterogeneous genre it was in the past, but its elements will be incorporated part and parcel into other genres and be generally accepted as normative elements thereof -- because if the elements based on asking science-based 'what if' questions are ever entirely absent from our fiction and entertainment, that is the first and most definite sign of the death of imagination, and inevitably the death of a viable living culture.

  2. Dear Dennis,

    You make a good point, that science fiction is being incorporated into other genres and is generally accepted without question or reflection as an element of other types of stories. A friend of mine points out that the superhero genre is based on science fiction; superhero movies are by no means dying out. There are other genres that have incorporated science fiction to be sure. Even the last Indiana Jones movie is science fiction. And I agree with you that as long as writers ask the (science-based) question "What if?" there will be science fiction.

    No one has ordained that science fiction shall live forever, but I think science fiction will go on, just not as the old fans would like it to. I went to a science fiction convention two years ago (my first). I would hazard a guess that few there would have known who Robert A. Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke were, but that didn't cool their ardor or dampen their excitement about science fiction. To them, science fiction is Doctor Who or any number of television science fiction shows. That's not their grandfather's science fiction, but who says that science fiction has to remain in a mold cast in the 1950s?

    Thanks for writing.


  3. The newer generations are changing it all. Like all things dear to each one these things will fade with time leaving for future generations those that fit their time and space. I've seen some of what were referred to as classics slip from public memory. Most of what we have held dear will be lost to time replaced by newer fads ad infinitum.