Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, science fiction thrilled the people with tales of wondrous new futures and what dangers new technologies might pose. We settled Mars, led the Fremen against
House Harkonnen and rendezvoused with Rama.
But then something happened. We stopped reading science fiction. Fantasy became the dominant genre in the land of make believe. Gone were the advanced machines (and humans) on futuristic worlds. In their place came kick-ass heroines with werewolf lovers fighting mages and fae on a city’s dark streets.
And sci-fi fans wondered: “What happened?”
Some pointed to Harry Potter, saying the popular and accessible boy wizard turned parents and kids alike from science fiction to the world of magic and creatures. Young boys didn’t dream of being Andrew “Ender” Wiggin or Paul Atriedies, but the Boy Who Lived.
While one book can certainly have an influence in the growth of a genre (see The Hunt for Red October and the surge of technothrillers), it doesn’t explain the decline of another.
So what happened to science fiction? We caught up to it.
Reading offers an escape into worlds, lives and situations far removed from ours. And that escape is entertainment. But the closer stories resemble our real lives, the less escape they provide and, therefore, the less entertainment they offer. (I’ve always felt that’s why 90210 lasted ten seasons while My So Called Life barely lasted one.)
We’ve seen the same thing with horror. In the 80s, Stephen King led an unstoppable juggernaut along with Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, Brian Lumley and more. While the Devil was the villain of choice in the 70s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen), 80s horror found evil in cars, dogs, country-side villages, middle class suburbs and cities. The government was out to get you, mind control was real, your seemingly nice next door neighbour was a homicidal maniac and the (un)dead stalked the Earth’s small towns and remote forests. We escaped into these worlds where we had no idea just how awful things would get, finding entertainment and titillation in the suffering, struggles and set backs of our heroes, knowing they would rise up and fight back, but not without sacrifice.
Yet like one of its stories, the horror genre fizzled and died. True, a glut in any genre can lead to reader fatigue, but I think there was more than that. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Soviet Union collapsed and without this villain to focus our fears on, we looked to ourselves… and realized we had a lot of problems to deal with. We began talking openly about AIDS, bullying and suicide, teen pregnancy and abortion, street gangs and sexual abuse of children. Cocaine morphed from the cool Wall Street drug of choice into the scourge of poor neighbourhoods in the form of crack. Middle-aged men who had worked for the same company all their lives found themselves out of work. It was almost like our lives had become horror stories. We no longer needed to escape and sublimate our feelings of revulsion or fear. And more than that, we came to realize that in the end the hero doesn’t achieve some small victory. Sometimes, the hero dies unceremoniously and no one notices. And sometimes, the hero is just as bad as the villain… he’s just “our” hero.
Today, we’re seeing the same thing with science fiction. It’s a cliché to say we live in a science fiction novel, but that doesn’t make it any less true. William Gibson might have written about a whole country being cut off from the Internet, only to have hackers dust off old-school technology or hack into satellite feeds to show the world the oppression in their country. The American President debating an Internet kill switch sounds like the subplot of a Tom Clancy novel. Where Will Riker handed Captain Picard a PADD, a small device with a reconfigurable interface, today we call it the iPad. And a private businessman building his own spaceship hearkens back to the dreams of Delos David Harriman.
But the decline of science fiction is more than just real-world technology becoming as fascinating as rebelling robots or hyperdrives (though both might arrive sooner than we think). First, we are not only acclimatized to technology but the speed at which it’s evolving. Who would be surprised if thimble-sized blue tooth headsets were announced tomorrow, or self-cleaning clothing? We have plug-in cars, like in Watchmen, that might become as ubiquitous as cell phones before we know it. Technology companies keep advertising thinner, faster, smaller… and we expect that these things will be thinner, faster, smaller. In a few years, the MacBook Air will be considered a big, clunky device from some primitive age.
And there’s more. Good science fiction doesn’t just rely on cool gadgets or settings, but their effect on us. Is an AI alive? If so, what does that mean for us humans as living beings? How much can you tinker with human DNA and still have it be human? What parallels do we see between invading extraterrestrials destroying our culture and imperial powers of old?
In the past, we relied on science fiction’s authors to offer up tales examining these issues while entertaining us with adventure, intrigue and escapism. Now we debate these things on Facebook, Twitter, text messages and articles’ comments sections (all of which, 20 years ago, would have had homes in science fiction stories). Do we buy organic? How dangerous are genetically engineered crops? How much information about us does the government have stored in its databases? And just who has access to all those cameras watching us on the street? We love our devices, but we know every smart phone, tablet and laptop we plug in to charge is that much more environmental damage we’re causing. And if not the greenhouse gas produced by coal or oil, then nuclear’s radioactive waste, wind-power causing headaches and health problems, or the toxins found in solar panels.
So we turn to greater escapism in fantasy. A virtually limitless field, it still offers up analogy and allegory but in tropes and McGuffins removed from our daily lives. Parents worry about their daughters dating a troublesome or abusive young man, but no one really need fear her dating a vampire or werewolf. Yet young women can still get that dangerous thrill from the story of the rebellious but still good girl taming the bad boy. We can be entranced by stories of two magical races going to war over ideologies, which resemble the West and China, but because this takes place on another world with magic instead of nukes and shaman-emperors instead of presidents it still allows for escapism.
So what will the future hold for science fiction? Again, we can look to horror. Horror, especially in Canada, has morphed into a genre of not horrific things, but horrific situations. The uncanny, the
disquieting. Horror doesn’t just come from the monster, but knowing that we might be even more monstrous.
Science fiction will likely similarly evolve. The growth of steampunk and biopunk take sci-fi tropes and sensibilities, but transform them into worlds that never were (steampunk, usually set in the past) or probably never will be (biopunk, which posits worlds where rather than developing technologies external to us, we develop ourselves; the human body is the technology).
What is also interesting is how social sciences—politics, sociology and history—are creeping more and more into science fiction (with all respect to the legacy of Heinlein). Like all future worlds, the cause of ruin is what we fear at the time of writing—militarization, overpopulation, disease, nuclear war. But consider the science fiction of the 60s and 70s. Writers therein recognized the terror of the Cold War and drew a very short line between the idealized politics of the previous generation (most notably the inclusive ideologies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt) and the politics of the future. Indeed, the United Federation of Planets takes its founding language almost directly from the League of Nations charter.
The last decade or so has seen science fiction, with exceptions like Robert J. Sawyer, abandon that optimism. Hope for a peaceful and egalitarian future has been replaced by millenarian warnings of environmental catastrophe and capitalist avarice that turn Huxley’s “Fordism” into a best-case scenario—social engineering aside, at least everybody had a job.
Yet novels such as The Windup Girl, Julian Comstock and Oryx and Crake do more than look at our demise through all-powerful corporations; they tap into the culture of fear and apathy that has become the hallmark of the early 21st century. Are those emotions the product of the collective anxiety produced under the George W. Bush era? Few would argue against the notion that those years filled the traditionally left leaning SF/F community with fear of a religion corporation-military triumvirate that would trample the arts, personal liberties and tolerance. Fewer still would argue that the three year long post-Bush hangover has had no influence upon the creation of future worlds. Convenient as that causality may be, it presumes to overlook the impact of the past generation on current writers. Ill-fated sequels aside, Gordon Gekko would find himself quite at ease in any of the worlds created by Bacigalupi, Wilson or Atwood. Top-down economics, politics of hegemony and challenges against individual agency are just as much a product of the 80s and early 90s as they are today. And perhaps that is the new, and old, direction for science fiction—using sociology and political science as the science in “science” fiction rather than interstellar travel, cloning or computers of today’s “hard SF.”
In conclusion, let me share a personal story. In July, the space shuttle Atlantis completed the last mission of the shuttle fleet. Aside from one or two friends, no one talked or even knew about it. Shuttle launches had become commonplace and the end of the manned American space program—for the moment—should have been a major cultural milestone. Thirty years ago, the flights of Enterprise and launch of Columbia held the world rapt. One wonders if the space program will ever regain the support, let alone attention, it once held because it no longer thrills us. Will its absence renew our excitement for space exploration, or has its waning momentum finally flagged and this could be the end of the West’s space program for many, many decades? Or might we see the exploration of space replaced with its commercialization? •