The Science Fiction Renaissance: Who is Our Messiah?

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I had a rather strange and characteristically “me” conversation with my friend Adam the other day about the state of science fiction as a genre.  One thing that keeps coming up in our conversations is how fantasy has seemingly abandoned the trappings of respectability for the more lucrative pursuit of market share, while science fiction has done the exact opposite.  I’m not sure why science fiction lovers (not all, but a good enough chunk) have doomed themselves to respectability at the sake of readership, nor am I altogether certain that SF is weakened by its bid for respect (in part, yes).

But it does make me wonder why there are so many fantasy authors that fans can’t stop talking about, while there are so few science fiction authors who seem to have the same impact.  Adam often brings up The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi as an example of SF that could revitalize the genre.  But are people paying attention, or are the only ones looking at The Quantum Thief the same people who were looking at SF before?  I’d guess the latter, as sad as that makes me about the state of the genre I love so dearly.
Perhaps the problem stems from the absence of SF in YA and children’s lit circles.  There are hardly any SF novels in those categories, and the few that exist are more often of the dystopian variety than the space opera kind (which seems silly to me when you consider how much space opera is like the epic fantasies that dominate the YA shelves).
The question becomes:  who is our new SF messiah?  Who can revitalize the genre by bringing in new readers and give back to the reading world all that glory and sensawunda that made the genre what it is/was?  Or will SF sink into a smaller market share and stay there?
I’m not saying that SF is dying.  It’s not.  It can’t die.  Not while a huge chunk of the most successful movies these days are SF.  Not while Star Wars and other franchises are doing just dandy.  But I do get the sense that SF has become almost elitist in its pursuits.  That there aren’t many gateway tales anymore (those we point to as gateway tales are often old, stuffy, and not exactly on the advertising list for publishers).  I suppose I’m just worrying that we’re shooting ourselves in the foot here.  Maybe this has something to do with what Damien G. Walter said about critics and the Hugos.  
Or maybe it just has to do with being embedded in academia.  I think SF has its respectability.  We just don’t need it.  We don’t need to keep looking for it and trying to get more of it.  What SF needs, it seems to me, is an awakening.  A new renaissance.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

7 thoughts on “The Science Fiction Renaissance: Who is Our Messiah?

  1. One thing that keeps coming up in our conversations is how fantasy has seemingly abandoned the trappings of respectability for the more lucrative pursuit of market share, while science fiction has done the exact opposite.

    I don't understand this, probably because I have no idea what respectability means here. Commercial fantasy is the dominate form of fantasy and has always been market driven. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of other fantasy though. In fact, that sort of fantasy has a level of "respectability" that SF can only dream of. I also see no evidence that SF as a whole has moved away from the market, quite the opposite.

    But it does make me wonder why there are so many fantasy authors that fans can't stop talking about, while there are so few science fiction authors who seem to have the same impact.

    Well, we get back to the fact that fantasy is so much bigger than SF. There are more fantasy fans so there are more fantasy authors so there are more fantasy books so there are more fantasy fans so… But why is the relative size of the two genres an issue?

    which seems silly to me when you consider how much space opera is like the epic fantasies that dominate the YA shelves

    I think the idea of YA SF as a gateway is mistaken but I also don't believe your assertions. Do epic fantasies dominate the YA shelves? They certainly don't where I live and I see no evidence on Amazon.com that they do over there either. If anything paranormal romance rules the roost. Nor is YA SF invisible on the shelves.

    The question becomes: who is our new SF messiah?

    There isn't one. No single writer can "revitalize the genre by bringing in new readers"; Hannu Rajaniemi certainly isn't going to do that by writing very much within the existing SF culture. The closest you've got to a messiah is China Meiville but that is do a minor degree.

    SF isn't dead, it isn't dying, what is the problem?

  2. Hey Martin! Thanks for the comment. I was sort of exploring and mumbling in this, so I apologize if anything I said lacked coherence. I certainly could have said things more cogently.

    In any case, some responses to your comment:

    I wasn't trying to suggest that fantasy didn't have other forms aside from the market driven stuff. I know better than that. I simply meant that SF as a genre has tried to gain credibility/respectability since at least the late 50s on (primarily in academia and among "literary" types), whereas fantasy has not done so (individuals have, but the genre itself has never been, in my experience, particularly interested in being loved by academics; academics have sort of come to fantasy because of its undeniable marketability — pop culture).

    But SF has moved away from the market. It hasn't moved away from "its" market, but it is not adapting to a changing reading landscape in any effective way, or at least it appears to be that way because SF readership has shrunk (not media tie-in readership, mind you, but SF readership in general). It's niche-izing, if such a term can exist. I'm okay with a niche market, but I think SF has much to offer from a literature/cultural standpoint as a literary form to readers at large. But SF sales are down. We can see this in the falling readership of short fiction (though Asimov's has apparently increased it's readership somewhat with ebooks, which is good). But aside from big authors, it seems like sales are far below what they should be.

    But a lot of these opinions are based on anecdotal evidence (from me) and from lots of folks saying that industry insiders aren't praising the re-birth of SF anytime soon (such as here: http://io9.com/5191118/science-fiction-book-sales-went-up-as-the-economy-tanked). SF sells remarkably well in the used category though (http://www.parapublishing.com/sites/para/resources/statistics.cfm), but it seems to me that that has a lot more to do with the amazing backlist than with the perceived greatness of the current list (I think there are a lot of great SF authors right now, though).

    Anywho. Rambling. Moving on to another point.

    More in the next comment.

  3. "Well, we get back to the fact that fantasy is so much bigger than SF. There are more fantasy fans so there are more fantasy authors so there are more fantasy books so there are more fantasy fans so… But why is the relative size of the two genres an issue?"

    Because it didn't used to be that way. SF used to be the bigger of the two. I'm wondering why happened. There was a shift at some point and SF never managed to catch up or adapt (maybe because of that respectability issue).

    "I think the idea of YA SF as a gateway is mistaken but I also don't believe your assertions. Do epic fantasies dominate the YA shelves? They certainly don't where I live and I see no evidence on Amazon.com that they do over there either. If anything paranormal romance rules the roost. Nor is YA SF invisible on the shelves."

    I've never been to a YA section which wasn't filled with fantasy titles. Urban fantasy, epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal, etc. The shift to paranormal is fairly recent. The market is following the money, but I've been to a lot of bookstores and chains and all I see in those sections are fantasy (or, if there is a division between genre and general fic, then the genre section is the larger of the two and the most trafficked). I don't include Ender's Game among the SF titles in YA, because it was not originally marketed to the YA audience and is an older title. But if you asked me to name other SF titles beyond I Am Number Four on the YA shelf, I couldn't name any…

    "There isn't one. No single writer can "revitalize the genre by bringing in new readers"; Hannu Rajaniemi certainly isn't going to do that by writing very much within the existing SF culture."

    That's a fair point. I should have said messiahs. Plural. After all, the formation of SF as a popular genre was the result of a number of editors and writers arriving in conjunction. If we could say there were messiahs in the Golden Age, then we'd have to say Gernsback and Campbell were among them (alongside classic authors).

    "SF isn't dead, it isn't dying, what is the problem?"

    It's stagnating. That's the problem.

  4. SF as a genre has tried to gain credibility/respectability since at least the late 50s on (primarily in academia and among "literary" types), whereas fantasy has not done so (individuals have, but the genre itself has never been, in my experience, particularly interested in being loved by academics;

    I think you need to be really careful about what SF and fantasy mean here. Specifically I would worry (as per my initial comment) that you are using fantasy to mean a narrow (though large) subset of the genre. I also think it is wrong to ascribe action to the genres themselves rather than groups operating within them. Can you honestly say SF as a whole is interested in being loved by academics? Some academics and literary types have certainly being trying to re-habilitate some SF but this doesn't apply to the whole genre and the same is true for fantasy.

    I also struggle with the concept of what SF's sales figures "should" be. I don't think Sf has moved away from the market, I think the market has changed and I don't see any issue with that. Commercial fantasy and media tie-ins didn't used to exist; now they do, they've had an effect on the way genre readers buy fiction; so what? I agree that SF has much to offer "from a literature/cultural standpoint as a literary form" but I think the same is true of fantasy and I don't see any dichotomy here.

    Moving to discuss YA fiction, you make a pretty huge change of position. I was talking specifically about your claim that epic fantasy dominated. It doesn't. If you wanted to claim that the majority of YA fiction was fantasy then that is a much more plausible claim, although still by no means certain. I see lots of contemporary set titles about issues, relationships and life clearly aimed at girls. I see lots of thrillers clearly aimed at boys. In short, I see a market that reflects the market for adult fiction. (As an aside: YA sword and sorcery? Seriously?)

    I guess this all boils down to your final point: you believe that the stagnation of SF is correlated to its readership, I don't.

  5. When you talk about fantasy as a commercial genre, you are not talking about works that lie outside of the urban fantasy and high/epic fantasy subgenres. So when I'm talking about fantasy's lack of fight for respectability, it bears out not just in what is written, which is a form that, traditionally, is left alone by "respectable types," but also in the readership, who only occasionally fall into the "why don't we get no respect" rant.

    This is not true of SF. I won't pretend that the entire SF readership is interested in respectability, but you can see just in the blogosphere how much of an issue respectability is for SF readers. Every year someone says something about how SF is for children and morons (or something to that effect), and the SF readership blows a gasket. The only major moment I can think of when fantasy readers did the same thing was with that NYT review of Game of Thrones, but that was oriented around sexist assumptions and not generic ones.

    "you believe that the stagnation of SF is correlated to its readership, I don't."

    But you also don't think the genre is stagnating, based on early parts of your comment. This is sort of like saying that the U.S. economy hasn't been stagnating over the last few years. SF readership has dropped; it's not getting significantly bigger. If this can't be placed on the readership (not just those who actually read SF, but those who stopped reading it, those who have never read it, etc.), then where do we place "blame" (for lack of a better word at the moment) for the stagnation of the genre? Do we say it has to do with editorship and writers? The awards community? What?

    Because the issue clearly isn't that people aren't interested in science fiction as a generic form. Their love of SF films proves this. It's that they're not interested in the literary form, in general. The readership is niche, while other genres have grabbed enormous market shares, which is great for them (I love fantasy too).

    Anywho.

  6. SF readership has dropped; it's not getting significantly bigger. If this can't be placed on the readership (not just those who actually read SF, but those who stopped reading it, those who have never read it, etc.), then where do we place "blame" (for lack of a better word at the moment) for the stagnation of the genre?

    You've misunderstood my point. As you say, I don't believe SF is stagnating so whilst readership has gone down (and obviously the "blame" lies with the readership for this), I don't think this has any connection to the vitality of the genre.

    As for cinema, I don't think there is any connection there either and the idea of talking about a love for SF as a genre distinct from the form it operates in strikes me as a massive red herring. People don't watch SF blockbusters because they like SF, they watch them because they are stupid and have good special effects. For some reason, presumably to do with the people who work in the industry, fantasy has not really taken off at the movies. However, we know from Lord Of The Rings that it could easily provide just as much of a threat at the box office as it does in the bookshop.

    The only meaningful indicator of stagnation I can think of is: Are interestin SF novels being published? To which the answer is surely yes.

  7. "People don't watch SF blockbusters because they like SF, they watch them because they are stupid and have good special effects."

    This is not terribly different from why many people started reading science fiction novels. I also think it's inaccurate. Some people may watch SF films for the above, but the enormity of the SF viewership simply love SF. There are enough mega conventions out there to suggest that genre plays a major role.

    "The only meaningful indicator of stagnation I can think of is: Are interestin SF novels being published? To which the answer is surely yes."

    But as you say, if you acknowledge that readership has dropped, then pointing out that good novels are still being published is kind of meaningless. Without a stable readership, SF can't survive. Publishers will publish less and less of it. It doesn't really matter how good some of it is when the number of people willing to read it has declined (and may still decline).

    That doesn't seem to be a terribly good reason for why the genre's vitality isn't threatened with stagnation.

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