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.