Science Fiction is Dying…Again

Recently, I’ve read a fair amount of commentary on the problems facing long-running, well-regarded regional convention series, discussing their difficulties in getting people to agree to host them, let alone attendance drop-offs following Covid-19 restrictions.

There’s also been a fair undercurrent of folks complaining about the “death” of short form science fiction (most complaining about the lack of markets), and those two subjects, combined with a sense of general malaise, as evidenced by the regular and on-going complaints about “Graying Old Fandom”, author/artist pay, tropes like “This isn’t your grandmother’s science fiction” and all the rest had me in some agreement that not only isn’t science fiction “what it used to be”, but that it’s getting absorbed into the mainstream, less connected with its (important roots), losing elements that make it a unique community and, basically, dying a slow death.

But in doing some research for this piece, I discovered that this is not the case at all.  In fact, what I have discovered (not uniquely) is that we’ve been predicting our own demise almost from the very beginning of science fiction’s coherence as a “thing”.

Now, normally in a piece like this I would now go on to provide the examples that would support my argument, discuss their relevance in some detail and use that to draw a conclusion that supports my claim.  Instead, what I will do right now is offer my conclusion up-front:  every single one of those claims of demise comes from a place that loves this genre and wants it to continue in perpetuity until the very heat death of the universe, some  1.7×10106 years from now.  The anxiety displayed is one coming from a sense of loss, not a perverse desire to see dire predictions come true.  They each engage in what Ray Bradbury said about Science Fiction’s extrapolative powers:  these are stories that forewarn us of futures we do not wish to inhabit. Like a world in which there is no science fiction.

I came to science fiction at a very young age – somewhere between four and a half and five years old when I was first exposed to the Fireball XL-5 television show.  I can no longer directly access the thoughts in my head at the time, but there was something about the future, rocket ships, outer space, different worlds, alien creatures, that immediately captivated me.

This was during the beginning of the real-world exploration of space, one that saw an increasing public promotion of the US space program (coupled with “Red Fear”), all combining to give my younger-self the idea that science fiction wasn’t depicting some unreal, abstract fantasies, but was, in fact, showing me what my own personal future was going to be like:  there’d be autonomous robots, we’d save time at meals by swallowing pills, I’d have a job that required daily commuting to the Moon, our streets would be filled with alien tourists, there’d be one world government protected by orbiting nukes (thank you, Mr. Heinlein) and we’d be doing all of that informed and inspired by high-minded progressive ideals of true equality, diversity, opportunity, etc., (thank you Star Trek).

For me, the “death” of science fiction would mean the death of the future that I so wanted to inhabit (and am still waiting for).  No, not the all-white, all-male future early SF is often accused of depicting, but the egalitarian future that it thought it was in the business of promoting and realizing.

I’ve protested, vainly, some of the changes that have come to the genre; over the years I’ve taken positions against such things as commercialized conventions, the intrusion of Non-SF grounded creators into the field, the shift from “idea” oriented fiction to “character” driven fiction (still am against it, but that’s because while I “get” ideas, I don’t “get” people, and I certainly recognize the positive impact that shift has had on the genre), the ascendancy of media SF over literary SF and a host of other things that I perceived as being potentially detrimental to the advance of the purity of the genre.

In other words, I wanted to preserve the perceptive bubble of my reception of the genre and the society that had grown up around it.  I was not largely disabused of these viewpoints, because I had the good fortune of coming into the community when many of its founders were still around and accessible.  Take for example my views on the advent of the “New Wave” (both UK and US versions of it).  I didn’t have to go any farther than hanging out with Lester Del Rey at conventions to find out that giants of the field felt the way I did*.

Now don’t get me wrong.  My viewpoints on such things has evolved along with the rest of me.  By way of example, I was against giving credence to self-published works and now see it as both a viable alternative and a positive contributor to the genre.

All of it came from a deep love for that genre that had given me so much, that anything I felt threatening it needed to be spoken out against, warning that such a thing was not a future any of us wanted to inhabit.

And while I do still feel that certain trends could have a negative effect on the future of this genre as we (I) know it, I’ve come to believe that an engagement with science fiction will always remain a part of human societies in one form or another, an essential tool for examining both our current circumstances, our potential futures and inspiring us to move in positive directions, whether that be through advocacy or warning.

That belief is, in fact, supported by the numerous earlier examples of death predicted for the genre.  We’re still here.

In fact, back in 1961, Earl Kemp, an early fan, conrunner and publisher, suggested that science fiction was already dead with his famous/infamous Fanzine – Who Killed Science Fiction?

Echoing some of my earlier thoughts, Kemp wrote the following about his attendance at his first SF convention: “It was like walking into a world I had been seeking for a very long time. I felt, instantly, that I was at home at last and among my kind of people.”

Kemp asked five questions regarding the genre (remember, 1961, so, no mass market appeal for the genre, no internet, no actual Moon landing), the asking of which presumes the sentiment that someone or something had killed the genre.  He then sent those questions out to many prominent members of the field (including such luminaries as Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and John W. Campbell), receiving some 73 responses (some anonymous) back.

The questions were:

“1)  Do you feel that magazine science fiction is dead?

2)  Do you feel that any single person, action, incident, etc., is responsible for the present situation? If not, what is responsible?

3)  What can we do to correct it?

4)  Should we look to the original paperback as a point of salvation?

5)  What additional remarks, pertinent to the study, would you like to contribute?”

You’ll need to understand that during this era, the vast majority of work in the genre was short fiction that appeared in the magazines of the field.  In 1960, there were some dozen individual titles published, producing 80 magazine issues.  In 1961, this had dropped to 8 titles with 62 individual issues, continuing a declining trend from a peak in 1952 when there were 29 individual titles publishing 151 issues in a single year (!).

Can you imagine standing in front of a magazine rack and having 29 different SF magazines to choose from?  The most I ever saw at one time (during a slight boom in the 70s) was 19 in 1978:
Amazing Stories, Fantastic, Analog, Analog Annual, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, Ariel, Galileo, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Anthology, Heavy Metal, The Outer Limits, Unearth, GASM, Sky Worlds, Questar, Star Warp, Omni. (In the US, and not counting most semi-pro publications).

Until I obtained subscriptions to many (Amazing, Analog, Galaxy, F&SF, Asimov’s, Heavy Metal) I’d routinely go to a “smoke shop” and pick up every extant issue of anything resembling science fiction or fantasy, and it wasn’t enough to fill up a month’s (or two) reads.

As we can demonstrably see, magazine fiction has not died.  We’ve still got three of the “originals” on the stands (F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s) and a number of highly regarded, primarily electronic publications, such as Uncanny and Clarke’s World.

But I’m sure you can understand the angst:  something that Earl Kemp and contemporaries considered vital to the continuation of the genre seemed to be going away.  This should not be allowed to happen.  What do we do about it?  (If you are interested, you can read the original issue of Who Killed Science Fiction? here ( fanzine archive)

Fast forward a few decades and concerns regarding the future of both the readership in the field and fiction publishing in the field are voiced and summarized by none other than Robert J. Sawyer, who wrote in 1991 in a post titled The Death of Science Fiction:

“Theodore Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of science fiction is crap. Unfortunately, like unemployment rates and average global temperatures, I think that number is rising, too. And, as consumers of SF, I think we should be aware of the market-oriented forces that are indeed making it harder and harder to find quality SF. Among them:

  • A tendency toward overly long books (because booksellers can put a higher price on fatter books, and because the SF reviewing community has come to equate authorial ambition with mere length).
  • A tendency toward endless repetitions of what was once a good idea. Foundation, Rama, and the Dune series are examples.
  • A tendency toward junior authors spending what are traditionally one’s most productive years turning out work in the mold of other writers, instead of developing their own voices.
  • A tendency toward the graying of the SF reading audience: there’s a lot of truth to the old saw that the golden age of SF is when you were 13. There’s also a lot of truth to Samuel R. Delany’s observation that if you don’t start reading SF when you’re young, you can’t start reading it when you’re old. But SF is failing to find significant numbers of new readers.”

And then he writes this:

“Part of that is the general decline in North American literacy, and part of it is that the very people fascinated by high technology and computers and strange worlds used to have nowhere to go except SF books, but can now turn instead to computers (gaming and hacking), to role-playing games, and to an endless stream of SF movies.”

and a bit later:

“But my fear is two-fold. First, a person who has become interested in SF through the media, or because of vague childhood memories, will pick up a book from the vast SF rack and be turned off. He or she will be turned off because the work will almost certainly be crap. You and I know how to find the good ones, but someone new to the field won’t have a clue. Yup, you could read a good SF novel a week each week of the year, no doubt. But if you read an SF novel a week picked at random from the rack, you’d never come back for a second year of such torture.”

In other words, the future survival of the genre’s readership growth is being threatened by too much (bad) science fiction, owing largely to business’ doing what businesses do – trying to make dollars from every possible opportunity and increasing their market penetration by widening the appeal of (dumbing down) the product.  (That last is my interpretation of the dynamic presented, not necessarily Saywer’s own specific conclusions.)

Or, to put it more succinctly, the genre is in danger because of its own commercialized success.

I’ve often voiced the belief that the loss of the genre’s “ghetto mentality”**, which can be conflated with the idea that it takes someone special to be able to engage and stay with the genre, as well as the early perception that the reading of science fiction and involvement with its community was a haven for those who had been “othered” by mainstream society has been detrimental to sustaining the field (primarily its associated culture).  This is because of a loss of the barrier of separation between mainstream and SF cultures.  SF culture is not an actively proselytizing one (it grew by accretion and self-motivation – “I like this stuff, maybe I can find others who do too”, rather than “Join Fandom Now and Receive these valuable benefits of membership”.  Actually, its even closer to the differences between, say, Judaism and Christianity.  You have to be born of a Jewish mother to be a Jew and conversion is made deliberately difficult, whereas Christianity actively recruits).  That methodology mitigates against rapid growth, but also insures that the vast majority of people joining in do so because they really want to be there. (By way of example, it took me about three years to discover and find SF Fandom and I quickly learned that part of being in that community meant that I was supposed to contribute, actively, to that community.)

A part of my concern and criticism of commercialized conventions is tied in with that viewpoint:  they’ve taken core aspects of Fandom (SF’s community and sub-culture) and present them in ways that are divorced from core principles of Fandom, chief among them being that you aren’t a member of fandom to be passively entertained, you are there to be a contributor.  Want to have a good time with fellow travelers?  You don’t “go” to a convention, you help “put on” a convention.

(And as an aside:  by embracing commercialization, such conventions undermine one of the bedrocks of Fandom’s foundation, which is that it is not a commercial enterprise.  Among other things, this brings along the idea that dollars earned or copies sold, or number of bodies in the audience can be equated with success and import, something we saw negatively affecting the community during “Puppygate”.  I’ll offer the oft-quoted McDonald’s analogy here:  Just because McDonald’s sells the MOST hamburgers, doesn’t mean they are the BEST burgers.)

And yet, we are still here, however diminished or transformed we may be.  At this point, I believe that there will always be a community of obsessed SF fans (and what is a “Fan” but a FANatic?), although it may take forms widely diverging from my own perceptions of what Fandom is or should be.

Not to mention that I think Sawyer was a little guilty of what extrapolators frequently fall victim to:  he looked at the trend (poor-quality work glutting the market and undercutting recruitment through osmosis) and didn’t anticipate new tools and technologies that would come along and alter that trendline.  Thanks to various technologies, there are now more ways to discover quality work than there have ever been before.

I think it safe to say that “Sturgeon’s Balance” is still operating.  Ninety percent of everything out there is crap, but you can still effectively find your way to the other ten percent, if you are sufficiently motivated.

Moving on to more modern times:

In 1998, Mike Glyer of File 770 fame, posed this question in a longish article:  Is Your Club Dead Yet?

The post (based on an article from the print edition of fanzine File 770) includes this sub-head:

And opens with this paragraph:

  “For the past several years, local Jeremiahs belonging to a lot of well-known clubs have been warning that the end is near. I could run a column in this zine titled “Club Suicide Note of the Month” and never fail to fill it. What is going on?”

After which numerous commentary is included which details various SF club’s trials and tribbleations.

Following which there is an analysis of the root causes of the fall off may be, centering on words from a member of First Fandom, David Kyle, who said, during a GoH speech at the 1983 Worldcon:

“We had a mission, a sense of purpose, we had found a form of literature which liberated us and which could liberate the rest of the world — if only the rest of the world could know about it. To us, science fiction was a miraculous Aladdin’s lamp of hope. Our mission was simple: sing the praises of science fiction…. Because of our beliefs, filled with the power of our dreams and sure of the infallibility of science, we supported causes which had high purposes and benevolent and humanistic goals.

The Sense of Mission is missing today for obvious reasons: “After all, we have achieved our goals: to make science fiction known and acceptable to the general public.””

(You can read the whole thing here in Fanhistorica 5.)

And a bit later, it offers a somewhat prescription for reviving growth:

“We cannot return to the past, nor wallow in the reminiscence of it, but we must bring the spirit of those days to the present if we are to survive. Reading is a part of it, for it was the word that fired the imagination, while the visual just makes us react, and the reaction is to purchase and sell, not to dream or think.” = Scott Patri, Fosfax 176

Which unfortunately only identifies the parts of a solution, but not the methodology.

One interesting aspect of this discussion is its identification of the difference between “TruFandom” and “Mainstream Fandom” (the latter being fans and interested parties who don’t adopt the “mission” aspects identified by Kyle:

“Clubs need to avoid advertising themselves as if they are another form of passive entertainment, thereby attracting people who will transfer to club membership the habits learned in theater seats. From the viewpoint of club survival, their presence is a two-edged sword: they attend and pay dues, but they frustrate the fans who keep things going. As Rich Kuhaupt wrote, “Ironically, there’s never been a shortage of criticism for the gallant few who have tried to keep S.T.A.R.’s flame burning, while those who have criticized sat back and demanded, ‘Entertain Us!’””

Glyer’s conclusion:  “The message is: as long as a club continues to fulfill enough members’ needs for friendship and social opportunities, it will keep going, though its purposes and membership may fluctuate.”

Or, in other words, Science Fiction (Clubs) ain’t dead yet.

Neil Clarke, editor and publisher of Clarkes World, one of the few seemingly viable SF magazines still publishing, addresses a tangentially related “SF is dying” claim, that he has apparently been hearing for almost as long as SF has been dying:  there’s a lack of short fiction markets available and this frustrates the potential careers of people whose work might inspire the continued survival of the genre.

As he notes upfront in this piece – Editor’s Desk:  An Important One – (which largely addresses the impact of Amazon closing their magazine subscription program, the detrimental effects it will have on short fiction magazines and some prescriptions for publishers trying to weather that storm):

“It’s nothing I haven’t said before. Many times. Many many times. Enough that I’ve been mocked for it, but not enough that it has changed anything.”

He identifies the problem, as he has before, as owing to people’s enthusiasm for short fiction, but lack of enthusiasm for paying for it.  (A problem that will no doubt be exacerbated by the advent of AI:  it may not yet be able to produce quality work by itself, but if the majority of the audience is incapable of distinguishing good work from bad, or at least receives some satisfaction from sub-par work, this is not a problem.  Where will the money go?  How many AI-derived short fiction publications will there be competing for dwindling subscription dollars in our future?   See earlier comments on the dumbing-down-for-mass-appeal to see how that may contribute to this future concern.)

Science Fiction literature got its start in long form, but grew substantially with the advent of the magazines and short form fiction.  Most of the longer works of the 50s and 60s were derived from expansions of short fiction and “fix-ups” (bridging several shorter works into a cohesive longer work).  Science Fiction builds on itself. A vibrant market for short fiction offers playground-like opportunities for authors to explore both technique and to test out new ideas without investing an inordinate amount of time.  Therefore, it seems that maintaining opportunities for short fiction is vital to the continued health of the genre, and, as Clarke identifies, while it has problems facing it, it also ain’t dead yet.

Finally (if you are still here – which might indicate that you have both a sense of wonder and a sense of mission regarding this genre), we come to Roger Luckhurst’s polemic in Science Fiction Studies from 1994, The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic, which predates my own conclusions here:

“How many times can a genre die? How often can the death sentence be passed down, and when do repeated stays of execution cease being moments of salvation and become instead sadistic toying with the condemned?

SF is dying; but then SF has always been dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution. Birth and death become transposable: if Gernsback’s pulp genericism produces the “ghetto” and the pogrom of systematic starvation for some, he also names the genre and gives birth to it for others. If the pulps eventually give us the “Golden Age,” its passing is death for some and re-birth for others. If the New Wave is the life-saving injection, it is also a spiked drug, a perversion, and the onset of a long degeneration towards inevitable death. If the 1970s is a twilight, a long terminal lingering, the feminists come to the rescue. But then the feminists are also partially responsible, Charles Platt argues, for issuing one final vicious twist of the knife. And what of cyberpunk? Dead before it was even born—or rather dead because it was named. “Requiem for the Cyberpunks” aims to finally kill the label (5). And what now? Christina Sedgewick asks “Can Science Fiction Survive in Postmodern, Megacorporate America?” A new decline, or rather a circling back: SF dying because of its re-commercialization. This is also the thrust of Charles Platt’s claim that “we find ourselves wedded to a form that was once provocative and stimulating but is now crippled, corrupt, mentally retarded, and dying for lack of intensive care” (45).”

In partial conclusion (after examining J.G. Ballard’s influence and delving into parallels between the SF genre’s angst and Freudian analysis), he writes:

“What, then, can be said about this death? One can either view it positively as, paradoxically, the very motor of SF. But one can also suggest that such fantasies are produced out of the structure of legitimation, SF’s perpetual deference to the criteria of worth elaborated for “mainstream” literature. The death of the genre is the only way in which SF could survive as literature. We have grown used to the language of “crisis” in relation to SF—but the term, as in so many other disciplines, has had its urgency, its punctual (and punctural) immediacy eroded. SF moves from crisis to crisis, but it is not clear that such crises come from outside to threaten a once stable and coherent entity. SF is produced from crisis, from its intense self-reflexive anxiety over its status as literature, evidenced partially here by Ballard’s re-marking of the law of genre. If the death-wish is to be avoided, we need to install a crisis in “crisis,” question the way in which strategies of legitimation induce it. The panic narrative of degeneration might then cease its tediously repetitive appearance, and its inversion, the longing for ecstatic death, might be channeled into more productive writings.”

Perhaps that self-inflicted crisis can be found in re-kindling the sense of mission that Kyle wrote about.  And perhaps that “mission” is recognizing that we’re not doing a good enough job of preserving our useful traditions while finding ways to adapting them to our ever evolving world.

So no, the Science Fiction genre, Science Fiction Fandom, Science Fiction publications, Science Fiction Clubs and all of the rest aren’t dead, but they are “dying”, as they have always been, and as all of us are.  That’s not doom and gloom, that’s a prescription for getting out there and doing all the LIVING you can.


Edited to Add:  The quotes from various sources were formatted as block quotes, but that formatting is not reflected in the published version for some reason.  I’ve gone back and added traditional quotes, but that doesn’t not set the quotes off with different text formatting the way it ought to be.  I’m looking into why this happened and will correct everything when it has been figured out.

*I objected, like many, to the validity being given to inclusion and examination of the so-called “soft sciences”, feeling that you can’t reliably extrapolate them.  I have since enjoyed many so-called “soft-science” SF works and discovered that the nature of the science being treated with is not as important as other elements, like consistent, well-grounded extrapolation coupled with engaging writing.

**Having previously been excoriated for using this term, I will note that “The Science Fiction Ghetto” was a term used within the SF community for quite some time, more likely inspired by WWII European ghettos established for Jews and other undesirables than by pejoratives used in the 1960s, and is used in a generally positive manner to reference a self-isolating community within which members were free to be and express themselves in ways that were generally not accepted by mainstream society, starting with, for example, the belief that human beings could travel into space.  It also incorporates the whole “Fans Are Slans” (AE Van Vogt’s Slan) concept, whereas those inside the “ghetto” saw themselves as a minority superior to the bulk of humanity because they possess access to special knowledge and superior, future-based visions of where society should be heading in that future.

It has also been used, primarily by professionals in the field, to reference the “box” publishers put them in, relegating them to the lower-paying, less publicized realm of “genre” fiction, as opposed to mainstream “literary” fiction.  Few, however, consider being relegated to that enforced membership in that class to be a negative.  Rather, they view the consequences of the enforced association to be unfortunate.  Again, the “we’re special and know it, even if the whole rest of the world is too biased or ignorant to see it” concept.

So it is not used here to invoke class or reference racial or religious discrimination, but rather in its original science fiction sense: a “safe space” for enlightened people who are waiting, and hoping, that the rest of the world will come along to see things their way.

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