Has Science Fiction Changed Over the Years?

I’m a Baby Boomer.  I began my exposure to Science Fictional concepts when I was quite young, probably four or thereabouts, with bedtime stories that my mother created.  I vaguely remember them as featuring a mixed spaceship crew visiting various planets.

This got cemented in the early 60s with a lot of television shows – Jonny Quest, Fireball XL-5, Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel, Star Trek – and by 1968 I was reading Heinlein and Tolkein and Le Guin and Chandler and many others through various anthologies.

I came to reading at a good time:  the demand for SF in print was increasing and publishers were mining the history of the genre to fill the maw.  There were still a fair number of magazines being published (in print) and most of this content was readily available at bookstores and flea markets.

I read and consumed everything I could lay my hands on.

I also became involved with Fandom fairly early on:  I attended my first (I’ll use today’s nomenclature) “Fan Run” convention in the early 70s, having attended some of the earliest Star Trek conventions previously.

I’ve now got near 6 decades of  some degree of involvement with the genre under my belt, with additional familiarity with earlier eras through research, study and a general interest in the history of the genre.  I’ve read a fair number of biographies and histories of the field to be at least passingly familiar with the state of the genre in times before I was born.

I’ve also dabbled in other aspects of Fanac- publishing Fanzines, helping to run conventions, writing letters to magazines, and have studied Fandom’s history as well.

Both my personal experiences and those studies of times gone past inform me that a lot has changed with this genre since I first became acquainted with it.

But since this is an entirely subjective view, I think I should define that a bit more.

These descriptions of “change” are not based on numbers or research, nor on definitive evidence supporting a claim.  These are my personal reception of remembrances and personal observation over this time period.

Individual responses to what I’m referring to as “change” may very well vary, in ways that range from “I don’t see that as a change” to “That’s absolutely not the way I remember it”.  And both – and everything in between – are perfectly, completely legitimate takes.  I am not you, you are not me.  Our life experiences are likely vastly different, as are the ways in which we respond to things.  I am not offering up judgments on these changes.  I am only relating some personal observations about this genre and its community as I see and have experienced them.  Later, I may decide to write up an analysis of each and offer my views on the effects these changes have had, but for now I am only seeking to quantify the changes.

I have previously posted a version of this list of items on Facebook and received some good feedback, including the addition of a few more changes (which I’ve noted below).  I’m hoping that the same will prove true for this version.

One thing previously objected to (mildly) was that I was not specific enough about the time frames we’re discussing here.  I’ll do so now.

I was born in late 1958.  I was watching Fireball XL-5 when it premiered on US television in October of 1963 – when I was not quite 5 years old.  (My fifth birthday party featured a spaceship-shaped birthday cake – giving you some clue as to the influence  the show had on me and, by extension, my family.)

Prior to that, the stories my mother told me mentioned earlier.  Since it was “earlier”, I was probably 3 turning to 4 when I was told them.  (We could find a more precise date if we could determine when “The Mummy” – the 1932 film starring Karloff – aired on one of the Philadelphia television stations in the evening).  I was a  precocious reader and really began to read my own selections in earnest when I was 6, starting with Scholastic and quickly progressing to paperbacks.  Which places that era in the mid-60s.

Therefore,  my direct and personal exposure to contemporary Science Fiction in all its forms covers the period of 1963 to the present.

However, there’s that boom in the genre I mentioned earlier to take into account as well.  When I was born, Amazing Stories had only been published for thirty some odd years.  Most of the fans, authors, editors and artists who helped found the genre, were still alive and producing content.  I got to meet and hang out with many of them – and I can’t think of a one who wasn’t eager to share their experiences of the genre’s history with an enthusiastic neo fan.

Perhaps the period of my greatest involvement with the genre spans approximately 1968 to the early 80s (I GAFIATED for a while to play paintball) when I did the bulk of my reading (and research) when I should have been doing my schoolwork.  It was not atypical for me to read two, or most of two, novels in a day.  (Remember also though that most earlier SF were not epics of 500+ pages, a change noteed below).

In the middle of that time-frame was a mini-boom in SF that followed the Moon landing.  Hundreds of anthologies were produced – and I read most of them.  Histories of the genre were being produced and I read most of them.  Out of academic interest I read precursor works mentioned in various fan publications and histories of the genre, not excluding Homer.

I think it safe to say that I have an intimate and personal experience of SF created from the mid-1960s to the 1990s, and a good familiarity with most of what preceded the 1960s (the “Golden Age” was well-represented in anthologies and collections).

World SF?  Not so much, for the simple reason that such works were not well-distributed during that time frame (another change mentioned below).  I’d like to think that I’d have embraced it as much as I did those works I had access to, because my interest was and has been in the genre, not a specific take or a particular period or author.

Finally, there are two reasons for the drop-off in my direct involvement.  First, and quite honestly, over the course of 60 years, a lot of “been there, read that” has crept in to my experience.  Second, I had a stroke that affects my vision and has apparently introduced some degree of dyslexia into my reading, making it difficult for me.  (I don’t receive audio books well, either.)

On the other hand, I’ve remained actively involved with the community and continue to consume as much as I am able.

Mentioning that community, one final note before we get to the list of changes.  I don’t view “Science Fiction” as just the literature, or just film, or just conventions.  I believe that the genre is what it is today because of all of the various elements it comprises.  You can’t remove the genre  from its community – Fandom.  Nor can you eliminate its various historical influences, such as the manner in which Fandom was founded, or the fact that many, many practitioners were originally Fans – Fans who largely viewed themselves as outcasts of mainstream society.  Science Fiction is not just a literature.  It is its artistic offerings PLUS the community that creates and consumes it.

With all of that said, here is the current version of the “List of Changes” (to Science Fiction as I have experienced them over my life time).

0. The reception of SF and the claims of its purpose have changed.  Where SF was generally regarded as stories that speculated on, advocated for or warned about extrapolated futures (with due exception for alternate reality, time travel, etc), it has more recently been identified as works that engage in commentary on contemporary times.

1. Media SF has eclipsed literary SF within popular culture (previously pop culture paid little if any attention to literary SF – usually poo-pooing that silly spaceship stuff – and only occasionally interested in media expressions, like radio plays, film serials and the quite infrequent full length “B” movie, or the even more infrequent major release version)

2. Literary SF has transformed from a primary focus on short fiction in periodicals to longer forms, and those longer forms have gotten longer and longer and longer and…).

3. Magazines were a primary focus of the genre (both ‘zines and professional publications)

4. Related though not directly: most magazines were economically viable for at least a handful of years and all of them were in PRINT

5. There were NO commercial conventions devoted to the genre. Nor were there hybrid or quasi-commercial conventions

6. Publishing of novel length works was mostly produced by specialty publishing houses. Now, every large publishing house has – or had – an SF imprint

7. The volume of out put was such that a dedicated reader could consume most of the content produced in a year. Now one can hardly keep up with a single publisher’s output

8. Many more authors could make a living on their writing alone (true 30s to 50s, not so true after)

9. There were many more active Clubs

10. Most novel length works – especially by top authors in the field – were centered on stand-alone concepts. Virtually every novel published by a given author dealt with new concepts, new themes and new characters. “Serials” or “series” were few and far between

11. In bookstores (when we had those), the number of Science Fiction titles displayed FAR outnumbered the Fantasy titles on offer

12. The general public accepts “science fiction” as a recognizable and generally positive “thing” within popular culture (primarily media expressions and among those, primarily the adjacent “super hero” subgenre).  

13. The genre has been “nichified” through marketing to focus on specific subgenres, rather than promoting the genre inclusively (for example: paperback books often featured “other books you may like” pages at the back, and these were comprised of a mix of titles and authors. Today such advertising and promotion focuses on presenting similar themes or works by a single author)

14. The concept of SF story/novel as a literary “gedanken experiment” has largely fallen by the wayside

15. The focus of literary science fiction has changed from centering on concepts/ideas/new technologies/technological capabilities and how they affect characters to a focus on characters and how they are affected by “something”.

16. The “business” of SF as a “closed shop” (the SF Ghetto), creators being drawn primarily from among Fans with a largely shared experience of the genre has gotten diluted, with much content produced by authors who have little to no connection to Fandom and little to no knowledge of the field prior to their own times

17. Creators in the field have had to become far more commercially oriented, needing to engage in assisting or supplementing publisher’s promotional efforts.  Nancy Leibowitz:  you don’t have nearly as much in the way of shared references just by liking sf.

18. Publisher’s now select new works to accept based on their “fit” to existing marketing channels, rather than identifying good art and finding ways to market it (see at least The Female Man and Dhalgren for examples of works that didn’t fit niches but went on to great acclaim)

19. (Related to the previous): Editors at SF publishing houses are no longer the primary decision makers regarding the acceptance of new works

20. The “sciences” that were considered acceptable for treatment in a story were originally restricted to physical sciences, then expanded to include the so-called “soft sciences” during the “New Waves”. Now, “science”, or at least plausible, extrapolated science is no longer considered a necessary element. “Magic” has increasingly crept in to the mix.

21. Academia would not devote serious study to the literature. Now it does, in some places. “Upper class” literary outlets still reject it as serious literature.

22. Genre and sub-genre definitions have changed: “Space Opera” was once a pejorative. “Sci Fi” was once a pejorative. “SF Ghetto” was not considered a triggering phrase. “Fan” meant something specific – an intimacy with the literature and its community. Now it means someone who watched The Avengers once. Maybe.

23. The “Science Fiction World” was something written about and hoped for. Now it’s something we’re living in and often regret.

24. Review and critique used to examine a work within the context of the author’s and the work’s contemporary time and influences. Now, much of it demands that those works somehow conform to current sensibilities

25. “Fan Fiction” used to be practiced in private: The aspiring writer who would admit to an author that they were using that author’s ideas and characters to “practice” was virtually non-existent. “Self-publishing” was synonymous with Vanity publishing: authorial status was only achieved by submitting to professional publications and publishers, getting rejected and nevertheless persevering.

26: Marketing and promotion of a new work focused on the work itself. Today, we get the elevator pitch of “like a mashup of these two bizarre and completely unrelated things!!!” OR “Just like So-and-So, but BETTER!”, usually referencing the name of a highly respected, influential and awarded author.

27. Minor areas of SF interest have grown to become markets in their own right – Gaming and graphic novels among them.  (Suggested by and based on “Gaming and graphic novels became important as well as print sf. Technically, superhero comics were sf, but somehow they didn’t seem to be from the same culture.” from Nancy Lebovitz)

28. Additional  sub-genres have been elevated (largely to serve marketing goals) to greater recognition – SF Mystery, SF  Romance and MilSF among them.   Each existed previously as part of the genre’s range, but they have become increasingly factionalized in both marketing and audience.  (Suggested by and based on “The science fiction mystery had to be invented– this was a little before my time. These days, it seems as though practically every sf novel has a murder mystery *and* a romance.”  from  Nancy Lebovitz)

29. Scientific discovery and technological advance have rendered much earlier work “obsolete” and increasingly inaccessible to new audiences.  This will be an increasingly problematic issue for the genre.  (Suggested by and based on “Space probes meant that the classic desert Mars/jungle Venus were no longer standard sf. After a while, those planets only showed up as conscious nostalgia.” from Nancy Lebovitz)

30.  The vast majority of published works, up until about 2005, were created using the traditional methodology:  submission to a magazine or book publisher, acceptance, work with an editor, publication.  Now the vast majority of published works (perhaps as much as 2/3rds) are “Indie” or Self-Published  works, displaying a wide range of professionalism.  Identifying quality work has become increasingly difficult.

31.  The definition of “Fan” has dramatically changed.  Fandom initially identified its members as those who actively participated in Clubs, Fanzine publishing, letter writing and running conventions.  A loose hierarchy was established based on activity within Fandom, with BNFs, SMoFs and ACTIFANS at the peak.  Amongst most Fans, familiarity with the works of the genre was expected. Today, literally anyone who has been exposed to any aspect of Science Fiction, to whatever degree, can (and does) call themselves a “Fan”.

32.  The concept of Fandom has been changing.  Originally, “Fandom” was received as a unitary sub-culture that encompassed anything and everything “SFnal”, including adjacent interests that are popularized within Fandom by individual fans.  Currently, Fans are increasingly substituting interest in a particular subject or property as an individual “Fandom”, even to the extent of asking individuals “what their Fandoms are”.

33.  Fandom is becoming increasingly commercialized.  Inevitably, access to funds to underwrite Fannish activities has increasingly caused compromise of Fandom’s initial non-commercial nature.  The reach and influence of commercial conventions has eclipsed traditional conventions.

34.  The quality of published works has diminished, with less attention (and budget) being devoted to proofing, copyediting, not to mention a large drop off in the dollars and resources devoted to promoting individual authors and works. (Suggested by and based on “ Read through the first edition ef Dead Witch Wolking and if you tell me that is acceptable quality copyediting I will laugh in your face. NYC publisher, yes, competence in copyediting and production, ha, ha, ha. It’s full of misspellings ond homonyms and missisg words ond even missing sentences…” – Paula Lieberman)

The theme of many of these changes can be summed up as “Divide and Conquer”.  To use the established base of Fandom and the genre to create individual marketing categories that can be evaluated for viability, have targeted marketing developed around those specific interests and attempt to lock consumers (not fans) into those marketing channels.

Of all of the changes that have been wrought, I think this is potentially the greatest issue facing the genre and its community.  Its intrusion is likely inevitable.

Some additional commentary from the Facebook version:

Nancy Liebowitz: Fanfiction has exploded online, partly because of more material to work with, and partly because publishing online is free, unlike publishing on paper.

Nancy Liebowitz: “I’m not sure younger people have a feeling for how much sf and sf fans used to be despised. “That’s science fiction!” used to be equivalent to “That’s nonsense!”

Valerie Frankel: conform to current sensibilities is stretching it — Lovecraft was problematic in his own time. And have you seen the antisemitic page of War of the Worlds? Common for British authors, but icky then too. Just no one was listening to the minorities being ridiculed. Heck, the comics code banned the racism in 1954. Because the depictions were known to be racist then. Not using preferred terms…that I think we’re giving a pass.

Dave Creek: The field is so wide these days that it’s difficult to find common novels/stories to talk about at cons. STAR TREK used to be the common coin, but with ten TREK shows out there now, even that effect has become diluted.
This is not a bad thing; as noted, the field is welcoming people who would never have been published even a few years ago. We need the diversity in content and modes of storytelling.

Lisa Goldstein: I remember going to conventions in the 1980s but i was much younger then. no doctor who cons and only so many star trek and star wars shows and movies. also, all the books no longer considered canon were absorbed voraciously. also, con entry fees were cheaper and volunteering was more fun. nowadays you must document every hour you volunteer on paper or online, very specifically and get it signed off by the proper person. also hotels that host the conventions have come and gone, sometimes not for the better IMHO. oh how i miss the good old days…

Darrell Schweitzer: In the old days, just about anything with a science fiction cover on it would sell a predictable number of copies in paperback. There were few if any SF bestsellers, but few real failures either. Therefore it really didn’t matter what was between those covers. This gave readers and editors vastly more freedom. Really eccentric writers like Lafferty or David Bunch or Avram Davidson could be published in mass market paperback. They might not sell as well as Heinlein or Asimov, but they would sell as well as the average SF. This also meant that a great deal of mediocre material by writers who, as their track records had shown, would never get any better, could still be published. Robert Moore Williams could still be published to the end of his life. We called this condition a “ghetto.” It was limiting for ambitious writers like Harlan Ellison, but it provided a certain protection to the lesser ranks.
Today most of the real creativity is in the small presses. Some of it is even to be found among self-published authors, although there it is very hard to sift out the potential bestsellers from an amateur trash and the almost-good books that would have been a lot better if professionally edited and published. The fact remains that self-publication requires no quality control whatsoever. This does not preclude quality, but it does make it harder to spot. So we have a much more diversified field of niche markets and small presses, with mostly reliable Product coming from the New York publishers.

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