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Is SF Dying?

Mark Charan Newton seems to think so!

In his blog article, "Why Science Fiction is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is The Future" on December 3rd, he explained his stance on the issue with the following four points:

1. More women than men read books. (you'd have to read the explanation of this one to see his point)

2. Culture has caught up with our imagination.

3. Literary fiction is eating up SF.

4. Modern Fantasy readers have grown up on the films of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

Of course, with such a bold stance, the article incensed a lot of people, although to their credit, were quite civil in voicing their disagreement. Many also agreed.

In response, Newton wrote a second article last week expanding on his earlier statement. One quote from reader (and author) Richard Morgan struck me as something to note:

The big zeitgeist shift that’s really coming into play here, as far as I can see, is the infantilisation of consumer society, and the death of challenge. There’s not enough space here to get into the many and massive ways in which modern consumer culture goes about this infantilisation, but suffice it to say that where the SF/F genre is concerned,the message has gone out, loud and clear, that in order to make successful artefacts of mass entertainment, you must not challenge your audience with anything that a 14 year old American mid-western teenager can’t instantly relate to. Exhibit A – the last Star Trek movie: the future and all it has to offer, crushed down in conceptual terms to fit inside the comprehension gap of a teenage boy from Iowa. What are the challenges facing this vast multi-species star-faring culture? Well, bullying from your class-mates, getting caught cheating on tests, sassy girls who won’t give it up, adults who doooooon’t understaaaaaand your teen pain, and big, stroppy guys with tattoos.

What are your thoughts on Newton's argument? Do you agree or disagree? Why? What about Richard Morgan's comment?

ETA: There are so many great comments here I can't keep up! Thank you everyone for contributing. Please keep the discussion going! :)



( 49 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 14th, 2009 09:09 am (UTC)
I think Newton makes some good points, but it feels like an oversimplification. But then I think a lot of things would if you tried to boil them down to four points. I'm not sure what the third point has to do with it, though, since it works both ways--most of the people I know who like mainstream/literary won't have much to do with genre fiction, but people who read genre fiction may not read much (or any) mainstream or literary fiction either. So yes, there are mainstream authors who are writing SF-type stories, but that doesn't mean the typical SF audience is reading those books either. I guess it could mean that people who aren't familiar with the genre could go for the mainstream instead of the real genre authors, but...eh, I'm still not completely sold on that point. The other three are fair, though.

I read somewhere (no idea where or when, unfortunately) that several decades ago people tended to be very excited about the future, while people today tend to be less hopeful about it. So I wonder if (and this kind of connects back to his second point) part of the reason people may be buying less SF is that they may feel more inclined to look to another world for their escapism instead of to the future. Not that it's a conscious choice, just something that may be influencing some people's buying choices.

I don't see what Morgan's comment has to do with SF books, though. Hollywood and the publishing industry are two different animals. Movies have age limits, and those age limits can affect the marketability of the film. Access to books isn't controlled by age the way that it can be for movies, but at the same time there are still some rough age categories so that people who want that teen angst know that they're more likely to find something that fits their mood in YA (not all YA is angsty and not all angsty books wind up in YA, but in my experience that's where you're more likely to find them) while people who don't are more likely to find something they'll be happy with in the adult section.
Dec. 14th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
"I read somewhere (no idea where or when, unfortunately) that several decades ago people tended to be very excited about the future, while people today tend to be less hopeful about it. So I wonder if (and this kind of connects back to his second point) part of the reason people may be buying less SF is that they may feel more inclined to look to another world for their escapism instead of to the future. Not that it's a conscious choice, just something that may be influencing some people's buying choices."

Well put. This may also explain why we're seeing so many dystopias lately, especially in the YA market.

I agree that fantasy (especially urban fantasy) is currently eclipsing sci-fi. Just take a look at the sci-fi fantasy section at your local bookstore. Still, I believe that this is more a sign of the times than a sign that sci-fi is being demolished completely. Eventually, the urban fantasy trend will die down, and maybe sci-fi will be the darling of genre fiction once more. Perhaps the emerging popularity of YA books like "The Hunger Games" and "Uglies" signify that the next trend will be dystopias, as being less dependent on technology they have the ability to age better. Maybe steampunk will be the next big thing. I really don't know. Perhaps I'm being naive here. I just feel that just because something isn't popular now, doesn't necessarily mean that it's gone for ever. We're not talking about going from VHS to DVD to Blu Ray. We're talking about an ever changing/ever developing genre of literature that's currently spending a lot less time in the spotlight, but may become popular again.
Dec. 14th, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)
It's an interesting statement and there's nothing in the original article that strikes me as being blatantly wrong but at the same time I don't find it all that convincing either, with the possible exception of the point about how technology is advancing so rapidly that the genre can't keep up with it. That can definitely pose a problem for the genre as a whole - at the same time, I feel like the space opera/hard sci-fi core that he also mentions is still so far beyond the realm of our current technology that it can't be affected all that much.

I think the Richard Morgan comment there is interesting in that he's pinning specifically on fantasy/sci-fi something that seems to be pretty prevalent in any mainstream movie. If you're going to make big budget flicks you have to pay for them somehow, and that happens by appealing to the widest possible audience and making the most money out of it. It definitely sucks but I don't think it's limited to sci-fi/fantasy in any way.
Dec. 14th, 2009 01:47 pm (UTC)
I don't quite see why Newton thinks it's acceptable to go insulting teenagers from Iowa.

You know, 'cuz all of the sci-fi and related movies from the 70s and 80s were so filled with moral complexity and ambiguity. I was never quite sure if superman was supposed to be the good guy, or the bad guy, he was such a multifaceted character.

Seriously, though, only book sales data and movie data will actually answer these questions. For all that HP, LOTR, and Twilight have been very popular lately, so have been Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, and plenty of other sci-fi movies. Frankly, I grew up on hot dogs and cheese, not any particular movie.
Dec. 14th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
"You know, 'cuz all of the sci-fi and related movies from the 70s and 80s were so filled with moral complexity and ambiguity. I was never quite sure if superman was supposed to be the good guy, or the bad guy, he was such a multifaceted character."

Yes! That was my first thought. Perhaps he's thinking of the staggering moral complexity of Star Wars, lol.

I think there is some argument to be made for the idea that current reading audiences don't respond well to the intellectual and ethical challenges of hard sci-fi - but "OMG STAR TREK WAS SILLY!" isn't it.
(no subject) - little_e_ - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - little_e_ - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 14th, 2009 02:21 pm (UTC)
*blinks* Oookaayy, somehow his first article reminds me of a woman I know who's a wannabe artist who rationalizes her inability to earn a living at her art by saying "The world just isn't ready yet for my artisitc statements"

Regarding 1. Anecdotal yes, but I sure know a lot of women who read 'hard' SF. And his argument is awfuly close to claiming women don't like science, although I might be a little to sensetive about this issue.

2. So what if some of the things SF writers imagined have come true, that doesn't mean there is nothing to write about. It means that writers need to imagine new stuff by building on some of the latest scientific discoveries and theiroys. Were does he think the ideas in classic SF came from, a secrit writers manual?

3. 'Oh no! popular fiction used some of the same plots as SF, it's OVER!!!' Yeah it's not like most fiction can't use old plots in a new way or anything. I've read stories with the Cinderella plot in many different genra, including historical fiction, hard and soft SF, and fantasy. All were different stories.

4. What does that have to do with anything? Is there some rule I'm not aware of? Something to the effect of 'once you get hooked on Tolken you can't ever read SF'

And as for the comment, it sounds like the kind of complaint each generation has had about the new one, since around the dawn of time. "Things just aren't like they were in my day, we were tougher/smarter/faced more issues/had to walk uphill to school, both ways, in 23 feet of snow, in june, and LIKED it"

Dec. 14th, 2009 02:43 pm (UTC)
The most basic...
The most basic flaw in his reasoning is that he claims that sci-fi declining from its current level of sales means sci-fi is dying out (slowly or otherwise).

Genres tend to have up and down periods - and I suspect that sci-fi readership is still higher than during the 40s, say...
Dec. 14th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC)
Re: The most basic...
I agree with this.

Additionally, it seems his only measure of the death of sci-fi is traditional sales (and, even then, he approaches the story not with hard numbers but with an anecdotal "If you talk to a buyer at a book chain..."). Now - I'm not arguing that sales of hard copies are not still the most important measure of a genre's relevance, but they're not the only one. Increasingly, the authors doing "real" sci-fi are the same ones experimenting with alternate publication methods.
Re: The most basic... - marycatelli - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: The most basic... - nightcamedown - Dec. 14th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: The most basic... - count_fenring - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: The most basic... - nightcamedown - Dec. 14th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: The most basic... - count_fenring - Dec. 14th, 2009 06:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 14th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
I don't think sci-fi is going anywhere, even if it isn't the latest and greatest in trends. While it's nice that he says women matter, I'm not sure if I can believe that women read more books than men; maybe they buy more books. Also, as a woman who loves sci-fi and is an engineer I wish people would stop trying to draw clear cut lines between gender and genre preference, it gets really old really fast.
Dec. 14th, 2009 03:53 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with the irritation at drawing lines on gender/genre formation.

I'm a little unclear on the "I can believe that women buy more books, but not that they read more books." Are they buying them for paperweights?

From what I understand, women overall tend to buy (and read from libraries) more books, and more women buy books than men. I'm not sure how much of that is the overwhelmingly female demographics of the romance and true crime genres; but overall, women do make up a larger proportion of the reading public than men.
(no subject) - little_e_ - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - count_fenring - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - little_e_ - Dec. 14th, 2009 05:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - temporaryworlds - Dec. 14th, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Hmmm... - count_fenring - Dec. 15th, 2009 04:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 14th, 2009 03:32 pm (UTC)
I am so tired of hearing how sci fi is doomed because more women write/read sci fi these days and that means no more "hard" sci fi books or even that cause men dont read (which is also nonsense, younger men and boys may not read much but older men do). There are women who like to read those books, it's not a strictly male activity. Even if they are not common, it doesnt mean that hard sci fi books are gonna die. If readers collectively are moving away from hard science sci fi books then honestly I think it's a cultural trend just in the way that mystery books or westerns were once a very popular genre amongst the general public and now not so much. It's called change, it happens. I still see loads of mysteries and westerns on my local library's shelves. So someone must be reading them and certainly someone is writing them.

I just dont get this nostalgia for the "good ol" days of sci fi, has that much changed beyond fantasy becoming more popular lately? As someone upthread mentioned the latest star trek film did very well and not too long ago matrix series was a big deal.

Edited at 2009-12-14 03:33 pm (UTC)
Dec. 14th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
If only older men do, then it's dying as mortality weeds them out.

It would help if schools tried to get boys to read books that would interest them, not books the teachers wants them to be interested in.
(no subject) - little_e_ - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sisterjune - Dec. 14th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sisterjune - Dec. 14th, 2009 10:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jawastew - Dec. 14th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 15th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jawastew - Dec. 15th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 15th, 2009 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sisterjune - Dec. 15th, 2009 10:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - marycatelli - Dec. 15th, 2009 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sisterjune - Dec. 15th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Ummm.... - count_fenring - Dec. 15th, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 14th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)

I don't see much point in distinguishing between the subgenres. Does it really matter whether the weird stuff in the story is based on "magic" or "technology", robots or elves? I just like a good story.

Also, it's not as though the need for high technology in SF makes it too sophisticated for poorly educated teenagers. They just reroute the energy through the matter transdeucers and change the Delta-Q on the mainframe directional chips to make cool stuff happen, and everyone's happy.
Dec. 14th, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
It's true that the idea that one actually needs science for science fiction is bunk, but I'm not actually convinced that they're really sub-genres.

I feel that there's a difference of kind, but I have a hard time putting my finger on it.
Re: Hmmm... - marycatelli - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hmmm... - count_fenring - Dec. 14th, 2009 04:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hmmm... - roseembolism - Dec. 14th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hmmm... - marycatelli - Dec. 14th, 2009 09:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hmmm... - admnaismith - Dec. 14th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Hmmm... - cthulhu_shuman - Dec. 15th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - holydread - Dec. 15th, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 14th, 2009 09:15 pm (UTC)
The big, Number One major mistake that Newton makes is that he does the usual thing of insisting on blaming external factors for the decline in hard SF. He refuses to consider the point that the hard SF genre itself has a number of problematic elements. For one thing, much of the corpus of the subgenre it is extremely badly written; it has terrible characterization, simplistic plotting, atrocious use of conventions and voice...in short, it's bad literature. In fact the whole "Literature of ideas" nomenclature is basically sleight of hand, where we're supposed to be so enraptured by the concepts that we don't pay attention to the obvious flaws in the writing.

If there's any aspect that the greater presence of women readers has had an effect, it's the problem that SF has pretty much been a "boys club" for fifty years, reflecting the interests and views of a select group of elitist white males. Relatively few women are going to be interested in how the bronze-thewed heroic spaceman triumphs in trampling the non-western alien culture, and wins the woman to be his bride. When you have allegedly modern writers like SM Stirling talking about how once you take electricity away women will happily go back to being domestic slaves, when you have writers like Niven and Zelazney and Heinlein and Card regarding women as alien objects that can only be schtupped, not understood...well, that's not going to go over well in a more egalitarian society. And that's not even taking into account the generally reactionary, ethnocentric, and in many cases downright archaic views that a lot of SF writers have.

In other words, SF is failing because the standards for pop literature are a bit more stringent than they were in the 50s, and the writers have failed to keep up. Fantasy has a bit of an easier time meeting literary standards, or rather it doesn't fall back on the "literature of ideas" excuse, and that's why it's been increasing in relative popularity.
Dec. 14th, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
I love you for this comment, I wish I had the eloquence and confidence to write what you just said here cause this has been my problem with alot of scifi writers and why I dislike hard science scifi myself, however because my experience with such writers and the genre is limited in comparison to fantasy, I felt like I didn't have much to contribute on that account. But in fact I did read "Dies the Fire" by SM Stirling thinking the idea was fascinating and then HATING the way women were portrayed and how apparently people of color just do not exist in Stirling's vision of the future. I think in fact it's been easier for female writers and writers of color to get into fantasy and as such there is a greater variety of material out there, and I think that's also the reason YA lit is so popular it's amazingly varied in it's material and also it's portrayals of young people from various different backgrounds and gender identification.
(no subject) - Stephen Michael Stirling - Jun. 2nd, 2013 01:13 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 15th, 2009 02:09 am (UTC)
The other thing that one commenter mentioned is that the lines between sci-fi and fantasy weren't very clear cut (and honestly, does cataloging genres _really_ matter?). Furthermore, sci-fi isn't just star-faring and intergalactic battles and aliens. George Orwell's 1984 is sci-fi. I think sci-fi is just being incorporated into other genres and being marketed as such: I don't think the genre is dying. Not from where I am, at any rate.
( 49 comments — Leave a comment )

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