Science fiction is dead.
Exhibit 1: Last month I found myself in the ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction’ section of an average-sized bookshop, one of a major chain of such shops that you can find in any shopping centre in the country.
There were some Star Trek books. There were some Star Wars books. I think there may have been some Stargate books. There were a few of those sequels to the Dune Books by Brian Herbert which I have never had the slightest inclination to read. There was ‘I, Robot’. There was, in one gleam of hope, a whole slab of shelf devoted to a new edition of Philip K. Dick’s novels.
Beyond that, it was all Fantasy.
Of course, not all bookstores are like that. But if Science Fiction was a going concern, there wouldn’t be any bookstores like that.
To a first approximation, therefore, it would seem that no science fiction with mass appeal is being written today.
Refutations of this statement, with copious counter-examples, would be welcome. While awaiting them I will have a go at possible explanations:
(1) As a superannuated fuddy-duddy, I am out of touch with the vibrant and populous community of modern science fiction readers. Entirely possible... but if they were really vibrant and populous one would still expect to see more evidence of it in the chain bookstores. I think.
(2) It just got too hard to write science fiction, because the real world got too science-fictiony, and was more or less the same as the Cyberpunk world we used to read.
Exhibit 2: When I read science fiction, even my favourite stuff, it always has a period feel nowadays: In all but a very few cases, it is obviously of the 50s, or the 60s, or the 70s, or the 80s, and could not be anything else. I can immediately imagine a ‘generic’ science fiction story of each of those decades, as dated by its themes and characters as if it were full of artifacts and celebrities of that period.
Exhibit 3: I can think of two authors immediately who wrote science fiction that was interesting and good, in different ways, and then went off to achieve fame and fortune writing formulaic fantasy. I can’t think of anyone who went the other way.
I sat down once and thought about what sort of thing I liked to read best of all, and I remember deciding that it was science fiction stories of the sort written by Larry Niven. I can’t think of any particular way they stand out. It is just that every other particular science fiction author I think of has particular foibles that would grate on me if I had to read only them forever. So, if I was forced to take the short stories of only one author with me to Camp X-Ray to read and re-read for the term of my natural life, it would have to be Larry Niven.
Having said that, I have almost never re-read a Larry Niven novel.
And, I can’t think of any way in which Larry Niven has changed my world view. Perhaps changes in world view only arise in response to being sufficiently irritated. So, although ‘N’ was originally going to be for Larry Niven, I have changed my mind.
N is for the next science fiction author to make an impact on the way I look at the world.