What D’Ya Know, Science Fiction Isn’t Dead

If you had a conversation in the SFFH community sometime in the 1998-2003 time period, you might well have been arguing with people who felt that contemporary fantasy fiction was rare, unimportant, limited mainly to YA, used to not exist in the past, and would never be anywhere near as popular in the field as pre-industrial secondary world fantasy. (By 2004, those conversations stopped.) If you had a conversation in 2008-2012, it would probably have been concerning wild assertions about e-books, how they were made, what they should cost, the right of illegal downloading, and how they and electronic self-publishing would kill all publishers off by 2014. As we know, these things are cyclical.

No conversation, however, in the SFFH community and at times in the media, is as cyclical as the science fiction is dying and soon to die conversation. And if you were having a conversation in the SFFH community in the 2004-2010 time period, it might very well have been about such claims: how fantasy was pushing SF out as a category market (again,) how women were the big readers and the myth that they didn’t like SF as much (again,) how technology had somehow magically invented all the inventions and big theories and so science fiction’s musings on the future couldn’t keep up (again,) how science fiction was largely dead in the movies (again,) how science fiction doing well in YA didn’t count, how vampires were the only thing going, etc.

Those conversations have died down now to occasional mumbles about how hard SF, the real SF, is still dying, but that never changes. The refrain of widespread science fiction and sci-fi death, however, has become forgotten. That’s because science fiction is all over the place and has now gotten enough hits to have people actually accept it as a media interest, rather than dismiss science fiction hits as somehow rare outliers.

In the movies just recently, Divergent, adapted from the bestselling YA science fiction novel, scored with a $56 million opening weekend, without even yet getting their global audience. It joins The Hunger Games movies, also adapted from the bestselling YA science fiction series read by both girls and boys and with female leads (trickle, trickle.) Last year, nearly a dozen science fiction movies were the big launches, everything from Iron Man 3 to Elysium to Gravity. This up-coming year, SF movies are quite plentiful – more Hunger Games, and Transcendence, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Jupiter Rising, etc. And that’s just Hollywood – world cinema is doing plenty too. This is not a sudden change; 2009 — a year in which the claims that science fiction was on its way out reached a fever pitch – saw the Star Trek reboot, District 9 and Avatar, the movie that took the number one box office slot. Science fiction is, in fact, and has been, more trusted in Hollywood than fantasy movies, which are seen as unpredictable.

On television, science fiction is on networks, on cable, on the Internet, and again global. Shows like Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Continuum, Almost Human, Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Defiance, Under the Dome, etc., are thick on the ground.  Some are more successful than others, but science fiction shows are a staple of the medium, a medium which is becoming more and more international and melding at least partially with web television on the Net, where science fiction stories are long time favorites.

In written fiction, science fiction has been building and rebuilding its audiences. The burgeoning YA fiction market was commonly seen as either a devourer of the adult category market or unimportant to the adult category market, depending on which claim people wanted to make about trends. The success of The Hunger Games in that market was dismissed as not sufficient for science fiction, given that it was YA and the phenom status of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, while other SF YA bestseller series like Maximum Ride and The Uglies were ignored altogether. Now YA is awash in dystopian SF series that have done well, to the point where the media wonders if they are taking over the field, both for teens and adults. This is of course not happening any more than the purported vampire takeover; teen readers are simply cycling through different types of stories. Right now, they are also enjoying SF with alien contacts, zombies, genetic engineering, cyber AI and space travel adventure, such as Karl Schroeder’s recent novel Lockstep.

The presence of big, acclaimed authors doing SF novels was regarded by some as “outsiders” whose success was supposed to destroy the SF category market, rather than bring more readers to it, as they usually do. Best-selling novels like the time travel love story, The Time Traveler’s Wife, the alt history near future The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, post-apocalyptic novels Oryx & Crake, The Road, World War Z and The Passage were seen by some as death knells for more established (and often equally acclaimed,) SF writers. Instead, they brought in a flurry of movie options for themselves and for SF classics that is still going on, and helped build a general interest in science fiction, as did SF thrillers that were sold in both general fiction and the category market. Currently, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation is adding to that steady pool.

Category market authors – those working with SFF specialty imprints – saw big deals in the last decade, such as the one given a few years back to British author Alastair Reynolds, with more titles published on most major lists. Currently, The Martian by Andy Weir is causing a big splash and is already optioned for film. Novels like Influx, Red Rising, A Darkling Sea, Air, Ancillary Justice, and new offerings from older authors like C.J. Cherryh, David Weber, William Gibson, and Dan Simmons are racking up sales and buzz. Hugh Howey’s Wool succeeded as both an example of self-publishing audience building and science fiction bestsellerdom, with an adaptation and foreign sales. John Scalzi’s satirical Red Shirts also scored big on the lists and will be a short-run t.v. series. Bestselling novels like The Wind-Up Girl and The Quantum Thief have scored big in recent years, highlighting the crops of military SF, space opera, SF horror, quantum exploration, alien contact and whatever else they can come up with.

So at this point, I am reasonably confident in saying that the predictions I made back in 2008 for SF’s continued health have been accurate. And that perhaps people need to read the story of Chicken Little every so often.

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Filed under book publishing, Movies/TV, SFFH

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