The Slow Death of Science Fiction

SF editor Lou Anders is talking about the sales decline of SF – from about one third of the mass market in the 70s to around 7 or 8 per cent now.

One of his readers suggests: “the answer is to bring back more complex, involuted, experimental stuff like the early 70s had when s.f. was something like a third of the mass market, not drive readers further away in an era where anyone can use fantastic material in novels in or outside of marketing categories.”

The thinking is that movies and TV have colonised the more populist form to such a degree that SF books need to move into more rareified territory.

To me, that is not the answer, but exactly the problem. It’s like saying, ‘Labour (or the Republicans or fill-in-political-party-here) has so successfully colonised the middle ground, we need to become more extreme’…

The real problem for SF, in my eyes, is that too much of it is failing in the art of communication. It’s written by scientists, for scientists. Every time this charge is levelled, the Big Machine Writers always talk about not wanting to do ‘dumbed-down fiction’ – SF is the genre of ideas, they say.

But they are confusing the art with the delivery of the art. If you have a fantastic idea, surely you want to communicate it to as wide an audience as possible. That means developing forms of communication – in this case, story, plot, and, most importantly, recognisably human characters with human concerns – that will piggy-back the idea into the minds of readers.

By becoming more esoteric, SF will only go the way of the Western genre: a tiny backwater for specialists and nostalgia lovers.

7 thoughts on “The Slow Death of Science Fiction”

  1. I tend to agree without a good story and characters that people care about whats the point.
    A good writer can deliver ideas without dumbing down but the story has to be good enough to carry them to me thats the problem.
    A well written story can challenge and make people think and question, in my opinion we need this even more given the current
    political climate.

  2. Very good point there, Mark. Regarding what you said about developing forms of communication, I certainly feel that since I started reading SF, it’s been the books with real power behind them – a strong underlying message, or emotional weight, or realistic, human characters – which have stayed memorable to me; indeed, I sometimes can’t bring myself to finish books lacking in those areas.

    I think another problem with SF these days is that people have too extreme a preconception about the content. Rather than taking each book as a separate work of art (which isn’t always the case, I know, but just for argument’s sake…) a lot of readers just presume that they won’t like ANY SF.

  3. Hello Mark,
    I thought you would be interested in a similar debate going on over at Charlie Stross’ place:
    I personally think that there is far too much Film and TV SF&F – I live in a small village north of Callander (so I really enjoyed that part of Darkest Hour!) and the nearest bookshop is in Stirling, Waterstones of course. The SF&F section is pathetic and a large section of it is taken up with Star Wars, Dr Who, Star Trek and various ephemeral film tie-ins. That doesn’t leave much room for quality SF – rarefied or otherwise. My point is that unless you use the web to buy books then you will only ever see the lowest common denominator sort of SF&F – and it is this that is driving readers away, not scientists and scientific writing.

    By the way, I have been thoroughly enjoying your books so far (I’ve bought them all but have only read the Age of Misrule trilogy so far). I have just ordered the two graphic novels (from the USA!!) and the Dr Who novelette (because I am a bit of a hippy geek and it sounded fun :-) ).
    All the best,

  4. Part of the problem with traditional Sci-fi is that we have such a broadening cone of knowledge that even compared with ten or twenty years ago it is increasingly hard to know enough science to project into the future and stay ahead of the pace of technological development. To a degree we’re living in the future now.

    Much of the sci-fi that has stayed with me, has been the stuff that sort of kept away from technology and took a more philosophical approach- Mary Doria Russell’s amazing The Sparro and Children Of God or the Doris Lessing Canopus sequence are good examples.

    Not to mention that a chunk of what would once have been sci-fi now gets relocated to the normal Fiction shelves for marketing purposes…

  5. Hmm I enjoy scifi as I’ve said earlier, quite enjoy Stephen Baxters work. But I also really like cyber-punk writing. It seems to be more ‘person’ based and somehow is able to capture a lot of scope within itself than a lot of the grander more epic tries at writing scifi.

    Very true with what you said Mark, it is the delivery of the art, the communication of the story that is of the most importance.

  6. It’s an interesting topic. I do tend to believe that writers should have something to say in this day and age when the other media are so poor at holding to account (though more of a case in the US than in the UK, I suppose. Don’t know about Aus…)

    And, Fergie, nothing wrong with being a hippy geek! It happens to the best of us…

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