Richard Dawkins Is Killing SF!

Or how you can lose by winning…

Science fiction is in a slow sales decline (or not so slow, depending on which bookseller you talk to), and now accounts for a fraction of its former market. Meanwhile, fantasy remains a sales juggernaut, with what Publishers Weekly described at its last roundtable close-up (admittedly nearly three years ago now) as a ‘huge’ audience for immersive epics.

Which is strange when you consider that the quality of SF is arguably at an all-time high, a new golden age of speculative fiction. I can name several authors whose books will undoubtedly be read in decades to come, and I’m sure you can name many more. Fantasy – and I’m stating this as charitably as I can – has not produced so many quality works. One or two maybe. There have been a lot of good books, entertaining books, comforting books, ones that please their readers, but classics? Not so much. (I’m a fantasy author – I can say this.)

There’s been some debate about why SF is failing to resonate with the wider public in the same way that it used to do. Part of the reason is that we live in a science fiction age. The wonders that were on the page are now all around us. But to follow that argument to its conclusion would suggest that SF sales should be increasing rapidly as it becomes the fiction of the mainstream, true 21st century literature that shines a light on the way we live our lives today. Instead it’s following the trajectory of the western.

If we look to psychology we may find some answers. We are creatures that are held in stasis by opposing forces: our nature demands a balance. Right brain/left brain, masculine/feminine, intuitive/logical. Plato defined two ways of seeing the world – ‘logos’, from which we get ‘logic’, looking out at the world, scientific in common usage, and ‘mythos’ from which we get ‘mythic’, which mapped our inner selves and was just as vital for defining the way the world works.

Long memories or a little research will show how irrational we were back in the sixties and into the seventies. Belief in the occult was much more mainstream than it is now, with serious people discussing it in a serious way. You won’t find that today. I know some of you American readers will beg to differ, as you face a rising tide of irrational religiosity infecting mainstream life, but those pressures are coming from the outside into the heart of society, and are generally resisted by the opinion-formers and the establishment which shapes the consensus-reality of our society.

This was very clear in Richard Dawkins’ recent TV series where he charged out to attack what he saw as a tidal wave of irrationality from creationists, new agers and charlatans threatening to swamp science. In reality, he came across as a complete bully, using his intellect to smash down people who couldn’t vocalize their beliefs, or even really comprehend why they felt the way they did. It’s a flaw that’s just as clear in his best-selling book, ‘The God Delusion’.

The fact is, his side is winning. Generally, society is much more rational than it ever was.

I’m talking here about subtleties – about the mood of society, the ‘feel’ of it. You can probably find a million examples of perceived irrationality, from the high sales of ‘mind, body, spirit’ books to millionaire astrologers. But those things are accepted, often wryly, often hopefully, but very rarely at the heart of a world-view. Commentators in the media who shape opinion are united in their acceptance of the scientific paradigm. You don’t even find UK tabloid newspapers covering occultist or fringe subjects to the same degree they did in the sixties and seventies. As someone with lots of journalist friends, I know this is because even the tabloid people consider these things beyond what their readers would take seriously.

Dawkins knows this, I’m sure, but he’s on a crusade to stamp out irrationality wherever he might find it. He has stated that any irrationality is a threat, even if it’s a lightly held belief or a half-hearted curiosity about things he believes could never, ever be true.

And he’s wrong. Utterly. We need our mythos. We need our irrationality. We are built to need it. Cultures before ours managed to integrate both into the same world-view quite easily; it’s not an either/or situation. If you’re interested in magic, it doesn’t mean you think Einstein is a charlatan. (On the fringes, some may, but we’re talking about ‘real’ people here). The more people are unable to find irrationality in the culture around them, the more they will be driven to seek it out through their imagination.

In other words, every time Richard Dawkins kicks a quivering new ager, a hard-pressed science fiction writer loses another sale.

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, society needs fantasy. It doesn’t really need SF.

21 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins Is Killing SF!”

  1. Yowza.

    Have to say, you are absolutely on-target about Dawkins. I hate the man passionately, not because I’m opposed to Atheism, but because his particular attitude about belief exhibits the same sort of one-true-wayism that a fundamentalist preacher has. He seems not only a hypocrite, but an arrogant jackass.

    I think society needs SF, although it may not know it. I feel like SF Movies and other non-print media are speaking more to the people these days, (my recent experience of a SF-themed concept album that rocked my world helps my feelings here) and that’s not surprising to me, somehow.

  2. I wonder . . . There are more readers now than ever before yet sci-fi readership is down. Perhaps their numbers are holding steady while everyone else is experiencing growth. I don’t know. I may just be blowing wind. But statistics can be tricky sometimes and it’s important to look for other explanations.

    I know here in the States science literacy is failing (if you can believe tests and statistics on the matter), and that has to have some impact. The sci-fi utopias are all gone, so there’s little feel good in science. I think society has finally recognized that progress isn’t free or cheap.

    And there must be more. When I was in high school, I played fantasy rpgs and read a few fantasy novels, but I read a lot of science fiction. Now, the only sci-fi I read is older works by authors like Andre Norton. Good adventure stuff that’s practically fantasy in space-age trappings.

    For me, sci-fi lost me when I felt like a lot of authors were loving sciece more than story, and at a time in my life when I wanted to experience truths in story, whatever type of story that may be, and not possibilities and ideas. I just haven’t come back.

    Sci-fi has really had a rennaisance in tv and movies, though. So I’m thinking there must be a disconnect somewhere.

    Oh, and marketing. Sci-fi is marketed toward the hardcore crowd to keep them around, but books with spaceships on them and no people look very nerdy and cheesy at the same time.

  3. You identify a very clear problem with SF, David. At some point – probably when people started to call it ‘the literature of ideas’, the human element was pushed to the fringes. The majority of people want, and need, emotional resonance in a story (and even if they think they don’t, they really do). The great success of the latest Dr Who series on TV is more to do with the fact that it has a heart, and is about people, than it is the stories.

    If SF writers and publishers accepted this, they’d be able to crossover to a mainstream audience more effectively.

  4. Very interesting point. I was thinking about this recently while looking through a few anthologies of SF on religious themes, all from the ’70s and ’80s. Where is today’s mystical SF? Where are the 21st century Silverbergs and Zelaznys and Dicks? We have Robert J. Sawyer, admittedly (and thank goodness), but mystical and mythological SF was an irresistable tide in the ’70s&#8212until it got crushed by pessimistic cyberpunk and nuts-and-bolts hard SF.

  5. I think partly your suggestion that sci-fi should be the mainstream is true. Once you get away from space opera type stuff, there is a lot of sci fi in the mainstream which isn’t really labelled as such- Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut and Marge Piercy (to take a few names from my own limited reading) have all written science fiction while other sci-fi authors are right on the boundary of regular fiction- John Courtney Grimwood and Mary Doria Russell ( to take a couple of tripartate names from my own reading ) may be writing sci-fi but they are also writing very universal stories that don’t have shiny rockets on their cover and appeal very much to a mainstream readership.

    Quite right about Dawkins. We laugh at the gentlemen of the Royal Society for saying they knew everything that we shall ever know about science back in the 19th century, but the hardcore rationalist/skeptics of our present day seem to be walking into exactly the same trap.

  6. What a bizarre argument, given the history of SF as a genre.

    The rather large proportion of atheist, rationalist SF writers (many of whom are working scientists) and readers would seem to strain the tenuous thread you’re drawing. Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut might have had something to say about it.

    What Dawkins rails against is the making of important (political, personal, medical) decisions based on irrational, nonsensical, hokum. Dawkins isn’t anti-imagination. It takes plenty of imagination to do science. I don’t care for his writing, but there should be nothing controversial about a man who challenges frauds and witchdoctors in the *real* world.

    I’m a professional artist, a small-time musician, a tremendous reader of SF, and I also happen to believe in reason and objectivity.

    One’s ability to reason objectively has no connection to one’s ability to imagine, or to enjoy silly notions as part of entertainment.

  7. I would argue for a different cause of the decline of SF: Our world, in the real 21st Century, doesn’t look anywhere near science-fictional enough. We don’t have universal abundance, space colonies, solar power satellites, radical life extension, HAL-like artificial intelligences and similar things that futurists like Robert Anton Wilson, F.M. Esfandiary, Buckminster Fuller et al. back in the 1970’s and 1980’s predicted that we’d see right about now. I slightly knew Esfandiary after he changed his name to FM-2030, and I recently looked up an article he published back in 1981 about how we’d live that far off, mysterious year 2010:

    “Up-Wing Priorites” (PDF)

    People today remember these nonsensical predictions and forecasts for life in the 21st Century, and they no longer find them credible when charlatans like Ray Kurzweil make similar claims for the radical transformation of the human condition in 20+ years.

  8. That’s a good point. And to add to that, from the fifties people associated SF with UFOs and aliens. There was a significant ‘belief’ factor that some kind of revelatory meeting was going to happen, and when it didn’t materialise the SF prophets were discredited.

  9. I’m not reading much science fiction these days, because I just don’t like most of the newer books and stories. They’re either very boring with characters I don’t care about, or very shallow with characters designed for marketability.

    A couple years ago, I checked out the latest greatest Best of collection, and none of the stories were much good. Even the Vernor Vinge was just barely passable. Also, it was pretty clear that the authors were not particularly interested in any readership except people exactly like them. On top of all that, they were depressing in the main. Amazingly enough, I don’t want to buy science fiction so that I can be simultaneously bored, depressed, and sneered at.

    Problem is, fantasy’s not much better right now.

    So yeah, there’s a few writers who seem to do consistent good and interesting work, and I’ve added a few to my list. But I’ve also had to subtract a lot of folks who used to do good work, and have lost most of my trust in others. On the whole, the chances of picking a new book up off the shelf and finding it in any way pleasing to me… well, it’s pretty low. So I save my money by going to the library, even though that deprives me of the ability to throw all these collections of apathetic prose against the wall.

    OTOH, it’s very cheap to read the classics online, and it’s a lot easier to get epic poetry than it used to be. So I tend to read stuff like that instead.

  10. Howard Jacobson

    and Terry Eagleton

    do a good job, in different ways, of highlighting the limitations of Dawkins and the supremacy of would-be rationality, pure reason and empiricism.

    As Howard Jacobson put it: ‘Nothing like an unimaginative scientist to get non-believers running back to God’!

    I would contest the notion that fantasy is ‘not much better now’, Maureen. There has been a noticeable exodus of SF writers over to fantasy (rather like there was an exodus of horror writers over to fantasy at an earlier time), the latest being Kevin J Anderson, about to embark upon a fantasy sequence.

    George R R Martin, known for his SF and horror, the most prominent and perhaps most influential fantasy writer – in epic terms – of recent times is a false trail, because Martin has always been writing the stuff. Writers like Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie and I would argue Greg Keyes (although he is more advanced and assured as a writer in his own right and is not really given his due) to name but a few, as well as whatever other influences they may have, took their cue from Martin’s witty, gritty, expletive laden fantasy.

    Another branch is perched upon by China Miéville among others and most recently Hal Duncan, in what has been termed the ‘New Weird’ – finding inspiration from Gormenghast and Gloriana and the like and at loggerheads with anything that smacks of the Tolkiensque. (I detest and contest China Miéville’s statements on Tolkien but that’s another thread!) The fact that there is such contention at least points to real life in the genre.

    Perhaps with SF, the extraordinary technological surge, especially of communication technology in the – literally – last few years may have deluged us with the notion that we are in fact already living the future and projections of it in prose now take on a (false) redundancy.

    One other factor may be in play: while at its worst fantasy can be mawkish and sentimental, SF can still be too much head. A novel is an art form after all and if it leans too far towards abstracting ideas may be admired but not much warmed to.

    We like to identify, however one may argue the identification may perhaps be, for all fiction is only a representation of flesh and blood reality.

    I think it comes back to something Mark effectively said: you’ve still got to place flesh and blood people at the centre of it all.

    Fantasy seems to be more successful at this than SF right now, as the success of Martin and writers partly taking their cue from him who are enjoying current success seem to show.

    Regarding science fiction, It may be something of a sad irony that a genre which has given us so much good stuff often highlighting how humans may become consumed by the technology they spawn, may in itself also have – one hopes temporarily – become something of a victim to it.

  11. I am very critical of what I spend my time reading or watching. It is “my” entertainment and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Producers and writers alike are being held accountable to make better programming. This is why Star Trek: Enterprise failed prematurely, and why well-acted, well-written shows like Battlestar Galactica are such a hit…

    You could also say that it is science-fiction writers and popularizers themselves that have helped bring about this “rationality” boom. Asimov was a jack-of-all-trades and an avid atheist. Douglas Adams (arguably the most creative and original SF writer) was also an avid atheist and mocked religion constantly in his books. In fact most sci-fi fiction, based on a futuristic earth’s history, generally portray those societies as rational and religion as either dead or nearly so.

    So how is it that a rationalist like Dawkins can negatively affect the sci-fi market by advocating the worldviews that most sci-fi advocates? So your argument is interesting but way off base.

  12. As a couple of riders to my verbose last entry, there has been something of a debate over at Deep Genre in which Lois Tilton laments the fragmentation of the SF community, the SFWA specifically, partly – and seemingly paradoxically – as a result of the explosion of online communication. Increasing numbers of small coteries of specific interests essentially snootily closing themselves off from any main established flow and weakening the presence of the genre rather than strengthening it.

    David Louis Edelman, a new upcoming SF author on the scene disagrees, arguing that the opposite has been true in his experience. That he has found the existing, established SF community welcoming and helpful.

    While Ursula le Guin writes a wry piece about the lot of the genre writer, specifically a fantasy writer in the eyes of the mainstream literary set.

    This piece also has a connection with the SFWA (in relation to the SFWA’s anti e-piracy drive) due to Le Guin’s anger at it being posted elsewhere complete, by Cory Doctorow, without her permission and in breach of her copyright.

  13. Andrew – I threw Dawkins into the mix for a bit of humour; obviously you can’t blame one person, and there are multiple reasons why SF is failing to resonate with the wider public. My core argument is that the more rational society gets (and despite what Dawkins says, all the indicators suggest it *is* getting more rational) the more people will need the release valve of fantasy and the less they will need rationalist fiction like SF.

  14. SF is a literature of optimism at heart. Fantasy, it can be argued, is a literature if not of pessimism at least with its eyes fixed in the rear view mirror. Hideous oversimplification, I know.

    SF is rooted in a belief in a better tomorrow. Those of us who read have (it seems) mostly given up our belief in a better tomorrow and have convinced ourselves that ‘progress’ is, after all, nothing more than a better mousetrap. We don’t like where we’re going so we look to where we have been for comfort. Which isn’t to say we can’t derive a better vision of the next step by a better understanding of the last one.

    I shall continue to read (and try to write) both types, country and western.

    I don’t care what Dawkins (or anyone else says) What I do care about is him (or anyone else) believing they have the right to shout so loudly that they drown out the voices of anyone whose life experience doesn’t match his. Nobody elected him God.

  15. I disagree about Dawkins representing rationality or that society is highly rational today. I loved SF when I began to seriously study Mathematics and Physics, I was mesmerized by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and others.

    I think that Dawkins confuses “rational” with “material”, he is dogmatic and this discourages free and open discourse in my view. The underlying “innards” of science hasn’t changed all that much, but societies relation to it has.

    Few ever stop to ask “So, what is actually so important about Dawkins and his evolution mantra?” because so far as science is concerned I think that evolution is greatly over-valued.

    Have you noticed how most of those who obsess over evolution and strive to denegrate “religion” are not philosophers, physicists, or mathematicians? Yet these pursuits have and are far closer to the issues that Dawkins lectures us all about.

    Dawkins is a scientists with a small “s”, he overstates the relevance to modern though and science of the whole evolution doctrine.

    I question why anyone really needs to pay much attention to evolution, it is an aspect of speculative theoretical biology that when all said and done, is pretty unimportant, I mean would any of these professions suffer if they were never taught evolution:

    0 – Medicine
    0 – Chemistry
    0 – Physics
    0 – Enginerring
    0 – Psychiatry
    0 – Anthropology

    I would argue “No”, very few practical fields need pay any attention to “origins”, Dawkins like to many other overstate the signficance f Darwin and then use this to promote a social agenda.

    I think that irrespective of ones personal theological beliefs Dawkins needs to be challenged and challenged very seriously.

    As a Prof. of the “Public Understanding of Science” he not only frequently presents unsound arguments, he is actually misrepresenting science.

    By applying the term “scientific” to his arguments, he implies a certain credibility that in actuality is unwarranted.

    My own irritation over these matters has led me to devote some time to a new blog:

    I will strive to not personally debate too much in this blog, but rather catalog and discuss what I see as serious weaknesses in his arguments on a range of topics.

    I have not placed any restriction on who may comment either.

  16. To Hugh:

    Please don’t speculate on things which you obviously have done no research on. Evolution is profoundly important in all fields of the life sciences (especially medicine). Moreover, it is the glue which holds the life sciences together. Too many things which we understand well today would make no sense if not for Darwinian evolutionary theory. To claim that evolution is relatively unimportant in the life sciences is the equivalent of saying that Newton’s laws or General Relativity are unimportant.

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