There is no Schadenfreude; I take no pleasure in holding this viewpoint: the Science Fiction genre is dying.
Don’t spit your coffee at the computer screen just yet. I’m talking predominantly in terms of sales over time. I know all you belle-lettristic types don’t like to think about anything but Art, but units-shifted is a factor that matters. It is what shapes the literature industry.
If you speak to a buyer at a book chain, they’ll most likely explain that sales of of SF are declining significantly, year on year, whereas fantasy fiction is doing very well. There are fewer SF bestsellers. As the old wave of SF writers move on, there are few able to take their place. There are more fantasy successes, and a constant wave of new writers who are being heralded as the next big thing. It seems readers can’t get enough of fantasy fiction.
So here are a few points of interest on why this may be the case. (Note: when I say SF, I’m talking about Space Opera, Hard-SF etc – the core genre.)
1) More women than men read books. Women tend to read much more Fantasy fiction (especially Dark Fantasy) than SF. Without wanting to appear syllogistic, these two facts can’t be ignored. They are driving forces behind sales of literature, and it is shaping the genre landscape. Women matter.
2) Culture has caught up with our imagination. Where SF used to speculate, we can now read more amazing things in New Scientist. There is as much sensawonder in an Apple conference as there is in a novel. Major industry figures declare the next decade will see massive rates of change in science and technology. So how is it even possible for a novelist writing near-future SF to stay relevant and ahead of the real world?
3) Literary fiction is eating up SF. Mainstream fiction possesses a parasitic attitude to SF, whilst contributing very little to the celebration of the genre. Jeanette Winterson, Toby Litt, Margaret Atwood – the ‘literary’ brigade are taking SF ideas, recycling them as something new, packaging them for mainstream tastes. And more importantly, dragging the ideas to a section of the bookstore or readership that aren’t likely to visit the SF section. Those sales don’t get categorised as SF sales – just general fiction. So mainstream fiction is leaching sales, and the latter is just as important in terms of the genre’s sustainability. Without sales, there is little long-term backing from bookstores, and eventually publishers. (Publishing is a business, and imprints must react to patterns in sales – else they go bust.)
4) Modern Fantasy readers have grown up on the films of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings – two massive culture-shaking franchises. This younger audience has taken to the blogosphere with aplomb, and run with it. The community grows daily. Just look how many more fantasy blogs and forums exist over those for SF. SF has not received anything like this monumental influence in culture; it hasn’t received that huge burst of media to create a ferocious hunger in the masses for more. There are SF films by the bucket load, of course, but they’ve not had the same impact on genre literature.
Yes there are SF authors who are doing well – of course. Scalzi is doing a wonderful trade at the moment, and taking over the world. Alastair Reynolds has recently signed a million pound book deal (though in reality, over ten books, and for World rights which can be sold on to numerous territories, this isn’t as reckless as you’d first think). And good on him, he’s a great writer. But try not to focus on the few – I’m talking about the genre as a whole, about sales year on year – over a vast period of time. Don’t react immediately and give a list of great authors – I’m sure there are loads, and I hope there are more – but have a think about the wider, gradual changes.
Other authors, such as Richard Morgan, have come over to the fantasy genre (a move which I whole-heartedly welcome) and I wonder whether this was to expand his fanbase; was there knowledge of a glass ceiling to SF sales? I’d be interested to know.
So there you go. I’ve said it. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that Science Fiction is dying slowly – but just how long it takes to go is anyone’s guess.
UPDATE: Photo Evidence.