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: My response to some of the comments.
UPDATE: Photo Evidence.
Admittedly, they are isolated examples. In contrast, LOTR is the flagship of the sword and sorcery arm of the fantasy genre, and it has just “a couple” of strong female characters in a story about men and full of men.
Also, I came up with those examples off the top of my head, and all three are book seres’. The only contrary example I can site off the top of my head is the book that I’m reading now, “Crusader” in the Destroyermen series. That one only has a few named female characters, only one of which is a strong character or what you would call interesting.
They prove that the dirth of strong female characters is not a flaw in the genre itself, but in the authors–a situation that other scifi authors can and should correct.
At least…I consider it a flaw to be corrected, and not just for marketing reasons either, but for story balance. I do not think that it is the only flaw that needs correcting within the genre however. There are some other important story content issues that I think directly restrict the market share of novels within almost any genre. However, my comments on that topic are lengthy and I intend to cover them in my own blog soon.
Saphira: Sure. SF should include complex, multi-level female personalities, closer to reality, just because it is the way the things should be. But, I was referring to a particular issue mentioned by Marc in the original post: the one that says “women read more than men” as a probable cause for SF declining. If SF writers want to be more accepted by a wider audience, including female readers, must change the way they present us in their books.
In general, of course, women have been represented in plain characters in almost every genre and it is a problem we have to solve.
Bill, there are few examples of interesting, strong female characters in SF and in Fantasy too, but lately Fantasy has been changing this situation, maybe because there are more female writers in Fantasy than in SF or maybe because something else…
Bill and Laura, thanks for your thoughts! You both raise really good points. (Bill, I was teasing rather than being snarky in my reply to you–my apologies if it did not come across that way.)
Since this discussion began, I’ve been wondering where my female friends who don’t read (much, if any) SF are coming from, so I started polling them. Almost uniformly, their complaint is not just about the female characters but about the way that some SF seems to push story/relationships (not necessarily of the romantic variety, btw) to the background while going overboard with the science. As one said, she’s reading to “be” somewhere else for a while and therefore she wants the story, not to learn how to survive a nuclear attack. Some detail to sustain the verisimilitude/aid in world building is fine, but she doesn’t need a schematic, and she feels that’s often effectively what she gets with SF. Those who prefer fantasy feel that it doesn’t suffer from that sort of problem.
I didn’t ask what sorts of books they’re reading/have read, when they last read SF, etc. But I did find their comments very interesting, as further evidence of what the female perception–right or wrong–of SF is these days.
Sorry about the counter jab, Laura. I guess I missed the wink. 😉
Saphira, such a study of “What Women Read” (lol) would be very useful to someone like me who targets them as a readership.
Both of you. I meant what I said earlier about the problem with SciFi being fixable. It comes right down to treating ones work like a business–seek out your customer and give them what they want. If the SciFi market is shrinking (which I agree with Mark that it is, but I disagree with him that the disease is terminal), then those of us who want to survive, or even thrive in the market must figure out how to adapt. Traditionally, as with other businesses, such hard times can be the making of opportunity. Or like they sing on an old Disney movie that I enjoy…”From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success” (Chitti Chitti Bang Bang).
Bill, I get the feeling you’re getting Laura and I confused a bit, but no worries–it’s all good!
I was thinking that a survey/study would be interesting just in general, which is why I started asking friends what they’re reading and why when it comes to SF/F. But my queries are hardly scientific, so if anyone decides to take the question to the masses (or a percentage thereof) and see what they learn, I hope it’s posted somewhere where we can all read it! (I forgot to mention earlier that, while several of the folks I asked don’t feel that print SF is still a boys’ club, they’re still outnumbered by those that do, so even if it’s not true anymore, it appears that the perception remains.)
As for giving the customers/readers what they want, the general gist I’m getting is that women (and probably most readers of either gender) want a good story, first and foremost. The setting and circumstances of that story can vary, but the story has to be there. Shocking, I know, and yet–there it is. 🙂
You write that “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.”
One of the reasons there has been this massive leap in technological advances over the last two decades is because the huge wave of science fiction that came after WWII made such an impact on all the young minds who then grew up and went into science. The plundering of sci-fi is well known in this regard.
Unfortunately most young people today only read about vampires and magic wands, so the smart money has to be on the scientific revolution slowing down over the next few years, as all the young people think you can solve problems with magic dust and a few sentences spoken backwards.
The bottom line is that both genres are about escapism. Fantasy readers want to live in the past and sci-fi readers want to live in the future. Science fiction must rise in popularity over fantasy at some point, but until it does we face a less intelligent future.
So, I ended up coming in at the tail-end of the party again. 🙁 Anyway, here goes:
Two days ago I had a customer asking for Jack Vance’s SF, and I had to tell them that we don’t stock it. Why? It just doesn’t sell. Neither does Arthur C Clarke, Asimov, Niven, Pohl, Silverberg… It’s really worrying, and I would agree with Mark by saying that the old legends have somehow been forgotten. Mind you, this is South Africa we’re talking about, where selling 2000 copies of a book makes it a bestseller, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth. 🙂
I run the biggest ( and, I’ll add, the most profitable in terms and money and unit turnover) SFF section in the company I work for, and the trend, too, is leaning towards Fantasy. But it’s different in SA – the majority of our population doesn’t read at all (or write, for that matter), and those that do are split into myriad groups – literary only, Wilbur Smith only, Afrikaans only, etc and then those that are left sometimes make their way into SFF. To put it in a better way, its easier for me to tell Steven Erikson than Kevin J Anderson. 🙁
But I don’t think the genre is dying. I think that it is lost – that it’s been knocked off course a bit by the likes of Twilight, Harry Potter (and soon, Percy Jackson), and as these mega-money-making franchises continue, they’ll run out of steam on their own accord. People love something too much and then are sickened by it, so it’s just a matter of time before SF rises once again. 🙂
An awesome post, thank you Mark!
I hope you’re right, Dave. I would agree that science fiction will rise up as fantasy wanes, which is inevitable as tastes change and fantasy becomes “uncool” again. The only thing I would add is that science fiction is as we speak absolutely massive. In fact it is considerably bigger than fantasy – but on TV and not in the bookshops.
There is no fantasy equivalent to Battlestar Galactica, or Lost, or Flash Forward or any of the other massive sci-fi TV hits. The problem is money-conscious publishers who throw all the good sci-fi manuscripts into the trash because they don’t include pointy hats with stars on them or magic wands.
At some point a publisher brave enough to turn this round will take the plunge, and hey presto – the sci-fi kids’ books will follow and then it will be a rollercoaster. Also, at some point in the next 15 years or so there will be a manned mission to Mars, and this will trigger a massive hysteria in sci-fi again right across the general population.
Don’t leave David Vincent out in the cold – bring on the Sci-fi!!
That’s a load of crap, sir. I read both fantasy and sci-fi, and not only is it the trend in current fantasy to solve plot problems without “magic dust and backwards sentences”, but no one I know who reads in either genre is lacking in intelligence or rational thought.
Of course I exaggerate to make my point, but you cannot deny the emphasis on the supernatural or fantastical in fantasy fiction that is used as both motive in the plot and solution. It wouldn’t be fantasy without that, would it?
I agree that readers of fantasy are intelligent – I never said otherwise, but I am concerned about a world with such emphasis on magic, mythical tropes, supernatural, etc., as opposed to a world based on scientific solutions.
I think this is a fair point. All I want to see is an end to the total destruction of sci-fi literature at the hands of myth-based supernatural fantasies. 50/50 in the bookshops would be fine by me.
As a woman who started reading science fiction and fantasy more than two decades ago, and who over the last decade has pretty much stopped reading science fiction, I can say definitively that my reasoning had nothing to do with disdaining order or reason and everything to do with finding a good story.
I read a lot of fantasy novels that are crap. A lot of them start off good and end up vaguely disappointing or downright terrible. Ah, but there were gems. Characters I related to, worlds that amazed me. I realized a long time ago that I got a lot more gems from reading fantasy than from science fiction.
Part of the issue, to my mind, is that science fiction is a genre written almost entirely by men. And as such, it is a vehicle for men’s ‘fantasies’ (not as in the fantasy genre). As often as not, what was on the shelves under covers of alien landscapes and space blasters 5-10 years ago was nothing more than misogynistic bullshit. As a strong woman in today’s world, I got over the two piece space bikini a long time ago. I don’t disdain technology. I work in both the IT and health care field with technology that would amaze the average person. I do disdain being told that even in space a woman’s place is between the sheets.
I realize not every work of science fiction depicts that bent, but enough do that it no longer seemed worth my efforts to wade through them to find something decent or even realistic in its portrayal of women.
I have a wonder, Arizela. What I derive from what you’re saying in that statement is that if a SF book is written by a man, it’s basically misogynistic?
or is it if main character and hero of the story is male?
I cannot account for the quality of the work, admittedly, but there’s at least on example of a strong female character in SF with the Honor Harrington series.
A SF author, that even, is not a male, CJ Cherryh has without a doubt a collection of strong female characters, in Fantasy as well as in SF. Lois McMaster Bujold is another fantastic example the list goes on and on.
I find that it is best not say to something if you have not properly researched it.
I also feel that alot of people just swings the Politically correct or chauvinistic or misogynistic argument around way too often. It’s so easy to throw out those age old accussations rather than actually delve down and find new points of criticism that are more prevalent.
A good point but I would suggest you should read more widely in SF. Have you tried Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy? These works hardly turn women into bimbos, and most of the main characters are very capable independent female scientists.
More generally, I make the point that much of what today passes as “fantasy” is actually mainly science fiction anyway. A story set on another world featuring alien creatures is basically Star Trek – classic kitsch sci-fi. Real fantasy should include dwarves and pointy hats and broadswords. I would suggest that Mark Charan Newton is more sci-fi in his writing that he might imagine.
In a way, the two genres are melding, I suppose, only for some reason the “fantasy” title is being used to describe them. I would suggest this is because fantasy requires less research and no scientific knowledge, both to write it and to read it, and in a dumbed-down world this is the easier option.
Again, I stress I am not saying fantasy is stupid – it is an accomplished genre with an intelligent readership, but I am saying that it requires less (or no) scientific knowledge to produce or understand, and this is its appeal in a world where science is becoming less and less popular and struggling for funding.
You are saying this for a situation in your country, Dr. X?
Let’s see, Elsie, of course there are SF books where female characters are more than bimbos, but most SF written in the past didn’t have progressive ideas regarding social roles, especially with women, and some SF written today is strongly focused on male characters who act alone or with other men and you do not see any interesting woman around them. Just that. Other thing: many SF books are strongly interested in the “idea” and forget the story itself. Readers could miss some more adventures, more interesting characters (male or female), more literature than just science.
And don’t misunderstand: I love SF.
Dear Laura, please excuse my misconception but isn’t Urban Fantasy the direct opposite of SF then, that it is focused on strong females and strong male characters… not so much.
I don’t know. I do not read Urban Fantasy, sorry.
Combining Point 2 and Point 3: The scientific frontier is no longer outer space — it’s now the brain. And when you write about that, you’re likely to end up in another section of the bookstore (fantasy, psychological thrillers, mystery, etc).
Man, what a brutal discussion.
A brief intro: I’m a kids adventure and SF novelist working on a sequel to a previous SF book.
I find the bandwidth of this discussion fascinating because in the end no one made the definitive case for or against the question is SF dying. It all came down to opinion and how to interpret stats and trends. Whatever the state of affairs, I don’t want SF to die. I’ve only recently published and started on the road to finding readers and a voice in the fiction world. So I have a stake in keeping SF alive. Hell, I’ll give it mouth to mouth if that’s what it takes! I grew up on Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc. I went to the moon with Neil and Buzz in 69, I stared at the stars so hard every night that I can tell you where the constellations are during the day. “Why, oh, why,” I’ve cried, “didn’t ET land in my backyard!”
Here’s my take on the problem:
As has been said, technology is big, science isn’t. I believe the turning point was the advent of the calculator. Who needs to learn math when the machine will do it for you? Likewise, technology and special effects have made the reading and movie audience lazy. Star Wars supplanted Star Trek with battles and FX. Who needs to think and imagine when someone else will do the heavy lifting? So writing space opera and military SF became the cash cow and who can blame the writers who milk it. But it put us question posers and science thinkers in the back seat as writers and readers.
On the sexism issue, in the heyday of classic SF, Rocket Jockeys, along with everyone else in the world, were all men. Women were meant to be by their side, like Maureen Robinson in Lost In Space. Most male writers at the time couldn’t imagine it differently. Sally Ride, Desert Storm, and Hillary Clinton has put self assured women who don’t behave like men in politics, space and battle. But while the world has changed, much of SF hasn’t.
As far as waiting for the next voice in the genre, we shouldn’t hold our breath if Mark’s comments about finding publishers to push the genre for us holds any water. Which I believe it does. Publishers print books to sell. They can’t print books that are ‘good for the genre’. The marketplace is too tough for that. From what I understand, 90% of books published in a given house are held up by the 10% of writers who actually turn a profit for them. That translates to a lot of risk for publishers trying like crazy to find the next big thing to sustain themselves on before one of their current wells go dry.
So where does that leave us writers? Let’s see… we need to excite the audience with some action, include science without boring them, create complex women characters so that we can attract complex women readers. Anything else? Oh yes, and fit it into a cross over space where fantasy readers can dig it, too.
Not a small order. Since no one in this discussion actually offered solutions, let me be the first to stick my neck out to fellow, and successful, writers on where I think we can help make it work:
Science is exciting. It shouldn’t have to sell itself. But we have to sell it the way it excited us in the first place. Remember the epiphany you had when SF first spoke to you? That’s what you want to give your readers. Take small bites. don’t over explain. You can’t bring a new reader in to quantum gravity by discussing MOG theory compared to Dark Matter. Create someone in the story who is as confused as the reader, someone who can share the frustration, someone who is overwhelmed and needs to be brought along.
Another great ally is humor. Laugh at how bizarre it all seems that this science stuff is baffling.
Have characters explain some stuff while involved in other drama. If you stop the story to give a lecture, it’s time to zip up the body bag – you’re dead.
Women. Women are the same…only different. For male writers to write female characters we have to be careful not to just plug our own stereotypes into them. The ‘same’ part is that women are jealous, angry, loving, stupid and physically challenged by a brain in a frail body just like men. For storytelling the ‘different’ part is that many women solve problems from a different perspective. This is one place where many SF (and other genre) female characters break down. No matter if we’re writing about drama or relationships, or combat many male writers just put a woman’s name on their male character. We’ve heard it often said that ‘women like to read more relationship and emotional conflict driven stories’, not so much on the guns ‘a blazin’. So creating females that jock up their gritted pearly whites while they pull back the bolt on that blast action murdalizer only take our girl readership so far. Those ladies exist, but not in high numbers.
When it comes to conflict resolution, women might prefer cunning, dealing, compromise, and leadership, over bullets and battle. Use science to help them find these kinds of conflict resolution. Allow female characters to be resourceful as well as smart. Create a different frontier for plot resolution than you might consider for a man.
My first stab at a female lead was in a first person narrative. I made it work by allowing her to be vulnerable but not stupid. She learned from her hard knocks and took on the conflict through teamwork and understanding. Not the first tools most male heroes would reach for. She didn’t understand the science needed to overcome obstacles, but she learned to rely on those who did.
If you’ve read this far, well, I hope it helps. Personally, I believe that dark matter, higher dimensions, and other quantum concepts are exciting and I want to share them with readers. However, as I’m sure many of you have found, when you talk to friends about these concepts, their eyes glaze over. At the same time they become instantly impressed that I understand such ‘advanced’ concepts and they wish they knew more. That belies a serious curiosity about quantum concepts amongst the reading population. They’d like to understand, just don’t feel they can.
There’s our challenge: how to make science accessible so the audience is brought along with our imagination while the story keeps their eye somewhere else, like a good magic trick. It’s a delicate balance but I firmly believe that the writers who can pull it off, will create the first SF Harry Potter or Buffy series.
My blog http://planckscaleblog.blogspot.com discusses quantum concepts and SF story ideas.
I am concerned about a world with such emphasis on magic, mythical tropes, supernatural, etc., as opposed to a world based on scientific solutions.
I’m really sick of the assumption that a preference for fantasy is equivalent to a rejection of a materialist, secular world view. I’ve always read science fiction but I made a conscious decision to start reading more fantasy (I think the Martian trilogy by Kim Robinson had a lot to do with it) because I believe that fantasy is the more imaginative genre. Knowledge is important, but imagination is more important. Imagination is the basis of empathy. Besides, I don’t see how a sci-fi novel with backwards time travel or shapeshifting aliens is intellectually superior if it offers a *pseudo* scientific explanation for these things. A lot of hard, overly practical science fiction is mundane and boring, you might as well read realistic (non-sci fi/fantasy) fiction. The sci-fi I like is the more speculative, improbable or downright impossible variety.
Well, it is now february 2011. The movie situation has changed: Avatar and Inception have struck a massive blow for Science Fiction in both the talking space squids and Philip K. Dick senses. As predicted by Ben, the gothical penis envy fascination with supernatural metrosexuals shows no signs of abating.
Are science fiction proper sales up now, dragged up by Avatar and Inception? Anyone – figures?
And about authors leeching sales from science fiction by absorbtion of its plot elements: those pointed out by Ben are responsible for like 0.1% of the phenomenon, I mean – their sales are not even statistically significant. Now the bigger boys, with the 300 – 400 millions sales to their names, like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton – these are the real culprits:D They are the ones who take our precious alien invaders/friends and super technologies and time travel and… By the way, anyone notice that there is now in many places on the web a separate romance sub-genre: “time travel romance?” Curioser and curioser.
I hate to say it but I agree with Mark. SF as a separate entity is in trouble… The vast majority of the people who sign up to our bookclub (http://www.sciencefictionbookclub.org) are men. And the single most common question we get is ‘Why don’t you read fantasy?’.
I’m glad to support SF in all its forms by setting up the Science Fiction Bookclub (http://www.sciencefictionbookclub.org), not because I dislike Fantasy or because I only want to socialise with men (Oh man that would be very boring indeed) but because as a genera its brought so much pleasure to my life and it looks like it could do with a little help at the moment.
Reading Fantasy is ReadCrime.
This is in sharp contrast to how things are in movies and video games. Sci Fi is dominating movies (avatar, transformers, district 9, inception. Just to name a few) and video games (mass effect, cryis 2, vanquish, killzone 3. Just to name a few). I haven’t seen a decent fantasy film in years. The last good fantasy movie I saw was the return of the king. Don’t get me wrong, I do love fantasy quite a bit, but people have been saying sci fi is dying for over 30 years now. It isn’t dying, it’s called cycles. Things rise and drop in popularity over time. It will bounce back.
Science fiction is dying because it was a small genre about science and what was once a corner of the world is every day life — space, tech, etc. The lack of art could only sustin hard science cliques so long.
Well said. Liking the use of supernatural elements fiction is not the same as believing in the supernatural. You could apply that same logic to things like Bugs Bunny. Most people know it’s not real. If it were, it wouldn’t be labeled as “fantasy” in the first place. Besides, supernatural horror has always been popular, so how is this different? It’s funny, because many people assume that science students prefer science fiction (particularly the “hard” stuff), but I didn’t have that experience at all. If people in my class read any speculative fiction at all, it would usually be fantasy. The few people who read SF, read things like Dune and Hyperion. Several of my high school friends who I know are fantasy fans have degrees in computer science, physics and chemical engineering.
Society at large is actually getting more and more scientifically minded, and fantasy is doing nothing to slow it down. If anything more exposure to fantasy will probably only show people how ridiculous it would be in real life. Sure there may be elements of wish fulfillment involved with some stories, but the same can be said about a lot of SF and even things like westerns and spy thrillers. Also, even if someone wishes he could ride into battle slaying dragons, it doesn’t mean he believes that it’s an actual possibility.If you’re worried about anything that could ruin scientific thinking, then focus on those “documentaries” about ancient aliens and stuff like that, and “reality” shows like Ghost Hunters.
I can’t entirely agree, though you do make many excellent point. Here’s my cut at it: http://www.adventuresinscifipublishing.com/2013/10/clinging-to-the-wreckage-how-to-save-science-fiction/