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Why Science Fiction Is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is The Future.

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.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

145 replies on “Why Science Fiction Is Dying & Fantasy Fiction Is The Future.”

You do like to stir it up don’t you?

Anyway, I can see your point, and I presume the sales figures don’t lie, but I still see shedloads of sci-fi being published – your own publishers have a decent roster of SF authors, Gary Gibson, Neal Asher, Peter F Hamilton, Tony Ballantyne…..

I think what you say about no-one coming up to take their place is possibly true right now, although I can’t see that lasting, it’s a trend like any other, kids growing up on a diet of alien-blasting video games and sci-fi blockbusters will grow up (hopefully) wanting to write books that reflect their experiences so the genre will return. I remember when fantasy was dying on its arse and look at it now. As for dark fantasy, we all know that vampires have had their day in the sun (see what I did there?) and fallen angels are the new black but eventually that whole trend will peter out.

Moreover I think the boundaries between SF and Fantasy have been blurring more and more of late. Authors like Jaine Fenn and Liz Williams write sci-fi that reads like fantasy or fantasy that borrows from SF depending on how you look at it – your own books have that same crossover appeal – and I, for one, think that can only be a good thing.

Less worrying about pidgeonholes and more good stories can only benefit everybody.

Cat. Pigeons.

Just off home but will try to comment in greater length later.

Just for the moment though, a correction:

Richard Morgan has not abandoned SF. His next book after the current trilogy will be SF.

And some would argue (me amongst them) that the current trilogy is SF anyway (but I take your point its been packaged as fantasy).

But anyway, great post. More anon.

As long as science fiction and fantasy are shelved together in most book stores, I’m all for ANY growth in speculative fiction that sends readers to that section.

I went to Amazon to grab evidence that “Year of the Flood” would recommend science fiction selections based on purchasing habits, but as is often the case for popular writers “more by this author” seems to trump any other recommendations.

*sigh*

I’ve had a lot of the same feelings about Sci-Fi lately. I think it is being taken over or stewarded by property books such as Star Wars, Halo, and Warhammer. Honestly, I don’t have much interest in these type of books. I don’t mind them I’m just reluctant to get involved. Some Sci-Fi has lost its specialness to me as we advance technoligically, so greater risks need to be taken in the genre as have happened in Fantasy as of late.

Kris Rusch had some interesting throughts about the changing of the genre here:
http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10569

In the end I think Sci-Fi is here to stay. As with any subgenre there are ebbs and flows. It comes down to does the story connect with readers?

My own survey of a thousand fans turned up a 45/55% ratio of women to men readers.

A bigger factor may be a cultural shift against science generally. I work on children’s fiction also, and the protagonists of children’s fiction in the 1950s are always fixing and mending stuff. In the 2000s, they are more likely to be users of stuff.

Right then…!

Hi Robert – I worry that this trend is actually more long-term than that. These kinds of things are changes in culture… Vampires I dare say will be around a lot longer yet. Dark Fantasy’s rise has only just begun…

Simon – looking forward to your next response! Ah, I didn’t think Richard had abandoned SF, but I’d be interested as to the motives to give fantasy a go.

Hi Steven – yes, that is one positive way to look at it, and something we should all be happy about.

Mad Hatter – did you see my interview with Dan Abnett on tie-in fiction? It was on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/11/11/genre-fiction-and-tie-in-fiction-–-a-conversation-between-mark-charan-newton-and-dan-abnett/

Hi Farah – yeah, I guess a survey of the hardcore genre fans will show that – you only have to stroll around Worldcon and World fantasy, I guess – but the nature of traditional fan is something different I guess. Were those fans Science Fiction fans or Fantasy readers?

I’m always trying to talk about the masses – those casual readers who don’t attend conventions and whatnot. The ones who stroll into a bookstore without knowing quite so much the furious debates. Those are the ones who have the spending power, that influence genre shifts. The silent, often-forgotten majority.

Some very good points here, the most significant for me being the first. Women DO read a lot more and, in general, tend not to like hard techy stuff and spaceships either in fiction or in real life. We go more for people than gadgets! To be fair though, a lot of very popular books fall under the urban fantasy and paranormal romance sub-genre. While they feature magic, world-building, imaginary/mythical creatures etc. plus strong feisty females (usually), they can be heavy on the romance… which also appeals to women and much less to men.

In addition, I have found that a lot of what I would previously considered true SF is now being referred to a “Speculative Fiction”, Stephen Baxter being an author in point. Maybe this is a kind of ‘re-branding’ to promote good writers while avoiding stereotyping the book into something that is read only by geeky nerds!

As for literary writers getting in on the act, well I think that the whole concept of SF is ingrained in popular culture. We have space shuttles, communicators (mobiles?) and all manner of gadgets and gizmos that were pure SF ideas 30 years ago. Star Trek, Star Wars, Dr Who etc are so mainstream now that general readers are quite happy to suspend their disbelief and read books like The Road or I am Legend.

And I, as a reader and book purchaser, am loving it! I have always preferred fantasy over SF and now I am spoiled for choice, with some excellent new writers coming out every year. I believe that fantasy will continue to rise in popularity as the kids reading J K Rowling, Darren Shan and Neil Gaiman grow up.

Adam, Adam, Adam – I may, of course, be making bold statements, but step up, sir, step up. SF may break down in a nutrient cycle kind of way, and fertilise other crops; it may evolve, and change, but SF as a “section in the bookstore”, is dying…

Hi murf61 – thanks. You know, I’d love more detailed breakdown on stats for these sorts of things. As much as I hate generalisations of what the sexes read, there’s a certain amount of “commercial” truth out there.

This may or may not be a useful list but I’m sharing it anyway. The good thing about blogging almost all the books you finish is that you have a ready made list of books you can refer to (at least from when you started blogging, which does at least make it current).

So this is my SF list (though I’m only including one book by each author):

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
The Gabble and other stories – Neal Asher
Infoquake by David Louis Edelman (in Solaris limbo btw)
Stealing Light – Gary Gibson
The Dreaming Void – Peter F Hamilton
The Night Sessions – Ken Macloed
Trading in Danger – Elizabeth Moon
Debatable Space – Philip Palmer
The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

And taken from the 71 authors that I’ve reviewed it’s a small %.

Mark Chitty @WalkerofWorlds.blogspot.com does a great job of keeping some current idea of currently SF releases in his round-up posts.

But there is a shrinking of writers that appear month on month.

The thing that seems lacking is that where as Fantasy takes a retro view of the world – skinning back and really looking at a could-have-been history if fantastical ideas came to life. On the whole is this easier on the imagination.

SF at its core takes some thinking about. And it’s harder for writers to shorthand their ideas and I get the feeling they don’t want to shorthand them they want to push the idea of SF to a limit and explore that. Leaving a lot of readers behind. Readers who no longer have their own shorthand to cope with what they are reading. I’m thinking of people growing up with Star Wars, Blade Runner, Terminator, all ground breaking in some way by getting to SF to a general audience.

Though the authors above do manage to explore their ideas without alienating readers. And I’d happily read more of each.

But there is an audience as Warhammer 3000 +37000 proves. It sells like hotcakes. So there is a market for SF but heavy hard SF needs to reinvent itself and more generally accessible SF needs to come to the for to replace the old guard if it isn’t going to die a death.

Maybe we need to get some fantasy people to have a go? I wonder who would be good at telling SF stories?

I resemble that remark! No really, my favorite SF is military SF (although I do hate space opera), and I am a woman. On my blog I mostly review fantasy and genre edge, but that’s because I’m a new reviewer and science fiction is hard to review. The lack of reviews is not indicative of number of books read. There are women who write and review science fiction and do it well. We are not to blame for the “dying SF.” The paranormal romance sh*t is an outcropping of romance readers, not women turning from SF. Dystopian fiction is doing quite well now and no it is not all shelved with mainstream fiction.

Gav – I’m not sure fantasy always takes a retro view of things. It might be that a good chunk of them have a historical feel to them, but it’s not always backward-looking.

Fantasy, also, at it’s core takes something to think about. Just look at someone like Erikson, if you need some kind of cerebral activity in fantasy.

Hi Cara – I’m glad a female SF reader commented! Of course, there are lots of you out there, but there are Vast Swathes Of Readers who don’t hang about online, who go into bookstores and have no participation with the genre other than spending their money there.

I don’t think anyone is to blame for SF sales diminishing (and Buffy has a lot to answer for for the paranormal romance genre – I worked in bookselling just as the series was finishing, and it’s absence was marked by the increase in sales of that type of book).

I suppose we could be here for some time debating what is SF, whether it’s going to be in mainstream fiction or not! But I can’t stress enough I’m talking about the section in the bookstore where SF books are on sale. Academics can, and do, go into immense detail on these subjects; in real terms, in the bookstores, and in the publishing houses, it’s very noticeable – and is bound up, financially, in a negative feedback loop. The fewer that sell, the less publishers want to invest, and so on. Because that’s how tough publishing is in the supermarket era.

I didn’t quite mean that fantasy is dumbed down – but the focus is usually more human in origin.

And there is less in way of a readers understanding as they don’t have to evaluate and comprehend a lot of technobabble and technological concepts to key themselves into the story.

This is not the same as saying that fantasy can’t deal with some pretty big ideas and themes. It just means that it does this from a more humanised point of view.

And I didn’t say fantasy was backwards looking. I said retro – as in reminisce – before taking it’s own ideas forward.

Something that science fiction by its nature can’t do very well because we are catching up with the ideas all the time.

I’m also a fan of space opera as opposed to hard sf. The payoff in hard sf somehow is never going to match those quest fantasy endings…

I’ve discussed this with you before and while you have a point at the moment, i still think it is merely a trend. I’m also going to play Devil’s advocate.

The caveat of “space opera doesn’t count” seems a little unfair when you also claim that the more “literary sci-fi” is now called speculative fiction. It doesn’t leave that much as “sci-fi”. What if fantasy started to be rebranded as “imaginative fiction” and urban fantasy was also an entirely separate genre? This is perfectly plausible as to me it seems that sci-fi as a genre has always been a few decades ahead of current fantasy.

On a similar note I’d also argue that sci-fi, as a meme/genre, has moved into TV and film (and possibly reality). As you mentioned it has already started with Fantasy in film and TV. Maybe this move spells doom for fantasy too?
All I’m saying is that if Sci-fi is dead (only in literature) then Fantasy maybe only has a few years left too as it is cannibalised by literarature and the rest of the entertainemt industy.

I think it’s merely a blip. Someone out there is already writing a sci-fi book that appeals to the “new” female crowd. Somebody else is probably writing the next mindblowing piece of Sci-fi too.

That said I still don’t really see a huge difference between the genres and most of the bookshops I visit lump them in the same space too. When you say fantasy sells better than sci-fi, I suspect many booksellers mean “Twilight”, “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the rings”.

Gav – my mistake. Interesting point about the humanised view – do you think SF doesn’t do this well?

Hi Neil – I don’t think this is a trend at all; this is a culture shift from the front line of bookselling – at the business end of things.

Fantasy selling more than SF – this is on a genre-wide level. LOTR like for like sales aren’t like they were five years ago, and Twilight, in the UK, is still teen fiction. I’m talking of the new wave of fantasy writers who are doing very well commercially – the Bretts, the Abercrombies, Rothfusses, etc. There are simply too few SF equivalents in commercial terms. Science fiction sales continue to fall, and there’s very little in its favour.

Adam – it’s because secretly you know my Wrongness is such Rightness. I can tell these things. The internet doesn’t lie.

I’d say there is a danger that writers in SF can get caught up in the fact that they have a universe to play with and the technology that it takes to cross it that they loose the point of telling a story about it, which is probably why I liked Infoquake – as it tackled a software company and stock markets in a future society, whilst dealing with the characters and their issues.

I was just thinking about something Neal Asher (a wonderful SF writer btw)said in a interview he did for me this week as he mentioned academics and maybe it’s that clinical side of some more qualified SF writers that doesn’t quite make all the human connections that are needed for it to engage with a wide range of readers.

On a personal note I’m struggling with The Arthur C. Clarke Award winning The Quiet War at the minute because I’m getting a lot of information but not a lot of connection – and that’s probably as there is a lot to cover but it’s not how I connect usually to a story.

I’m not sure if I can battle against that in order to enjoy it.

Gav, gav, gav. You’re right about needing human stories but wrong about the nature of fantasy. Some scifi is all about gadget or science lust, but even Stone, basically a love poem to a possible macro effect of quantum theory, managed to tell a human story. Fantasy and SF even in “The Golden Age” of SF has always been about taking current or possible societal trends and telling human stories to explore their consequences. Dune is considered by most to be “hard” SF but it has no science in it at all. The SF books that have become classics always have a good character based story, even Asimov’s work. That fact hasn’t changed. (Also, as an MD and researcher, I can tell you that the biomedical aspects in current SF are far more into the future than even most scientists think they are.)

The trend you’re observing reflects changes both to the status of science in our culture and to the status of science fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy. Fantasy being a term for tales of humans (or other creatures attributed with human-like thinking and feeling in the story) granted more than human powers, or voyaging in exotic lands that ordinary humans would never see, or encountering super-human creatures that might bestow (or inflict) on the human characters some unexpected reward or well-deserved punishment or clever bit of trickery.

In science fiction, technology has been the means by which the human characters get to do and encounter all the kinds of strange things they do and encounter in other types of fantasy. It started out applying the Faust story type to the new scientists or “natural philosophers” that were gaining much respect and prominence (and causing some uneasiness and envy) with their experiments and inventions. Then it took a turn into the lost civilization and new frontier type stories, as the “closing of the frontier” and the disappearance of uncharted regions from world maps became sources of anxiety. And it came of age in days when every other young person could tinker with some sort of newly available technological gizmo, from the innards of an automobile to a ham radio kit to the flasks and tubes and Bunsen burners in the chemistry lab at school.

But science and technology have outpaced the ability of most readers to do any productive tinkering of their own, with the personal computer hobbyists of the late 20th century probably being the last of that breed. Nobody knows or cares what the innards of their plasma screen TVs look like, and few would want to try taking their car’s electronic fuel injections system apart. At the same time, the frontiers promised by earlier science fiction, in the form of space travel or travel in other dimensions, all seem increasingly distant and probably out of reach for humans, even if they can be explored by mechanical probes. So the sense of “this could be true some day!” that pervaded science fiction in its prime is gone, leaving us with a set of stories using tropes and conventions that can barely pass as scientifically credible now, and the average person has little access to the highly specialized and professional realm of the advanced scientist nowadays, either by being able to do some productive tinkering with the newer technological marvels or even by being able to make much sense of the quasi-religious debates about dark energy or “God particles” or the similar topics that the popular scientific press highlights. Even the Faustian stories seem passe, since we’ve all had numerous chances to see real-life scientists working for the Perpetual Warfare State, or covering up the side effects of dubious pharmaceutical treatments, or patenting everything in sight for private gain rather than public knowledge.

But the need for fantasy continues. Before science fiction was, fantasy is. It goes on, even if technology fantasy AKA science fiction loses some of its lustre. Much science fiction was only very loosely based in science, and a lot of the technology in it could just as easily be thought of as magical. So we’re slipping back from the peak of demand for fantasy based on realistic seeming science that was attained around the middle of the 20th century. But new developments in science and technology could revive its fortunes at some point, if ordinary people can comprehend them well enough to see them as non-magical.

Hm. In US chain stores, at least, SF and fantasy are usually shelved together (along with tie-ins) in a great big melting pot of genre. In my bookselling experience, the section as a whole does fairly well: Charlaine Harris is ascendant, and urban fantasy enjoys more shelf-space than it might have done in the nineties, but your average Dune, Halo, or Star Wars novel still regularly puts The Steel Remains and The Name of the Wind and even the majority of that urban fantasy to commercial shame.

Actually, I reckon you’d have an easier and more interesting time arguing that original genre fiction is dying to “franchise” fiction — though of course that’s not true either. The fact is, it doesn’t take a terribly large group of buyers to keep a particular type of book on shelves, and with SF comfortably ensconced in the mainstream, it’s a bit odd to say that no form of science fiction will manage to maintain that critical mass. Counter to your point number three, I think a dialogue between the SF and “Fiction” shelves is a sign of health: non-genre readers who encounter The City & the City on mainstream shelves may travel to the SFF section to pick up Miéville’s other work. (And Miéville’s a Mr. Motley of genre, of course, but you get the idea.) The fact that folks are encountering science fiction through both Margaret Atwood and Gears of War is a feature, not a bug.

Given that the SFF section is — at least in the average U.S. chain — relatively healthy, and that SF is woven into the pop cultural and literary mainstream, I’m just not sure what “SF is dying” could mean.

You post as if all this really matters. Does it? Is there anything to grieve over American audiences largely abandoning the Western (or at least having it become a niche market now)? All things ebb and flow in terms of cultural cache and influence, I suppose…

I love both SF and fantasy and would hate to see either one die. Hopefully SF will come back as popular for awhile and boost its sales and things will just keep trending around in circles. Thanks for sharing this discussion.

I don’t think sf is dying so much as changing. Fantasy is still a coherent and easily-identifiable genre – it’s no more than the sum of its tropes. Sf has grown beyond that, and we’re seeing the sf market splinter and diffuse as a result.

You not only have the “wookie books” – the media tie-ins and shared universes – but you’re also getting sharply-delineated areas *within* the genre, each of which is naturally smaller than the genre as a whole.

Plus, sf is also being picked up more and more by literary writers, and we may eventually see the more literary end of sf move across to join the overtly sf novels by literary writers to form a subset of literary fiction.

Perhaps when fantasy grows up, the same thing will happen to it…

Hi Ian – there are so many holes in your “logic” I don’t know where to begin. But just very quickly, you’re using a ridiculously old argument that has been dismissed so many times before. There are other essays that “Epic Pooh” you could riff on instead – perhaps think of something original? 🙂

Larry – perhaps it does, perhaps it doesn’t. Good point about the Westerns.

Eh? You mentioned literary authors using sf yourself…

But you agree that modern fantasy – Erickson, Jordan, yourself, etc – is a younger genre than sf? And that sf is no longer a monolithic culture, which modern fantasy (or high, or epic, or whatever) still is.

That it’s not been around as long. Sf was created in the late 1920s, and pretty much defined itself in the three decades following. Modern fantasy is chiefly post-Tolkien, and even then didn’t really take off until the 1970s. It’s not had time yet to form distinct cultural groups within itself – analogous to space opera, military sf, cyberpunk and the like.

I’m not trying to do an Epic Pooh here – it’s just that I think genres change over time, and fantasy has not had as much time to do so as sf has. And, currently, that works to its advantage.

Nonsense – I would say that Tolkienesque fantasy has existed post-Tolkien, but the genre’s heritage goes back beyond that. Basically, you seem to imply that all fantasy means is “Tolkienesque”, which casts a convenient blind-eye to a huge chunk of the genre. Modern fantasy’s roots are a lot more ambiguous than that.

But Tolkienesque fantasy *is* the face of modern fantasy – from the best-sellers like Prachett and Erickson and Jordan; to the genre’s toilers like Feist, Salvatore, Wurts, Hobb, Jones, etc; to even the off-centre ones such as Morgan or Tchaikovsky or Swainston.

Agreed, “fantasy” is a much wider genre, but it’s the Tolkienesque stuff which most often gets in the best-seller lists, and which is seen as emblematic of the genre.

(I’m ignoring urban fantasy – as it’s now defined – because I think everyone should 🙂 Oh, and Gaiman is Gaiman.)

Firstly, great discussion.

Secondly, Oii Roberts! get yourself over hear and address the Wrong properly! 🙂

Ok. Point by point.

1. More women than men read books. Point taken and generally accepted. If we were discussing the decline in sales of techno thrillers though I’m not sure this could be introduced into the argument as a valid reason for that particular sub-genre’s decline. Who was (largely)buying the techno thrillers in the first place? Men. Who (largely) stopped buying them? Men. The fact that more women read than men didn’t have any bearing.

2. Has culture caught up with our imgination? Yes the rate of scientific innovation has increased hugely but near future speculation has always been a hazardous business and the last time I looked there wasn’t either a ‘teleport’ or ‘ftl’ app for the iphone that I still don’t know. What ever innovation comes into our lives only inspires further, more extravagent leaps of imagination.

3. Isn’t this evidence of SF’s vigourous good health rather than of its imminent decline? Darwin tells us that only those species that adapt survive. If SF has informed the wider literature that seems to me a good thing. Yes I’m an SF and Fantasy publisher and I love the ‘genres’ but I sometimes find myself asking if I have an inate love for the genre or for the books that make it up. SF the ‘genre’ is just a marketing and retailing label (and a very useful one). SF the ‘literature’ is made up of the writings of Mary Shelley, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Peter Brett, Michel Houellbecq, Stephen Baxter, Margaret Atwood, Adam Roberts, HG Wells, Iain M. Banks, George Orwell, Paul McAuley, David Mitchell and so on and so forth adding on other authors and missing out others that we could all happily argue the toss over for many months (years?) but you get my drift.

But as you later quailify it, you’re talking about SF the ‘genre’ as represented in SF and Fantasy sections in bookshops. SF here has always been the poor cousin in terms of sales to fantasy since the growth of popular modern fantasy in the 1970s. At the moment, in the face of the massive growth in urban fantasy/paranormal romance whatever you want to call it, its certainly the case that it is the even poorer cousin. Is that in itself evidence of its decline? I’m not sure – these things come and go.

4. Fantasy films have set the agenda? Again I’m really not sure. Few fantasy films offer even the prospect of making us think about how we’re living our lives, how science impacts on us, how we might be in the future. SF film and television continue to be huge, continue to be informed by and to inform both, in narrow terms, SF books, and in wider terms, our sense of SF as a thing, as a way of looking at the world.

To move away from your specific points.

Where SF in its cutting edge, hard form may struggle to find an audience these days might stem from the fact that cutting edge science is becoming increasingly hard to comprehend for many, many people and that makes books that spin fiction off those concepts increasingly difficult to take to market. But they are still there and I think they always will be. And none of this prevents those writers from taking softer leaps off the high hard edge of conceptual physics or biology or whatever and making entrancing fiction from those leaps (I’m talking about you Adam – I know you’re here :-)).

Ummm there’s more to say here but I’m going to have to come back later. More anon.

Mark, you dragged in the term Tolkienesque, and I took that to mean what you later refer to as “secondary world”. If I got that wrong, I apologise. But. Secondary world – as exemplified by Jordan, Erikson, Donaldson, Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss, Sanderson, etc. – that’s the sort of “modern fantasy” to which I was referring.

Another quick couple of points for consideration (as opposed to a coherent argument)

Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton are both Sunday Times Top Ten bestsellers and both sell numbers that many epic fantasy authors would give their left arm for. Both are writing SF that doesn’t just so much flirt with hard science as clamber gladly into bed with it.

With those two at its head and with authors like Reynolds, Morgan (again its worth saying that he has NOT abandoned SF, nor is the fantasy he’s writing even passingly Tolkienesque Mr Sales :-))and Baxter (and that’s just on the Gollancz list – apologies for trumpet blowing) all selling a very solid five figures in trade and with authors like (again just with the Gollancz tooting) Roberts, Egan, Robson and Meaney all selling the sorts of numbers that 90% of ‘Literary’ authors would give not just their left arms but also the replacement cybernetic prosthetic for its difficult to view SF as a genre in decline.

And this is just Brits (and Aussie – take bow Mr Egan) we’re talking about. Neal Stephenson sells by the truckload and so does Kim Stanley Robinson and however non SF some might mutter his ‘degree’ novels were his next trilogy will describe man in the solar system 300 years from now.

And that point about literary fiction is worth elaborating. However much handwringing we indulge in over the future of SF most of its authors sell more than most literary authors.

Let’s not call the funeral directors just yet, eh?

Some really good points made here and some great discussion.

I will admit that when I read the title of the post I was offended – science fiction is what I read and it will always get priority over fantasy – how dare you speak of science fiction in such a way!! But you do have a good point. If I walk into a book store I can pretty much guarantee that the split is 70/30 in favour of fantasy.

My personal opinion is that science fiction readers want that believable extrapolation of the society we live in today, they want the sensawunda that such stories can reveal, the sense of exploring the unknown. It’s certainly what I enjoy about the genre. As for fantasy – please don’t get me wrong here, there are some exceptional novels out there in the fantasy genre – but it all seems like a re-hashing of the same tropes and sword-and-sorcery stuff to me.

Also, as Simon quite rightly says above, when the hard science of science fiction is examined, some people just can’t comprehend this aspect and will not want to read any science fiction because of it. The term ‘it’s all gobbledegook to me’ springs to mind and is something I hear quite regularly. Readers who have this sort of bad experience tend to paint the whole genre with the same brush, which is such a shame because of the sheer variety of science fiction out there.

Perhaps the dumbing down culture that is becoming more prevailent is hindering the amount of new young readers coming into the genre. After all, reading about something that doesn’t require any in-depth explanations will appeal a lot more than reading a story that gives some detail about the mechanics of ftl travel…

I tend to agree with the original post, although I think (hope) it is a waxing vs waning argument, more than outright death.

Fantasy seems to be a generation ahead of SF right now. Although Hamilton, Banks, Stephenson are all continuing to produce great fiction, I’m ready for the torch to be passed (or, at least, shared). There are some bright lights coming up in SF (I hope?), but they haven’t lit up the shelves like the latest generation of Fantasy writers.

The latest Fantasy trends have also poached a lot from Science Fiction. Steampunk, for example, is essentially science fiction with steam. In a very, very traditional (regressive) sense – in which ‘steam’ tech is used in the same way ‘atomic’ tech was used in 1950s. Basically, an excuse to do whatever… The New Weird trend is also a hybridization of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction themes.

Back to the original post – two minor quibbles (but again, I largely agree):

1) Literary fiction isn’t the culprit. I think ‘proper, mainstream’ fiction steals from all genre fiction equally.

2) I’d love to see the numbers behind the gender divide. It doesn’t really match what I’ve seen personally… I’m definitely curious.

Good heavens. Busy on here.

Right! Simon:

1) Perhaps I should have murmured that fewer males are reading fiction these days – they’re traditionally non-fiction readers, but schools have for some time struggled to get younger male readers excited about fiction. Perhaps that’s now starting to show?

2) But how quickly does the imagination become dated? And what is left to be imagined? (A whole new debate, I suspect.)

3) I have a suspicion that Dark Fantasy will be one of the things that drives SF further into it’s own niche. I mentioned feedback loops – I think as DF takes up more space, there are fewer SF novels able to be submitted for promotions, which means fewer casual readers, which means lower sales, which means bookstore want fewer for promotions…

4) The big question on films is: do SF films inspire more readers of SF?

But well played so far, sir. How would you say a major chain would react to a sales balance more in favour of fantasy. Do you think, in a world preoccupied with market share, they’d want more SF or less? Dark fantasy is going to challenge for space on those table displays…

And then, that feedback loop kicks in…

Hi Mark – glad not to offend eventually! And thanks for the comment. I think your observation on the sales split is particularly important. As is the comment on younger readers – who love the Warhammer 40,000 books, and the more adventure-fun SF, but those are exactly the books the genre’s critics like to pull apart. Ironically, they’re the genre’s saviours they dismiss.

Hi Jared – Well that’s an interesting point about the bright lights. To be honest, I haven’t heard of the “next big thing” in SF for some time – but in fantasy it’s a common phrase. Yes, I’m never sure where to place the divide on literary/mainstream.

As for numbers – it’s one of those things I doubt we’d ever get precisely. The numbers buying books are huge – and it’s the casual consumer, the one who doesn’t come online to read reviews, the silent ones, which number the greatest.

Whenever I see these titles I automatically put the word ‘AMERICAN’ in front of ‘SCIENCE FICTION’ and immediately see how it makes sense. As Simon indicates, British SF is actually in decent health at the moment. With Banks and Hamilton’s sales strength and Reynolds coming up strong, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that British SF sales were actually improving. If as a percentage of all speculative fiction sales SF is doing poorly compared to fantasy and urban fantasy/horror, than that is not too much of a problem as long as the overall sales remain decent or indeed increase.

Having said that, it’s worth pointing out that the ARC of ‘THE STEEL REMAINS’ mentions that the British (epic?) fantasy market is three times the size of the SF one, which remains an impressive difference in size. However, I would wager it is a considerably wider difference in the States (and if it isn’t, that must solely be down to tie-ins).

The secret, for my money, is that whilst at the height of the success of SF in the 1960s and 1970s the cutting-edge was simply travelling through space and settling other planets (something relatable to the mass audience), the cutting-edge today of science is quantum gravity and Higgs-Boson, stuff which it is hard to make a good story about, and those who try normally don’t end up getting very far. British SF seems to have realised this and placed the emphasis firmly back on relatable (even if alien or post-singularity) characters and situations.

American SF, at least in the words of one of the Old Guard (http://scott-lynch.livejournal.com/169852.html), seems to have instead reacted by bitching about it and blaming Fantasy for eating the Hugo Awards (which as we know are bastions of love for Fantasy and don’t get moaned about every year for ignoring critically-lauded Fantasy books in favour of quasi-obscure SF books no-one’s ever heard of), rather than, for example, writing a decent new SF book and not trading on the past glories of work from decades earlier instead.

I think overall SF is doing fine, even if it is facing an uphill struggle and the lack of new (particularly American) blood could be a problem further down the road. As Simon pointed out it’s a genre that has historically produced considerably fewer bestsellers and well-known works than Fantasy anyway (DUNE, the biggest-selling SF novel ever published, has very approximately 1/250th the sales of LORD OF THE RINGS, its fantasy equivalent).

Hmm, I think I might agree with you about SF lessening, but I’m not sure what the cause is. people always say books are dying- I didn’t know the statement extended so specifically to genres as well! I admit that I don’t read SF, really (I’m a girl). But I’ve had a few authors recommended to me that I hope to try. I feel like the genre is more intimidating, language-wise. I don’t even understand half the words in Back to the Future, so how I would get through an entire book…

I don’t think its dead. I think it will become a hybrid with video. Its being done on a lot of website. Check out the new fiction on the newfiction.com site.

There’s also a new wave of authors who seem to blend fantasy and science fiction in the Jack Vance style – people like Stephen Hunt and his Jackelian series jump to mind. Epic fantasy with lots of science fiction flavouring (which lots of people seem to mistake for steampunk).

He’s a good example too of someone who’s selling in large enough quantities that he’s often found in the mainstream shelf and not the SFF section anymore.

Too successful to be genre? A sad state of affairs.

A great blog Mark, and a fascinating debate.

Having said that – it can’t be denied that you are deliberately and provocatively throwing a gauntlet down to SF writers with this piece. And I’m happy to pick up the gauntlet, and um, do whatever it is you’re supposed to do with gauntlets.

But I have to concede that the core of the argument is sound, and you’ve cunningly argued it to seal off most of the possible counter-arguments.

I do think something HAS happened to SF; the gilt has somehow rubbed off the genre. And the fact that a few wonderful and established writers like Al Reynolds, Scalzi and Peter Hamilton are doing very well has to be measured against the fact that fewer SF writers seem to be getting deals these days, versus fantasy writers. (I’m one of the SF writers who was lucky enough to get a recent deal, and I’ve been noticing.)

Also, I have to say, some of the defences of SF above make it sound as if the genre is an old codger who’s getting around rather well, considering his age, and wobbly legs. I take a more optimistic view; I feel the genre is just getting ready for its second wind.

But why the growing gulf between fantasy and SF sales? Is it simply a problem of perception? Is there a generation of readers and especially female readers who assume that at science fiction is ‘not for them’, but fantasy is, even though that’s not the case?

Or is there an actual problem, caused by a change in the zeitgeist? Is there now a generation who doesn’t believe in rationality, and both prefers and believes in myth?

A chilling story to support this nightmare scenario is that Twilight actor Robert Pattinson is thinking up giving up acting, because teenage girls keep coming up to him, cutting their own necks, and asking him to drink the blood.

It’s a terrifying tale – and I’ve read it in several reputable places so I think it’s probably true. But I don’t believe that story is symptomatic of anything wider; it’s just a weird and deplorable thing to do with being young, and emotionally hyper-charged.

However, as writers we DO need to know what readers are thinking and feeling and dreaming about, so we can write for them better. So that’s why I think this debate is important; we’re not here to teach our readers about what they like, we’re here to learn from them.

And as SF writers – we few endangered beasties who still remain in an industry dominated by vampires and sword-wielding warriors – we have to write stories that compel the imagination, stir the senses, and reach ALL the readers who might enjoy that kind of stuff.

Mark and others,

RE: New Blood for SF –

You’ve got to give us time to incubate. There is so much happening to us so much faster and more violently than previous eras that we are coping with our own future-shock.

I will agree that SF seems hermetic or regressive LATELY but that’s just one swing on the pendulum. My suspicion is that new, younger faces are going to bring a violent push back on this because we relate to technology and scientific advancement as is functionally relevant to us – in other words, it is the iPhone generation, not the Large Hadron Collider generation.

I don’t want to be heavy-handed but I think timing is everything. The teenage years are often the gateway into the best of the SF genre – we have the vocabulary to handle the ideas and the youth to identify with the protagonists or with the broader themes of technological and species-wide adolescence that are so prevalent. But others like me have one crucial oddity about that formative period: 9/11 happened when I was sixteen, and thinking on it, it has really changed my own direction for where I want to take SF just as much as Gibson or other writers have.

Next year, Mark, next year’s going to be the one… I can feel it.

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