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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Open Thread: Is Science Fiction Dying?

by Ken Newquist / August 30, 2006

In a post-WorldCon entry on his blog Contrary Brin, science fiction author David Brin worries that the grey hairs that dominated the convention are yet another sign that science fiction fandom is aging ... and that this does not bode well for the future of the genre.

He writes:

The number of elderly people, riding scooters and wheel chairs, at least equaled the number of teens and tweens that you could see wandering the halls. As for children? My own three kids made up a large fraction of those attending. And yet, nobody seems to notice or mind, in the slightest.

The literature of youthful, forward-looking openness... is graying and (in many ways) dying, even as its tropes and glossy surfaces have been embraced as never before.

I'm curious to know what the percentages used to be, but I'm guessing you used to see more fresh-faced kids wandering the halls of fandom than you do now. This is apparently a big topic in certain circles of science fiction, as it foretells a genre apocalypse when combined with declines in science fiction book, magazine and movie revenues.

Look out on the science fiction landscape, and you can't help but wonder if the doomsayers are right. Fantasy is in ascendance right now, largely because of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies. They provide the sort of gateway that any genre needs to grow its audience and its theme - the triumph of good over evil -- resonates with audiences young and old. Its modern-day cousin, the superhero film, has also been doing quite well and for similar reasons.

Science fiction though, is floundering. The mainstays that pushed so many fans into the genre in the 1970s and 1980s have faltered and occasionally outright failed. Star Trek is off the air, and its myriad re-runs don't have the sort of power needed to reignite interest in the genre. Even if they hadn't been an uneven mess, the Star Wars prequel trilogy inherently appealed to an older audience. There isn't a single science fiction franchise out there right now that inspires and uplifts in the way that Roddenberry and Lucas' original creations did. Worse, many of the modern themes in science fiction -- from species-ending transhumanism to the bleak survivalism of Battlestar Galactica -- do nothing to inspire fans to hope for a better tomorrow. Unsurprisingly, many turn to the genres that do offer hope. Heck, I did the very same thing for the last few years, until I made a conscious effort to get caught up on science fiction in 2006.

And yet ... is it really as bad as all that? I question the wisdom of judging the aging of fandom by looking at science fiction conventions -- I suspect at least part of what we're seeing is a failure of sf conventions to adapt to the market place (and Brin himself points out that many of the WorldCon offerings meant to appeal to those outside of the convention crowd were cut). Of my immediate circle of friends, most of whom are science fiction fans to one degree or another, none have gone to a science fiction convention (though we've gone to GenCon several times). And I'll propose that if you lose the thirtysomethings, then you lose a chunk of the younger crowd, since we won't be taking our kids with us.

While I do think there's less interest in science fiction among young people, I think part of that is cyclical -- fantasy and superheroes maybe on the rise now, but science fiction will swing back eventually, particularly if no new fantasy series arrives to keep up the momentum of Lord of the Rings, and the superhero genre flames out as it did in the early 1990s. Perhaps all we need is one good science fiction series -- movie or TV -- to reignite interest in the genre.

But what do you think? Is the apocalypse neigh for science fiction? Is this just a cyclical downtick, or are we witnessing the long term decline of science fiction?

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Comments

A few random thoughts:

Reading is down in general. Book industry surveys show that those who read or pleasure are aging, and that most regular bookstore and library patrons are female (and SF has never been as popular with the ladies, as we know, although they do read fantasy).

When I was a lad, we didn't have 300 channels on cable television or the inter-muh-net. If we wanted to play a multi-player video game, we have to go to someone's house, or they had to come to ours, and the selection and quality of games was fairly limited. A good game would give you solid play for a week or so before you finished up or got bored, unlike the MMO's that keep expanding in fresh playability. Kids today have a lot more demands placed on their time, and on their budgets. Read? Phhft.

Warren Ellis recently commented that there are no "ship" shows on television anymore (and Stargate doesn't count just because they acquired a ship recently).

Cory Doctorow (or someone connected to BoingBoing, I can't recall who exactly) recently remarked that people aren't into space anymore, they're into computers and emerging consumer technologies. They're not square-jawed engineers with pocket protectors, either, they're guys with piercings and tats and laptops.

I think technology has passed us and we're still trying to catch up with its ramifications, which is why we're generally not as foreward-looking as science fiction asks us to be.

A major consideration is that the intar-ma-web has made the need for physical conventions largely obsolete. I get more information about science fiction (or any other topic) in a day now than I used to get in a season of con attendance. I have fellowship with folks who share my esoteric interests via email, instant messaging, and subscribing to their blogs via RSS. I no longer have to travel hundreds of miles once or twice per year to stay in crappy hotels to meet up with the other 300 people who share my interest in X.

Just thoughts.

No disrespect to Mr. Brin, but if his article made Slashdot, it would probably be tagged "FUD" by the users, and someone would probably post a snarky comment along the lines of "Netcraft confirms that Sci-Fi" is dead.

The reason why Sci-Fi cons aren't seeing so many younger people has, IMHO, two causes.

Cause The First:

People of my generation don't read that much anymore. And, to shoot down this strawman prematurely, it's not because of TV, or Anime, or VIdeo games. It's because of how English is taught in public school. Kids don't necessarily have the opportunity to find out what they like in their English classes. Instead, they get "Catcher in the Rye", and "Lord of the Flies" dumped on them, and they're expected to read so much every week, and write an essay, or complete a worksheet on their reading. Consequently, they don't have enough time to read on their own. Furthermore, they may end up associating reading with essays and tedious busywork. I remember several conversations with friends in High School about reading, and when I asked them why they didn't read, they specifically mentioned that. They said that reading always made them think they should be writing a book report once they were done.

To help fix this, what needs to be done is simple - allow for some of the assigned reading to be 1) Sci-Fi, and 2) Fun. To be specific, for this to be fun - lay-off the coursework. Often, when I was in High School, much of the homework on the readings seemed to primarily exist to ask "Did you actually read the book or not?". Also, it will help if the reading is less emotionally heavy. The way to encourage reading is not to shove mentally dense books which you need to take some time to contemplate down students' optic nerves. You do it by assigning books which you can sit down and read with engaging characters, an exciting story, and preferably one with some humor. Thus, assigning books that are actually fun to, well, read, is important. This also has an added bonus that, in theory, the book should make up for any lack of enthusiasm from the instructor

Cause The Second:

I blame the Science Fiction "industry". Specifically, the lack of respect some of the more space-opera themed Sci-Fi books get at some of the major awards. None of the books in the Honor Harrington series, for instance, never recieved any awards, and that's the book series which I managed to use to get my mother to start reading Sci-Fi again. But when you look at the rolls of novels nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards, it appears the general trend must be that they be about Really Important Sh-tuff.

If the major awards would give some recognition to Space Opera and other "fluffy" and fun Sci-Fi novels, (and, for that matter, good licensed Sci-Fi novels), then that too would help bolster the Sci-Fi industry, I would think.

I'd go into more detail on that last point, but I have to leave for work, so I'll try to expand on this point after work (if people ask for it).

First -- by all means, please elaborate! I'll be doing the home improvement thing all weekend, so I may not be able to reply right away, but I will definitely be reading!

Second -- your point about mandatory reading is well taken, and that theme dominates a post over at SF Signal entitled "Of SF, Kids And Outreach". In it, JP mentions a reading program that his son is enrolled in, and points out the fatal flaw in its results-oriented, grade-based approuch:

Not only are the kids forced to read, its a grade after all, but they have to take a test after they finish each book. This isn't fun, its work.

He goes on to point out that there's a lack of young adult science fiction that's approachable and fun for kids to read. Now when I was a kid (and I'm in my thirties) I didn't read any "young adult" science fiction -- instead I cut my teeth on Asimov and Clarke. Yet having said that, by today's standards we might consider Asimov and Clarke "young adult" fiction because it was straight-forward, "ain't science grand?" science fiction. The Foundation trilogy and books like Childhood's End dealt with the rise and fall of civilizations ... but did so without mucking about with addiction, sex and all of the dark themes that many of today's mainstream writers.

So yeah, bring on the kid-friendly scifi ... and stop making reading such a damn chore!

btw ... if you don't mind me asking, what generation do you belong to? Not that you need to tell us, but I think it would help to inform the conversation.

We do have one "ship" show on, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, but it's probably not the sort of show he's talking about. Yeah, you've got a big ship, but most of the conflict is personal and political, and the strange new worlds that Galactica visits are usually barren and lifeless.

I agree that to a large extent, we're still trying to figure out what the hell an optimisic future even looks like nowadays, and it's hard to do space opera (at least big-screen space opera) if you can't imagine a positive future.

I think your analysis of the decline of the scifi convention is spot on -- the net provides me with almost everything I'd want from a con. This isn't true of gaming conventions, which give me the opportunity to play games I don't normally play (or can't play) at home.

The proliferation of choice is the flipside to the long tail of fandom -- everyone can pursue their own interests, and as a result, some of the communal activities we used to share -- like reading science fiction novels -- lose out to other alternatives. That said, you can be sure that I'll do my best to introduce my kids to the joys of reading ... and science fiction at an early age.

I love to read. Hell, I love to write! And as for the next gen: My wife is baking our first kid now, and I have already read some of nemo's adventures to her belly.

I suspect I will institute a caveat to bedtime: if you're in bed, you can read as late as you want. No tv, no games.... you read. Huh? Huh? I hope I'm as clever doing this as it sounds (ripped it off some 'spider robinson' guy).

How'd you do this weekend Ken?

PS: What generation am I part of, for full disclosure of this conversation (very relevant in my mind)? Well, I'm 35.... so.... am I 'x'?

I spent a lot of time talking to Sue's belly when she was pregnant with Jordan and Lucas, and it really paid off -- both kids recognized my voice right after being born (well, Jordan definitely did -- Luc was a somewhat complicated birth, so it took 15 minutes or so for me to see him after he was born). Anyway, it's really helpful to have the kids be familiar with your voice right away, since it makes it easier (IMHO) for you to step up and take care of the kids -- it's not just Mom who can calm them down.

Sure, the kids will bond with you soon enough even without talking to them in the womb, but it's a worthwhile short cut.

We have a somewhat similar "reading" policy -- Jordie usually takes her books to bed with her, and then reads to her favorite stuffed animal, Pinky the Rabbit (and perhaps Thomas the Tank Engine, if he's lucky) for a while until she falls asleep. We'll see what happens when she gets older -- if she's anything like me, she'll read until midnight without even trying, and that's not particularly conducive to a good night's sleep. I've never been one of those people who reads to go to sleep -- it's always gotten my brain racing instead of calming it down.

With regards to painting, check out this blog post. It went well, but it was somewhat nightmarish. And as far as your generation goes, 35 is defintely Generation X. I think it probably runs from early 30s (or maybe very late 20s, like 28-29) to late 30s, but I've never been great a generational math.

Yes, reading may be declining and television revenues may be down, but as long as people survive and there is any room to ponder upon a brighter, darker or different tomorrow, today or sometime or someplace else sci-fi will exist. It just seems as though events in the real world have, at least for a brief time, have out-paced our collective ability, not to imagine (for that takes only moments), but to write it down.

I just returned home after seeing the Watchmen movie. I had read the book 25 years ago, but some of the themes were so 'on point' that portions of the dialog would fit in a dicussion of today's social condition. You cannot change the nature of the beast, especially if that beast is our nature.

I don't think science fiction will ever die, without it there wouldn't be any magic and almost every book/movie has at least a little bit of science fiction. It's just a low cycle