Open Thread: Is Science Fiction Dying?

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?