Saturday, January 2, 2010

Is Science Fiction Dying?

This blog entry is a response to the question: Is science fiction dying? The original question was posed on Mark Newton's blog with a long and very interesting discussion.

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 next SF Harry Potter or Buffy series.


  1. Great blog, and I think it tackles square on the key issues for contemporary SF writers...don't get bogged down in technical detail, and write CHARACTER.

    At the end of the day, it's all about good storytelling of course...

  2. I agree. as a woman i first fell in love with SF with star trek. I found it alluring that women were doing and exploring just as the men. It was a genre that i did continue in my reading but only until i found the mystery genre. I left behind the science fiction because i no longer felt the need to read or see it, i was a woman trying to do things for the most part equal to men. I have never been science interested really so.... I will say though i am a plot and setting woman over the character. A good setting can be a complex character and it is much more interesting than many typical characters. teenagers still want to expand their imagination and go to places yet unexplored, and know how to do it( or think they do). It is still a viable genre!

  3. Good points, Kathie
    Plot driven stories are perfectly fine as long as they don't get sidelined by backstory or trivia that is of more interest to the writer than the reader. That's where SF sometimes loses the fringe audience.