12 November 2013

On the Growth of Fantasy and the Waning of Science Fiction

Here is an excellent essay by SF author Brad R. Torgersen that looks at how and why modern science fiction is losing ground to the fantasy genre.
I didn't realize that SF was in decline and giving way to fantasy, but the sales numbers apparently show that this is indeed the case. Here Torgersen offers his views on why this is happening, and I think that he's right on the money.
The essay was originally published on the Writers of the Future web site and reprinted in Torgersen's excellent short story compilation Lights in the Deep.

Please click on the links above to check out Torgersen's website and some of his work. He is one of my favorite authors and I look forward to much, much more from him in the future, maybe a novel or two as well.


On the Growth of Fantasy and the Waning of Science Fiction
Copyright © 2012
Brad R. Torgersen

It may seem a bit ironic for an author who primarily perpetrates Science Fiction to then turn around and talk about how Fantasy is eclipsing its cousin. Nevertheless, the writing (pun intended) is on the wall: the fantastic is outpacing the speculative, both in the written arts, and in television and motion pictures. Whether it’s the explosive popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, or Stephanie Meyer’s ultra-hot Twilight—both of which earned hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars at the box office in 2011, on top of print revenue—or the timeless and enduring power of J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal Middle-Earth saga, as told in The Hobbit and the three volumes in The Lord of the Rings. Fantasy has come into its own as a phenomenally successful creative and commercial enterprise, while Science Fiction has drifted on the consumer seas—falling back into niche popularity, where it first began.

Granted, the television and motion picture industry does its best to keep Science Fiction afloat. Movies like Avatar, Tron: Legacy and Transformers all performed incredibly well with recent audiences. There have also been prolific small-screen series like Dr. Who, Stargate, and Battlestar Galactica. Not to mention the time-tested Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, which so revolutionized both the fantastic and the speculative on big and small screens, that no fantastic or speculative program can emerge in the 21st century without first tipping its hat to these ground-breaking 20th century forerunners.

So how come Science Fiction in print continues to see its sales steadily slipping? Where are the ‘skiffy’ equivalents of Twilight and Harry Potter? Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games has come forward as a very-strong example of Science Fiction that’s hitting home runs with both readers and—potentially—movie-goers. But The Hunger Games is more of an anomaly than a rule. In fact, Science Fiction’s all-time bestselling novel, Dune, was written almost half a century ago. Runners-up, such as Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game were written approximately thirty years ago, and when one does straw polls at writing conferences—to see how many people are doing Science Fiction versus Fantasy—the numbers of hands raised for Fantasy (especially Young Adult Fantasy) are overwhelmingly in the majority.

I think this is a problem.

I’m not proposing that Science Fiction is dying or is about to be shuffled off the bookshelves and dumped into the returns bin. It is not. Rather, I’d like to offer a theory or two: as to why Fantasy is so tremendously and energetically embraced, while Science Fiction has to work harder to interest and retain a much smaller segment of the readership, if not always the viewership. At which point I will end with a suggestion for possible remedy.

Firstly, the audience of the Anglosphere—and much of Europe and Asia too—is living in a “science fictional” time. Unlike the 1930s, we enjoy a gadgetized and digitally-instant, globally-interconnected society. Much of what was speculative in the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, is mundane reality for us today, to include wireless cell phone communication, wireless computing, wholesale mass storage and distribution of data, and much else that most First World citizens can take for granted, including rapid and affordable transit, mass production and distribution of consumer goods, not to mention satellite television, the International Space Station, and reliable ground-to-orbit transportation operating in multiple countries.

Thus the 21st century reader has a bit of a blind spot for Science Fiction in ways his or her grandparents did not. When the Golden Age was under way, it was still common for many rural households to lack the kind of plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, and electricity that many of us in our time consider to be basic essentials. Our science has literally made the fiction into reality, thus the “magical” shine of what was once dreamed of in the Golden Age, has slowly faded into the hum-drum of every-day existence.

Secondly, the reality of science and the emergence of a science-dependent, technological society—as different from 17th and 18th-century pastoral and agrarian times as the Roman Empire was from pre-historic tribal life—has somewhat robbed modernity of the mysticism and sense of otherworldly wonder that most of our ancestors had. So that while the emergence of modern science—courtesy of the Enlightenment, and all that followed on—has given us an amazing and vital number of improvements, not the least of which are medicine, electricity, mechanical means of performing laborious and repetitive tasks, and an explosion in both life spans and the amount of time freed for leisure, science has also effectively pulled the curtain back on much which was previously mysterious and otherwise attributable to the Divine.

There are no more Gods, no more Devils, no more Angels nor Demons, and also no more magic—the intangible sense that there are deeper forces and destinies at work in the universe; the clashing of cosmic Goods and Evils.

Yet, as humans, we still long for these things. Well, a good many of us long for them, anyway. I believe that part of the reason why Fantasy continues to swell and Science Fiction has somewhat shriveled, is that Fantasy is a genre where we as a society can recapture what we miss: wizards and warlocks and necromancers, Dark Forces allied to battle the numerically-inferior but heroic Light Forces, and above all else a sense that life has meaning and purpose beyond the merely material, or the tangible. That there is a universal justice operating in the world, and while it is not always readily-accessible or apparent, it exists just the same. Not all is random. Not every meaning is a man-made, artificially-imposed meaning.

Consider Star Wars, which still ranks as one of the most financially-dominant film franchises of all time. Ostensibly technological—spaceships, laser guns, robots with artificial intelligence, interstellar travel—Star Wars survives and thrives not because it’s a picture of a very-advanced, polyglot interstellar civilization, but because Star Wars uses that civilization as a canvas for what is, essentially, a classically-legendary tale about Cosmic Good and Cosmic Evil. There is magic—in the form of The Force—and there are both good and evil wizards—in the form of the Jedi and the Sith. Seemingly random events often have the scent of deep destiny about them, and the technological aspects of Star Wars often take a back seat during Star Wars’ most triumphant—and tragic—moments.

Consider also the Dune saga, begun with the novel of the same name. Much like Star Wars, Dune is a story about a very-advanced, almost super-technological future interstellar society. But also like Star Wars, Dune is a story about mystical forces, the coming of a messianic savior, events which seem predestined and foretold, the triumph of ordered good over chaos and evil, and more deeply, how these triumphs can sometimes presage an even greater evil amidst even greater chaos. And so forth. Not technological themes at all. The Spice Melange is as otherworldly and magical as any tincture brewed by Merlin in the court at Camelot, and Paul Atreides is very much an Arthurian figure: the boy-king come to set the world to rights, and unify the land. At least for a short time.

Even the movie Avatar relies on mysticism and legendary aspect for its success, since all the stunning 3D special effects in the world could not have held up a plot sustained purely by natives-versus-invaders. Jake Sully is another Paul Atreides: a young outlander who must first prove himself to the Na’vi (Fremen) and then master the Toruk sky dragons (sand worms) before leading the Na’vi (Fremen) against the corporatized and despotic, not to mention debased and immoral, Company with its mercenaries (Harkonnens and the Imperial Sarduakar) seeking to strip Pandora (Arrakis) of its singularly-vital commodity, Unobtanium (Melange.)

In each case, both Dune and Avatar employ fantastic story elements and underpinnings to tell what are essentially fantastic and legend-like tales. The technology that infuses both is merely a vehicle for the deeper, more mystical (spiritual?) elements which are both present and apparent—if you look for them.

Yet, Science Fiction has staked its claim as the anti-mystical genre. A great many of its practitioners are outspoken or otherwise avowed secularists. As are a great many of Science Fiction’s fans—not all of whom share an overlapping love for Fantasy, the way many Fantasy fans share an overlapping love for Sci-Fi. So it’s perhaps not surprising then that much of the Science Fiction being written in the 21st century concerns itself strictly with materialistic concerns: climate change, global warming, the decay of governments and the onset of dystopian hegemony, or anarchy, and an overriding message that humans are small, flawed, puny creatures living on a small, flawed, puny planet in a lost corner of a gargantuan galaxy, which is itself lost in still some other corner of the much greater and enormous universe.

True or not—I won’t debate the evidence, one way or another—this “small” view of the human being is often at odds with the “large” view offered in works like The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Tolkien’s main thrust in the telling of the tales of Middle-Earth seems to be that even the smallest of us can have the most vital importance, and that great deeds and great destinies await even the most unlikely and innocent of people. Bilbo and Frodo are the “everymen” of the world, thrust quite against their wills into a wider, more dangerous arena. Doubtless Tolkien would dislike the application of allegory, since he is on record as having stated that he disliked allegory in his time and especially disliked seeing it draped over his books. Still, I think the point is made: the most timeless and successful and memorable Fantasy work of the last 100 years is a work which takes humble, ordinary folk and sets them up as extraordinary and heroic.

Science Fiction? Science Fiction often seems less sure about its mission. Since the so-called New Wave which brought literary aspects to the genre, Science Fiction—at least in print—has gradually become more and more concerned with the meaninglessness of life, the random and even hopeless nature of our existence, and while the vistas and landscapes offered can only be described as wondrous and vast, the impact on the human psyche is often the opposite: we do not matter, we are not important, nothing of us has any great impact on the universe, therefore the only meaning available to us is that which we create artificially, and then often with much struggle and ultimate futility.

Orson Scott Card’s memorable and famous novel, Ender’s Game, breaks from this significantly. Ender Wiggin being much like Paul Atreides and Jake Sully: the young “changer” who overturns the tables of the “game”, while vanquishing great evil in the process. Card goes one step further in that the Buggers have their time, too. In fact much of the Ender saga concerns itself with the ramifications of what Ender does in the first book, and how Ender—and humanity—seek redemption when faced with a very terrible—sinful?—legacy. So, in that sense, Ender’s Game is not about the war with the Formics. It is not even about the (current, by our standards) remotely-operated video-game-like nature of future war in space. It’s about the desperation of survival against the odds, and the realization that sometimes the ends do not necessarily justify the means; that even heroes have much for which they should atone. In one form, or another.

It is often said of the Writers of the Future Contest that Science Fiction stories have a better chance of succeeding than Fantasy stories, and this is true. But only because Fantasy is so popular with many new writers that the amount of Fantasy received by the judges is larger than the amount of Science Fiction.

I suspect this is because Fantasy is a more accessible and emotionally-meaningful genre for new writers, many of whom have grown up steeped in the Fantastic most of their lives. Books, movies, and sometimes television: Fantasy stories and Fantasy tales which elevate the human being to an important place in the world, in much the same way all children and teenagers wish to be elevated—and all “ordinary” men and women, too. Thus when a new writer sits down and thinks, “Aha, I shall enter this Contest and win,” he or she is much more likely to start with Fantasy. It’s the familiar thing, and it’s the thing about which new writers most naturally feel compelled to tell meaningful stories.

It’s harder with Science Fiction. Seventy years ago, the mere act of landing on the Moon possessed its own meaning: it was an imagined technological triumph foretold in an era replete with technological triumphs, all mounting towards a transformation of society and the human condition. But now? We landed on the Moon, and we came back, and despite all of our numerous technological and material advantages in our time, society and the human condition aren’t that much different. In fact, we seem to be more ourselves than ever before.

I think that perhaps Science Fiction’s road has taken it down an uneasily-traveled path. The number of readers for whom a Fantastic tale like Harry Potter is meaningful is much larger than the number of readers for whom a Science Fiction tale like John Varley’s Steel Beach is meaningful. And while the combined effort of Science Fiction and Fantasy is made richer and more complex by the Steel Beach books of the co-genre, I also suggest that pursuing a Steel Beach course—while seeing the readership peel away and find interest in happier, maybe even simpler imaginary lands—is problematic at best. Science Fiction won’t survive forever if all but the most hard-core readers decide that there’s just not enough emotional (moral?) uplift in Science Fiction for them to keep reading it.

In order for Science Fiction to have value and meaning—to say nothing of an audience—I think it could stand to go back to the “mythic” tropes more than it has of late. Re-explore some of the more classic, more time-honored themes. Re-elevate the human to a place of dignity and power. Re-embrace themes that are hopeful, optimistic, perhaps even spiritual in nature. The movie industry seems to have it: they have profited mightily from exploiting Science Fiction’s sunny-side disposition and prognostication. I think Science Fiction writers could do similarly, but first it’s going to take a little unconventional thinking, and a willingness to break with established preconceptions about what Science Fiction is for, the kinds of stories you can and cannot tell, and having the courage to know when it’s worth it to be optimistic—even when scientific evidence or political reality or industry forces may dictate otherwise.

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