m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

On Zombie Science Fiction

I found the The Well-Bitten Hand via The End of Science Fiction, linked by SF Diplomat. Both articles put a stake through science fiction, a genre whose time has, apparently, gone. “The Well-Bitten Hand” discusses the shambling undead corpse of sci-fi, ten years dead by John Barnes’ account, as part of the general mortality of genres. He eulogizes:

And it is a genre that flourished among mostly English-speaking, mostly middle-class, mostly Caucasian readers from the late 20’s to the early 90’s of the last century — in other words, for about seventy years.

Being the heirs of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, we then strapped the dearly departed to a steel table in our laboratory, wired it up to the lightning rod, and waited for a storm to fill the genre with eerie, unnatural life. Our monster shambles on to this very day.

Well, I made that bit up. What he really said was:

Nonetheless, the basic cultural work of a genre tends to be done in about seventy years, and after that it is, for good or ill, a museum art, even if it’s a crowded, popular museum for a long time. A genre is alive if new works can change the genre fundamentally (e.g. the way that, say, the Campbell Astounding of the 1940s did science fiction, Showboat and Oklahoma! changed the musical, or Hammett and Chandler changed the mystery), and not if the reaction instead is to say, “Well, that’s not really in the genre.”

He goes on to discuss what hole in the culture science fiction may have filled, and why it’s full now. Do read the whole article, and speculate for yourself what new holes an aspiring writer should be trying to fill. But beware: he implies the sense of wonder is dead as well. And we were supposed to be the genre with the upbeat endings…

Then, if you need even more bad news, you can move on to The End of Science Fiction by Nader Elhefnawy, an essay of which all the bad news above forms just one section—and there’s a second part to the essay, coming soon. Here’s the summary:

However, there are five big arguments for a bleak view of the genre’s prospects that certainly merit consideration. Three of these, which concern the cultural conditions inside which science fiction writers work, are covered here, namely, what some have taken to calling “the end of science”; our changing expectations about the future; and the internal dynamics of the genre of science fiction itself. The two others, which concern the business environment in which science fiction writers work, will be covered in the second half of this article, which is scheduled to appear on the fifteenth of this month.

The sales figures, on the rare occasion that you find them broken out into science fiction vs. fantasy, support the zombie theory. It’s easy to miss the primacy of fantasy when looking at short fiction markets where sf and horror excel. We see fantasy and sf lumped together in the book market and we remember—if you still read sf at all, surely you remember—the days when fantasy was the ugly stepchild of science fiction, and we forget that sf is now the crazed spinster aunt of fantasy.

I think it’s time to haul those fantasy doorstop trilogies out of the trunk. If we count the genre as being born in 1977 with the publication of The Sword of Shannara, then we have a good 40 years left to milk it dry. Even if we push back to the Tolkien fad of the late sixties and the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea and The Last Unicorn in 1968, that’s still 30 years of wiggle-room. Not the genre for a recent college grad, perhaps, but any starving science fiction writer thinking of making the switch to fantasy is doubtless gray enough already to risk it.