Genre, Sci Fi

"A Monotonous Death," the decline of science fiction

While we’re on the subject of Philip K. Dick, I want to consider the implications of an interesting quote of his I recently came across.   What he said — in a 1981 letter to the producers of Blade Runner — was this:

… I came to the conclusion that Blade Runner is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison [Ford] said: futurism. … Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale.

In a speech at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, Blade Runner director Ridley Scott echoed Dick’s sentiment, saying that science fiction as a genre had died and gone the way of Westerns.  “There’s nothing original. We’ve seen it all before. Been there. Done it,” he said.

So, Is Sci Fi Dying?

Calling Blade Runner futurism and the rest of science fiction dead suggests to me not that sci fi has actually died (genres don’t die, per se, anyway), but that the game may have changed.  And I have seen a lot of convincing writing that supports such a position.

On the Guardian UK Book Blog, Damian Walter asked the question, “Are we now post sci-fi?”  And he answered his own question with a resounding yes:

The walls that defined speculative fiction as a genre are quickly tumbling down. They are being demolished from within by writers such as China Miéville and Jon Courtney Grimwood, and scaled from the outside by the likes of Michael Chabon and Lev Grossman. And they are being ignored altogether by a growing number of writers with the ambition to create great fiction, and the vision to draw equally on genre and literary tradition to achieve that goal. The post-sci-fi era is an exciting one to be reading in.

While I agree, I would say the integration of science fiction into mainstream literature and vice versa has been happening for a longer time than he gives it credit for.

A Way of Writing

Science fiction was really always two things; it was a genre (or group of genres) that appealed to a certain fan base, in other words a marketing category.  But it was also a tool set, a way of writing, that has been used since at least the 19th C. for talking about the world.

Over at Conceptual Fiction, Ted Gioia makes a thorough case for this, starting with the premise that “the idea of ‘realism’ as a guiding principle for fiction is itself unrealistic” and that playing with our collective idea of reality is part of the point of all fiction, not just science fiction.

Other genre categories—mysteries, romances, etc.—have very strict limitations on their plots, characters, narrative structures, etc.  A mystery book is expected to present a crime and a solution to the crime.  A romance book must have a love story that proceeds along more or less familiar lines.  These formulas must be followed at all costs.

But the science fiction and fantasy categories were far more freeform.  Almost anything could happen in these books, provided they played some game with our concept of reality.  The only promises these works made were to astound and delight us.   This was not a formula—indeed it was the exact opposite of a formula.

Just look at the names of the early sci-fi magazines:  they were called Amazing or Astounding or Fantastic or tagged with some equally ambitious title. . . (my favorite: Weird Tales).  Ah, what could be grander than magazines that forged such extravagant covenants with their readers?  Not even The New Yorker promises that every issue will be astounding.

In essence, sci-fi and fantasy never fit nicely into the genre pigeonhole.  And given their focus on surprising and delighting readers—rather than following strict formulas of plot development and resolution—it was inevitable that “serious writers” would begin borrowing from these scorned writers who existed at the fringes of the literary world.

Sci fi is not only a genre, but a also way of writing — perhaps even a way of seeing the world — that can be used by any genre and even in non-fiction.

The SF Reading Skillset

Jo Walton at the blog has made essentially the same observation, as well.  What makes his different and worth mentioning is that he describes the readers of sci fi as having an “SF reading skillset.”

We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues. When you read that the clocks were striking thirteen, you think at first that something is terribly wrong before you work out that this is a world with twenty-four hour time—and something terribly wrong. Orwell economically sends a double signal with that.

Orwell is a great example for why the SF Reading Skillset has become so popular and important.  So much of what he invented as sci fi has become a way to describe our modern world — big brother, doublespeak, etc. — that it evidences what I think had changed by 1981 (or, I suppose, 1984) that prompted Dick’s comment.

The World Caught Up

In an article at the New Scientist, Marcus Chown argues that an accelerating pace of technological advancement has defined the entire history of sci fi.

It is no coincidence that [science fiction] emerged as a recognisable genre with writers such as Jules Verne in the late 19th century, an era when, for the first time in history, children could expect to grow up in a world radically different from that of their parents. As change accelerated in the 20th century, science fiction mushroomed.

He eloquently argues what many have said, that “science fiction is the literature of change.”  And he links this to the emergence and importance of the science fiction as a whole.

But now consider what William Gibson, another author whose sci fi neologisms have entered the vernacular, had to say in an interview not long ago:

If I’m going to write fiction set in an imaginary future now, I’m going to need a yardstick that gives me some accurate sense of how weird things are now. ‘Cause I’m going to have to go beyond that. And I think over the course of these last two books–I don’t think I’m done yet–I’ve been getting a yardstick together. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make up an imaginary future in the same way. In the ’80s and ’90s–as strange as it may seem to say this–we had such luxury of stability. Things weren’t changing quite so quickly in the ’80s and ’90s. And when things are changing too quickly, as one of the characters in Pattern Recognition says, you don’t have any place to stand from which to imagine a very elaborate future.

We live in a world in which the things we take for granted today will almost certainly be different in unexpected ways faster than our ability to write about, and probably even comprehend, them.  Science and technology have overtaken almost all aspects of our lives.  

The pace of change has accelerated from hyperactive to ludicrous.

Perhaps this is what Dick meant when he called Blade Runner futurism:  The world is changing so fast that we need the “SF reader skillset” to just get through the morning news.  Thus, Science Fiction is Not Dead and Will Never Be Dead! But the genre, i.e. marketing category, may indeed be in decline.

Speculative What?

As a final aside, I believe that the science fictionalization of everything may also explain popularity of the term “speculative fiction” among authors who still market books in the sci fi/fantasy genre.  This has never really caught on with the mainstream, I think primarily because speculative just means “theoretical,” which all fiction is by design, and … besides … renaming a genre to resuscitate sales is misguided at best.  Not that I don’t acknowledge their pain.

Traditional sci fi writers must needs feel embattled — they are experiencing increased pressure from the incredible shrinking market for books (as all writers are) and are also having to compete with not only an encroachment of literature on science fiction but with all that shiny, science fictiony, real-world stuff we hear about every day (oooh, iPad).


Kim Stanley Robinson says, “We are living in a science fiction novel we all collaborate on,” and goes into detail in this video:

possible that the idea of “realism” as a guiding principle for
fiction is itself unrealistic

One thought on “"A Monotonous Death," the decline of science fiction

  1. Pingback: Sci Fi Glory Days « Jeremy Russell

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