‘The Death of Science Fiction’ as Mythogenic Rejuvenation (Part One)


“Doomsayers continued to predict the imminent demise of science fiction throughout 1997, some of them even seeming to look forward to it with gloomy, headshaking, I-told-you-so-but-you-wouldn’t-listen-to-me relish; but . . .it seems to me that the actual numbers and the actual real-world situation do not justify these sorts of gloomy predications. To modify the words of Mark Twain, the Death of Science Fiction has been greatly exaggerated.” - Gardner Dozois

“This uncomfortable impure origin does nothing. however, to calm the anxieties for legitimation, nor can it, since the demands for legitimacy appeal to an external authority. The fantasy of non-origin persists, and it meets its complement in the future with the fantasy of non-being. Explicit proposals, even demands, for the death of science fiction, from within science fiction, are commonplace.This is the ecstatic process of transubstantiation back into the mainstream . . . .” – Roger Luckhurst

“SF isn’t dying, it hasn’t been ill, and frequent terminal diagnoses often see the undertaker clutching a handful of nails and a hammer and scratching his head over an empty coffin. However, discussions about this demise have been resurrecting themselves in only slightly altered form since I first read ‘about’ SF rather than SF itself. I’m betting there was some plonker declaring the death of SF the moment Sputnik beeped or just after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. Really, the whole pointless staggering debate needs a nice fat stake driven through its heart. ” – Neal Asher

“The Death of Science Fiction” has been with us for a long time. It is a perennial topic, nigh unto a trope at this point. Writers from Kristine Kathryn Rusch to John C. Wright have discussed it. Richard Lupoff bemoaned it in the early 1980s and early last year Sarah A. Hoyt observed that it was more of a killing than just SF expiring. Mark Charan Newton just weeks before that defended this idea at length, arguing further that the specific genre was dying, while other sorts of fantastika were doing better.

There are many more, but what is fascinating about this idea is not just how many people discuss it or how often the topic seems to arise, but that it has at this point a quality of mythogenic rejuvenation that draws some to it while mightily irritating others. While some users of the term (like Newton) genuinely see the end of Science Fiction, many others, and many who respond to the idea, either feel that the idea is incorrect or that it is a call to action, myself included at one point. I’ve written about this previously elsewhere; but as I examine the pervasiveness of this idea, the combination of anxiety and passionate engagement that it seems to produce, and the constant return to it as a fabled touchstone, I am curious to figure out the notion’s power and why it seems to be – rhetorically, symbolically, socially – so necessary for the resurrection of this foreseen death that never actually occurs.


When “The Death of Science Fiction” is discussed, the topic is often treated with a combination of reverence and/or inquisitional righteousness. The invocation of this phrase is sententiously dramatic, a ritual utterance; it denotes that Something Big is about to be discussed. Some discussants, such as Rusch, take a very commonsensical or business-like approach to the topic, and a few (like the Panshins’ discussion of Who Killed Science Fiction) try to understand the idea and its uses, but for most discussants this idea is an assertion and invitation. It claims that a discussion of great import is about to take place, and it pulls the reader in to observe the proceedings with a combination of curiosity and cliche.

Because, after decades of discussion, “The Death of Science Fiction” is a shibboleth. When someone in the field wants to write about where they think the genre is going, and/or what it’s doing wrong, and/or what crimes are being committed against it, they pen an article or blog post proclaiming The End. Uttering or writing these words immediately breeds outrage in some, consternation in others, and cynical head-shaking in a few. When Newton wrote his blog post (and others that followed defending his position and noting the debate it engendered), he triggered a storm of responses, some from other prominent authors like Mark Chadbourn, but also across a number of Livejournals, blogs, and other fora. This debate was particularly intense because Newton was seriously asserting that SF was dying, and that fantasy was on the rise, and got a range of impassioned responses. But that seriousness does not answer the question of why so many defenses of or different attacks upon the idea arose in response. Why could this not just be dismissed or taken as another individual’s opinion?

“The Death of Science Fiction” is one of those notions that stimulates a response because of its challenge not just to genre durability, but to deeper notions of what “science fiction” means. When I first looked at this phenomenon, I came to this conclusion:

“This is why there will always be debates about the genre, why there may have to be continual debates about the genre. We need these debates to exercise its flexibility and feel its vastness. We need to hear and write out our own ideas about it and compare them with the understandings of others. We reaffirm that the genre contains what we think it does, while also observing what others see in it. Constant comparison of these understandings helps keep the borders in view, while individuating how solid or ephemeral those borders are to each viewer. This reminds us of what we see as creatively valuable about the genre, while pushing us to expand our vision of what lies within the bounds of it, what we can discern with our imaginations and what is left to explore or rediscover within that artistic territory.”

Now, a good eighteen months later, I think this is the starting point of understanding the implications of “The Death of Science Fiction.” It is not just a matter of doomsaying, or of defending the “non-origin” of the genre, or some sort of pseudo-intellectual wanking as Asher implies, although those elements are present. This notion is performing some social and cultural work for those who are deeply invested in the literature. There are elements of affirmation, reflection, and contention in discussing this death, but such an ongoing, reanimated debate does not keep reviving if it is useless. And I think that very revivication points to the use-value of this long-lived idea.

If, as some people maintain, it is such a tired idea to trot out, then why do people keep doing so and why is there so much response to these declarations? This is where the idea of mythogenic rejuvenation comes in. Talking about SF is often as important to many producers of the literature and its adherents as the production and reception of the literature itself. The far-flung fandom community is bonded not by just what they read, but by what they say about what they read, and this holds true for individuals in all social positions, from writer to editor to reader (which, at the end of the day, everyone is).

What brings people together in conversation is not just love of fantastical stories or the pleasure of strange ideas, but also moments of contention about their meanings and broader significance. “The Death of Science Fiction” creates a sort-of ritual discursive space for this; as Brooks Landon noted “[s]ome of these considerations are laments, some are warnings, and some are celebrations, but all posit some form of end to SF, or at least to SF as commonly recognized.” This flexibility creates potential for a lot of debate and for reification of positions as people try to predict this death or refute it.

The most interesting aspect of this to me is the fact that no one ever hits the mark with their projections and concerns. The Death of Science Fiction never comes about (or, hasn’t yet anyway). Being right, however, is not only what these discussions are about. They are highly-charged opportunities to talk about our aspirations for and disappointments in SF (and, sometimes, other genres as well, by comparison). Like the literature itself, pronouncements of SF’s future by telling stories about its death are highly speculative but do not come true. Certain innovations and modifications might come to pass, but it’s predictive power is limited. If predictions always fail, and responses to them try to reinterpret or reproduce boundaries and meanings of genre, what else can these debates be doing?

I’ll discuss what that might be in the next column.

4 thoughts on “‘The Death of Science Fiction’ as Mythogenic Rejuvenation (Part One)”

  1. The problem with Science Fiction is the writers themselves not being able to extrapolate what Science will be like in the future. They are more prone to Okunify some wonky element, weapon, process, machine, etc. into the story without regard for any scientific basis. Or, they completely ignore any recent developments that could completely change their story.

    My best example for the latter is Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book. One of the problems detailed in the novel was that the wired phone system was down and they could  not make trunk calls (if you know what that is now, you are showing your age). Mind you this story is taking place 55 years in the future which would be around 2048! In 1993, the year it was published, we already had cell phones (let alone satellite phones)! They were converting from 1G analog to 2G digital at around the same time. Just keeping up with Popular Mechanics and making a reasonable extrapolation as to where this technology was going would have significantly changed this novel (and made a certain portion pretty much unnecessary)! I said this on other sites and in conversation not long after it’s publication, so I cannot be charged with acting on hindsight!

    They are more interested in the Star Wars, space opera, type series literature (Vorkosigan, Revelation Space). Many writers have gravitated to Fantasy (Game Of Thrones, Harry Potter) or Fantasy Horror (Rachel Morgan, Anita Blake, Dresden Files, Women Of Otherworld, and scads of others) literature. That is where the money is at this time. Gone are the days when a writer can craft one novel that explores a concept (A Canticle For Leibowitz, Lord Of Light, Blood Music, et. al.) without being forced into making a series out of it. Once a writer decides to map out a series, then the concepts become diluted, ill-explained, or expanded slowly, so that there are “revelations” in future novels. Thus the “cliffhanger” mentality enters into the mix which diminishes the impact of a single novel.

  2. I very much like Art Ramos’s remarks since I was going to make similar comments. My version would be there will be no death of SF as long as we have SF readers since that is where I believe the SF writers come from. But if the market pays urban fatasy, romantic fantasy, high fantasy, historical fantasy, and all the fantasy branches I haven’t named so much better and prefers fantasy publication over SF, there will be a prolonged near demise rather than death. Writers such as Greg Egan, Greg Bear, Alastair Reynolds, Neal Asher, Ian McDonald, Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nancy Kress, Pamela Sargent,Sarah Zettel, Joan Slonczewski, James Tiptree Jr.. Kate Wilhem and others will continue to appear and be published. The more  hard scientific they are the more likely you will hear, “But the dialogue is bland, the character not fully developed.” If the writer can overlook the crticism and just continue to write, the dialogue and character will come. Charles Sheffield is an example of scientist who wrote hard SF and the character and dialogue came and he becames one of my personal favorites. I am not sure where you would put a new writer Jon Armstrong but Grey and Yarn were books I enjoyed immensely. No space ships or solar flashes but a great story teller with dystopia, mutations, and a world of style and clothing that entranced me. So new SF writers continue to appear.

  3. I happened to read this article at the same time as this one:

    http://www.economist.com/node/18897425

     

    I wonder, John, if the stories of the Death of Science Fiction are born (and continue to come up again and again) as a response to the fortunes of the Space Program. (Riffing a bit off of Neal’s thoughts, I think)

    I am arguing that Space is (not the only) but a touchstone of the field, and the real world concerns with Space have influenced the perception of the field and its health.

    That’s not fair to, say, The Wind-Up Girl, but Space as an Idea is a core element in Science Fiction and how we, as a species, deal with Space, influences Science Fiction.  

     

     

     

     

  4. Art and Honey: I think that you are both correct; that there is no “death of science fiction” so long as people read the works and talk about them. That’s part of my point: that there will be no death of the genre until it is no longer read and spoken of, because that is where the life of any genre, of any written work, lies.

    Paul: Perhaps, or maybe there is a wider shift going on that both these conversations and the fortunes of space exploration reflect. Is The Wind-Up Girl evidence of where that shift is moving?

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