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[GUEST POST] Sarah A. Hoyt on The Death of Science Fiction: It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Droid Sings

Sarah A. Hoyt was born in Portugal and lives in Colorado. In between she acquired husband, sons and cats and has written and published around three dozen short stories and over a dozen novels in fantasy, mystery, historical fiction and science fiction. The most recent of those are Gentleman Takes A Chance; Dipped, Stripped and Dead (as Elise Hyatt); and Darkship Thieves. Upcoming are A French Polished Murder (also as Elise Hyatt) and No Other Will Than His (historical fiction under her own name.) She’s at work on sequels for her fantasy and science fiction novels.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat at a science fiction and fantasy panel where science fiction and fantasy writers are wringing their hands over “Why don’t the young read science fiction anymore? Why do they like fantasy more?” The answers range from accusations against school not teaching real science and not making science be cool to – from older science fiction writers – the comfortable assumption that them lawn-trampling kids just live in a world that has been made so way cool by their elders and betters that they have no need to dream of more advanced times.

Needless to say, I think both of those “reasons” are wrong.

The teaching of science in school might be as terrible as everyone says. Maybe. However, I’d like to point out that when I learned science in Portugal, our teaching – both level and method – was far worse than in the States at the time (I finished 12th grade in the US as an exchange student) and worse than what my kids are learning now. Take science fairs, for instance. They might exist in other European countries (I honestly don’t know) but in Portugal when I was growing up, this kind of hands on science was considered far too important to be entrusted to school children. The result is that science – for all the teachings about the scientific method – doesn’t feel like something we can question or upend. And it is possibly a reason that so few scientific breakthroughs have come from Portugal so far. The way science is taught might look good on tests (I haven’t been following it) but reinforces a mind set that is long on conformity and short on mulish determination to prove your betters mistaken.

And yet, I started with Simak, and read Asimov, Heinlein, Pol Anderson, Walter Miller Junior, A.E. Van Vogt, and everything – everything – that had “science fiction” on the spine. I’m not going to apologize for reading Pierre Barbet, but there is truly no excuse for reading the “generic” science fiction romance coming out of France, except that it was a hunger that couldn’t be satiated.

The second objection is even more – may I use the word imbecile? Well, I will anyway. It is imbecilic to believe that the world the young people live in is so fantabulous that there is nothing left for them to wish for. That is the view of the older people, looking down – and self satisfied elders, at that, who achieved what they wanted to and can now look down and be happy with what they have accomplished. If our children were living in some sort of earthly paradise, you wouldn’t see them escaping into fantasy, where they are allowed to dream. Harry Potter is a good series (some books more than others.) It is also a reflection of our failure to engage children’s imagination in the world of the possible and in the future that will be theirs, whether they realize it or not.

So, since I’m up here alone, on this one (mad)woman virtual panel, and since I clearly know everything, what do I think is the reason that science fiction is not as popular with the young people as it once was? Do I not think it inexplicable, perhaps supernatural, that if the above reasons are wrong our children still prefer magic to science and fantasy to science fiction?

Watch me set my lips mulishly and thrust my chin forward: No. No, I don’t. What I believe is that otherwise intelligent people have so much emotional capital invested in what’s killing science fiction that they are willing to believe nonsense rather than see what’s right in front of their eyes.

From where I stand, the view is clear. There are two forces I can see as destroying science fiction from the inside – both of them gatekeeper/critique/peer pressure induced. I’m not saying there aren’t others. I’m just saying that these two are the primary ones. I’m also not saying some books or series get in and succeed despite these. I’m saying that they are strong forces and shape what we get to read.

First – I read this as a brag recently in a review of Avatar where someone from “literary science fiction” (by which term he meant “written”) was gloating that in OUR side of things we had to be more “scientifically accurate” and that something like unobtainium would never work. Right. We are more accurate. And the name is silly. On the gripping hand, though, perhaps we want to look at how well the looser forms of science fiction do in movies and tv and how they reach audiences our science fiction writers can’t even dream of. More on that later.

Second – The burning desire to be “socially relevant.” This is a form of madness that became the zeitgeist in the sixties and seventies, when many of the people now in control of the industry’s purse came of age. What makes it a form of madness is that the things we consider socially relevant now were often written mostly for entertainment and considered bubblegum if not outright bad influences when they were written. More on that also later.

For now we’ll double down and go to the first point. Even as I type this, I can see my friends in the more serious hard science fiction part of the business glaring down at me and saying “the science STILL has to be accurate.” Right. Guys, chill. I read both Gregory Benford and Travis Taylor, and a lot of other hard sf. I think there should be a place for hard science fiction. I think there will always be a place for hard science fiction.

The question is WHAT place? Yeah, I read it, but I usually want to sit down and think about it and mull it over. It is not the sort of thing to read like I once read space opera and space adventure and now read – more often – fantasy, mystery and – strangely, or perhaps not – history books: holding the book in one hand while I cook or vacuum or while I walk around downtown. (And anyone driving in Colorado, please beware, madwoman likely to cross streets with nose in book. Go easy on her if you want her to write more books.)

There will always be a place where science is utterly proven and can be extrapolated along safe, almost sure lines – and that’s fine. But it doesn’t leave much place where people can dream. And people need to dream. You need to allow for the basics of science and scientific thought in science fiction, but you also need to allow that you don’t know everything, I don’t know everything, and that our most cherished principles, the very foundations of our science might yet be overturned. I always got a kick in high school – it’s the sort of mind I have – from learning that the atom – the very particle whose name means indivisible – had in fact been split. If I take up space here writing all the other theories that were once, supposedly, absolute and the foundation of all knowledge and which are now tottering if not in shambles, I’ll say nothing else. Look up science in the nineteenth century. See how much of it we still believe. And it’s easy to say all those were fringe theories. Very simple. And untrue. History is written by the victors, in science as in everything else.

I’m not saying that space opera and “looser” (softer usually means message-oriented) sf don’t exist – Kevin J. Anderson and Lois McMaster Bujold, David Weber and indeed any number of writers from Baen give this the lie. I’m saying it is neither as loose as in media, nor is there nearly as much of it as there should/could be. We’re not only not going for all the market can bear, we’re not touching the market out there.

It is all right to have a loose supporting hand of science around science fiction, and scientific thought should absolutely be there – so that if a writer is breaking with some well known postulate he has to at least give a nod to this fact and say “in the 20th century they believed this, but since…” and at least attempt a rational explanation of why it’s different. But a supporting hand should not be a squishing one. We should allow for the fact that our principles might be wrong, and that there will be upending discoveries in the sciences, from which a mana of knowledge and tech will flow. How loose should the holding fingers of science be? Oh, let’s see, from the media: transporters; faster-than-light; parallel worlds you can cross to via ancient dials; humans in parallel worlds that came form Earth; humanoids in space that look just like us except for forehead of the month; unobtainium.

Sitting here, in our little corner, hugging our knees and biting our nails and saying “but we’re better than them” just means they have the stage. And guess what? The public doesn’t care if they’re kicking our precious established facts down the road. With it they often kick scientific thought as well. And that helps no one.

Now my second point – that these days (and please don’t tell me it ain’t so. I’ve had proposals rejected for lack of a social critique, and from what I hear around the field, I’m NOT a minority of one. I’m aware things escape this gauntlet. Doesn’t mean the gauntlet isn’t there) To get something published, you need to be felt to have a message and to be relevant. Oh, sure, anyone can get around it. Heck, I can. Have only men be able to thrive in space and not women. (Done it.) Suddenly your work is a feminist critique. (This is not actually what it is but… shrug.)

The thing is, my darlings, that we are IMMERSED in our time. Any critique we do of this is tainted by the fact that we are OF our time. It is all insufferably quantum. The observed affects the observer and vice versa.

For people of our time to do a clear-eyed critique of our time is like standing at the window and watching yourself walk by. It only works when there are egregious issues that even a blind person (walking down the street) could see. But those evils are few, non subtle, and all of us agree on them. (Which is why they’re so easy to fake.) Discrimination, racism, child abuse, etc. are terrible ills, but when is the last time you’ve read a story DEFENDING them? In a major, main-stream venue? This shows you there is no lack to keep beating the dead horse. Finding out how to correct them… now that might be fruitful dialogue, but what it’s got to do with science fiction or why science fiction should be devoted to whine, moan and kick a fuss about it, baffles me. It not only is unnecessary, it is – unforgivable in any entertainment field, if we are still that – boring. Friends, companions and enemies: give it up, the horse has died and all the flogging won’t make it stand up again.

There are social effects aplenty that might come from tech. Looking at what even minor innovations – soap – have wrought to society over time, think what could come from FTL or life extension. Really think. Think it through to even the politically incorrect ends. (My story, “Traveling, Traveling,” in Analog, came from this. I wrote it by trying to see the increasing smallness of the world through the eyes of provincial people. Not hard, since I grew up in a small, tribal area. When 9/11 happened I found myself biting my knuckles and thinking I’d had it all too right. I still do.)

The other part of this is that no one can cast a future world without thinking through things like economics, sexual roles, politics, mass movements. No one can write a world no matter how bubblegum – oh, all right, maybe seventies French sci fi porn (I only read it for the spaceships) – without putting his or her thoughts into it. If you don’t believe me, go and analyze Star Trek. Or even better read one of several volumes of serious analysis that already exist. Messages are not what you think. Moral fables with pre-determined outcomes are rarely entertaining and besides, if you have children, go and look at what they read in school. They’re immersed in these “the world is unjust and we must wallow in it” screeds. Full up. If anything this turns them off reading. Why should they go looking for more of this boring stuff on their own time?

I’d like to say these are my very reasonable and reasoned suggestions, but I feel more like all this has been simmering for years (and panels) untold and now it’s 1517 and I’m Martin Luther, nailing my theses to the door. I fully expect a storm of excommunication. But some things are worth saying.

Relax your grip around science fiction, gentle ladies and kind gentlemen of science fiction publishing and critique. Allow writers to dream and they will. Allow stories to inspire dreams and the readers will come. And perhaps one of those young people attracted by the “impossible” FTL process will be one who invents a way to travel almost painlessly to and amid the distant stars. Because his high school teacher will say it’s impossible and our reader will be mulish enough to prove it all wrong. Perhaps one of the young women who just missed out on reading another screed on how she is oppressed for being female, will create bio-wombs that will free women from the physical hardship of pregnancy. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

And perhaps I won’t have to sit through another woebegone panel on the state of science fiction. It ain’t over till the fat droid sings!

10 Comments on [GUEST POST] Sarah A. Hoyt on The Death of Science Fiction: It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Droid Sings

  1. In short, SF just ain’t much fun anymore, at least not for the non-doctorate, under 40 crowd, and fantasy is.  If anything points to the fact that we long ago won the “acceptance” wars, it’s how so seriously we take our field these days in terms that would never have dominated 30, 40, or 50 years ago.  We sound to ourselves like the academic dismissives of earlier generations to all genre literature.

    This is partly because so many of us grew up with this stuff and we’ve been writing for each other—naturally we don’t want the same thing as wowed us when we were 12, but we forget that present-day 12-year-olds aren’t at that point, nor should they be.

    Good piece, sound arguments.

  2. Wow! I love your point around letting the impossible be “allowed” in “serious” SF. Ideas have to start somewhere, and if we don’t allow the dreamers to dream, we’ll never get to FTL travel or any of the other cool stuff.

    BTW, on your comment about schools: I read a lot before my school started to shove “proper” literature down my throat. The school taught me that reading was a chore. My parents had to teach myself that it wasn’t. I hope our educational system figures that out someday.

  3. I have thought about this issue all my life, being both a research scientist and a writer and reader of popular science and science fiction.  My latest reflections:


    SF Goes MacDonald’s: Less Taste, More Gristle

  4. This is a brilliant piece of commentary. It should be required reading for younger and older sci-fi afficionados alike.

  5. TheAdlerian // January 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm //

    I’m a SF fan, but before that I spent a lot of time as a fantasy fan. I liked fantasy because it was romantic and seemed way better than my life. Then, I started to get interested in this real life and thought that a “knight” wouldn’t be caught up in nostalgia because he was a high tech warrior, for the day. So, I wanted to be about “now” and magic is a computer and a weapon is a gun, etc.

    So, I began to see SF as at least possible, whereas fantasy is never possible and there will never be Elves or any of that, and I was stuck to figure out what fantasy is, what it means to people. I ended up avoiding fantasy until very recently.

    If I reflect on why I recently began reading fantasy again, I have to conclude that it’s because I barely believe in science any longer. I do not think that humanity will ever leave Earth and that many concepts in popular science will ever happen. Yes, I will read the next Iain Banks book, but his aren’t about sciences they’re about politics.

    I’m certainly not a kid, I’m an adult, but I can only imagine how kids view the idea of traveling the stars and so forth. People are lucky they can get a job, and so humans haven’t even mastered “having an economy” technology and we’re obsessed with money, which is a fake concept where billions believe that simple things “can’t be afforded” and so on. In other words, we live in a world where things like the space shuttle are being closed because there’s no money (whatever that means). Thus, the chances that anything interesting will happen in the next several hundred years is unlikely. Meanwhile, current “scientific fact” says there’s much we can’t do, so there’s little hope.

    Is all of that true, perhaps not, but I’ll bet it’s the perception of many people. If I’m correct, there a much greater chance that Hogwarts exists in some alternate hidden dimension than anyone will invent a hyperdrive.

  6. Well said, Sarah.

    As an editor and author working in a part of the SF/F publishing world that the genre hoi-polloi love to dismiss, I can tell you that we’ve been proceeding, here at Wizards of the Coast, along pretty much exactly the lines you’ve drawn here. Indeed, all of our books are “about” something, and I always encourage authors to think in terms of theme and message–then liberally pile on the action and adventure. It’s been a successful recipe for us for 30 years.

    I will submit that “kids today,” including my 9-year-old son, are very much fans of SF, it’s just that they don’t call it that, and don’t tend to read — at least as their first entertainment choice. My son is obsessed with HALO, which is just as much SF as Stranger in a Strange Land. His favorite movies are the new Star Wars movies that old crusties like me whine about. He LOVES them, and yes, they’re just as much SF as Singulairty Sky.

    Who do we “blame,” if anyone, that SF is actually orders of magnitude more popular now than it was when I was nine, but new media forms like electronic games and digital-effects-rich movies and TV series (compare the new Battlestar Gallactica to the old) make it easier to access SF, and have a more immediate “wow factor” than the hard SF diatribes of yore?

  7. Some great points here. But one other aspect of this is that I see this conversation (why is SF dying?) at cons over and over again, and at the same time, I see the “what’s YA again?” conversation at cons over and over again as well. Which says to me, honestly, that the reason why old-guard SF writers think “the kids these days” don’t read SF is because they don’t recognize the SF kids are consuming in mass amounts–in the media Phil mentions above, but also in anime and manga, and in the children’s and YA sections of the bookstore. No one ever mentions Scott Westerfeld or Robin Wasserman or any number of the other great SF authors working in children’s literature *right now* when I see these conversations happening.

    So while I agree that there are a number of issues, such as the issues Sarah raises here, that are stopping traditional SF in its tracks with young readers, I think there are too many people who just don’t recognize today’s SF when they see it (or they dismiss it, the way they dismiss SF in other media, as Sarah discusses above). If you haven’t read the Uglies trilogy by Scott Westerfeld, you’re missing out on a great YA SF. I think YA authors are doing exactly what Sarah suggests for authors to do–dreaming about the possibilities.

    Certainly there isn’t as much SF as there is fantasy right now for young readers, but I think we can blame Harry Potter and Twilight for that pendulum swing as much as old-guard SF being, honestly, a bit boring for today’s kids. I can’t tell you how many SF submissions I’ve gotten (specifically aimed at middle grade and YA readers) that are written just like Heinlein. He may have been a master in his day, but he’s (gasp) pretty dang dated nowadays. What’s *new*? 

    I’m actively looking for SF for young readers. The question is: can writers write SF that appeals to young readers? I think it’s possible. But we have to get past the “kids don’t read what I read as a kid” conversation first.

  8. Great piece. Actually, there are some sci-fi books out there intended for young people. Have you read “The Knife of Never Letting Go”, for instance? I have lended it to several people under 14 and they have liked it a lot (so do I, by the way). And perhaps there lies one possible solution to sci-fi not being cool anymore, in writing stuff for younger audiences.

  9. We’re not only not going for all the market can bear, we’re not touching the market out there.


    Hear, hear! Great essay, thank you.

  10. My reasons are compatible with yours, Ms. Hoyt.

    It’s a simple biological fact.

    No Babies, No Future.

    Sorry, guys, but cloning just has not caught up and we ain’t the Borg.

    Science Fiction is not as welcoming to women and children as it needs to be. 

    Not saying we need a McDonald’s Playplace on the Moon, but there must be VARIETY to accomadate a wider audience, which includes young people, both male and female young people.  The older generation also needs to be *nicer* to young people.  With the Internet, you can’t be a jerk and get away with it anymore.  Young people are plugged in.  They will find out and tell their friends, and they won’t buy your book.

    Also, heroines who are guys with boobs or screaming idiots do not compute.

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