“So it goes indeed. Fact is, Genre is a dirty and disreputable part of town but it’s that way for a reason, and at the end of the day, the librarian kinda likes it. This is a place where freaks and weirdos feel at home. The bars here are more fun. The rent is cheap. And Mass Market Square is infinitely more dynamic, exciting, and relevant than the uptown galleries full of middle-class bores clinking champagne glasses and droning on about how jejune the latest wunderkind is really, darling, just so trite, really, overhyped. There’s a trade-off between the social stigma and squalid trappings of the Genre ghetto and the freedom that it gives to work outside the tight-ass strictures of ‘proper literature’ which generally also means the tight-ass strictures of contemporary realism.
Besides, a change is in the air.” – Hal Duncan
“SF is dying; but then SF has always been dying, it has been dying from the very moment of its constitution” – Roger Luckhurst
It may seem strange at first to talk about “The Death of Science Fiction” as something dynamic, rather than just a change in state, but despite its sometimes exasperating format and pre-determined outcome (since SF never actually “dies”) the fact that this idea is given life so often makes it necessary to consider the source of its vitality. My proposal, at least for now, is that the fables of this death and their effects on the readers and writers who narrate, read, and respond to them are attempts to grasp, codify, and represent the mythogenic rejuvenation of SF. These narrative episodes are part of SF’s mythology, reiterating and reestablishing aspects of it, seeking to understand SF’s storied, contested, confabulated history and the genre’s frequent renewal by its practitioners and readers. SF is based less on clear lines of relation to the past than other genres, is much more mutable and predatory, and relies on the redevelopment and proliferation of mythical ties and sources in the past and linkages laterally to contemporary genres and trends to maintain both its longevity and its freshness.
Impurity, legitimacy, relevance; these are the primary issues that comprise “The Death of Science Fiction.” But the questions and concerns behind these issues also reflect the strength of the genre’s influence and inspiration. Like its related comrades in fantastika, SF is a genre that is (ideally) about volatility, challenge, and apostasy. In fact, its mythology is laid on a foundation of illegitimacy, textual and tropic banditry, and a desire to be simultaneously transcendent and sensational, identifiable and chimerical. Given this concatenation of ambivalences and contradictions, which often try to adhere to certain realist conceits to make the fantasy less refutable and more intellectually significant, perhaps we should not be surprised that SF creates an anxiety and perplexity about its adaptiveness and capriciousness that compels people to wonder how it survives, and to fear that it is headed to an ignoble end.
Whether “The Death of Science Fiction” is being discussed by a fervent believer or a devil’s advocate, the result is usually an affirmation of the genre’s mythic power, whether they think the discrete genre itself will survive (on the bookstore shelf, or a social phenomenon, or as a cluster of literary conventions) or not. This is essentially the argument proposed, in different ways, by Rusch and Wright and most enthusiastically by Paul Goat Allen, who stated: “But is science fiction dead? No. It’s just experiencing a kind of extreme makeover. ” Wright implies that the great mythic edifice has eroded, and been helped along in its corruption by scientific illiteracy, while Rusch and Allen think SF is being absorbed or being reworked (the former much more clearly in terms of the publishing industry’s marketing strategies). But all three invoke the distinctive qualities and singular ability of SF to powerfully influence other genres, which is an essential part of its mythology and the basis for most discussions of SF’s end.
A prominent exception to all of this is Mark Charan Newton‘s extended discussion about the dying of SF and the theft of the future by Fantasy. Newton is not invoking anything from the mythic saga-cycles of SF, and in fact bases his analysis on factors that have little to do the ideas I have discussed here. He does not follow Rusch’s split between marketing category and dearly-held genre affection and seems only concerned with the content of SF insomuch as it relates to his second point that “culture has caught up to our imagination,” which to me is deeply connected to his third point to such an extent that they should be merged. This exception, however, is created explicitly as an external perspective that simultaneously purports that a related genre, Fantasy, is on the rise and has usurped SF, even as the “mainstream” bleeds it dry.
Newton is not arguing about “The Death of Science Fiction” specifically but its gradual enervation because of forces external to it. His discussion lacks the concerned optimism that emerges from other discussions of the idea (including some of the responses to his assertion), although in some asides and comments he indicates that he is not overjoyed at this wasting away. Newton argues that these extrinsic considerations are the problem, and that SF possesses nothing to counter this trend. Here is where he diverges most strongly from the more ritualized approbations, by stating that the market, culture, mainstreaming, and fantasy’s alluring alternative will doom SF. Some factors that preoccupy most other discussions are absent in Newton’s, because they have been rendered irrelevant by larger circumstances, while others are intensified, like mainstreaming. As a result, science fiction as a genre is a weakened, expiring thing unable to compete.
This angle of argument is rare in the history of the idea; while SF may be co-opted or mimicked, for example, it is usually because of its usefulness and deep meaning, for what it can do to enhance other genres and viewpoints. Such borrowings and fusions often become subsumed into SF, as seen in Brooks Landon’s discussion of this phenomenon. Landon also notes the longevity of “The Death of Science Fiction” and draws heavily on a older essay by Roger Luckhurst entitled “The Many Deaths of Science Fiction: A Polemic.” which is one of most sustained discussions of the idea. While I find the psychoanalytic approach to be unilluminating, Luckhurst pinpoints the major dynamic within the idea’s framing. As he puts it:
“The history of SF is a history of ambivalent deaths. The many movements within the genre–the New Wave, feminist SF, cyberpunk–are marked as both transcendent death-as-births, finally demolishing the ‘ghetto’ walls, and as degenerescent birth-as-deaths, perverting the specificity of the genre. To be elevated above the genre is a transcendent death and the birth of Literature, but as these movements harden, coalesce, are named, they fall back as subgeneric moments of SF. They become detours on the road to the proper death of SF.”
Regardless of what SF’s “proper death” will be, the practices that Luckhurst discusses reproduce the notion of SF’s terminus. This passage highlights a major source of the trouble: the perception of SF as a dweller in the genre “ghetto.” This notion returns us to the harrowing spectres of impurity, legitimacy, and relevance that preoccupy the literature of SF and those who love it. The idea that SF is often in danger of discorporation or extinction is linked to the general emplacement of the genre in that “disreputable part of town” that Hal Duncan describes. That feeling of danger is magnified by the aspirations of many of SF’s practitioners and adherents for it to be more than pleasurable pulp, for it to essentially kick the butts of those “tight-ass” “proper literatures” by being more germane, risk-taking, and enlightening than those “high” genres and novel-types. The danger is that the mythology might not match up to performance; this combines with its malleability and quirkiness into a volatile conception, and thus the genre seems to be frequently in crisis Luckhurst concludes:
“We have grown used to the language of “crisis” in relation to SF–but the term, as in so many other disciplines, has had its urgency, its punctual (and punctural) immediacy eroded. SF moves from crisis to crisis, but it is not clear that such crises come from outside to threaten a once stable and coherent entity. SF is produced from crisis, from its intense self-reflexive anxiety over its status as literature.”
This production-from-crisis is a web of influences and responses that range from an anxious genre pride to intellectual anchorages in the sciences and philosophy that seems unique to SF. This may be why there is less discussion of the death of fantastika (or speculative fiction, or any other umbrella term); while there are some conversations about “the death of fantasy” or “the death of horror,” it is Science Fiction that is frequently on the verge of yet another demise, and seems to thrive on it. At the end of his seminal book of SF criticism The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. invokes “The Death of Science Fiction:” “[l]ike all genres, sf is probably bound to its time and must pass with it. The question is when that time will come.” Like many others, he wonders when the time will come that its conventions and permutations will no longer satisfy readers and writers, if we will find new forms that fulfill us in other ways.
That is a difficult issue to figure out, because that wonderment is itself saturated with the vision of sf. Its conceits of groundedness in “the real,” its particular brand of speculative vision, and the construction of its quirks make it not just fertile literary ground, but the sort of conceptual soil that can grow all sorts of other conversations, and this may be why the idea of SF and the storyworlds and subcultures that utilize it continue to metamorphisize and maintain their vitality. SF’s range of narrative modalities, which frequently flirt with realism and Big Ideas even as they carry on with pulpish sensibilities, demand such conversations, and are fed by them. I don’t think that SF will die until they do.
“Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn.” – Ursula K. Le Guin