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‘The Death of Science Fiction’ as Mythogenic Rejuvenation, Part Two

“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

4 Comments on ‘The Death of Science Fiction’ as Mythogenic Rejuvenation, Part Two

  1. Having talked with Newton about his article on this subject, I don’t think he’s as much of an outlier as you’re making out. Newton was concerned with the space on the bookstore shelf. His argument was that the big booksellers were turning away from SF to fantasy, which sold better with more titles, that they weren’t featuring SF on the vital front center tables of the store, (this was based on one British chain store that only had one SF title on its SFF front table at one period of time,) and that therefore, while SF titles would in fact survive scattered about, the category market for SF and the special SF section in the bookstores would disappear, wiped out by fantasy fiction, and the SFF publishers would become fantasy only. Mr. Newton’s argument was that the audience for SF and fantasy were of such overlap that apparently only one of these two genres could succeed, and therefore, SF was done for, had been beaten. Recent data such as Alastair Reynolds’ mega deal, the success of a number of SF film adaptations, or the rise of YA science fiction was all dismissed as not important to the central tenant of Newton’s proposal for discussion — SF could not survive because the booksellers don’t support it and the readership had turned from it to fantasy.

    For me, this argument is similar to ones made in the 1980’s and 1990’s as fantasy expanded its category market, as more women authors entered the field and as tie-in novels had a fairly successful run before settling into an established sub-category — each of these things were considered threats that would wipe SF out or at least leave it unrecognizable as SF. Cyberpunk was considered a threat. Space opera is considered a threat. Star Wars, romance novels, thrillers, Christian fiction, YA fantasy phenoms, video games, young people and their school systems, the progress of science and technology itself, etc., have all been lobbied as threats that will bring SF down, like a noble stag by a pack of dogs. It is indeed a loved and cherished myth, and when economic downturn bring the inevitable slashing of mid-list authors — including in fantasy — as we had so recently, it is always evidence that SF and SF alone is dying out.

    A couple of years ago, I did an article for SFFWorld about the SF is dying claim, looking at aspects from a straight bookselling, publishing angle to see how some of the view of SF as dying stemmed from misreadings of that market. But I don’t know now that — and your article certainly seems to bear that out — there is much point in going over those aspects because even if they were not there, the SF is dying myth does seem to be perennially cherished.


  2. Chris Thomas // July 8, 2011 at 12:06 am //

    It is interesting that in the end of your essay you refer to two touchstones of anxiety in SF: its literary aspirations, and its scientific and philosophical underpinnings.  Leaving the first assertion aside (I am beyond caring; to quote a great man, “fook ‘em if they can’t take a joke”), the second assertion bears much more sociological scrutiny. It is here perhaps where the problems of the genre meet a difficulty of society at large, for we are in the midst of a turn in the scientific community which has received little coverage, but bears directly on the issue at hand.  As someone with an educational background in both philosophy and the sciences, I can say from experience that the academic pursuit of science has changed in a fundamental way in the last 30 years that has everything to do with specific technological improvements across the board.  To be succinct, the end result is that the social sciences have been squeezed into an ever-shrinking corner, and all remaining science has become “hard” science. This is not a value judgment, but an observation. 

    Biology of course is the obvious example.  Biology used to be referred to as “the science for people who don’t like math”; no more my friend. Biology is now molecular chemistry.  It’s genomics; it’s bioinformatics (btw, no one tell these poor souls that it’s the epigenetic code that’s really worth paying attention to, OK?).  Point being, there is less and less room to be an old-fashioned, analog theorist.  There is no room for a William James or a Wittgenstein in today’s serious academic dialogue.  The implications for SF should be clear.  As scientific understanding expands, scientists become ever more specialized, and the portion of the general population that understands their work (let alone their long-term goals) continues to shrink.  Taken in combination with the ever-widening income gap in the US, (and the strong correlation that has with lack of access to higher education), the situation becomes even more dire.  How many have both the comprehensive understanding of contemporary science and the ability to improvise artistically in an interesting and fruitful way on this knowledge?  And how many in the audience can appreciate their virtuosity?  An increasingly select few in both cases I would suspect.

    In some sense I am reiterating Newton’s point #2, but wait, there’s more.  It is not simply that culture has caught up with our imagination, but that science has outpaced culture’s ability to imagine science’s means or ends.  We cannot dive into the imagination without a platform, some bases of understanding, as a jumping off point.  Not only do we not know how to dive, most of us can’t find the pool!  And strange as it may sound, the solution to this problem (the successful integration of contemporary scientific understanding into the broad cultural aesthetic) not only bears on the commercial success of science fiction, but our future place in the global economy, our ability to incorporate future technologies beyond our current conception (e.g. nanotech, desktop bioengineering, etc.) into our daily lives, the possible solution to climate change, perhaps even a rebalancing of global socio-economic inequality for FSM’s sake! SF may be dying, but it seems more desperately necessary than ever before.

  3. Yes, there’s that…

    But regarding the hypothesised ‘death of science fiction’ it is hard to see that happpening, it least as far as SF in its harder forms is concerned, as long as science continues advancing (ever faster), as there is more raw material (if you will) for the genre to draw upon.

  4. The above points are certainly pertinent to the sense of crisis about science fiction – along with the point that Chris Thomas makes about the ever narrowing specialist knowledge that scientists need, along with authors writing about fiction based on their work.

    I find it depressing to see that steadily shrinking bookshelf space allotted to my favourite genre, that back in the 90’s had a whole section in Waterstones and Borders, while it was Fantasy that was being squeezed out. 

    However, I think there’s another problem that often gets omitted in these discussions – the fans.  Science fiction enthusiasts can get very hung up on ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ science fiction and if I had a pound for every gushing tribute to Heinlein and Clarke et al along with a dewy-eyed nostalgia for some lost ‘golden age’ that modern writers have somehow trashed, I’d be able to retire.  These discussions often crop up on various forums when someone has recently stumbled across a couple of good reads and wants more recommendations.  It must be offputting to read the inevitable eulogy of great books written 50 years ago – instead of lists of the large number of excellent writers out there right now.  While Tolkein’s name does get regularly wheeled out in Fantasy circles and one or two people get a bit snooty about some urban fantasy out there – I don’t see the same degree of  hierarchy that prevails within science fiction circles.

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