People complain that I only pick on Blue SF. Fair cop, especially as it’s not the only form of SF that damaged the genre. EVERY age after the Pulp-driven Golden Age did its part to drive the audience away, and put Science Fiction on life support.
Silver Age: Removed heroics and adventure.
Bronze Age: Removed decency and virtue.
Iron Age: The reign of the Left.
Clay Age: Finger-painting with their own poo.
There’s a sickness in SF, it’s very nearly terminal, and Doctor Warpig is in the house to diagnose the disease and prescribe a cure.
Some of you may be in denial: “Science Fiction is NOT a ghetto! It’s not struggling. It’s just as popular as anything else!”
Let’s put it to a test. Take these three books:
The Three Musketeers. Alice in Wonderland. Treasure Island.
You’ve probably heard of them. And movies and TV shows based on them. And allusions to them. EVERYBODY has.
Now name some post-Pulp prose SF works of equal or greater stature in popular culture. Spoiler alert: You can’t.
From the Silver Age? Nothing. In the Bronze Age? Nothing. And the Iron Age? Nothing. Then the Clay Age? Nothing. (The Golden Age? Tarzan, Batman, and Conan, for starters.)
Since 1940, the only landmark works Science Fiction has given birth to came out of television and cinema: Star Trek and Star Wars. What’s the closest to massive crossover success written SF has had in that same time period? Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”. AFTER the movies came out.
Written Science Fiction is a ghetto.
In fact, during this time period movies and TV have always had a bigger impact on written SF than the other way around. (Star Wars Expanded Universe, anyone?) It’s been almost 80 years since prose Science Fiction had an impact.
If you don’t impact the popular culture, you’re in a freaking ghetto. Right now, SCOOBY DOO is bigger than Science Fiction.
Have you seen the Amazon numbers? “Literary” works—the stodgy, boring crap that turns people off of reading—outsell SF!
Let’s ask a normie if he recognizes some benchmark works of post-Golden Age SF.
Neuromancer? “Fantasy, maybe?”
Stranger in a Strange Land? “Some kind of travelogue?”
Ringworld? “Is that a Halo novel?”
A video game—A FREAKING VIDEO GAME—is a more popular example of Science Fiction than anything SF writers have cranked out since 1940. Video games, TV, and movies, folks. That’s where the audience is.
Written SF no longer matters.
Harsh words, but admitting you have a problem is the first step, and Doctor Warpig always tells it to you straight. Now, to be fair, Science Fiction isn’t dead—yet—but it’s in the ICU and circling the drain.
Tomorrow: the cause of the current cancer on SF, and the cure.
NOTE—This is the first of a series: Part Two. Part Three.
Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.
No, written sci-fi is not dead. If it were dead, Vaughn Heppner, BV Larson and I, who grew up together playing games and reading, wouldn’t be making six to seven figures each selling this dead sci-fi.
What written sci-fi is, is disconnected from from the popular culture, especially the pop culture of those under 50, and most especially from males under 40. The left has a shaky but still strong grip on the legacy awards, the large publishers aid and abet, and certain well-known authors who shall remain nameless get all the press while people like us and a few dozen other indie/hybrids who outsell them by orders of magnitude remain behind the green door.
So we’re pretty healthy. We’re merely banished from the gated communities of the Kumbaya-circling, back-patting poo-painters.
Whether you’re right or wrong, that graphic is very interesting. Thanks. The percentage of Amazon imprint in “literary” is eye opening.
“Now name some post-Pulp prose SF works of equal or greater stature in popular culture.”
(If you are counting, Tarzan, Batman, and Conan, then you can’t eliminate wizards on the grounds on non-SFness.)
Well David (VanDyke, above) I have a copy of _Starship Liberator_ but I turned 67 last Year. Damn I seem to have made your point. The closest I get to Mass Culture is attending the biggest convention in my hometown DRAGONCON each year.
As DVD says, written SF isn’t dead. But Mainstream Written SF certainly is. As I mentioned at VP yesterday, Tor Books is said to be slashing its midlist; there are names people will recognize who are now done there.
Rod Walker thinks that written SF *was* nearly dead with a few exceptions, but it’s roaring back strong via indie publishing.
Well, we’ll have to do something about THAT, won’t we?
combine SF and Fantasy and you get the number 2 seller
Written SF has always been a ghetto – it’s a far more open ghetto now than when I was growing up in the 60’s. The space race and Star Trek helped grow the audience enormously, and Star Wars had a huge impact and made it much more popular than it had been before. The very idea of Mainstream SF would have been unthinkable without those two factors. The mainstream stuff has been coopted and driven into navel-gazing or smug pastiches of great stuff done before, but there have always been writers producing thrilling yarns that also made you think. I don’t think we are likely to see it go back to the teeny cubbyhole it used to be.
Yeah, impactful SF rarely comes from written works. And it is generally the movie version that catapults the work into popularity. Jurassic Park has had a pretty big impact. Phillip K. Dick was post golden age (right?), and his work has spawned Total Recall (& the 2070 TV series), the Adjustment Bureau, a Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner (& upcoming sequel), the Man in the High Castle, Paycheck, Minority Report (a movie and crappy series), Screamers (& sequel). Everybody’s seen at least one of those.
But in the same vein, no single plain old romance book has had a huge cultural impact recently, either. Only when you toss in fantasy does it ever get noticed by huge amounts of people. Would you consider it a ghetto, too? Isn’t romance like a billion dollar industry? How many non-Jane Austen romance novels can most people name?
That all being said. It’s hard finding works these days that I love as much as “Police Your Planet.”
What about Ender’s Game? The book sold millions, yet the movie version bombed.
The movie didn’t follow through with what made the book so powerful, and it tried to shove a 6-8-hour story into 2. If it had started as a TV show, one of those 80s shows where they’re obviously on a set and all the 0-g battles are on wires, it would have spawned a movement.
I seriously thought of Ender’s Game when Mistah Pig brought up SF not penetrating culture. I know a lot of people who don’t read SF but have read Ender’s Game.
As I said on Facebook, you are correct: Jurassic Park is culturally prominent. And, though a countervailing example to my thesis (the only plausible one thus far proffered), the fact that it comes from an author who is largely alien to the SF community, and indeed isn’t counted as among the leading authors of SF at all, does point up the fact that something in the SF community is unwell. (More on that tomorrow.)
Yeah, Crichton was a Haggard and ERB fan, but didn’t have time for Asimov. Just sayin’.
Jasyn, I would take out Batman from your list if I were you.
That opens you up to superheros and the comics, in which case there are a billion zillion examples of post-1960 characters and stories that had an unbelievably tremendous influence on popular culture. I can name at least 10 off the top of my head, even.
Also, I’d say the collective works of Phillip K. Dick combined had a tremendous influence on pop culture too, as Bryce points out. I suppose your mileage may vary at how much influence.
I think this whole series of posts begs a question that one of these days will need to be answered—why does sci-fi existing and being important IN PRINT matter? You’ve demonstrated that sci-fi in novel and short story form has withered considerably from where it once was, but to make the case that science fiction OVERALL has done so, you have to ignore, among other things, 1) the huge popularity of syndicated reruns during the 50s and 60s of Buster Crabbe serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, 2) the massive success AND cultural impact of movies like Alien and The Terminator, to name just a couple, and 3) the huge success of science fiction video games like Star Craft, Halo, Destiny, etc.
Not that I’m doing so exactly, but one could argue that sci-fi always WAS a genre that was better suited to a more visual medium than the printed word, and once visual media that could do it justice became widespread and financially accessible to creators, the genre naturally made the jump, where it’s been extremely successful ever since.
tl;dr—*written* sci-fi being dead ≠ sci-fi being dead.
To add to that; not very many people (relatively speaking) have read 2001. On the other hand, almost EVERYONE has seen the movie, or at least understands references from it.
SF being in print matters because the medium is the message.
Look up Marshall McLuhan’s work on how media–not content; media alone–deeply affect audiences who consume them. See the Kennedy-Nixon television debate vs. the radio version for a notorious example.
Print requires more audience participation to extract the content than visual media like movies do. Historically, print is rivaled only by the internet for driving cultural innovation and the exchange of ideas. The American and French Revolutions wouldn’t have happened without the printing press.
The decline of print was very likely a major contributing factor to the West’s cultural stagnation in the latter half of the 20th century.
Yeah, but now you’re getting into issues way beyond what’s happening to science fiction. In fact, if that’s going to be brought up, then we need to see that science fiction has been MORE impacted by this than other genres.
And even then, it doesn’t address the fact that sci-fi thrives in other media. Like I said, one could argue—I’m not sure that I’m prepared to do so myself, but I could see someone else doing it and take it as a serious hypothesis, at least—that sci-fi as a genre simply works better with a more visual medium than novels and short stories. Which is why it’s thriving on both the big and small screen, and especially so in video games.
I just think books are better is all. I like a good movie and I certainly play a lot of video games, but when it comes to pure storytelling, nothing beats print.
Why does infantry matter?
Conflicts of XX and XXI centuries demonstrated that infantry has withered considerably from where it once was and artillery inflicts a lion’s share of casualties on enemy, but to make the case that warfare OVERALL has done so…
Name some pulp-era SF which has a pop-culture profile equal to Tarzan or Batman. Lensman? Nobody but SF history buffs have heard of that. Barsoom? The fiasco of the recent John Carter movie shows how little anyone cares about that. Doc Savage? The Shadow? Maybe your grandparents remember them. Flash Gordon? That was that movie with music by Queen, right?
All of Lovecraft.
Also, Martian Chronicles had that cool mini-series where everyone had bellbottom space suits.
War of the Worlds, maybe?
*War of the Worlds* is pre-pulp, The *Martian Chronicles* mini-series is itself pretty obscure.
The thing is, Lensman has a large cultural impact, because it impacted other SF creators. You can make a case that without Lensman (& Valerian), then there is no Star Wars. There can be huge impact without popularity of the work itself.
Look at all the people saying that the John Carter movie somehow “ripped off” Star Wars. ERB and Barsoom had been memory-holed, despite being quite popular in the ’70s.
Everyone knows Alice in wonderland, treasure island and the three musketeers from their movies. Not from reading their books. Thus discounting hunger games because it shoot off after the movies came out is ridiculous. I would also like to second the Philip k dick influence and add Dune.
In fact, ask anyone what’s more fun – generally. Not SF. Generally. Reading a book or playing a video game? Reading a book or watching a movie?
The average person is going to say “playing a video game” or “watching a movie”. We readers are the rarities.
DW, I have much respect for you and you’ve made strong arguments so far…but the more I’ve thought about this the less I buy this.
No written sci-fi has been culturally influential after the pulps ended.
Wait, superheroes? They don’t count, because they’re not sci-fi.
Tarzan? He counts! We shouldn’t be concerned with artificial separation of genres!
He doesn’t count. Fantasy.
“Alice in Wonderland”?
It counts! We don’t want artificial separation of genres, right?
“Jurassic Park”? Okay, yeah, that’s an exception.
Phillip K. Dick? Well, yeah, I guess that’s an exception.
The three laws of robotics? Well, maybe an exception.
TONS and tons of movies? Oh no, they don’t count, we’re talking about written sci-fi. Never minds that less books are being read generally and sci-fi is one of the most popular genres in movies and video games. Of course lit fic sells more books; their movies SUCK. Where else are you getting lit fic?
This is sounding less and less convincing to me.
Point of order on I, Robot – those stories, and the Three Laws, were from the S3 & Astounding during the 40s.
Also, unlike Jeffro and Daddy Warpig, I tend to use 1950 as my arbitrary cut-off date, because while Campbell was at the helm of Astounding, he still had a lot of competition from Romance and softer sides of the genre pulps, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction was not yet on the scene as a ‘serious’ alternative to pulp fantasy, and digests hadn’t yet become the primary format for SF mags.
Not only that, those pulp characters came out in a time before they had blockbuster movies like today. Written fiction was more popular generally. Of course it sold more.
They had blockbuster movies in the 20s & 30s.
They had King Kong and Ben Hur and The Wizard of Oz.
To become “culturally” relevant, a story has to be in movie or TV form, since most people don’t read (much). This then depends on the small group of people who decide what to produce in the way of movies/TV. I don’t think this really reflects any big trend in SF itself. I’m really surprised when an actual non-comic-book non-Trek-Starwars SF movie comes along (think of Interstellar) that has some original ideas.
What about 2001 – a book that became a movie that left a huge and lasting (so far) effect on the culture. Such an occurrence is rare though.
Flowers For Algernon is still fairly well known. There’s an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia that plays off it called Flowers For Charlie.
However, while I agree with you that modern SF is terrible and readership has fallen, I find your argument in this post pretty weak.
Tarzan, Conan, and Batman aren’t SF. Stretching the definition to include them just makes the genre delineations useless. If Tarzan is SF then Treasure Island is SF.
It seems like your pointing to popular adventure stories from the pulps in an attempt to prop up the perceived reader numbers of SF in that time period. SF has always been a niche market.
Just to be clear, the three examples proffered of landmark works of SF in the last 80 years are:
1 Harry Potter
2 Superhero Comics
3 Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park (according to P Alexander) and superhero comics and Harry Potter being examples of the entertaining adventurous stories I recommend SF produce more of, I suggest that these three examples act to support and indeed magnify my thesis.
SF is indeed culturally irrelevant, and not selling. Adventurous stories do sell, and frequently become culturally relevant.
Do. The. Math.
“Silver Age: Removed heroics and adventure.
Bronze Age: Removed decency and virtue.
Iron Age: The reign of the Left.
Clay Age: Finger-painting with their own poo.”
Your own subjective colouring aside, this has been the direction ALL literature has taken in the past decades, not just SF. This doesn’t explain why SF has become less relevant.
I think it’s more likely that the decline of SF can be linked to the decline of S. Science and rationality have taken pretty heavy hits of late, with both political sides using science only when it agrees with them, and decrying experts as “disconnected” or “biased” when they disagree.
So sci-fi is primarily read by men, who are visual creatures, so most sci-fi fans just watch it instead?
And perhaps women sci-fi fans are mostly fans of Modern Doctor Who and Firefly, so they also watch it instead?