Missing Science Fiction Readers

I read a post recently on SF Signal by Jason Sanford. The article questions the relative absence of science fiction readers compared to science fiction movie goers. Why is science fiction film so popular and yet science fiction prose not as popular? I agree somewhat with Sanford and many of the comments, but I think the reasons are multiple.

For one thing, people do not read books as much as they used. This is especially true of science fiction readers. Increasingly, the typical science fiction reader is migrating towards video games (which is also heavily science fiction). Now why is there a migration?

Who knows. I do not know if there has been a lot of research done as to why reading has declined among young people (and boys in particular). I think that if reasons can be found, then perhaps, we may see a positive change.

An issue that Sanford points out is that there is little YA or children’s science fiction currently being published. And of the current fare, a lot of it is dystopic. Now, I am not sure if dystopia is the best kind of literature for young people to read. I personally think a mixture of positive and negative is perhaps the best.

But what is science fiction anyway? I think a few comments had the right idea in wondering what types of science fiction are being read. How are mass appeal science fiction titles doing? How are the more intellectual or academic science fiction titles doing?

Are current trends in science fiction alienating current and potential readers? I can see how some recent trends can alienate certain kinds of readers. And given how insular and exclusive science fiction fandom  can be, it would not be surprising that there are issues on the horizon.

But is this all, possibly, much ado about nothing? Like Gardner Dozois often points out in each summation of his long running anthology series: reports of science fiction’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

This reminds me of a post a few months ago about the death of fantasy. I was skeptical in that debate, and I am only a little less skeptical here. I do think that science fiction is in far greater trouble than fantasy. But I suspect this may be nothing more than a temporary downturn and gradual evolution of the genre.

The danger is, I think, of science fiction being split into two factions that do not read each other. One faction accusing the other of not being “real” science fiction and the other not even knowing the other faction exists. This needs to be avoided, but I fear the division has already begun.

So, is science fiction on death’s door? No. Science fiction is evolving. Now, does this evolution portend good or bad things? That remains to be seen. But no matter what happens, I believe science fiction will still be here, in one form or another, well into the future.

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Posted on March 8, 2012, in Books and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I’ve always thought that science fiction is a fairly wide tent: Star Wars/Star Trek can fit under it comfortably alongside Mieville and the others. But I’m quite curious about the different subcultures within the subculture, so to speak: I know plenty of Star Trek fans who have never even heard of Mieville, let alone read one of his books. I suspect that as science fiction more fully permeates pop culture, this universe will expand…and along with it, the gap between different strains of fandom.

    • I agree that science fiction (and certainly the sf supergenre) is a very large tent. It would be interesting to look at all of the various subcultures that exists within the fandom and how they interact or don’t. I agree that as the tent gets bigger and more popular that the fabric may start to tear and rip.

  2. Nice, thoughtful post! I’ve often had the impression that “dying” is the perpetual state of science fiction. I’ve got a rant on that score that I’ll have to do a proper blog post about, but I just wanted to say really quickly that those who say there’s little non-dystopian YA SF being published today just show their own ignorance of the YA genre.

    The YA community doesn’t care about the labels that traditional SF fans (myself included) love to obsess over. The YA label covers all flavors: hard SF, secondary world fantasy, magical realism, paranormal romance, mainstream lit, romance, mystery, all of it. And so we get awesome (non-dystopian) SF novels like Philip Reeve’s Fevre Crumb series, Kat Falls’ Dark Life, or Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy that most traditional SF readers have never even heard of, let alone the myriad less well-known/publicized ones.

    You’re absolutely right that the SF community risks being split into two: those who remain current in the evolving genre, and the paleo-fandom who yearns for a return to SF’s reputed Golden Age. I’m not certain how welcoming (or relevant) the latter community is to the former.

    The era when Heinlein juveniles spoke to teens is over. Tomorrow’s SF readers already see them as “quaint” (when they’re even aware of their existence at all). Lamenting their loss is crying over spilled milk, and those of us who grew up reading them need to grow with the times. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves left behind by the future we loved to read about.

    • Great reply, Chris!
      I’ll admit that I’m not familiar with YA. But then again, I never was really interested in YA (or whatever it was called) when I was in the target age group.
      When I was speaking of factions, I had intended to draw the distinction between the more devoted fan and the more casual reader. As I think of it, however, I’m not entirely sure I have an adequate handle on the factions. I think you’re right that the paleofandom is nostalgically problematic, but I’m also curious as to the more “academic” faction. How will the readership change with a more academic trend? Does it even matter if science fiction is more Star Wars/ Star Trek or more Mieville/ Tidhar/ Bacigalupi/ etc.?

  1. Pingback: An Unscheduled Rant: The Death of Science Fiction and Unrepentant Ignorance of YA SF | The King of Elfland's Second Cousin

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