A Broken Genre? And How Close are Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Science Fiction is in an uncertain place, as a genre, right now. That much is clear as contemporary science fiction writers, with aspirations of literary greatness, struggle with the lowly origins of the genre. But does that mean that science fiction is broken? And can fantasy justifiably be placed in the same metaphoric boat? 

The problem of science fiction’s past gained traction over the past week with Gareth Powell’s guest post on SFSignal.com. This provocative post spawned several responses from fans and writers on both sides of the issue.

When I first encountered the issue, I was convinced that basing an argument centering on a book club that isn’t composed of science fiction fans might not be the best way to prove your point. And when Damian G. Walter, on his blog, called speculative fiction, as a collective genre, “broken” with deliciously lurid language, I was not convinced. 

But thinking further on the issue, and taking my own response to science fiction into account, I starting to lean towards the conclusion that, perhaps, science fiction is broken. And the reasons extend beyond whether or not early science fiction writing is terrible. 

The problem with the classics of science fiction is that they are incredibly dated, not that they are terribly written (though that doesn’t help). And like Auxiliary Memory’s James W. Harris says, “It’s wrong. It’s about futures that will never be. Classic science fiction futures have become my nostalgic past” (Science Fiction: Nostalgic Past v. Dystopian Future). I agree with this statement, even though science fiction should not be held to any form of prophetic accuracy. As much as science fiction “predicts the future,” it is more about exploring the writer’s own present concerns. But that doesn’t excuse works from not ageing well. 

But, and here is a huge but, not all science fiction fans are the same in taste. There are a lot of science fiction fans who prefer the golden age and spurn more recent examples of science fiction. Some of the criticism of Powell’s post lean in this direction, as does the brief notice in Black Gate. The golden age of science fiction both attracts and repels depending on the reader. I myself find science fiction easily dates itself, and renders itself problematic reads. 

Science fiction is broken because it is facing an uncertain future and doesn’t know what stories to tell to reflect that uncertain future. The optimism of the past has given way to a more pessimistic present. But this pessimism cannot be allowed to stand. Dystopia can never be allowed to win. 

A new vision of science fiction is needed. But until that need is answered, science fiction will remain broken.

So far, most of the argument has involved science fiction, but Damian G. Walter lumped fantasy with science fiction when he argued that the three pillars of speculative fiction are broken. He calls fantasy a “faux medieval setting and pulp adventure quest story. Or a way of writing historical fiction that doesn’t require researching history” (All our genres be broken). As i said earlier, deliciously lurid language. But is that enough to prove his case? Can a “severe critic” be so severe that he or she sees doom and gloom, a broken genre, when that isn’t actually the case? 

I can see the case for calling science fiction broken. The sense of uncertainty is tinged with a sense of doom. And this doom has been in science fiction for at least a decade (given how many times Gardner Dozois must declare that, no, science fiction isn’t dead yet). The problem with science fiction is that it doesn’t know where to go. It is tired and (maybe) finding itself redundant in a world where science fiction has become the stuff of the mundane. 

I don’t see that with fantasy. The uncertainty that permeates fantasy promises an explosion of new stories from voices little heard from. Yes, the problem of derivativeness could lead to fantasy being broken. But the direction to a better future is, I think, far brighter for fantasy than it is for science fiction. Do I have hard evidence? No, just a feeling I have. 

In a way, I think the problem with fantasy has more to do with voice. Yes, there is a desire to move fantasy out of the grimdark doldrums, but the more fundamental problem of fantasy is one of gender, one of race, one of ethnicity, and one of sexual orientation. The question hounding fantasy is how will this seemingly conservative genre (and its conservative readers) change as newer and more progressive readers and writers want to tell their stories their way. 

I don’t know where science fiction is going to go, i don’t think anyone does. But I have a good feeling that fantasy will come through its internal fight far stronger and more inclusive than ever. (Not to say that science fiction doesn’t have the same problem that fantasy does, it is just that science fiction has a more existential problem). 

It may not look like it, but both genres are at an exciting place in that the old ways of doing things (either in the form of story or storyteller) are no longer applicable. How will writers in both genres change science fiction and fantasy? I cannot wait to find out.



Posted on December 9, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I tend to agree with you on this. And I like that quote, “Classic science fiction futures have become my nostalgic past.” So true.

  1. Pingback: Tales of the Samurai Sherriff (An exercise in thoughtful unreality) Part 3 | Excursions Into Imagination

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