Is Science Fiction a Failing Genre?

Is Science Fiction a Failing Genre?

Here is a test: walk into a real world bookstore, preferably a major chain like Waterstones, and stand by the door.  Look around carefully (hopefully avoiding being approached by the store detectives) and try to find the Science Fiction section without moving.

I will give you even odds that you cannot find it and I am not normally a betting man.

Of course, if you go into a specialty bookstore the case is different, but in a mainstream bookstore with active management of stock you are very unlikely to see a row of books marked Science Fiction (SF).  Why should this be so?  Have all science fiction writers suddenly acquired writers block, retired, died, or merely rebranded?

Rebranding of Science Fiction

Oh dear.  It seems that I might have hit on something.

Standing by that same doorway you may well be able to see “The Time Travellers Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger, or “Next” by Michael Crichton or maybe even “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood.  All of these books have solid SF themes but avoid the label or any of the usual symbols associated with the genre.  Even a modern hero of British SF, Iain Bank’s, steadfastly refuses to be classed as a science fiction writer.

The problem with SF appears to be that in large part it is about future technology and mostly that future is already here.

The Victory of Science Fact

Want to write about super computers, nanotechnology, gene alteration, atomic energy or space exploration?  Many of these technologies are now well-developed and the research currently happening in those fields easily surpasses the wild imaginings of SF writers of earlier decades.  If you doubt this, go read Scientific American or any other significant technology-based magazine.

The only one of those fields that present or near future technology does not appear to have fully developed is space exploration.  The fact still remains that man has not been past the moon and space programs are currently suffering large cutbacks.  There is scope to write about something fantastic, but will an audience educated in Einsteinian physics buy it?  Probably not.

Instead we see age old SF themes, such as time travel, being weaved into a romance plot and entering the best seller lists as “chick-lit”.  Michael Crichton’s “Next”, despite its heavy use of genetic technology, is often billed as a “techno-thriller”.  And finally, Margaret Atwood was once offended that “Oryx and Crake” was referred to as a science fiction novel, although she later amended this statement.  If professional writers of this stature seek to avoid the SF label, then maybe science fiction really is a failing genre, at least for the moment.

So, for the time being, science fiction writers will have to remain unseen and undercover.  Slowly, silently, plotting, making their plans against us…


Dave Felton – wannabe science fiction writer and endangered species member.


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