November 8th, 2019

it's dead, Jim

A couple of months ago, I ran across an article discussing the large number of "rock legends" who are now in their seventies, may well die before long, and in any case can't have long continued careers—and the absence of new legendary performers to step in in their places. The author's theme seemed to be an elegiac one: The natural aging and death of an artistic movement or style such as rock. He compared his feelings to his father's as the legends of the big band era died and were forgotten.

That started me thinking about science fiction, and how much prospect there is of its continued survival.

When science fiction was created, it was written by and for technologically oriented people. Hugo Gernsback started out as the publisher of the Electrical Experimenter; John W. Campbell started out as an engineering student. And its ties with technology continued up through the end of the twentieth century: Neil Stephenson's Cryptonomicon addressed the impact of growing up in a techie family as he had, and Lois McMaster Bujold acknowledged the influence of her father, a professor of engineering, particularly on her ethical views.

But when C and I moved to Riverside, I got a look at the UC Riverside catalog, which listed a program in "science fiction and technoculture." Its head, Nalo Hopkinson, is a well-known writer in the fantastic genres. But she's a professor of creative writing, and not a single member of the faculty for the program taught in any field of natural science or technology—and that is still true. And that's what I'm seeing in the science fiction community as well: Increasingly, both its readers and its writers seem to come from literature and the humanities, not from the scientific and engineering fields that originally inspired it.

I'm also seeing that the current population of readers are turning against the entire history of the genre. It was disturbing when earlier this year the John W. Campbell Award was renamed, to disassociate it from Campbell; it was a shock when, just now, the James Tiptree Award was also renamed for similar reasons. Yes, Campbell and Tiptree believed some things that are not now accepted, and did some things that are questionable. But the awards weren't based on their examples as human beings; they were based on Campbell's establishing indirect exposition as the crucial method of science fiction, and on his nurturing an entire generation of new writers, and on Tiptree's achievements as a short story writer. I don't know if either one's kind of fiction can survive if their memories die.

I don't know that the genre is dead, or dying. But I'm not sure how much longer it can survive. And I'll hate to lose it if it goes.