Some people enjoy gardening in their free time. Or watching movies. I like to examine weekly bestselling lists—and watch the various mainstream fiction and genre fiction categories rise and fall in popularity. I’ve been doing it for decades—and it’s quite fascinating to try to connect the popularity of genre categories to economic, political, and societal fluctuations in the world.
Some categories are almost predictable in their ebb and flow. Apocalyptic fiction, for example, has a relatively smooth sine wave that rises up every ten years or so. Subjects like zombie fiction or dystopian fiction gain popularity, inevitably become overexposed, and then fall out of favor—only to eventually rise up again in a slightly modified form.
The one genre category that has baffled me for decades, however, is science fiction. I’ve been waiting—and waiting—for the next big Golden Age of Science Fiction to arrive only to be disappointed year after year after year.
I was a kid at the tail end of the last Golden Age back in the ‘60s—cutting my teeth on stories by authors like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Le Guin, and Pohl. But then science fiction slowly, almost imperceptibly, began losing steam.
There are many reasons for this. The fantasy genre exploded in popularity across all categories—epic fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, etc. Technological advances dimmed some of science fiction’s shining, futuristic sense of wonder. Some said it was because female readers preferred fantasy fiction over science fiction (although I’ve never seen evidence to prove this). George R. R. Martin, however, may have identified the biggest factor—the loss of hope.
Martin was interviewed by Public Radio International in 2008 and asked a question about the future of science fiction. He began his response by stating the obvious: that it was struggling commercially and that “it’s not nearly as popular as it was.”
But when he was asked why the genre wasn’t as popular as it was just a few decades earlier, his response was profoundly revelatory. “…social changes over the last 50 years have made the future something that we no longer want to go visit the way we did when I was a kid. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s when science fiction was perhaps as popular as it has ever been, we really had a lot of belief in the future. I mean, we couldn’t wait to get to the future. The future was going to be much better than anything in the present. We were going to have robots and flying cars and all of these labor saving devices and we were going to take our holidays on the moon and space stations and we were going to go to the stars. When they took polls, everybody gave the answer, ‘yes, yes, my kids are going to have a better life than I do and my grandkids are going to have an even better life than they do and we’re going to go into space and we’re going to go to the stars…
…people take polls now and most people think that their children are not going to have better lives than they do; they think that their children are going to have worse lives… So I think this is part of the stuff that has affected science fiction. People no longer believe on some level that the future is going to be a good place and they prefer to read about other times and other places that are maybe not so scary as science fiction.”
Science fiction is at its best when it has a purpose—be it a dystopian cautionary tale that chills readers to the bone or a visionary utopia that instills hope for the future. As Martin alluded to, the Golden Age of SF in the ‘50s and ‘60s was powered by hope for a better future for all of humankind. But that hope was integrally tied to courage—the courage to lift up the rock that is our society and not only identify the repugnant issues festering beneath but also come up with solutions that will eradicate them.
The sine wave for science fiction may oscillate much slower than some genre categories—but I hope after more than half a century, science fiction is poised once again for a major comeback. The purpose, this time, is quite simple—to once again embrace that narrative courage to lift up the rock, look into the darkness underneath, and offer up new ideas and new ways of thinking that can save humankind before it’s too late.
If this isn’t the perfect time for a science fiction renaissance, when is?
I’ve reviewed some really strong self-published science fiction in the last few years—and hopefully I’ll be seeing more indie SF releases from more diverse voices in the future. For those looking for some quality science fiction reads, here are a few recommendations:
- The Darkest Side of Saturn by Tony Taylor
This deeply thought-provoking novel about a scientist who discovers an asteroid on a possible collision course with Earth is a towering science fiction tour de force; a courageous and visionary work that is comparable in thematic power to Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s Hugo Award-winning novel A Canticle for Leibowitz—epic in every sense of the word.
- Spirit of the Bayonet by Ted Russ
Set in 2062 and revolving around a prisoner’s struggle to survive on a penal spaceship, the first installment of Russ’ Okami Forward trilogy is a wildly ambitious science fiction thriller that incorporates the Japanese philosophy of Bushido with deeply provocative, modern-day themes like the military utilization of augmented soldiers and autonomous artificial intelligences.
- Dystopia Now by Harvey Hiestand
Hiestand’s debut novel is not only a disturbingly plausible vision of a future America on the verge of economic collapse and political upheaval but also a satirical gem replete with subtle social commentary in the vein of Philip K. Dick. This novel is timely and timeless—an emotionally powerful and thematically profound novel that will resonate with readers long after the book is finished.
- Reality 2048: Watching Big Mother by Derek Cressman
After two critically acclaimed nonfiction releases (The Recall’s Broken Promise and When Money Talks: The High Price of “Free” Speech and the Selling of Democracy), voting rights advocate Cressman’s first novel gives readers a glimpse into the near future—an Orwellian cautionary tale where the populace is force-fed propaganda and mindless entertainment to keep them in a state of ignorance and tractability.
- The Mothership by Stephen Renneberg
Intelligent, compelling, and visionary, this blockbuster of a science fiction thriller from Aussie novelist Renneberg takes place in the wilds of the Northern Territory of Australia and involves humanity coming in contact with a vastly advanced race of aliens—but that’s just the beginning of this utterly readable storyline laden with jaw-dropping plot twists.
- The Scent of Distant Worlds by W. D. County
County’s latest—a science fiction thriller that chronicles the adventures of the crew of a starship as it explores a planet twelve-and-a-half light years from home—is both innovative and wildly entertaining.
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)