Looking back at Science Fiction in 2012…

This has been a disappointing year for me science fiction wise, as I had expected.

O.K. which part of this sentence came as a surprise to you? It should have been the last four words – “…AS I HAD EXPECTED”.

Why did I think this?

Well partly because I knew several of my childhood heroes were seriously ill, and sure enough, some of them have now passed on.

Sir Patrick Moore died earlier this month. His exposition of astronomy, like that of Arthur C Clark’s, made you believe you were not only seeing it yourself, but actually experiencing it. He will be sorely missed as an inspiration for science fiction writers. And I do hope someone is now looking after his cat, Ptolemy!

And then, yesterday the sad news that Gerry Andersen has also gone. Yes, he of the Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet fame. It was his female characters like Lady Penelope that caught the mood of the sixties and made us girls hope for more than being housewives and mothers.

And earlier this year, Neil Armstrong. He did what was asked of him to be the hero of the hour and then went quietly back to being an ordinary person, not living off his fame. That’s what I call real heroism.

May they rest in peace.

Another part of answering the why question is an understanding of the state of science fiction. When I drew the graph (see here), it came as no surprise science fiction was flat-lining compared to fantasy and horror. What I didn’t show was that a new category started being counted as of 2007 onwards, which would otherwise have been placed mostly into fantasy, the rest into horror. This new category is Paranormal Romance. So the true graph of new books published (as suggested by Gardner Dozois in his Best New SF books and based on the Locus Magazine statistics) really looks like this:

Slide1

Notice how both fantasy and horror take a dip when paranormal romance enters the picture? Need I say more?

I had obviously been intuitively noticing this science fictional stagnation.But the real question is, ‘What is driving it?’

Well, I can only give you some of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle based on my experience. I don’t have the full picture, or believe me I would do something about it.

Paul Kincaid in the latter part of this year came out with two articles regarding the exhaustion of science fiction – see here for the second article that references the first. He has made a serious point about what a lot of the readership feels. And yes, if you look at a lot of published science fiction books, they are coming out with a mix and match of old themes. In fact, I’d been looking forward to three particular books this year, and they all – yes ALL – disappointed for this very reason. They lacked the WOW factor. (That’s aside from those instances when I pulled the background engineering to pieces – even after making allowances for the unsaid and practicable – groan!)

One of the reasons for this lack of moving on is because we are in a recession, and publishers are reluctant to publish anything truly innovative as it would for them involve an unacceptable risk. Except, when you look back at the above graph, the stagnation set in long before this recession. This reason may be a contributory factor now, but it wasn’t towards the start of the last decade.

Undoubtedly the popularity of the Lord of the Rings films contributed to the rise of fantasy at the start of that decade. But what about horror? Well, it was on the bounce back from a low in 2000. But even so, when you add those paranormal romance numbers in, it really doesn’t explain it all.

My personal experiences this year have in their own way added some enlightenment to the issue. I still haven’t got an agent for my novel, despite getting a distinction for it from Bath Spa University on its MA Creative Writing course and coming up with some very innovative technology ideas in it. I wrote what I call a sampler short story to explore a few new ideas for a follow-on novel. 3,000 words in, I showed it to a couple of writerly friends and they trashed it, basically saying it would never get published because it didn’t have any story to it. The story was in the tech. To me this means that people aren’t interested in looking into the tech side of science fiction.

But isn’t a lot of science fiction about how tech development could affect us? Why are we hiding from this aspect of the genre?

Is it because the ideas about applying tech to our possible futures are nearing, if not actually at exhaustion?

If this is the case, then why am I coming up with so many new ideas all on my own? I’m not a genius or techno-whizz-kid. Far from it.

Is it because the potential science fiction readership perceive there is very little new to suggest about how science could impact people? In real science, there’s difficulty in getting people interested in the subject, let alone working in any of its branches. Haven’t we discovered and described the basic laws of physics, chemistry and biology, and are now nibbling at the obscure or hidden edges of these sciences? Are we not trapped by the speed of light to only gradually crawl outward from the Solar System?

This could be part of the answer. But I think there is also a dragging of the feet, a general reluctance to try looking at wider possibilities… I’ve only glimpsed a very few of these… and believe me, even these give me the WOW factor. So it makes it disappointing that I’m not seeing this type of science fiction being published.

So yes, 2012 is a very sad year for science fiction for me…

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