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SF Vs. Apathy

Five reasons rising generations might not inherit SF literary traditions

By Chris Wyatt     September 08, 2002


APOLLO 16: THE MISSION REPORTS by NASA
© N/A
One of the topics often discussed at this year's World Con was the fact that so few new, younger readers are becoming interested in science fiction. "Look around the convention," said David Brin at one point. "You don't see that many younger faces; and yet, if SF is going to deliver on its promise of opening new horizons, we have to make sure that the rising generation is thinking about the future and what it holds."

We at CINESCAPE have come up with a list of five reasons why Brin's statement might be true...and what (if anything) is being done about it.

1. THE PHYSICS KEEPS GETTING HARDER:

During the golden age of science fiction, the concepts of hard SF, weren't really that hard. When FOUNDATION hit bookstands the idea of "psychohistory" really blew everybody's mind... but when it comes down to it, it isn't all that hard of an idea to internalize.

FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov

Flash-forward to today. Contemporary readers have: MANIFOLD: SPACE by Stephen Baxter, with bizarre concepts of population death, time orientation and stellar engineering. THE SPHERES OF HEAVEN by Charles Sheffield, with complex parallel universes constructed with particles of unusual atomic structures. And HOMINIDS by Robert Sawyer, with challenging ideas of evolution and morality.

The math-fiction of Rudy Rucker, the social fiction of Nancy Kress, the spiritual fiction of Connie Willis, the everything fiction of David Brin... the list goes on and on.

Personally, I love the modern push for great, intellectual SF. But you have to admit, it's not very accessible to younger readers. It used to be that you almost needed a Masters degree to write SF. Now you almost need a Masters degree to read SF.

Is there a solution to this problem? Well, maybe...

Because of the success of young adult fantasy novels (single-handedly thanks to HARRY POTTER...I love you, J.K.!) many SF imprints are looking everywhere for the next young adult science fiction novel. TOR has the new YA friendly "Starscape" line (though it's publishing a lot of fantasy), and word is that Del Rey is actively seeking more youth oriented SF content.

If you pan for gold long enough, you're bound to hit something...


2. NO NEW MEDIA CRAZE:

Personally, I started reading SF while in middle school in the eighties, because of DOCTOR WHO. I went to the mall bookstore looking for WHO novelizations, but walked out with an Alan Dean Foster novel instead. From Foster to Heinlein. From Heinlein to Asimov. From Asimov to Clarke... and so on.

APOLLO 16: THE MISSION REPORTS by NASA

How many of us read SF because of a "gateway drug", like STAR TREK or STAR WARS or ALIEN or BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or V? If you're a "Gen-Xer" like me, I'm willing to bet you first heard of Philip K Dick because of BLADE RUNNER.

Lit legend Thomas Disch wrote some TREK novels. And then, whenever he would get a fan letter for his TREK work, he'd write back a warm note with a suggested reading list of original, and more complex, SF literature.

There were the pulp magazines of the thirties. Then the radio shows of the fourties. Then the seminal SF monster/invasion movies of the fifties. Then the TV shows of the sixties and seventies.

But what is there now? TREK and WARS novels still sell well, but I think that's mostly us. The rising generation needs a unique media event, that "defines" their views of the future.

What media craze is funneling new, young readers into SF literature?

Answer: Nothing.

Today's big-budget action movies often have the trappings of science fiction (think INDEPENDENCE DAY or ARMAGEDDON)... but that's all it is. It's window dressing. People aren't drawn in by the cool, futuristic ideas, but by the size of the explosions.

There's some good SF on TV. But shows like FARSCAPE, STARGATE: SG-1 and even COWBOY BEBOP are so complex, and so emotionally mature, that they often exclude younger viewers.

So is there any hope that this will change? Will Joss Whedon's FIREFLY cause a sensation? It's seems unlikely, but let's wait and see...


3. CONVENTIONS ARE ONLY FOR THE GEEKY:

Conventions have always been for the more... let's say... "invested" fans of science fiction. But there was a time when the hometown, truck stop comic book convention would bring out an actor like Leonard Nimoy or Mark Hammel, and have interested locals be willing to pay their three bucks see the man in person.

GET A LIFE by William Shatner

These conventions were a great way to drum up new interest in SF. The casually interested could be enticed, and then covertly transformed into more diligent fans.

But that was before the explosive media ridicule of fandom. I'm talking about the move by TV and film to exaggerate fan culture and paint it, usually for comedic purposes, as the mating grounds for obsessed, anti-social, loveless morons.

We all know the stereotypes: "Get a life", "Move out of your parents basements", "have you ever kissed a girl?" etc... etc... etc...

I'm not one of those uppity, outraged fans who hates the movie TREKKIES... because, like many stereotypes, these ideas have some basis in truth. And also, we have to be able to laugh at ourselves...

But these damaging, and almost all-pervasive, concepts of who an "SF convention goer" is, are self-perpetuating. If people think only geeks go to conventions, then only people willing to be called geeks will go to conventions.

Also, the price of conventions is always on the rise. Gone forever are the three buck, one-day conventions at the corner Motel 6. Today's popular conventions, like Dragon Con in Atlanta or Comic Con in San Diego, will cost you upwards of 70 bucks for a weekend pass; and an industry convention, like World Con, can see entry fees of over 200 dollars.

Whereas an old-style convention might have only been two actors as guests and a guy selling TREK novels off the tailgate of a truck; Modern conventions have more bang for the buck... with literally hundreds guests on the program and exhibition halls packed with lavish dealer's tables. So conventions are better now... but only better for those who can actually afford them (or those who get in with press credentials).

Because of the ever-growing social stigma attached to convention attendance, and the ever-growing price point, casual attendees and interested dilatants are completely excluded. You have to be a hardcore fan, or you're not at a convention...

All of which means that kids aren't being recruited into science fiction as much. Conventions are a great place to build excitement for SF reading, SF writing and SF thinking... but if you're just preaching to the choir, you can't expand the fan base.

True story: I was at this year's World Con registration desk asking a question when I overheard the following conversation. "That's a lot of money," a man said. "I just want to show my son around. I used to go to conventions for ten bucks when I was a boy." "Yeah," said the person at the desk, "that was a long time ago..."

In summery: Conventions, once a powerful "missionary tool", are now unable to initiate new fans.

Could this change in the future? Well, I personally don't see how it could.


4. SCIENCE FICTION IS NOW:

Jules Verne, the father of science fiction, wrote a short story that was popular in its time, but doesn't get read very often now. It was called "Drama in the Air", and told of the science fantastical concept of machines made of metal that could fly. Two factions had these machines and they would fly at each other with guns blasting, fighting a war in the sky.

THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND by Jules Verne

Readers no doubt thought that Verne was "on something". Please! Metal machines fighting in the wild blue yonder? That's impossible.

And yet, nowadays no one reads that story. Not because it's impossible, but because the Air Force's guided missle strikes on Afganistan are about 20 orders of magnitude more advanced than anything Verne could dream up.

Also, Verne's fictional submarine, the Nautilus, made famous in the novels 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, would be put to shame by a today's nuclear subs.

We are living, as the saying goes, in the "science fiction age". The internet, high speed computers in the classroom, communication satellites, handheld organizers, digital cameras, cell phones, super-sonic jets... We could even have video phones if we wanted them, but we just don't want people to see what we look like when we get up in the morning.

If only we had flying cars and robot butlers we'd be pretty much living the life of THE JETSONS.

Could it be that with so much real life science fiction around them that today's kids don't have the desire to dream up more of it?


5. THE LACK OF AN AGRESSIVE AMERICAN SPACE PROGRAM:

When Neal and Buzz made that first landing on the moon, when they made the "one small step" speech, when they planted that flag and jumped around and played golf... what kid at home didn't want to be an astronaut?

STAR TREK: THE AMAZING STORIES edited by John Ordover

You'd better believe that the day after the landing every child in America was playing "space man" in their back yard, walking with slow exaggerated movements as if they were in low gravity.

And then... when they got home from playing at night, and their mothers asked them what they wanted to read for a bedtime story, you'd better believe they were more inclined towards Heinlein.

There were a lot of dark, paranoid reasons that living during the birth of the cold war was a scary and unnerving experience, but the Space Race wasn't one of them. The Russians made the first orbit, but President Kennedy said that we were going to make it to the moon first... and we did.

Those days played out like a movie. It was a tense human drama with a happy (if you were an American) ending. We had been to the moon, and we could conceive of a time when there would be permanent moon bases, and a landing on Mars, and huge tourism-based space stations...

But where are those things now? Nothing even close to what we believed would happen, has actually happened.

Why should the minds of America's youth be enraptured with the stars? Under the current US space program, they will never travel through space. And their children will never travel in space. In fact, if the current disinterested program remains always the way it is, no human will ever live on any other planet, ever.

So, what could make this change? What could re-fire childhood imaginations about the stars?

MANIFOLD: TIME by Stephen Baxter

Well... oddly enough... it might be boy bands.

Lance Bass, a member of N'Sync had permission to go ahead with his attempt to become the next "space tourist", under the Russian program that started with Dennis Tito. Unfortunately, his Hollywood funding dropped out, so he's back to square one. But he hopes to get things arranged and get in the saddle again soon. Hollywood would like to show Bass' trip to space as a television event, called "Lance Bass: Mission Space" or something like that.

Look... You and I know that boy bands signal a low water mark in popular music... but the kids don't. They love this guy. And if anything, and I mean anything, has a chance of re-lighting an interest in space travel, then I'm for it.

I guess you could say that the space crisis makes for strange bedfellows... who would ever have though that N'Sync and the SWFA would have goals in common?

If Bass doesn't get his funding back, let's hope someone else will go. Britney maybe. Or maybe Elmo.

Will it work? Let's hope.

Feel free to give us your input on these important issues.

Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think at feedback@cinescape.com.

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