The decline of SF (editorial)
slymole <iznogoud <at> otenet.gr>
2003-09-08 19:08:33 GMT
Forward, into the past
Why are our imaginations retreating from science and space, and into
fantasy? asks SPIDER ROBINSON
By SPIDER ROBINSON
UPDATED AT 3:06 PM EDT Monday, Sep. 8, 2003
I've recently returned from Torcon 3, the 61st World Science Fiction
Convention, held at the end of August in Toronto. I left it deeply
concerned for the future -- not merely of my chosen genre or my chosen
country, but my species.
I served this Worldcon as its toastmaster, and presiding over our
annual Hugo Awards ceremony required me to make a speech. This being
the 50th year that Hugos have been given for excellence in SF, I
devoted my remarks to the present depressing state of the field. Three
short steps into the New Millennium, written SF is paradoxically in
My genre has always had its ups and downs, but this is by far its
worst, longest downswing. Sales are down, magazines are languishing,
our stars are aging and not being replaced. And the reason is
depressingly clear: Those few readers who haven't defected to
Tolkienesque fantasy cling only to Star Trek, Star Wars, and other Sci
Incredibly, young people no longer find the real future exciting. They
no longer find science admirable. They no longer instinctively lust to
go to space.
Just as we've committed ourselves inextricably to a high-tech world
(and thank God, for no other kind will feed five billion), we appear
to have become nearly as terrified of technology, of science -- of
change -- as the Arab world, or the Vatican. We are proud both of our
VCRs, and our claimed inability to program them.
I'm not knocking fantasy, but if we look only backward instead of
forward, too, one day we will find ourselves surrounded by an
electorate that has never willingly thought a single thought their
great-grandparents would not have recognized. That's simply not
acceptable. That way lies inconceivable horror, a bin Laden future for
SF's central metaphor and brightest vision, lovingly polished and
presented as entertainingly as we knew how to make it, has been
largely rejected by the world we meant to save. Because I was born in
1948, the phrase I'll probably always use to indicate something is
futuristic is "space age."
There were doubtless grown adults at Torcon 3 who were born after the
space age ended. The very existence of the new Robert A. Heinlein
Awards, given for the first time at Torcon to honour works that
inspire manned exploration of space, proves a need was perceived to
foster such works.
About the only part of our shared vision of the future that actually
came to pass was the part where America just naturally took over the
world. But while it's prepared to police (parts of) a planet, the new
Terran Federation is so far not interested enough to even glance at
Inconceivable wealth and limitless energy lie right over our heads,
within easy reach, and we're too dumb to go get them -- using
perfectly good rockets to kill each other, instead.
The day Apollo 11 landed, I knew for certain men would walk on Mars in
my lifetime. So did the late Robert Heinlein -- I just saw him say so
to Walter Cronkite last weekend, on kinescope.
I'm no longer nearly so sure. The Red Planet is as close as it's been
in 60,000 years -- and the last budget put forward in Canada contained
not a penny for Mars. (Please, go to http://www.marssociety.com and
sign the protest petition there.)
At Torcon 3, I caught up with Michael Lennick, co-producer of a superb
Canadian documentary series about manned spaceflight, Rocket Science.
His next project examines the growing phenomenon of people who refuse
to believe we ever landed on the moon. Not because he sees them as
amusing cranks . . . but because they're becoming as common as
Elvis-nuts. And it's hard to argue with their logic: It beggars
belief, they say, that we could possibly have achieved moon flight . .
. and given it up.
On the other hand, I take heart that SF still exists, 50 years after
the first Hugo was awarded. My wife's family are Portuguese fisherfolk
from Provincetown, Mass., where every summer they've held a ceremony
called the Blessing of the Fleet, in which the harbour fills with
boats and the archbishop blesses their labours. The 50th-ever blessing
was the last. There's no fishing fleet left. For the first time in
living memory, there is not a single working fishing boat in P-town .
. . because there are no cod or haddock left on the Grand Banks. For
all its present problems, science fiction as a profession seems to
have outlasted pulling up fish from the sea.
I believe with all my heart that the pendulum will return, that
ignorance will become unfashionable again one day, that my junior
colleagues are about to ignite a new renaissance in science fiction,
and that our next 50 years will make the first 50 pale by comparison,
taking us all the way to immortality and the stars themselves. If that
does happen, some of the people who will make it so were in Toronto.
People still believe that men fished the Grand Banks, once. Some even
dream of going back. SF readers have never stopped dreaming. We can't,
you see. We simply don't know how.
B.C. writer Spider Robinson's latest novel is Callahan's Con.