Science fiction, like many other things, enjoys cycles. In SF’s case, those cycles usually involve the relative popularity of science itself: Exploring physics and extrapolating on reality, to discover or speculate more about ourselves and the universe we live in. When the science part of SF is up, we get novels by scientist-authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov; we get movies like 2001: A Space Obyssey, The Andromeda Strain and Soylent Green; we get TV series like Star Trek.
When science is down, we get space battles. We see an abandonment of concepts like science and physics, in exchange for showy action and eye-candy. We get movies like Star Wars and TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, and we see video games that are devoted to first-person shooters. More cerebral content, like the movie Solaris or the TV series Caprica, quickly get dumped in favor of The Fifth Element, Aliens or Warehouse 13.
We even see science-embracing shows, like Star Trek, rebooted as science-ignorant shows.
I was discussing one of my novels with a relative last year, and she interrupted me to ask me when I would be turning my book into a game. “What?” I asked. “All the kids play video games,” she said. “You need to turn it into a video game, and you’ll do great.” But my book (Verdant Pioneers, for the record) was about people in deep space, prospecting for minerals and supplies to keep themselves alive… not attacking killer aliens and shooting at armed robots, as the most popular games run. I wouldn’t have made a dime.
A recent article on IO9.com brings the message home in discussions about the latest Star Trek movie, Into darkness. The movie is science-free, the script is not particularly great, and the actors are mostly caricatures of their 1960s counterparts… but the movie has insane effects, explosions and action, so who cares? Apparently not most SF fans. Into Darkness is also compared to The Wrath of Khan, another science-free, battle-heavy Star Trek movie which fans seem to lionize as the best Trek ever. In both cases, science is relegated to irrelevance, and that’s apparently just fine… even for a franchise that prided itself upon so much more when it debuted almost 50 years ago.
Pundits like to look for blame for these trends. Supposed “authorities” will say that the public is getting “burned out” by science’s impact on our lives—by constant global communications, security threats, hackers, drones, phishing, self-drive cars, IEDs, Google, nanobots, global warming, iPods, etc, etc—and that the public yearns for a simpler, understandable, familiar world. A world with no future-shock. A world in which a problem is clear-cut, and can be eliminated by a good old-fashioned fist or a better marksman when necessary.
Others blame the educational system and media for downplaying science and its importance in our lives. Industries encourage future workers to accept the status quo and avoid rational questioning, so science in schools is downplayed and ignored. Without a proper grounding in science, people don’t know that there are questions to ask, much less why such questions would be important. Science is not more than the toys that surround us, and they’ll get better on their own—ultimately we will defeat nature—so why think about it?
Either way, listening to other comments on SF-based sites, watching the box-office reports, and noting the books that get the maximum discussion and recommendation, seem to make it clear: Science Fiction is on the low end of the science cycle right now. SF fans right now don’t want to think about reality or consider the real properties and possibilities of physics; they just want to lose themselves in fantasy and power nostalgia, to see cool stuff and blow s#!t up.
This is especially disheartening to me, because I write SF stories that are much heavier in science than in explosions. I prefer stories about intelligent people who think their way out of a problem, rather than future super-soldiers who shoot their way through it. It might readily explain why my own books have not caught on in the marketplace, as they are not the type of SF that readers are currently looking for. In fact, I’m not sure how well I could write such a story; and if my livelihood depended on my being able to turn out sci-fi shoot-em-ups, I think I’d be in serious trouble.
But if this is the current phase of SF, so be it. These cycles come and go; and eventually, people will be more interested in exploration and discovery, and less in battle and explosions. And when they do swing back, I for one will be waiting with plenty of material to satisfy them.