SF has cycled back to the “Star Wars” era. Again.


space battleScience 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.

4 thoughts on “SF has cycled back to the “Star Wars” era. Again.

  1. I think this is a vast overgeneralization, and it ignores how widespread science fiction is in todays vast media landscape. All of what you mention as representative of science fiction being at a high point are not representative of success at the box office or on television. I would also argue that Wrath of Khan was not befreft of science (consider the ethics of the genesis device). As well, compelling science fiction, unlike in 1977 in the movies on TV is widespread. TV series like Fringe just finished up it’s run, Orphan Black and H+, both of which explore transhumanism are currently running for the intellectual set. Movies like Moon and Gravity are being produced. Anime such as Ghost in the Shell continue to be produced. Realistically, cerebral science fiction has never been the most popular, but today it can be found much more readily than even the high point you state. Yes, space battles dominate the box office. And way back when it was westerns and musicals. These days of supersaturation, in a world of hundreds and thousands of channels, whatever science fiction you are looking for can be found. Low point? I don’t think so.


  2. Considering your examples: Wrath of Khan‘s “Genesis Device ethics” was all of a 30 second exchange, said and forgotten as it was thereafter referred to and used as a planet-buster bomb; as you say, Fringe is over, as is Galactica, Earth II, Firefly and Sanctuary; H+ is a web-only series (which I actually hadn’t heard of before your mention); Moon was done in 2009, and barely seen by the public. Hell, I was lucky I saw it.

    You didn’t mention comics and graphic novels, which have defaulted back to superheroes and fantasy characters. Vampire Diaries is getting a lot more attention than Orphan Black, and Ghost In The Shell isn’t being shown in the U.S. at present. I can’t find anime of the caliber of Cowboy Bebop, or movies of the caliber of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I can easily find The Avengers, Twilight, Transformers and Harry Potter. And let’s not even talk about video gaming.

    I don’t mean to say there is no “intelligent” SF… just that most of it is done or waning, and what exists now is being heavily eclipsed by eye-candy SF, especially in major media. I do consider it a low point, a comparative dearth of intelligent fare, well-hidden by the blockbusters and detergent-sponsored fluff.

    I don’t want to struggle to find the likes of H+… I want to find out about it first, long before I hear about Transformers III. I want to see GitS on Saturday mornings instead of Adventure Time. I want there to be so much intelligent SF that that’s what the public thinks of when they think of SF… not Star Wars and Star Trek Into Dumbness.


  3. nwdavies

    Surely there is space for both? Science Fiction has always run the range from “pulp” to “hard” and personally I enjoy writers from both ends of the spectrum, depending on my mood at the time. From Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert and Frederick Pohl to Edgar Rice Burroughs, E E Doc Smith and Karl Mannheim. I feel to look down on certain books and films within your genre because they are not “intelligent” is every bit as bad as those from the “serious” world of literature who look down on the whole genre of Science Fiction (and genre fiction in general). I think its a shame that each side of the argument can’t just accept the existence of the other and agree that different people will read (or watch) different things.

    This is going on longer than I had intended so, to finish. I agree that these things seem to go in cycles and there will, no doubt, come a time when the more serious Science Fiction is once more popular and bankable. When that time comes I sincerely hope that fans of the more pulp leaning Science Fiction don’t look on it as “boring” or “intellectual”. Enjoy each for what they are and if you don’t like one or the other then that’s because you, personally, don’t like it, not because it’s necessarily bad or wrong in any way. Avoid snobbery and reverse-snobbery, they both look so unattractive on a person.


  4. I agree that there’s space for both. I’m not outright against splashy blockbusters and space battles; I just don’t prefer them, and I want to see more intelligent fare. I have no problems with both co-existing… I just want to see a better balance, or (again, my preference) more of the intelligent stuff.

    Unfortunately, I do expect many fans of one type to always look down on the other type (“Too mindless” “Too egg-headed”, etc), but there’s probably not much that can be done about that. But if we have a more equitable balance of each, disparaging opinions about the merits of each are of less importance.


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