The Sci-Fi Slump: Why Fantasy’s Escapism is Dominating Popular Culture

The latest hip novel to devour on the subway, in the park, in a coffee shop or a bar is not something from Oprah’s book club nor is it a heart-warming memoir.  Everywhere you look parents, hipsters, business types and nerds alike all reading one of the books from George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series; A Song of Ice and Fire.  It’s no secret this trend is largely due to the extremely popular and critically acclaimed HBO series based on the first novel in the series; Game of Thrones.  However it takes more than a snappy TV show with shirtless dudes to get the half the world excited about a certain set of novels.  In fact, fantasy, and epic fantasy in particular have been taking over popular culture for quite some time now.  But there’s definitely a victim in all this cloudburst of swords, castles and occasional magic.  Fantasy’s old cousin, the genre of science fiction, is less popular than ever.

Looking at the majority of popular genre films, television, and novels from the past decade or so, the overwhelming evidence for this becomes pretty clear.  We don’t need exact figures to know that the Harry Potter film and book empire makes a lot of money.  Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film series revived interest in a book trilogy that was already beloved the world over.  The final film, The Return of the King also won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2003, the first genre film to do so.  (Many science fiction or fantasy films have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but The Return of the King is the only film that WON.)  Television of course is being overrun with fantasy from the critical darling Game of Thrones to fan favorites like Merlin meaning castles and swords don’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.

The pervasiveness of fantasy among readers of genre fiction is also proportionally in favor of epic fantasy.  The Wheel of Time series is more popular than ever, and Brandon Sanderson has firmly secured his place not only as the heir to the Jordan empire, but also a fantasy writer in his own rite with his acclaimed The Way of Kings novel, first in The Stormlight Archive series.  Further, fantasy novels have been dominating the Hugo awards in the past decade with wins from Neil Gaiman, J.K Rowling, and Susanna Clarke.  In fact, with the exception of Vernor Vinge, and Robert Charles Wilson, none of the Hugo winners from the past decade have a spaceship in them anywhere.  In the case of the Nebula Awards, there is a larger presence of actual science fiction in the past decade, though still a notable decline of actual space travel or futurism.  Also, our very own Tor.com Best of the Decade Reader’s Poll was dominated by Fantasy over Science Fiction with only three titles of the top ten titles; Old Man’s War, Blindsight, and Anathem truly falling into the category of science fiction. The rest were fantasy.

But why is fantasy sitting on the throne while science fiction is scrambling for the controls?  The answer is simple escapism.  The best science fiction of the past decade or so has been extremely grounded in political or social relevance.  A good example was the much-celebrated novel from Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl.  This is not science fiction that deals with space exploration or exploring the human condition through time travel or other outlandish fictional conceits.  Instead, this is a harsh appraisal of how the world economy will function in relation to agriculture and pharmaceuticals.  It also deals with humanoid creatures who are essentially slaves know an windups or “New People.”  As much as I liked The Windup Girl and consider it a pretty awesome contemporary science fiction novel, I sadly can’t bring myself to say that it made me feel good at all. It was a tough read and an extremely depressing novel.  Now, these qualities are part of what made it a great piece of science fiction literature.

 

But a book like this isn’t going to make any friends.  It’s too close to home for a wide audience to enjoy it. Unlike the science fiction of the golden age, the kinds of concepts and social issues being written about by people like Bacigalupi are way to similar to the kind of crap we see in the headlines now.  Though not widely accepted by the science fiction community (wrongly in my opinion) was Gary Shteyngart Super Sad True Love Story which depicted a near future with meticulous detail and care.  Styengart’s dystopia was primarily concerned with the ways in which our economy would function in a science fictional way and how existing mobile device technology might envelope our lives and change our notions of identity.  This book is up-to-the-minute social commentary that doesn’t so much speculate on a future world, as diagram a highly likely possibility.

Similarly, television and film which has been exclusively science fiction has also tended to have dark, social and political themes.  I would argue part of the reason why Battlestar Galactica was appealing to wide audience was because despite the contemporary social commentary, the structure of the show had a sort of mythical fantasy narrative.  Meanwhile, its spin-off Caprica felt just like our society only slightly different.  Caprica looked like real life, and so it was more depressing.  The tendency for science fiction to be more dark and gritty is certainly a brave one, but at least in contrast to the genre of fantasy, not doing it any favors in gaining a wider audience.

For proof, look at the success of Doctor Who.  This show is upbeat, features goofy aliens, depicts far off-times, places and all sorts of adventure.  Most of the “science” the Doctor encounters isn’t all that close to home and when it, the meditations on it aren’t near as dark as something like The Windup Girl or Caprica.  Further, when Who recruited a writer from the filed of print SFF to write a guess episode, that person wasn’t John Scalzi, it was Neil Gaiman, a fantasy writer.  This is because as much as it has science fictional trappings, Doctor Who is escapism at its best.  When it does dark and serious, it does dark and serious within the boundaries of that escapism.

Which is what the genre of fantasy does all the time.  Certainly there are political and social allegories in everything from Tolkien to Martin.  But one has to do the work in their own head to really make those parallels.  Contemporary, serious science fiction doesn’t do that.  Science fiction hits you over the head and says, “this is what we’re talking about.”  Fantasy is saying “won’t you come into this world and stay for awhile?”

Which one sounds more welcoming to you?


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.  He likes science ficiton.  Depressing, depressing science fiction.

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