Why has the traditional Science Fiction novel fallen by the wayside?

A year or two back I read Paul Goat Allen’s article concerning the demise of science fiction in literature on the “Explorations” web page (part of Barnes & Noble). Paul argued that fantasy had taken over in the reading world.

The following was my comment to his article at the time:

Science fiction like all other genre’s falls in and out of fashion. What was popular in the 1950’s and 60’s gets rediscovered and reinvented by later generations. Book genre’s fall in and out of fashion just like everything else; nothing is new. Everything gets rediscovered over time. It is completely understandable that the current generation read fantasy, using the genre as a literary head in the sand approach to the problems of the day.

Subjects like global warming, population explosion, modern day warfare, famine and exploitation in the third world are all subjects for future science fiction novels, certainly not fantasy. To my mind the current reading fashion decrees that fantasy is for the moment, king. But it won’t always be.

Is science fiction dead? No, merely taking a snooze, waiting for fashion and fads to change once more, putting science fiction back where it belongs at the forefront of literary exploration Paul.

Thinking about the subject some more after I wrote the above, I have to say I believe the real reason for the demise of  science fiction is down to the current, almost obsessively whimpish deep and meaningful approach taken by American television when faced with a sci-fi story.

Take the Star Trek phenomena for example. In the original series, apart from the chronically bad, highly camp acting (especially by the two lead actors) the story-lines were pure sci-fi. Lots of encounters with new planets; new species discovered – all good stuff. But by the time the great Shakespearian actor Patrick Stewart assumed control of the Enterprise, the bridge crew counted among its number a counsellor – give me strength people! Instead of action we got boring discussions by the angst ridden crew members. Then the rot set in even further when Star Trek Voyager appeared, or as I like to call it PMT in Space, with a female captain who spent most of her time mothering her delinquent crew.

There has only ever been one sci-fi series on television that truly shone and that was Babylon Five. There have been a few excellent movies over the years like the original Stargate starring Kurt Russell. But when the television writers got their paws on it, unfortunately they totally destroyed the concept by turning it into a television series starring Richard Dean Anderson aka MacGiver in the lead role. Half the time I fully expected him to get them out of a tricky situation using nothing but his penknife and a piece of string. Thank god they never got their hands on Arthur C. Clark’s classic, 2001 A Space Odyssey, or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or even Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series!!!

If anyone is truly to blame for the demise of pure science fiction in the world of literature today, look no further than those self-same television screen writers, who foolishly believe that simpering dialogue and angst means more to the hard core sci-fi fan than good old fashioned action. Why would anyone among the younger generation today bother to read a thought provoking sci-fi novel when their only experience of the genre is via their television set – think Farscape and Firefly if you want two classic examples of the rubbish passed off as sci-fi of recent times.

Because of the screen writers, those of us who write science fiction novels are going through tough times at the moment. But we will prevail.

Thanks for nothing Hollywood!

19 thoughts on “Why has the traditional Science Fiction novel fallen by the wayside?

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Jack. The SF chows on TV channels are horrifically terrible. First of all, the characters are cardboard, the dialog is very dull, the plots are use up, and you can find every cliche in the book. Regardless of the nature of the world, be it fantasy, SF, contemporary age, or 5000 years ago, the cornerstones of any good story are the characters. If the reader cannot empathize with them, then the whole thing comes apart. Hollywood has systematically worked to destroy this genre. And don’t even know how they’re managing to obtain funding for these shows? No wonder the banking system is a sham of corruption and bad lending practices. They’re manufacturing garbage, and then they package that in shiny foil and market is as if it has some added-value in it. It doesn’t. It’s bad writing. I would recommend the Warhammer 40k books for those who think SF has no chance to regain its former glory. I would especially recommend Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s books, Butcher’s Nails, Betrayer, and Void Stalker. The Warhammer 40k universe is a particular mixture of Fantasy and SF.


  2. I agree about B5 (an exellent series where they wrote five seasons before hiring a single set carpenter) but not so much when it comes to Firefly.
    Sure, there were the odd moments of angst in the series, but, like as not, one of the characters would just cut through it with a light-hearted volley of gunfire. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of new and old, high-tech and country, rich and poor.
    It was an entertaining allegory of post civil-war America where none of the characters were entirely black or white. Even Shepherd Book had a dark past as an alliance officer and resistance agent.


      • Jack, the concept of Cowboys in space nearly kept me from watching it, but I sat through the first episode and was surprised to find that I enjoyed it. The characters each have shades of hero and villain so you might think you know where things are going to go, but there’s too much depth in the characters to predict their actions. Mal might kick a man into a running jet engine and steal supplies from under the noses of the alliance troops, but he’s also likely to risk everyone’s life to return those supplies when he sees the suffering familes who were waiting for them.
        It was adventurous, funny and (at times) touching.

        Fox must have realised it had potential becuase they insisted on airing the episodes out of sequence, skipping weeks in between viewings, and cancelling them halfway through the first season. If Fox killed it – it has to be good. I figure they just wanted more air time available for the latest ‘Housewives’ franchise or ‘American Hoggers’ or some reality show about cross-country bag-pipe eating….


  3. PS. It’s the classic problem for those of us who don’t write within our narrowly defined genres. By Mixing Westerns with SF, Joss Wheedon lost a lot of the mainstream audience who thought ‘Cowboys in space’ – bahh….’


    • Exactly my point Andrew… We would almost be better of if Fox had developed the Muppet’s hilarious segment Pigs in Space into a series. No one familiar with the genre would consider it to be Science Fiction, and therefore have their opinion of anything under the US television sci-fi banner purporting to be sci-fi coloured by it the way firefly and its ilk did. I’m a purist when it comes to sci-fi. I was brought up on the novels of Arthur C. Clark and John Wyndham to name but two. Both of them would be turning in their graves if they could see how sci-fi has been bastardised by American television. 🙂


  4. When you look at what happens to any genre when script writers (paricularly American) great literature becomes a talk fest. Script writers in general seem to believe that script means talking. Some of the best and most powerful sections of movies that I have seen have been purely visual. The final sequence of Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey” was without dialogue and absolutely mind blowing. The darkroom sequence in Antonioni’s Blowup there was no dialogue for about 30 minutes yet it was the most gripping scene. The other problem is directors want to make great stories from the past into contemporary American society. “The War of the Worlds” is a classic example. These adaptations do not work. When H G Wells wrote the story, it was in more simple times, and to corrupt the story with modern technology destroys it. Add to this Tom Cruise who would have to be one of the most annoying actors ever, and the story is totally dead. The Americans did the same with “Romeo and Juliet” some years ago. Using guns destroys the idea of combat. Shakespeare wrote the story using swords. Swordfighting is personal and skillful, while any idiot can fire a gun. It takes away the personal touch. Great literature is great for a reason and when you try to “modernise” it it destroys the whole character of the work. And unfortunately the people who hold the purse strings are often people with the least understanding of literature and entertainment in general.


  5. Well,, what a discussion. I have to agree in general with the simpering comment, and poofey acting by various actors. At times i expected them to hold hands and skip into the sunset, but that would make it a reality show and not our beloved SciFi. I have enjoyed SciFi in its various formats over the years and really enjoyed Firefly, mainly because it was a fun escape from the other crap out there.. I would venture to suggest we are running out of great stories, so please stop wittering on and start writing some awesome science fiction.


    • The only problem with your final demand for more Sci-fi stories to be written Graeme is that if people read them, like them and tell their friends about them, if the television script writers get to hear about it… Well you know what will happen. They will be ruined beyond belief as Peter reminded us when he spoke of the last version of the War of the Worlds, which was just about as far removed from H.G Wells original concept as you can get!


  6. I’m always turned off by ancient, medieval, in general historic movies and futuristic ones, because of the language being employed. Words and expressions like, oh yeah, OK, I don’t get it, cool, oh yeah, baby etc. They ruin immersion. The writing in HBO’s Rome is a masterpiece. Regardless if the story happens in 10.000 BC or 10.000 AD, the language of the world/characters needs to create immersion.


    • The problem with most American script-writers is that they seem totally incapable of any kind of English other than colloquial American, hardly fitting for any kind of historical story not about the US.


      • That is not the half of it Jack, they are not aware of the fact that modern Americanisms are not suitable in even American history. A classic example would be telling someone to “step on it.” This expression relates to putting your foot on an accelerator, and has no place in a historical piece where people are riding horses. Scriptwriters in many cases do not seem to be able to put themselves into times and use appropriate language of the times


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