In this day and age, science fiction, not to mention its more popularized version, scifi, has lost its prestige. Before we get into its current dilapidated state, first we need a cursory analysis of its emergence, to properly assess its origins.
The best explanation I’ve come across for the genesis of science fiction comes from the great encylopedist John Clute, who claimed that fantastika* (his term for both science fiction and fantasy, a catch-all term for the fantastic, unreal and impossible events) became visible as “the engine of history round 1800, when the future began.” The trauma of the French Revolution gave birth to science fiction. While it is true that fantasy is as old as mythology, its nature changed after the French Revolution. Prior to that date, the fantastic always took place elsewhere – be it in the past or as a miraculous intervention. But the French Revolution was a “novum,” an new event that was unprecedented and transformative.
Others proposed different dates, such as 1492, when the world lost its flatness, or 1649, when King Charles was beheaded. The writer James Edwin Gunn credited the Industrial Revolution, between 1760 and 1830, that science fiction could not exist until science or technology or natural events yielded change in people’s lives. But Clute’s argument has a full-fledged creation theory, as well as literature working in his favor.
In 1818, Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus – the primordial book of science fiction. Not only was Frankenstein a great allegory for what happened when the “novum” enters a world completely unprepared for it, it was also the ur-narrative of robots and artificial intelligence.
Prior to the Age of Reason, the presence or absence of impossible things was not a serious feature of a text. But afterwards, it became the first criterion, the dividing line between the serious (mimetic realism) and the irrational or childish (fantastika).
Despite this marginalization, fantastika became a literature of transgression and subversion, validating the elements of the human experience that the Enlightenment intended to exclude or repress. In turn, fantastika became a critique of what was authorized as reality. Clute goes far enough with the claim that the birth of fantastika was the birth of history:
“Genres began when the creation of geologic time and evolutionary change began to carve holes in reality, which suddenly became malleable; when, for the first time, the human imagination (as in the French Revolution) could conceive of altering, by fiat, both human nature and the world we inhabit.”
During the post-Enlightenment, scientific discoveries revealed the Earth to be fragile, unstable, irrational, and always in flux. Such discoveries have demythologized the human race – instead of privileged children of God but merely a moldy film on a tiny planet orbiting a very ordinary star in an ocean of billions of stars in a very ordinary galaxy in a cosmos of billions of galaxies…
This radical contingency made room for the irrealities of fantastika, making it realer than authorized Reality and truer than Legitimized Truth. In Clute’s argument, fantastika has exceeded the bounds of literature and became the fundamental mode of human thought and the mood of modernity itself.
Unfortunately, modernity lost its momentum sometime in the 20th century, and by the eighties, science fiction, or technically, the Golden Age, had gotten complacent, and fallen into a 20 to 30 year rut where competent engineers routinely solved intractable problems. Aerospace was cool and politics was just simplistic nation-state conflict.
The depleted space age sub-genre left the door open for a new, subversive, gritty and hip trend developed by writers like Pat Cadigan (Mindplayers, 1987), William Gibson (Neuromancer, 1983), and Bruce Sterling (Mirrorshades, 1987). The future featured for-profit monolithic multinational corporations that loomed over tiny human drama, moving billions of dollars or yen around the world while the 99% scraped on street to put just enough together to survive.
Cyberpunk authors saw the implications of the writing on the wall that, instead of going to the moon, we were going digital. Instead of robots and aliens, we are faced with artificial intelligence and virtual realities. However, after the dissipation of the cyberpunk genre in the 90s, the accelerating rate of change in the present affected the presentation of the future in fiction.
As a result, today, the science fiction genre is completely exhausted. No longer having confidence in the future, science fiction writers appear to be unable to apprehend it either. Science fiction has fallen out of step with the times, and become narcissistic, inwards-looking literature without relevance and vitality.
Why is this the case? For the following reasons: conceptual blockage and nostalgia.
The future is now out of bounds. The world is changing too quickly that the attempt to predict the future will already make the book obsolete by its publication date. To acknowledge this without confronting the difficulty, science fiction represented the inaccessible future as the technological singularity – the eventual merging of technology and biology.
If science fiction authors could no longer generate insight into the future, they resorted to a new set of aesthetics that ignored engagement with reality for the sake of self-induglence and self-congratulations as opposed to risk.
Another form of conceptual blockage comes from the critics Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek that our culture had become too absorbed with neoliberal democracy, leaving no room for the imagination to conceive a new political order. The literary critic H. Bruce Franklin wrote that J.G. Ballard, due to his position as a petty bourgeois intellectual amidst a crumbling empire, was predisposed to mistake the end of capitalism with the end of the world.
In The Spectre of Ideology, Zizek added that the only possible alternative to the neoliberal democracy left to the imagination was the apocalypse. In other words, it was easier to imagine the dramatic end of the world than an alternative mode of production.
The collapse of the housing bubble and “too big to fail” banks in 2008 did send the global economy reeling, wobbling, but because there was no viable alternative, the political elites merely pumped billions into the system and crossed their fingers.
Science fiction writers resorted to ironic detachment in its escape from the larger cultural context, and failed to engage with reality. The best example of this exhaustion with the future is the blurring of the traditional genre of science fiction with fantasy (Quantum Thief, Zoo City, Who Fears Death). The blurring of genre boundaries used to be transgressive, but now it’s a common feature. How many times have we seen this phrase lately: “challenges traditional genre boundaries” ?
No longer interested in science, culture or history, or psychology, science fiction is unable to take anything seriously, unwilling to risk disapproval with the merest hint of ideology. The aesthetic of ironic detachment also leads to a popular trend: nostalgia.
One of the symptoms of the loss of confidence in the future is the growing obsession with counter-factual histories. Alternative histories relies on the notion that a different event in the past results in a dramatically different world. In The Man in the High Castle, the United States’ failure to recover from the Great Depression allowed the Nazi German Reich to overthrow the Soviets and win the second World War. What used to be an interesting example has now become a trope where advanced technology is introduced at earlier periods in history, such as steam power exists during the Victorian Era of British Empire, or the Aztec gods in the 15th century controlling advanced technologies that seemed to be magical.
This balkanization by itself isn’t really a problem – it is whether writers are unwilling to take the genre seriously, such as writing fantasy but without the element of the fantastic, or something fantastical in the background, but that’s not the point of the story. In other words a science fiction story must contain science fiction elements that are connected with the story.
What is to be done? The critic Paul Kincaid pointed out in an interview that there are reinventions of the genre that returns to the roots, movements that can bring innovations to the genre, but they also end up becoming the new conservatism.
Even if the cycle of radical writers becoming the norm repeats, refreshing the genre at some point, it matters little if the larger society is incapable of developing an alternative, anything at all other than the dominant neoliberal form of capitalism. Without the fetish of the new, or the novum, science fiction has retreated to the comforts of its conservative elements. It matters not how often the cycle is reset if the old tropes are resurrected.