Monday, April 22, 2013

Wordcraft -- Has science fiction lost its magic?

Recently, a panel of literary and science geeks to honor a month of collectively reading Ray Bradbury’s science fiction classic, Fahrenheit 451. Panelists Ken Ruffin, Jerome Weeks, Phillip Washington and Charles Dee Mitchell had gathered to discuss what it was like for them to grow up with science fiction. They ended by admitting they loved the genre as youngsters, but by adulthood, all but one had abandoned science fiction.

It’s not that they stopped loving science -- Ruffin, after all, is president of the North Texas chapter of the National Space Society. Or that they stopped reading -- panel members Mitchell and Weeks are respectively immediate past president of the literary society WordSpace and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. OffWorld book club host Washington still reads science fiction, but even his group’s current reading is by 1960’s writer Philip K. Dicks.

What’s happened to science fiction recently? Is the genre truly dying, supplanted in popularity by fantasy, as has been reported for years? And if so, can science fiction be resuscitated? Or, should it, like extinct biological species, be left to die in peace?

In biological terms, one way of measuring a group’s success is the number of species it generates. I did a quick straw poll by comparing interests expressed by agents at the upcoming DFW Writers Conference, and was immediately struck by the proliferation of subgenres within fantasy on the agents’ preference list -- five, not including horror. It may also be overly generous to including paranormal romance as a fantasy subgenre. Even without horror or paranormal romance, eighteen agents reported actively liking one or more fantasy subgenres.

Science fiction garnered only two subgenres, if I include steam punk, whose validity as science fiction I personally find questionable. Only eight agents reported themselves actively seeking either science fiction or steam punk. If agents want to represent books they think they can sell, what does that say about the salability of science fiction?

What on Earth -- or off of it -- caused this discrepancy between the two imaginative genres of science fiction and fantasy?

Star Wars came,” Weeks said, “and it was all fantasy.”

But it was more than the lack of scientific veracity, he believed, that killed science fiction. “I found, ultimately,” Week said, “I wasn’t interested in the technology. Ray Bradbury ages better because of his lack of technology. It’s the question of all fiction -- is it plausible? And does it say something to you beyond getting to Jupiter?”

I agree,” Ruffin said. “People tend to be not as impressed with science.”

“I grew up in a science fiction universe,” Washington said. “We live in a science fiction universe now. I don’t think people are that future oriented any more.”

A statement a younger member of the audience agreed with. “Science fiction isn’t imaginary any more. It’s real.”

(Next Monday, this subject is so dear to my heart, I’m going to extend the discussion one more week with suggestions about what might save science fiction, including comments from writers in the genre. In the meantime, a Dallas Big Reads month of Fahrenheit 451 has more events on offer, ending with a read-in at Klyde Warren Park Saturday, April 27, from 4-6 p.m. See )

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