Science fiction is dead. Long live science fiction.
For those of us who care (and no, we do not live in our parents' basements), the future of futurism is an urgent matter indeed. Is science fiction thriving amid the pyrotechnics, or is it dying a slow and hideous death, suffocated by publishing-industry group-think and unimaginative movie execs drunk on sequels?
I speak as a fan with opinions - as though there's any other kind - when I pronounce the sound health and shining future of 21st-century speculative fiction. I'm less concerned with the release this month of the megabudget Transformers movie, with its gargantuan alien robots and shiny cast, than a prevailing cultural shift that seems to embrace the expansive narrative frontiers of sci-fi. And I'm not even counting the genre's recent successes on television (Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, The 4400, Lost) or world-domination in games (take your pick).
"It's everywhere now. Everybody has some exposure to it - it's much more respectable than it used to be," says David Wellington, a sci-fi/horror author (Monster Island, Thirteen Bullets) and aficionado who recalls the bad old days of fandom. "Back in the 80s, when I was a huge science-fiction fan, it was very marginalized. And we always complained about that: 'Why can't other people understand why we like this stuff so much?'"
Wellington is one of several devotees who, given the chance to vent, expresses enthusiasm as well as skepticism at the current state of the genre. Many view the landscape ahead with caution, fearing a post-apocalyptic vista mottled by computer-giddy graphics and the blunt force of mainstream taste. Some see it fragmenting. Others see it thrive.
But fans reach consensus - sort of - on a few key issues. One is that fantasy novels, once joined at the hip with science fiction, have enjoyed huge success since venturing into their own sizable niche. A second is that the film and publishing industries should take more artistic risks. A third: Blade Runner rocks. Fourth: so do Pan's Labryinth and Children of Men.
Exciting Times, Visually
A fifth point, expressed with varying degrees of disappointment and annoyance, is that advances in digital technology have made for gob-stopping eye candy that doesn't always satisfy the mind or the heart. From a visual standpoint, "there's no better time in the history of films for science fiction," says Dave Dorman, an in-demand sci-fi/fantasy painter based in Florida best known for his Star Wars renderings. "On the other hand, I think the writing of science-fiction films is not up to what it was back in, say, the 40s, 50s and 60s."
Craig Elliott, an animator for Disney (Treasure Planet) and DreamWorks (the upcoming The Princess and the Frog), puts it even more succinctly: "There's too much bling on the screen."
In publishing, contemporary science fiction has splintered into a zillion little sub-sets, running from alternate history and space opera to hardcore, urban fantasy, movie and TV tie-ins, cyberpunk and the boundary-stretching "New Weird."
Call it what you will, but great science fiction can be cosmic or minimalist, outward-looking or inward. It expands or contracts, pushing humanity into the farthest reaches of space or reducing it to cinders.
From the start, it's never been about the rubber-faced aliens, not really. Edwin A. Abbott's Flatland (written in 1884 and adapted repeatedly for film) is set in a two-dimensional world that skewers Victorian class distinctions. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne both injected the acid of satire into the pulp of sci-fi, and even the dated strangeness that is Karel Capek's R.U.R. (or Rossum's Universal Robots, the play that coined the word) was more concerned with sentience and civil rights than the construction of humanoid workers.