In small online sf magazine Helix, sf author John Barnes argues that sf is dead of simple old age:
And, to return to the observation that might be the point of all this, the good stuff, the stuff that marks the contribution of the genre to the culture as a whole, tends to fall within that about-three-generation span of life. A side observation is that nearly every genre will have its own pet explanations for why it died; the disappearance of the middle-class spontaneous theatergoer and theatrical unions, the cultural change in personal integrity so that no one really believes “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” anymore, girls having better options than becoming nurses and marrying doctors, the generations of civil peace in the nineteenth century draining Gothic novels of their force, and so on and so forth. Science fiction has several versions of this, including rising irrationality, “the world is all science fiction now anyway,” political correctness, political neanderthalism, and “they aren’t like they were when I was a kid.” What I am saying here is this: genres last about seventy years as live things. It was time. Grandma died because she was old, not because you were bad.
Furthermore, the cultural hole that gave rise to the genre is plugged, now — the genre is plugging it and getting better at plugging it every year. And the culture itself is moving on (Westerns flourished when the frontier was still in living memory, and for perhaps a generation after; the disappearance of the frontier is a quaint historical fact now, but it was a thunderclap in the culture of 1930). The surrounding culture just doesn’t feel the old lack nearly as much. The genre is no longer filling a key place in people’s emotional lives; it’s just something they grew up reading/watching/listening to, comfort food for the brain rather than exotic cuisine.
Meanwhile, in national British newspaper The Times, mainstream author and critic Bryan Appleyard argues that sf is more relevant than ever:
The point is that SF is, in fact, the necessary literary companion to science. How could fiction avoid considering possible futures in a world of perpetual innovation? And how could science begin to believe in itself as wisdom, rather than just truth, without writers scouting out the territory ahead? Which is why this widely despised genre should be read now more than ever. Unfortunately, as Aldiss and Brake agree, this does not seem to be a great time for the production, never mind the reception, of SF. The classical age – of Wells, Lem and Dick – seems to be behind us, and the emerging genre of New Weird, led by Britain’s China Miéville, shades too much into fantasy and horror to be strictly classified as SF, a genre that must remain true to a certain level of logic and realism. But one can try Greg Bear, a practitioner of old-fashioned “hard” SF, the kind that, like the work of Michael Crichton, sticks most closely to real current science. Bear’s celebrated Blood Music is a brilliantly horrible vision of genetics gone wrong. Or there’s another Brit, Stephen Baxter, who writes hard SF strongly influenced by HG Wells; or Iain M Banks (Iain Banks’s SF guise), who has written a series of novels about the Culture, an alien civilisation existing in parallel to the human. Banks’s emphasis is more philosophical than strictly scientific, and seems to descend from the supreme practitioner of philosophical SF, Olaf Stapledon, a man incapable of writing about anything less than everything.
But if new hard, logical, shingly-beach SF is now a rarity, at least there’s a lot of old stuff to read. The literary snobs will say it’s badly written, which most of it is. So is most “literary” fiction. Badly written literary fiction is, however, wholly unnecessary. There’s a lot of badly written SF that is driven by an urgent journalistic desire to communicate. That is necessary. So, watch Blade Runner for the seventh time, or curl up with Aldiss’s Omnibus. And remember, it’s all happening now.
Comments: I don’t think the world has turned as topsy-turvy as it first appears, because I don’t think Barnes and Appleyard are talking about the same thing. Barnes is talking about genre sf, and he might have a point about its obsolescence; but he goes too far, because even if the genre is dead that says nothing about the health or otherwise of the larger mode, which is what Appleyard seems to be interested in, even if his contemporary examples are all genre sf writers.
I’m actually almost more interested in Appleyard’s assertion that “this does not seem to be a great time for the production [...] of sf”. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure I could stomach referring to Greg Bear as one of the lights in the darkness (although at the same time, comparing him to Michael Crichton seems cruel even to me), and the fact that I’m not actually even convinced there is a darkness, it says something to me that the commentator sitting outside looking in sees a blip, while the commentator sitting inside looking around sees The End.