Alan Kovski © 2013  |  All Rights Reserved

Science fiction’s ups and downs

Science fiction developed on two tracks, more or less. One track was formed by the occasional writings of unusually bright people or outright geniuses. Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are the exemplars of that track. The second track was pure genre fiction, written for a core genre readership, originally very immature and utterly inartistic fiction, typically with no attempt at scientific justification.

The genre track got started sporadically with short stories in magazines such as Argosy, which mostly contained adventure fiction and nonfiction rather than science fiction. That track also got a big push from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs—adventure writing sometimes set on Mars or Venus or deep beneath the crust of the earth, and absurdly unscientific. Then in 1926, publisher and editor Hugo Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted to science fiction, and the genre was off and running. In 1930, the magazine Astounding Stories was launched, a tough competitor to Amazing and only the first of many competitors to come.

The genre writing in those magazines tended to be very clumsy and immature, even as Aldous Huxley was writing Brave New World in 1931 at a high level of sophistication. A gulf separated the genre track from the genius track. But the quality trend in the genre track was upward. Robert Heinlein especially pointed the way during the 1940s. He was distinguished by intelligence rather than finesse, but what artistry he displayed was better than most in those magazines. Clifford Simak also pointed the way up. Genre fiction wasn’t yet respectable, but it was getting better.

In the 1950s, the quality of the genre track surged upward. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was launched in 1949, and Galaxy magazine in 1950, good competition to the dominant magazine, Astounding. Fritz Leiber’s 1950 short story “Coming Attraction,” published in the second issue of Galaxy, marked a coming of age of the genre. Science fiction short stories became some of the best fiction. “Noise” by Jack Vance (in a 1952 issue of Startling Stories), “The Star” (1955) by Arthur C. Clarke, “Journey’s End” (1957) by Poul Anderson, and “Flowers for Algernon” (1959) by Daniel Keyes expressed basic human dilemmas in artistic, moving, dramatic form. Ray Bradbury started publishing his best short stories in the 1950s.

The paperback novel began to flourish as a vehicle for entertainment and art. Writers broke out of their magazine short-story ghetto. Ballantine Books, in particular, favored science fiction. In 1953, Ballantine published Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and The Space Merchants by the team of Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, while Signet published Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. What a year. The best SF novels began to be taken seriously by readers beyond genre fans. It seemed science fiction was finally maturing, and the gap separating genre writers and odd geniuses like Orwell and Huxley was dwindling.

So it seemed. The 1960s saw more examples of literary finesse, a continuation of the maturation with the added twist of self-conscious New Wave writers. In Britain, the magazine most associated with the New Wave was New Worlds, and the best of the writers there was J.G. Ballard, who looked like the heir of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges in his surrealism, which he blended in some stories with science fiction. Writers good at SF often were good at surrealism. Harry Harrison’s story “By The Falls” (1969) and Keith Laumer’s “In the Queue” (1970) were genius examples of surrealism. “Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo” by Samuel R. Delany is fascinating surrealism.

Science fiction authors tended to do their best work at shorter lengths. They could maintain an intense artistic vision and polished prose for the length of a short story. They were unlikely to do that for the full length of a novel. The best-known SF novel of that decade, Dune, by Frank Herbert, was artistic and intelligent, though marred by its reliance on what was essentially a power fantasy for a young hero. That story idea—the adolescent or the young man who becomes the ultimate leader and saves the world—would become a cliche.

What was not obvious was that these two decades, the 1950s and 1960s, would be the peak. The artistic maturation process had gone as far as it would go.

In the 1970s there were more attempts at experimental SF writing, maybe a sign of overripeness. Fantasy was a growing side stream that in the 1980s and 1990s would become a dominating flood. The "young adult" fiction, meaning fiction directly aimed at adolescents, became an ever larger percentage of science fiction. And more and more writers, starting in the 1970s, seemed to base most if not all of their standards on other genre writing, especially detective and espionage fiction. The science fiction writers were looking to commercial slickness rather than to the best fiction.

The history of science fiction over the last four decades has demonstrated that a lot of the people who like SF do not know the difference between fiction for adults and fiction for adolescents, or they don’t care. In 2001, the Hugo Award for best novel, originally intended for science fiction, went to a Harry Potter book, a fantasy for children. 

Ideological lecturing became more common. There had always been some of it, but it became a more central element, exemplified by the works of Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neal Stephenson. Ideology is an addictive drug for many people. It supplants other, more important characteristics, including human understanding, empathy, observation, imagination and thinking ability. It drastically undercuts a writer’s art. Critics who sympathize with the ideologues’ worldviews reinforce the trend with their praises.

Overreliance on detective and espionage genre elements became more obvious in the “cyberpunk” trend in the 1980s, with its tough-guy ragged antiheroes a step ahead of the bad guys with the guns on the gritty mean dark streets. Neuromancer (1984), a good novel by William Gibson, was the trendsetter in this category. It was in some ways remarkable because of its treatment of computers and the internet and because of its elements of gritty rough life, but its sensibilities and artistry were derived from commercial detective and espionage fiction.

Space opera became more dominant in science fiction. It typically involves minimal character development, zero artistic finesse, and boyish clunky stories. Ideas, to the extent that they exist, appear to be window dressing. Warfare is overrelied upon for drama. And like cyberpunk, space opera has been relying to a very large extent on elements of the thriller genre. A good thriller entertains while killing time, with no serious potential for ideas or visions or thoughtful consideration of the human condition.

Science fiction has always had its space operas and detective stories just as it has always had its ideological sermonizers and its fiction aimed at young readers. But those elements have become so pervasive that I do not see any genuine visions appearing in the cracks between them. If there are original works of thoughtful speculative fiction for fully adult readers, I am not aware of them. Maybe I have simply overlooked them.


Every now and then an academic "literary" writer wanders into science fiction. The less said about the results, the better. They do not know what they are doing. They make speculative fiction seem remarkably unimaginative, merely word play and clunky outdated story gimmicks.

I cannot explain why the rising trend of quality in 1940s-50s-60s science fiction was not followed by even better work in the 1970s-80s-90s-00s. Maybe it was exhaustion of ideas. There are only so many times writers can speculate about space exploration or machine intelligence or human evolution or global catastrophe before the stories become reminiscent of very rutted roads. Or maybe it was inbreeding. The writers and hardcore fans got to know each other only too well, and the literary agents and book editors similarly got to know the writers and hardcore fans too well. The literary values within those circles weakened as they became insular. One warning flag came in a Thomas M. Disch essay on the subject in 1981. He saw the social inbreeding that was going on, and he described it as what might be called cliquishness and logrolling (my terms, not his). Disch was an irascible guy, so charitable people may disagree.

Published SF book reviews offer bland praise. Better criticism is likely online from readers. There again you see too many rave reviews greeting old ideas as new or praising clumsy writing as refined, but you also get the occasional commentary by someone obviously very knowledgeable and able to tell the difference between a cliché and a fresh idea, or between a good story line and a gimmicky mess of a plot, or between sermonizing and subtle art.

Publishers prefer commercial genre formulas for their marketability. Publishers may deserve a lot of the blame for the lack of individual distinction in science fiction today. But the public has been flocking eagerly to “young adult” formulaic SF, so the publishers are not the whole explanation. I do not know why adults want to read “young adult” fiction, nor have I seen anyone else explain that trend.

I can only tell you that science fiction climbed up a slope, passed a two-decade peak, and has been coasting downhill since.

March 2014