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Trends in Science Fiction

by Fred Lerner

*This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of RA News.*

Once a niche market, science fiction has grown into a lucrative part of the entertainment industry. Before 1950 it was relegated to the all-fiction "pulp" magazines that once dominated America's newsstands. Today science fiction is everywhere: in movies, on television, and on the printed page, and it forms an essential part of such new media as anime, manga, and videogames.

Emerging Definitions of Science Fiction

Sixty years ago well-read fans cringed when writers who had made their reputations outside the field ineptly used science fiction plots and devices in their work. They were even more frustrated by the misguided praise heaped on those efforts by critics ignorant of the body of published science fiction in which these ideas were better developed. There are still mainstream writers who believe that they have invented literary devices that have been commonplace in science fiction magazines since the 1930s; but today we increasingly encounter excellent science fiction novels by people outside the field (such as Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife) and the clever use of science fiction elements by people like the Pulitzer Prize novelist Junot Diaz, who speaks of his familiarity with the work of established science fiction writers like Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, and John Wyndham. The borders between science fiction and mainstream literature are blurring.

The late John W. Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction during its glory days in the 1940s, liked to argue that so-called mainstream fiction was a small subset of science fiction. He observed that the setting of a mainstream story was restricted to the present or the historical past, while a science fiction writer could set a story anywhere or anywhen. The time machine of H.G. Wells' 1895 novel made its journey into the distant future, but later writers found the past a more interesting destination.

Murray Leinster's short story "Sidewise in Time" (1934) is considered to be the first notable exploration of "alternate history" -- the fictional consideration of the possibilities engendered by some historical turning point turning another way. This has evolved into a major branch of the science fiction/fantasy field, spawning all sorts of fascinating variants. John Crowley's stunning four-volume Ægypt Cycle (1987-2007) is devoted to the possibility that there might be "more than one history to the world", and many other writers have set their tales in in a version of our world whose history has been modified to suit their story's needs. Science fiction writers have always taken liberties with scientific fact as needed to lend excitement and interest to their narratives. Nowadays an increasing number of them are taking similar liberties with history with equally entertaining results.

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Increasing Diversity

Though American science fiction has always had female and minority readers, its ties to commercial publishing often minimized the field's diversity. As in other pulp genres, characters usually had Anglo-Saxon names (at least the human ones did), and the default condition of important characters was white and male. (In one notorious case the hero of a pulp story observed that "Both Earthmen and Venusians are white-skinned races.") Female writers were encouraged to use initials or pseudonyms to hide their sex from immature or chauvinistic readers, and sex-role stereotypes were as abundant in science fiction stories as in mysteries or westerns.

Half a century ago, when Samuel R. Delany burst onto the scene, one rarely encountered either African American or homosexual science fiction writers. They were surely represented in the science fiction magazines, whose editors were not in the habit of asking the people who submitted stories about their ethnicity or sexual orientation, but their presence was not evident to ordinary readers. Delany's brilliant fiction reflected both his color and his sexuality, and won for science fiction an expanded community of readers and writers.

In 2010 Sheree René Thomas published Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora to prove that "black writers have been offering distinctive speculative visions to the world far longer than is generally thought." Junot Diaz recently described himself as "a product of a couple hundred years of white folks breeding black folks to work." He and many others are finding in science fiction a literature peculiarly suited to rendering "the reality of the African diasporic experience."

Over the past fifty years the composition of the science fiction field has become increasingly diverse, with readers, writers, and editors from many ethnicities and nationalities helping to broaden the range of science fiction stories and the ways in which they are told. Recent year's-best anthologies include short stories by authors with names like Indrapramit Das, Amal El-Mohtar, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, and Vandana Singh. These authors and others from diverse backgrounds are  also beginning to release full-length novels. This diversity well suits a literature whose essential purpose is to consider the implications of the alien.

It used to be said that science fiction was the inevitable literary reflection of industrial society That description turned out to be too limited. In addition to the science fiction writers of the African and Asian diasporas and the First Nations of the Western hemisphere, an increasing number of people in developing countries are writing science fiction, and an increasing amount of their work is reaching Western audiences in magazines like Strange Horizons and anthologies like The Apex Book of World SF.

Current and Future

When I first started voting for the Hugo awards, finding the best short fiction was a simple task. By subscribing to three or four of the leading science fiction magazines, I could have the vast majority of the best work delivered to my mailbox. Today the leading print magazines are barely represented among the Hugo nominees each year. The action in short fiction has moved online, where publishers ranging from major media conglomerates to impecunious amateurs are searching for a viable business model. Whatever their commercial success, these online venues have certainly established themselves as the leading edge of modern science fiction.

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Fred Lerner is a bibliographer and historian living in Vermont. His most recent book is The Story of Libraries: From the Invention of Writing to the Computer Age.