Generalizing horribly, Benford decries the market share fantasy has won over science fiction, and announces he's going on a temporary haitus from writing any more novels while he writes nonfiction articles in support of science and science fiction. Schweitzer counters that a better answer to the problem might be to write better books, producing another Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land that can be the phenomenon that Harry Potter, American Gods or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was. John Scalzi argues in favor of more entry-level science fiction, as well as respect inside genre for those who would write such, and Hal Duncan enumerates a half-dozen different categories of science fiction and suggest individual points of entry for each category.
I don't have an argument with any of their responses - who can argue against more good books actively reaching out to more readers. But it was some of the comments these comments drew that fascinated me, and dovetailed with something I've been considering lately.
Now, first, I was surprised by how much ire Greg Benford drew down by daring to decry fantasy. Benford is definitely a member of the "true believer" core of the genre, for whom the "science" of science fiction is an important aspect, and sees the rise of fantasy as indicative of problems inherent in contemporary American culture. In fairness to Benford, we are not exactly living under a science-sympathetic administration at present. And the concerns Greg outlines for the future of Western civilization are very real, as recounted in Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat. (Side note: I'm not a xenophobe - if India and China are poised to take the lead, more power to them! What is bad for America is not necessarily bad for the world or humanity at large. And I will be thrilled if China's space program takes off, since somebody should be going and we sure aren't.) As Gardner Dozois writes in the introduction to Galileo's Children: Tales of Science vs. Superstition, "The battle of science against superstition is still going on, as is the battle to not have to think only what somebody else thinks is okay for you to think. In fact, in a society where more people believe in angels than believe in evolution, that battle may be more critical than ever. One of the major battlefields of that war is science fiction, one of the few forms of literature where rationality, skepticism, the knowledge of the inevitability of change, and the idea that wide-ranging freedom of thought and unfettered imagination and curiosity are good things are the default positions, taken for granted by most of its authors."
But what I see as far more damaging than the rise of fantasy is the rise of media tie-in works. The previously cited American Gods is a brilliant and thought-provoking work, and my personal favorite novel published the year it debuted. But that Forgotten Realms novels consistently outsell the real stuff by a factor of five-to-one is a cause for true concern. Especially given the quality of those books! (And yes, I've dabbled enough to know whereof I speak.)
In my view, it's all about narrative complexity and whether the speculative material you read (whether SF or F) serves to turn your brain on or turn it off. See Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. It's similar to Neal Stephenson's division between "vegging out" and "geeking out." The gist of it is that the complexity of the medium may be more important than the message it conveys.
And I agree with Darrell that the challenge is for science fiction to write that compelling novel, not throw in the towel. The solution is to compete not retreat. For my money, (and - disclaimer time- I publish him over here, but I've been saying this for two years before Pyr was even a possibility so I can still say it with integrity), John Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence (Paradox, Context, Resolution) is that novel, combining all the swashbuckling adventure of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, and the world-building and scope of Dune, with some marvelous hard SF extrapolations and a real sense-o-wonder. As Paul Goat Allen writes in B&N's Explorations newsletter, "Science fiction fans looking for the next big genre classic need look no further than the Nulapeiron Sequence, a highly cerebral sci-fi trilogy by British author John Meaney that has been (deservedly) compared to Frank Herbert's epic masterwork, Dune... Meaney's Nulapeiron Sequence (Paradox, Context, and the forthcoming Resolution) is a landmark work for multiple reasons: 1) Unparalleled world building: The world of Nulapeiron is one of the most vividly described and utterly unique realms ever imagined in the history of science fiction; 2) Plot density: Like Nulapeiron's multi-leveled society, the story of Tom Corcorigan has innumerable layers, dozens of secondary themes, and subplots; and 3) Readability: Fans of hard science fiction will not be able to put this sweeping and thought-provoking saga down. Although there are no sandworms or spice on Nulapeiron, readers will inevitably compare this unforgettable epic with Frank Herbert's classic."
But leaving shameless plugs aside (and hey, I had to leave off Paul's wonderful quote on the back of our edition of Resolution's jacket earlier today, so please don't fault me for wanting to work it in somewhere), what this whole debate has me really thinking about is whether science fiction should be accessible to a large mainstream audience in the first place. There's a very interesting comment posted in response to Scalzi's take by someone called Kyeikki which says:
I don't think the problem's lack of outreach. If I had to guess - and it's only a guess - I'd say the problem was religion.
Most modern hard SF assumes a philosophy of atheistic materialism, and it's generally unfriendly to Christianity and other theistic religions. (This comes through fairly strongly in the Benford/Schweitzer article.) There are some authors who don't fit this trend, but it's the dominant trend all the same.
Now, last time I checked, the USA was about 80% monotheistic, 10% atheistic, and 10% other. So if you write a novel intended exclusively for atheists, you're excluding around 90% of the population. So it shouldn't really be all that surprising if it doesn't turn into a bestseller.
Soft SF and space opera generally isn't as strongly atheistic, and fantasy isn't atheistic at all. And they're all very popular. I think that's a big part of the reason why. Star Wars would never have been a success without the Force, and no-one would read Robert Jordan's novels if it wasn't for the upcoming battle with the Dark One.
People do pick up on these things. Your average guy in the street might not be able to spell "atheistic materialism" but he can figure out pretty well if the philosophy and beliefs behind a book are basically friendly or basically hostile to his own - and it has a huge effect on what he's going to buy.
Of course if your number one priority is to keep the faith - as I think Benford's is - then it's not really a problem. But if you want people to buy your stuff, then you have to consider your audience, too.
Now, I'm in that 10% "other" category, and earlier this week, I was mulling over how the forefathers of science fiction, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, were aetheists and rationalists, whereas the 20th century's most famous fantasicts, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, were both Christians. Even the most-celebrated science fiction work to approach religion, the aforementioned Dune, does so in a scientific context. In this case (as in the case of the Matrix), a religion has been engineered by a powerful, technical elite as a means of control, and the self-fulfilling prophecy they've orchestrated ends up becoming a tiger by the tail which turns and bites them on their respective asses. But the religion is an emergent property of the pre-orchestrated farce, which may hint at powerful forces in the collective unconscious, but certainly is a far cry from the theophanies prevelant in a lot of popular fantasy.
I think Kyeikki has nailed an important barrier to mainstream acceptance that few others are examining - my only quibble being that I don't see accomodating the mainstream in this area as a positive thing. Which brings me back to Benford and true believers of a different sort. As someone who grew up in a much deeper south than even the region is today, it was exposure to science fiction that had a direct and measurable influence on deprogramming me from the prejudices and ignorance prevalent in a lot of my immediate childhood environment. I grew up around Christians who believed in a seven day creation, preached the reality of Hell and Judgement, and railed against the lie that was evolution. They were also, for the most part, racists and homophobes. They told jokes using the N-word, would never date a minority or someone who had, and generally represented a host of values I find base and inexcusable. And the only difference between them and me was that I had a father who shoved a science fiction paperback into my pre-teen hands and ordered me to read it. After all, it's pretty hard to be prejudice against blacks and gays when you're a-okay with Klingons and the Green Men of Mars.
Gardner Dozois has pointed out elsewhere that science fiction really began with Charles Darwin, with the notion of evolution, geological time, and the concept that there was a future that would continue for long enough to be potentially different from the now. Pre-Darwin, the world hadn't been around for more than a few thousand years, and was probably going to end in the next hundred or so, so how could you have anything like off-world colonies, alien species, or a future radically different from the present? Post-Darwin, there was no one running the show and no guarantee that the engines that ran the world wouldn't shake us off and carry on without us.
Now, I know that there are a lot more interpretations of Christianity than just the Fundamentalist angles, and also that there are some very fine writers of science fiction who happen to hold religious convictions (Louise Marley and Paul Cornell being good examples as well as friends). Furthermore, Charles Stross and others have pointed out how the Singularity, the "rapture of the nerds" may just be an eschatological wish expressing itself inside of supposedly scientific rationalism. And yes, I applaud the efforts of Christians like Jim Wallis, whose God's Politics: Why the Right gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It seeks to wrestle morality back from the religious right.
But, as a wise man once said, "A tree is known by its fruit," and I don't see a lot coming out of a very large segment of Christianity that I can condone or support. And I do see some very serious trends in contemporary America being driven by a certain segment of the population, trends which have very real, and in my mind, very negative consequences. Now I don't feel like pandering to their practicioners one iota. Quite the opposite. And one small but very real way I know to combat their evil is to open people's minds, and one way to do this is down a path of which I have direct personal experience: to expose them to ideas through fiction. And science fiction is the fiction of ideas. It's entertainment, but not just entertainment to me.
So there I've said it. Maybe I'm a true believer too when everything is said and done; and while my definition of science fiction may be broader and my solution somewhat different, ultimately I can't fault Gregory Benford for raising the issue in the way that he has. And I think his nay-sayers should cut him some slack. He's certainly generated quite a bit of food for thought, and that's the best kind of food there is for my money.