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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Five Phases of Science Fiction

The other day I mentioned that I thought science fiction went through several phases in every industrialized or industrializing nation. I thought I would further explicate my theories on this subject here. The only problem with these phases is that they are not absolute temporally. They do not happen at exactly the same time, nor do they last for the same duration as another nation. Likewise, these phases overlap and most of them never end, but instead become less prominent. As you’ll see below, most of these phases are still in existence today, in some form or another, but the older the phase, the less common it has become.

And, as always, I would like input from my readers. I don’t claim that these are necessarily true, as there are plenty of sub-phases and unknown factors that may or may not change the way these phases operate. If you have differing opinions, let me know in the comments.

The following are the five primary phases of science fiction:

The Pulp Phase
Anything comprising the Pulp Era and early Golden Age SF, this phase is home of a plethora of vaguely remembered and long forgotten pulp writers, such as A. E. Van Vogt, the folks who created Perry Rhodan, etc. Many of the authors of this phase are present in the phase that follows, either continuing the tradition of adventurous, pulpy fiction, or adjusting their fiction styles to suit the evolution of SF.

The Classic Phase (Golden Age)
Think Asimov, Heinlein, early (and even late) Clarke, and many others who took the genre to places that pulp fiction could not. Early high concept SF arises here, but the genre still hasn’t filled its shoes yet. The “sense of wonder” feel is a primary concern--one which we’ve now concluded has begun to die out as the genre ages.

The Sociology Phase
With an influx of female and non-white SF writers, social issues begin to take precedence. Technology is here used to highlight social or cultural issues, usually through a critical approach, rather than as a shiny tool. Fine writers like Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, mid-Clarke and Niven, and others are present during this phase.

The Near Future Phase
During the 80s there was a boom of literature interested in a future not all the distant from our present. We called it Cyberpunk, but there were other subgenres being made prominent during that phase (post-apocalyptic, ecotastrophe, etc.). It would be fair to say that William Gibson was and still is the pioneer of this phase, but he was, by no means, the only one. Pat Cadigan, Bruce Sterling, and many others were doing a lot of relatively near future stories back then.

The Rebirth Phase
I’d argue that we are currently in this phase, or at least on our way to it. The Rebirth Phase places significant focus on re-imaginings of old concepts. New Space Opera and the frequently proclaimed Heinlein homage are prominent features here. Authors like Tobias S. Buckell, John Scalzi, and many others are big faces in the rebirth of classic science fiction. Here you would also find high concept military SF and high concept near future SF.

Notes: There are some logical exceptions to all this. First off, as I mentioned, none of these phases are absolutes. They overlap and some re-emerge in pulses from time to time, but each phase does eventually die down or become absorbed by a succeeding phase. A prime example of such an absorbing can be seen in the end of Cyberpunk; the subgenre did not technically die, because the elements that made it such a distinct subgenre were simply adopted by other subgenres.

Most of the authors mentioned are also not absolutes. While many of them were prominent figures in the phases I mentioned them in, quite a few of them moved on to other phases. The most prolific of authors were capable of adjusting with the times, whether intentionally or otherwise. There are likely authors I have missed in this post, particularly female authors. In my defense, I have not read enough SF from female authors to feel comfortable forcing them into different categories; I am far more familiar with female authors in fantasy (such as Karen Miller, Kage Baker, etc.). I personally do not pick books by gender or name, though I’m sure some would argue that I do so subconsciously (which I think is an impossible argument to make if you don’t know me).

Everything I’ve said here is applicable to literature only. SF film has a similar, but unique evolution.

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  1. You mention these phases occur in any industrialized or industrializing society - do you have examples from other societies beyond the US?
    Also, since you seem to feel that we're in Phase 5, do you expect a Phase 6? (Not that I'm asking you to predict what it is, just wondering if you think we're still evolving).

  2. Jonah: My limited exposure to the science fiction of India shows that they are currently enjoying a mid-to-late Pulp Phase. They're moving out of it rather quickly, though, but quite a lot of their science fiction, that I've read, is very much adventurous and pulp-style. They are moving out of it, though, and they seem to be on track to jump right through the Classic Phase, which seems reasonable.

    China is also coming into its own, but I don't know enough about Chinese SF to honestly have an opinion. Not a lot of Chinese SF is translated, unfortunately.

    The UK basically did the same thing as the US, at about the same time, and Russia, from my limited perspective, would have done the same if not for the desperate push to silence authors there.

    As for a Phase 6. Yes, there probably will be, but I don't know what it will look like. Science fiction is always evolving. It's possible the next phase will look like a less-obvious beast, possibly heavily focused on near-future rather than far-future. Or, it could turn into a completely unrealistic genre, with more focus on flashy things than anything else.