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Monday, October 19, 2009

Science Fiction's Not Dead, Fantasy is in the Golden Age

People are talking about the death of science fiction again. It's not actually dead, far from it, but as soon as someone says "it's dead" someone else goes crazy (either because they believe SF has long been dead or because they're tired of hearing the argument). Apparently the genre has a few dozen lives and manages to die and be resurrected ten or so times a year. The End of the Universe said science fiction has nine lives, but I think that's too conservative of an estimate. It's died at least that many times in this year alone...

The problem with science fiction isn't that it's dead. To be fair to the genre, it's never actually died, but it has been overshadowed to varying degrees in history. Even in its supposed "Golden Age" science fiction was not exactly as popular people seem to remember. Yes, it was popular, but science fiction never had the popularity of mainstream pop-fiction. That's not to say it was irrelevant or that no science fiction books sold well enough to make it to the bestseller's list; quite a few actually did, but in comparison to traditionally larger genres (romance and quasi-mysteries), it really didn't make the crossover into market dominance at any point in its multi-century lifespan.

Fantasy, on the other hand, has, and not because the genre is necessarily better (and neither is it worse). Fantasy is doing well because it got lucky. Now, to be fair to fantasy, it has always done rather well ever since Tolkien became a persistent model for other fantasy writers. As a genre, fantasy had a lot of uphill battles to fight to get to a point where it had a secure market, but once it got there it never let it go. Now, however, fantasy has exploded. Some have said that fantasy is experiencing a "Golden Age" of its own--and I would have to agree. Why?

Well, as unpredictable as the market often is in regards to what will be the hot item of the year, I would say that fantasy simply got lucky. The publishers had no way of knowing that urban fantasy would plow through the roof like it did, or that other forms of fantasy (more traditional forms, if you will, and even the exceedingly non-traditional--literary, ultra-weird, etc.) would grow moderately over the last couple decades. It just happened.

Now, if I were to argue for a reason, I would say that the last eight years have had a lot to do with the rise of fantasy. Publisher Weekly almost acknowledged as much in the last year when the recession hit and sales of escapist titles (science fiction and fantasy) actually rose (it was temporary in the sense that, while people were going to SF/F for a presumed escape from the present, the downturn of the economy eventually led to an almost universal drop in sales in almost all markets, some of which have yet to fully recover). The reality seems to be that when the proverbial crap hits the fan, readers flock to literature that is less likely to make matters worse. They want heroes and adventures, of a sort. I don't know if this is true for everyone, but sales seem to reflect that. I am unsure how urban fantasy fits into this assessment--UF tends to be somewhat dark in nature. Either we have to accept that people are somewhat darker at heart than we ever anticipated, or urban fantasy offers a bit of harmless, well, fantasy.

I don't know how long fantasy's "Golden Age" will last. As with all booms in literature, there are limits, and I suspect that urban fantasy, which seems to be the genre largely pulling fantasy up out of the pool, will eventually wear out its welcome--fantasy, as a whole, will not. For now, we can sleep soundly knowing that science fiction isn't dead and fantasy is doing quite well. That's good news.

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  1. It seems to me that the fantasy genre's latest boom actually is, once again, thanks to Tolkien. It seems like right after the movies came out the genre boomed, causing a rise in more movies, which led to the Narnia movies, which led to more movies like the Narnia movies, and more children's fantasy literature cropping up. Not to mention the burst that Harry Potter gave it. And then came Twilight, which helped with the Urban Fantasy explosion. I'm actually excited to see what the next big fantasy hit will be and what genre it will take place in. But I would also like to see a boom in Sci-Fi.

  2. The only two genres with growing numbers during the economy meltdown are urban fantasy and romance. That's not surprising since both have many of the same readers.

    I write in both markets, and I belong to a number of reader lists, and I've seen romance readers who love paranormal romances moving into the urban fantasy market with the same book buying frenzy as they do with romance. We're talking hundreds of dollars a month.

    Authors are moving back and forth between the two genres, and you are as likely to see an urban fantasy author interviewed or reviewed in the romance magazine RT BOOKCLUB as you are to see a romance author.

    Unfortunately, this cross over hasn't followed into science fiction and science fiction romance, but many of us can hope.

  3. Jason: The genre was doing well before Jackson's film adaptation. Remember, Harry Potter was already an explosion-ary object before they were made into movies, and they coincided with the LOTR films almost to the date, actually (HP - Nov. 16, LOTR - Dec. 19, 2001, in the U.S.) One month apart...

    I think a lot of the boom in the last 10 years has been partly due to YA fantasy (a mis-labeled thing anyway, but so be it), the influx of fantasy film, the explosion of urban fantasy, for reasons I can't quite explain, and possibly some aspect of the recession that pushed escapist literature forward. I didn't say all that in the post, though, and probably should have.

    Science fiction film, however, has been doing well for a while, so why the literature isn't doing as well is strange. You'd think that the films would spark a boost in the literature, particularly if the same is true of fantasy films. That doesn't seem to be the case. Might be worth exploring...

    Marilynn: I think there is a distinction between paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but only in plot content, but generally those two genres have been doing quite well for one reason or another. You probably agree there, though.

    I don't see a problem with science fiction romance, to be honest, I just know I will never buy any if they keep putting those covers on them. But I'm not the core audience, sadly. I like some romance, which will surprise some readers, but I can't stand the muscular man covers that you see all over the place. But I would like to see SF romance take off. I don't know if it ever will, but it would be nice.