Science fiction is dead. Long live science fiction.
For those of us who care (and no, we do not live in our parents' basements), the future of futurism is an urgent matter indeed. Is science fiction thriving amid the pyrotechnics, or is it dying a slow and hideous death, suffocated by publishing-industry group-think and unimaginative movie execs drunk on sequels?
I speak as a fan with opinions as though there's any other kind when I pronounce the sound health and shining future of 21st-century speculative fiction. I'm less concerned with the release this month of the megabudget "Transformers" movie, with its gargantuan alien robots and shiny cast, than a prevailing cultural shift that seems to embrace the expansive narrative frontiers of sci-fi. And I'm not even counting the genre's recent successes on television ("Battlestar Galactica," "Heroes," "The 4400," "Lost") or world-domination in games (take your pick).
"It's everywhere now. Everybody has some exposure to it it's much more respectable than it used to be," says David Wellington, a sci-fi/horror author ("Monster Island," "Thirteen Bullets") and aficionado who recalls the bad old days of fandom. "Back in the '80s, when I was a huge science-fiction fan, it was very marginalized. And we always complained about that: 'Why can't other people understand why we like this stuff so much?'"
Wellington is one of several devotees who, given the chance to vent, expresses enthusiasm as well as skepticism at the current state of the genre. Many view the landscape ahead with caution, fearing a post-apocalyptic vista mottled by computer-giddy graphics and the blunt force of mainstream taste. Some see it fragmenting. Others see it thriving.
But fans reach consensus sort of on a few key issues. One is that fantasy novels, once joined at the hip with science fiction, have enjoyed huge success since venturing into their own sizable niche. A second is that the film and publishing industries should take more artistic risks. A third: "Blade Runner" rocks. Fourth: so do "Pan's Labryinth" and "Children of Men."
A fifth point, expressed with varying degrees of disappointment and annoyance, is that advances in digital technology have made for gob-stopping eye candy that doesn't always satisfy the mind or the heart. From a visual standpoint, "there's no better time in the history of films for science fiction," says Dave Dorman, an in-demand sci-fi/fantasy painter based in Florida best known for his Star Wars renderings. "On the other hand, I think the writing of science-fiction films is not up to what it was back in, say, the '40s, '50s and '60s."
Craig Elliott, an animator for Disney ("Treasure Planet") and DreamWorks (the upcoming "The Princess and the Frog"), puts it even more succinctly: "There's too much bling on the screen."
In publishing, contemporary science fiction has splintered into a zillion little subsets, running from alternate history and space opera to hardcore, urban fantasy, movie and TV tie-ins, cyberpunk and the boundary-stretching "New Weird."
Call it what you will, but great science fiction can be cosmic or minimalist, outward-looking or inward. It expands or contracts, pushing humanity into the farthest reaches of space or reducing it to cinders.
From the start, it's never been about the rubber-faced aliens, not really. Edwin A. Abbott's "Flatland" (written in 1884 and adapted repeatedly for film) is set in a two-dimensional world that skewers Victorian class distinctions. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne both injected the acid of satire into the pulp of sci-fi, and even the dated strangeness that is Karel Capek's "R.U.R." (or "Rossum's Universal Robots," the play that coined the word) was more concerned with sentience and civil rights than the construction of humanoid workers.
Do we watch Fritz Lang's Metropolis for the sexy android, or the Marxist parallels? Is "The Day the Earth Stood Still" about a guy in a soup can or a world poised on self-destruction? Sci-fi can offer visions of a humankind freed from poverty, racism and the horrors of war (see "Star Trek's" first two series) or ravaged by violence in a post-nuclear wasteland ("Mad Maxes" 1 through 3). You can feel good or bum out, depending on your mood.
Lately, a lot of folks are bumming. During the past few years dystopian yarns have surged in popularity, prophesying tomorrows wracked by terrorism ("V for Vendetta"), zombie germs ("28 Days Later," "28 Weeks Later") and infertility ("Children of Men"). All three of those films are set in London, the new vogue setting for ashen pessimism.
In literary fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" moved dystopia to the English countryside. Margaret Atwood moved it stateside ("The Handmaid's Tale," "Oryx and Crake"), while Cormac McCarthy pushed it even farther further with "The Road." Not everyone calls his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel science fiction, but that's what it is: Man and boy wade through the soot of an annihilated landscape.
Sci-fi/fantasy marketer and publicist Colleen Lindsay has high praise for McCarthy's book, but she's vexed by the perception that it's anything new. "It's post-apocalyptic fantasy for people who don't read fantasy." Look at David Brin's "The Postman" and S.M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire," she says: similar books written by (gasp) genre authors and read by (gasp) geeks. Or consider Richard Matheson's classic 1954 "I Am Legend," the original zombie-germ novel, adapted to film in 1964 ("The Last Man on Earth"), 1971 ("The Omega Man") and now 2007 ("I Am Legend," scheduled for Dec. 14).
Kfir Luzzatto, a science-fiction author who lives in Israel, mentions John Christopher's "The Death of Grass" (1956) and Mary Shelley's "The Last Man" (1826), which foresees a late-21st century devastated by plague. "Post-apocalyptic culture has become to modern people what ghost stories were to our fathers," he says. "(It's) a way to air your fears of the unknown and to deal with them."
On the flip side, the more gung-ho element of sci-fi continues to pit good against evil, and good continues to win after an extremely noisy fight. Consider those Transformers.
"Do we believe that we're alone in this constant struggle, or do we believe that we can help each other?" asks Jamie Hari, who founded and runs the Marvel Database Project out of Toronto. Hari, who says "Marvel is my world" without embarrassment, sees the appeal of Transformers and robots in general "as another extension of the human desire for technology."
A figure well familiar with this idea is Lawrence Krauss, a professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "The Physics of Star Trek." If you watch "How William Shatner Changed the World," he's the one making pizza with the Shat.
"People like the idea of a hopeful future," Krauss says, later admitting that "the utopian view is harder for me to believe." Generally, the genre grabs his attention when it's smartly done but lost him at "Starship Troopers": "The pooping insects, that sort of did it for me."
Otherwise, he says that science, like art, considers our place in the cosmic scheme. "The reason that we're scientists is not because we want to build a better toaster," he contends, "but because we're interested in what's possible in the universe."
Judging from anticipated movie releases, this is what's possible in the universe. Earth might be invaded by alien body snatchers ("Invasion," Aug. 17). It might face planetary death from a dying sun ("Sunshine," July 20). It might be torn by global terrorism ("Day Zero," upcoming). It might, in the field of engineering, produce super-powered exoskeletal armor ("Iron Man," 2008), or it might form intergalactic relations with pointy-eared E.T.'s ("Star Trek," 2008). Alternately, a race of tiny aliens might tour the cosmos inside Eddie Murphy, who might then fall in love with an Earth babe ("Starship Dave," 2008).
All of this looking forward strikes Houston's John Moore, an "unrepentant geek" and sci-fi/fantasy author ("A Fate Worse than Dragons"), as old news. "Science fiction is the present. We live in a science-fiction society, and I don't just mean the gadgetization of society." Instead, he means that "projecting into the future, once the province of the science-fiction writer, has become our dominant way of thought."
This, he says, is science fiction's influence on modern thinking on the broad intellectual questing that invites us ever onward. Pat LoBrutto, a book doctor and longtime editor in the field, cites the 1969 moon shot and the 1977 Voyager probe as transformative events that brought the realm of science fiction down to Earth. "Fantasy has become a part of the mainstream," he says, "but in a different way, a mythic way."
And myths endure. This is why the genre will survive all the scattershot subgenres, underwritten screenplays and over-exploding climaxes of a franchise mentality gone mad. For every "Matrix Revolutions," there is a "Matrix." For every Jar Jar Binks, there is a Yoda.
Wellington invokes "Sturgeon's Law," an apocryphal maxim attributed to sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon ("Venus Plus X," which imagines a genderless society). It states, rather delicately, that "Ninety percent of everything is crud."
"It's up to 99 at this point," Wellington estimates. But in the end we have to count him among the optimists, because he remembers the olden days, so many far-side-of-the-moons ago, when science-fiction fanatics were personae non gratae persona non grata in the world at large. LoBrutto remembers it, too. "At one time, science fiction was 'Lesbians of Venus' you would read it with a brown-paper cover on the subway, because you didn't want anybody to see you with it."
In an age defined by the Internet, designed by software technicians and dominated by fan-driven campaigns in the blogosphere, science fiction and its fanatics have at last nestled into the mainstream. Not only that: They own it. "There's been this geek Renaissance. Everyone wants to be a geek now; all the cool stuff is geeky," Wellington says. "The geeks have won."