Sf’s decline and the retreat from Enlightenment

Where have all the readers gone? It’s a common refrain these days (especially among library staff, but that’s another post entirely), and no less so in our beloved genre. In the absence of hard facts and figures (if anyone can point me towards some, I’d be very grateful), it’s hard to make truly accurate statements about the situation, but the consensus seems to be that the genre, while arguably soaring in terms of quality of output, is losing sales year by year.

The redoubtable SF Signal recently ran an excellent in-depth interview with Lou Anders, editor of the relatively new US sf imprint Pyr. There are mountains of take-away items in it, but the one that really grabbed my attention was Lou’s answer to the question: “Do you think America’s apathy towards science education has led to the current lack of interest in science fiction in the U.S.?” A snippet from his answer:

“…Not only is the decline in SF tethered to a lack of understanding of/appreciate[ion] for science education, but the lack of same can be seen as being partially fostered by our media. Remember that the Milwaukee School of Engineering gave James Doohan an honorary degree; that’s for a spike in the number of applicants after Star Trek aired – applicants who cited Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott as their reason for enrolling. Contrast this with today’s teenagers, who think a worthwhile life goal is to become famous through reality television, and who – astonishingly, as poll’s show – think this is an attainable goal despite the lottery-like odds stacked against them. Our realities form directly from our imaginations, and how we envision the world today is how we build it tomorrow. Remember when Urban Outfitters was selling t-shirts that said ‘Voting is for Old People?’ America is in a deliberate retreat from Enlightenment and I think there is a very real responsibility on the part of those who can to resist.”

As much as I would love to believe otherwise, a similar situation appears to be arising here in the UK also – I’ve already looked at the worrying trend of creationist and ID beliefs among UK students, and although I’m not an advocate of ferocious tirades against religious beliefs (which I think end up making the problem more entrenched) I concur with Anders (and the scientific communities of the world) that some resistance to the slide into irrationalism must be made.

Sf, no doubt, has some part to play in this defence (although I’ve argued against the notion that it should have a specifically positivist agenda as referring to the ideas it promotes), but where lies the best route forward?

‘Dumbing it down’ is definitely not the best option, as I’m sure most readers would agree. But this problem exists in the context of a culture where dumb is cool. Western culture still seems resolutely jammed in this hellish re-run of the 1980s, a period equally marked by a sort of joyous rejection of introspection and thought of consequences – it is interesting to note that cocaine is the most popular drug of both eras, as the character shift produced by cocaine use seems to mirror the cultural attitudes commonly held: “It’s all about me!”

To illustrate my point, a quote from Hunter Thompson from a Rolling Stone piece written in the summer of 1983, that could easily have been written now, if the man were still with us:

“There is a lot of wreckage in the fast lane these days. Not even the rich feel safe from it, and people are looking for reasons. The smart say they can’t understand it, and the dumb snort cocaine in rich discos and stomp to a feverish beat. Which is heard all over the country, or at least felt. The stomping of the rich is not a noise to be ignored in troubled times. It usually means they are feeling anxious or confused about something, and when the rich feel anxious and confused, they act like wild animals.”

(HST, ‘Songs of the Doomed’, page 191)

Anders correctly cites reality TV, and the aspirations of the young to use it as a route to easy fame and riches, as indicative of this problem – why would you want to change the world, if it offers you a (seemingly) easy route to luxury? The problems of others are immaterial – after all, they could always audition too, right? Money talks, and it calls seductively with the promise of everything for nothing.

In such an environment, rationalism is a heavy burden. If you start asking logical questions about the world, you start reaching some very unsavoury conclusions very quickly indeed. It’s almost a feedback loop; the worse that prevailing wilful ignorance makes the world, the more appealing it is to retreat into a shell of wilful ignorance or faith-based reasoning.

So what to do for science fiction in such a world? I certainly believe that reading sf can make young people more open to rational ideas and alternatives to the status quo (as indeed can almost any fiction, though maybe not to the same degree), and that encouraging young people (and indeed all people) to give it a try is something that should be considered a sort of duty for any sf fan who holds true to Enlightenment principles.

But as Anders says, it may be down to the stirrings of jealousy to spur a return to rationalism. The brave new nations like China and India are eager to snatch the baton of progress from the failing grip of the West. While our governments get bogged down in ideological disputes, they are looking beyond the status quo with a hunger for change that once characterised the US and Europe. It is to be hoped that the ability of new technologies to repair the damage that the incautious use of the old ones has caused will encourage people to look again to science as the driving force of change for the better – and that in parallel, there will be a rise of interest in sf, the literature of ideas and rational speculation.

In the meantime, it befalls us to hold the fort: for the authors to continue making books that are not only a stimulating form of entertainment, but a challenge to ‘magical thinking’, and for the readers to calmly yet firmly defend sf’s position as a valid exercise in speculative thought and horizon-expanding entertainment. The genre may be at a weak point numerically, but I would argue that its content is at a position of great strength – possibly due to the adversity it experiences. If sf continues to ask the right questions, then those with questions to ask will return to it anew. Meanwhile, it can do what it does best, and hold a banner for rationalism in the arts and in culture – a rare splash of colour on a battlefield of black-and-white thinking.

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