Monday, July 18, 2011

More on the Death of Science Fiction

In 1960, Earl Kemp sent out a questionnaire to the top authors, editors, and artists in the genre. He wanted to know their thoughts on the death of science fiction; Kemp was, at the time, specifically referring to the death of SF magazines, since all the pulps had ceased publication. He compiled the results of this survey, and produced just enough bound copies for everyone who participated. The publication, Who Killed Science Fiction? won the Hugo Award for Best Fanzine in 1961. Kemp updated the survey in the '80s and again in the 2000s, and published the entire project online as The Compleat and Unexpurgated Who Killed Science Fiction? A print version of this book is now available from The Merry Blacksmith Press.

I wrote in detail about this project in an earlier blog post entitled "Earl Kemp's Who Killed Science Fiction?" -- and, thanks to the tweeted link by Bruce Sterling (@bruces), which was retweeted by a number of his followers, this blog post remains (at least to date) my most read post on More Red Ink. Thanks, Bruce!

I'm bringing this up again because discussions on the death of science fiction are as perennial as the weather. And if it's not "science fiction" as a genre, then the death discussion is about the short story (I was on a panel on this very topic at BayCon in 2008), or the death of the anthology (I was on a panel entitled "Will the Anthology Market Come Back" at Westercon just this past July 4th holiday weekend). Which brings me to the latest discussion by John H. Stevens on SF Signal entitled "'The Death of Science Fiction' as Mythogenic Rejuvenation" -- Part One and Part Two. [Note: Part Two links back to Part One, but not vice versa.]

John makes some interesting comments, including these:
"The Death of Science Fiction" is one of those notions that stimulates a response because of its challenge not just to genre durability, but to deeper notions of what "science fiction" means....

If, as some people maintain, [the Death of Science Fiction] is such a tired idea to trot out, then why do people keep doing so and why is there so much response to these declarations? This is where the idea of mythogenic rejuvenation comes in. Talking about SF is often as important to many producers of the literature and its adherents as the production and reception of the literature itself. The far-flung fandom community is bonded not by just what they read, but by what they say about what they read....

The most interesting aspect of this to me is the fact that no one ever hits the mark with their projections and concerns. The Death of Science Fiction never comes about (or, hasn't yet anyway)....

The cool thing about this article is that John links to a multitude of prior "death of SF" articles, blog posts, and, to use his word, "fora" -- so you could conceivably spend hours (and hours) reading words on this subject, and by noteworthy people, too, while at the same time awaiting my forthcoming anthology, Alien Contact, from Night Shade Books, as well as the first publication of just-announced new online 'zine The Revelator, to be edited by Matthew Cheney and Eric Schaller. Yes, well, so much for the death of science fiction (and magazines, and anthologies, and ad nauseam).

But, believe it or not, my whole point in this entire blog post was to get to this: John opens his SF Signal article with three choice quotes, and this one, from author Neal Asher, exemplifies my attitude toward this whole "death of SF' schtick:

[The death of SF] surfaces with the almost metronic regularity of a dead fish at the tide line (stirred up, no-doubt, by some "new wave"). SF isn't dying, it hasn’t been ill, and frequent terminal diagnoses often see the undertaker clutching a handful of nails and a hammer and scratching his head over an empty coffin. However, discussions about this demise have been resurrecting themselves in only slightly altered form since I first read "about" SF rather than SF itself. I'm betting there was some plonker declaring the death of SF the moment Sputnik beeped or just after Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. Really, the whole pointless staggering debate needs a nice fat stake driven through its heart.
—Neal Asher

You can read the quote in context on Neal's blog The Skinner; the post is entitled -- what else? -- "The Death of Science Fiction (Again)."


  1. You can read "death of science fiction" articles in fanzines of the 1930s complaining how stf doesn't talk enough about science any more. For starters.

    Let alone we could discuss how endemic the discussion were in the post-WWII late forties, and then really became popular as the pulps were dying off in the Fifties, which is what led to the Major Conclusion that SF Was Dead by the time Earl Kemp produced the original Who Killed Science Fiction?

    I'm almost more amazed at how people have to guess that this immensely well-documented history exists, rather than just having read some of the tons and tons of it produced in prozines and fanzines of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, but I tend to forget how relatively few folks are familiar with what is now becoming arcane history rather than common and shared sf history.

  2. Hi, Gary,

    Thanks for your comment. I was involved in an APA 'zine for a bit back in the late '80s, but I'll be the first to admit that I have little knowledge of the fanzines from the time period you note in your comment. As I mentioned in my very first blog post about the Kemp project, I owe Paul Di Filippo for mentioning it in a review he wrote in December for Barnes & Noble. And as we move farther into the future, there will be even less people who know about, let alone have read, those early prozines and fanzines.

    - marty

  3. Personally, I think that the death of certain types of science fiction writing, ie. dime novels, pulp fiction magazines, is mainly due to changes in culture and technology. I think another shift is occurring now as literature becomes digitized. Will future readers, who grow up with a Kindle in one hand and a notepad in the other, be content with perusing through pages upon pages of text? Perhaps they will demand that e-stories become more interactive, with numerous, imbedded videos (perhaps even interactive videos that allow the viewer to control some aspect of their denouement).


  4. Hi, Anthony,

    Indeed, you make a good point. We are indeed in a period of change, in a state of flux right now.
    - marty