I’ve been following the unfolding debate about the decline of science fiction over at Mark Charan Newton’s blog, and recently added my own response:
Hmm…I think your insight into the industry is strong Mark, but actually I think you are over complicating the problem facing SF.
I pin it on something much simpler…the Michael Jordan effect.
That is the effect that one or a handful of ‘superstar’ figures can have on a cultural activity. Jordan’s superstar status pulled the whole sport into mass popularity. You get the same effect in all kinds of areas. Maybe the best example in fiction is J K Rowling, who pulled the entire YA section from minow to giant in the publishing industry.
The bottom line for SF is that it has been a while since it had a superstar. Gibson and Banks in the 90’s were the last ones to really reach star status, and most of the cyberpunk / space opera stuff on the shelves today is really just riding the wave they created. There have been a lot of authors mentioned in these responses (and many commenting) but I don’t see any who are threatening to go nova and take the genre with them. There are some good writers out there, but none of them seem to have that real star quality.
Fantasy on the other hand has had some real stars in recent years. Neil Gaiman of course. China Mieville. Susanna Clarke and quite a few others. People whose work does something that genuinely excites people, and that excitement then spreads out to the rest of the genre they work in.
One thing that tends to connect those superstar writers is that their work often redefines the genre they emerge from. It’s my feeling that most of the science fiction I’ve read recently has been more concerned with fulfilling genre expectations than redefining them. Maybe that’s why the genre is flagging.