Science Fiction… Why Doesn’t Society Catch Up?

As I noted in passing in my earlier blog, various “authorities” have suggested for at least close to twenty years that one of the reasons why science fiction readership has dropped off, and it has, at least in relative terms as a percentage of the population, and even possibly in absolute terms, is because all the themes that were once the staple of science fiction are now scientifically possible and have often been done. We have put astronauts in orbit and sent them to the moon, and the reality is far less glamorous than the “Golden Age” SF writers made it seem. We have miniaturized computers of the kind that only Isaac Asimov forecast in work published around 1940. We have lasers — and so far they don’t work nearly so well as the particle beams in Clarke’s Earthlight or the lasers in 2001. We’ve created a supersonic passenger aircraft and mothballed it.

These reasons all sound very plausible, but I’m not so certain that they’re why SF readership has dropped off and why fantasy readership has soared. Earlier, I also explored this in terms of the “magic society,” but my personal feeling is that there is also another reason, one that has to do with people — both readers and the people and societies depicted in much current SF… and that includes mine, by the way.

Socially, human beings are incredibly conservative. We just don’t like to change our societies and domestic arrangements. Revolutions do occur, but just how many of them really end up in radically changing society? When MacArthur “restructured” Japanese society after WWII, the economic and political bases were changed dramatically, but the domestic and social roles remained virtually unchanged for another forty years. It really wasn’t until the 1990s when significant numbers of Japanese young women decided they didn’t want to follow the roles laid out by their mothers. Corrupt as he may have been, one of the largest factors leading to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran was that he was pressing to change social and religious structures at a rate faster than his people could accept.

While at least some of us in the United States like to think that we’re modern and progressive, has anyone noticed that “traditional” marriage is making a come-back? It’s making so much of a come-back that gays and lesbians want the benefits and legal structure as well. Despite the growth of the number of women in the workplace, women still do the majority of domestic chores, even when they’re working the same hours as their husbands, and the vast majority of CEOs and politicians are still male.

Now… what does this have to do with SF readership?

I’d submit that there’s a conflict between what’s likely technically and what’s likely socially, and social change will be far slower than predicted. In fact, that’s already occurred.

When my book Flash was published several years ago, one of the reviewers found it implausible that private schools would still exist some 200 years in the future in North America. I’d already thought about this, but the fact is that the traditional school structure goes back over 2,000 years. The structure works, if it’s properly employed, as many, many private schools and some charter schools can prove, and with 20 centuries of tradition, it’s not likely to vanish soon.

Yet more than a few books suggest the wide-spread growth of computerized learning, radical new forms of social engagement, and the like. Much of this will never happen. Look at such internet “innovations” as E-Harmony,, etc. They aren’t changing the social dynamics, but using technology to reinforce them. Women still trade primarily on sex appeal and men on looks, power, and position. They just start the process electronically.

Most readers don’t really want change; they only want the illusion of change. They want the old tropes in new clothes or new technology, but most of them want old-style men in new garb, and brilliant women who are sexy, but still defer to men who sweep them off their feet.

Again… I’m not saying this is true of all readers, and it’s probably not true of the majority of SF readers. But, as a literature of ideas and exploration, the more that SF explores and challenges established social dynamics, the fewer new readers it will attract, particularly today, when it’s becoming harder and harder to create true intellectual challenge, because so few people want to leave their comfort zones. That’s an incredible irony, because our communications technologies have made it easier and easier for people to avoid having their preconceptions challenged.

Most fantasy, on the other hand, merely embellishes various existing social structures with magic of some sort, and it’s becoming increasingly popular every year. Perhaps that’s because, like it or not, technology has made one fundamental change in our economic and social structure, and that is the fact that physical strength is no longer an exclusively predominant currency in determining income levels. More and more women are making good incomes, often more than their husbands or other males with whom they interact. Sociological studies suggest that male-female relationships often reach a crisis at the point where the woman gains more income, power, or prestige than the man. It’s unsettling, and it’s happening more and more.

Enter traditional fantasy, with its comforting traditional structures. Now… isn’t that a relief?