Sci-Fi Fodder

Sci-Fi is Dying...Because of Atheism?

I recently came across an interesting article on Mark Chadbourn's blog "A Jack of Ravens". The article, "Richard Dawkins Is Killing SF!", posits a very interesting concept.

He starts off by noting that Sci-Fi " in a slow sales decline" and " failing to resonate with the wider public in the same way that it used to do". This is pretty much true. Although the Fantasy genre is alive and well, pure Sci-Fi efforts do not seem to be received that well by the general public. "Battlestar Galactica" and "Doctor Who" fit the mold...but not much after that.

Chadbourn continues with a fairly interesting look into the age around us and psychology. Then, he gets to his point - Athiests (specifically Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion") are causing the decline.

Huh? He's crazy, right?

Maybe not. Chadbourn makes the argument that "...society is much more rational than it ever was" and I find it hard to argue with him. The world values science - even bad science - very highly. Al Gore just won the Nobel Prize, largely based on a movie about Global Warming (which people can't even agree on!). Just the fact that it was looked at scientifically gives it merit.

Even the most religious among us are desperately trying to find facts that the world is only a couple of thousand years old to definitively (or should I say scientifically) validate their beliefs. The "Brights" (a self-appointed term for Athiests) have been very successful in knocking down these challenges - and in the process, are subtlety setting up the concept that everything must be validated by scientific fact before it is to be believed, or even enjoyed.

I'll admit, I find myself holding the current crop of Sci-Fi programming to that standard. Can that hyperdrive technology happen, given the rules of the world that the show has communicated? "Heroes" is has a pretty poor record in this regard - luckily, it flows well enough that I can overlook those plot/environment inconsistencies. In fact, it is probably more a fantasy than pure science fiction, which is probably its saving grace.

As Chadbourn concludes, "Right now...society needs fantasy. It doesn’t really need SF." Society wants to deal in scientific facts. If a story, whether it be in print or on the screen, is too close to reality, the world currently requires proof before it can be enjoyed. This is an unfriendly climate for Sci-Fi. Fantasy, on the other hand, serves as an escape from the realism - and is booming right now.

So, Chadbourn has something here with this theory. I'd just like to see what Robert A. Heinlein would have said about it.

I tend to call shenanigans on him thinking he is important enough to be a factor in anything like that. setting aside the isolated field of literature only, on the contrary, we have:

1. Stargate that just finished its run as a big hit, and it has successfully established Atlantis as an encore series.

2. Bionic Woman, on a prime channel as opposed to cable

3. Battlestar Galactica

4. New Star Trek movie coming out

5. Tons of other sci-fi movies like Aliens vs. Predators 2, I Am Legend, and approximately 90 others in development for release within the next three years.

6. Heroes

7. A healthy after-life on cable, especially the sci-fi channeel, for shows like Star Trek, Farscape, Babylon 5, Firefly

8. Somebody hasn't been checking DVD sales for boxed sets, because the sci-fi sets are selling better than most other genres.

9. Eureka on sci-fi

10. Dr. Who

That's just off the top of my head. While you can argue about how good or bad each of these is, the fact is that Sci-fi is doing great in every medium there is, with the possible exception of books. Even in the book field, all of these sci-fi shows now have novels out, and those old enough can remember when all there was to choose from was mostly Star Trek books. The diversity of sci-fi subjects is AMAZING compared to the few choices we used to have. If the writer chose to look at sci-fi overall and not restrict it to just books, he would not make any claims about sci-fi being limited. Sci-fi has a natural tendency to bias towards visual examples, making literature the last place in the modern era to go looking for it.

Is is any wonder that epic fantasies picked up a little after the success of Lord of the Rings, while sci-fi literature has a small decline, especially in the modern age where even heavy readers like myself are reading less and spending more time on the computer? Doing things like posting on websites right now? Heh. It is the height of arrogance to think you can point to one unrelated man and try to give him credit for having a hand in what may be a temporary sales decline, or even the trend of low sales that has many bigger societal factors.


-- Posted by: tpull at October 16, 2007 9:15 PM

I don't think science fiction movies would ever die. Instead they would be more popular.

-- Posted by: Science fiction DVD movies at October 17, 2007 2:46 AM

Chadbourn is wrong. A large segment of current science-fiction publications *is* hard sf. That is to say, precisely the kind of literature he is talking about: with watertight science combined with intense action and convoluted plots. I am talking about Reynolds, Stross, Banks, Asher, Watts et al.

Also, fantasy genre is not doing so well either: the bottom fell out of the market on epic/heroic fantasy over the last couple of years, and nowadays the big sellers are magical realism and "juvenile" fiction (not that they are bad choices, per se, but...)

And, of course, the easy availability of practically any text (via torrent, for example) does not help sales either.

Finally, atheists had nothing to do with it. (In fact, most of the aforementioned writers--the new generation, anyway--are themselves largely atheistic).

-- Posted by: Jorg at October 17, 2007 3:18 AM

Maybe it's just that Eric Frank Russell, A. E. Van Vogt, Asaac Asimov etc are a hard act to follow.

-- Posted by: Gordon Hide at October 17, 2007 12:31 PM

I am very critical of what I spend my time reading or watching. It is "my" entertainment and that is nothing to be ashamed of. Producers and writers alike are being held accountable to make better programming. This is why Star Trek: Enterprise failed prematurely, and why well-acted, well-written shows like Battlestar Galactica are such a hit...

You could also say that it is science-fiction writers and popularizers themselves that have helped bring about this "rationality" boom. Asimov was a jack-of-all-trades and an avid atheist. Douglas Adams (arguably the most creative and original SF writer) was also an avid atheist and mocked religion constantly in his books. In fact most sci-fi fiction, based on a futuristic earth's history, generally portray those societies as rational and religion as either dead or nearly so.

So how is it that a rationalist like Dawkins can negatively affect the sci-fi market by advocating the worldviews that most sci-fi advocates?

-- Posted by: Andrew at October 18, 2007 2:59 AM

Just a note - I do see that Chadbourn has added a comment saying that he really shouldn't have used Dawkins as a single 'Smoking Gun' to point to the decline of Sci-Fi sales.

But, it is true - sales are declining. I personally think it is the fact that there really are about five million hardcore fans in the US and a few million overseas. Sure, shows like Doctor Who crossover to more viewers and readers, but the vast majority of us (like tpull noted above) are busy doing a bunch of other things. So, we simply do not have the bandwidth to look at everyting.

I do think that some of the past generation writers had it a bit easier than today's crop, though. We can do so much more with technology today that it is hard to come up with the 'rocketship to the moon' idea that an author can talk about without resorting to high fantasy.

Said in another way, since we can do almost anything, it is hard for SF to find a niche.

-- Posted by: Fred at October 18, 2007 2:45 PM

Very interesting... as always! Cheers from -Switzerland-.

-- Posted by: Dog training at November 25, 2007 11:53 AM