Science and Awe, and F Displacing SF

I read an interesting article recently in the National Post discussing how fantasy, over the last few decades, is displacing science fiction. As a fantasy writer with a PhD in research science, I’ve thought a lot over the years about this very subject.

I’ve heard the displacement of SF attributed in part to the landing of the Viking 2 lander on Mars in 1976. Before that landing, SF featuring aliens or creatures living on Mars was still reasonably plausible. But after the Viking lander sent back those pictures of the actual surface of the planet, those scenarios were obviously inaccurate. So SF had to abandon them and stick with scientifically plausible ones.

The period of that landing also included several other major things in F/SF. Fantasy exploded in the U.S. in the early 70s, fueled by the paperback release of The Lord of the Rings, and publishers met the booming demand for similar epic F with lots of new trilogies. Classic fantasy, like Conan and Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser, was rediscovered. The World Fantasy Awards were founded, giving fantasy some artistic legitimacy.

I think one of the things this new fantasy captured well was the sense of awe and wonder that draws so many readers to F/SF. After the Viking probe drained most of the speculative wonder from the surface of Mars, SF lost some of its potential for that awe in Mars as a fictional setting. I think that same pattern has repeated many times since after more recent and more specialized scientific discoveries.

Some SF, as the Post article points out, has kept using fantastical elements that modern scientists consider impossible, such as FTL drive and time travel. But fantasy still outsells SF as the choice of most speculative fiction readers. Perhaps they like fantasy’s familiarity, with its common pre-tech or paranormal urban settings. Perhaps they don’t like scientific details as entertainment (I’ve taught enough college chemistry courses to know first-hand that many people just don’t enjoy hard science). Or perhaps it’s fantasy’s unfettered awe, limited only by the writer’s (and the reader’s) imagination, heedless of scientific plausibility.

I know the reasons that I, even with a PhD in biophsyical chemistry, prefer to write and read fantasy. For one, given my background I spot the scientific misconceptions in lots of SF. More important for me is the feeling of awe. I want great characters and an engaging plot, but I also read fiction to be transported to an amazing other place. In SF, the limits of trying to stay scientifically plausible restrict things so much that it drains the awe for me.

As a response, will there continue to be more SF containing “fantasy” elements of implausible science, like time travel? Or if our society had more and better science education (a worthy but unlikely effort), would more readers enjoy SF? Or does it not matter what subgenre type of spec-fic readers are enjoying? Like George R. R. Martin says, it’s all “weird stuff.” If it still has some awe, it’s fine with me.

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