A brief history of trends in published science fiction

Before the haters start to hate, I want to preface this by saying that I know it’s filled with over-generalizations. There are writers at every time period that don’t fit the standards I’ve written here, even popular ones. I’m not a scholar; I’m a writer trying to figure out where my book fits in the broader scheme of publishing and subgenres of science fiction. I wrote a book to say something from my soul, and now I’m trying to define and find my market. The business of getting a book into print doesn’t come easily to me, and I’m trying to define my vision in terms that editors and publishers might find useful. My efforts helped me to think about the history of science fiction, so I’m sharing it on my blog.

Beginnings

A major dipole in modern published science fiction was established in the late 1800s between the science-friendly adventure-oriented visions of Jules Verne and the science-critical social-commentary-oriented imaginings of H.G. Wells. This was when anything was possible, and trends weren’t really established yet, though this dipole paved the way for future writers to explore. Science fiction was largely a place where tech geeks could fantasize about what the world could be like if such and such technology were more fully developed.

The early 1900s were science fiction’s growth spurt, with authors trying to find a place for themselves. Hugo Gernsback started the first science fiction pulp magazine in 1926, Amazing Stories. It published stories that were largely based on views of how the future might look and was notable for popularizing what was seen as an eccentric hobby enough to be placed in the newsstands of the time. The work continued to straddle the optimistic/pessimistic line established by Verne and Wells, and the style was that of the pulp page-turner story, suited to more light-hearted, escapist reading.

The Golden Age

The 1930s were a period of growth spurt for science fiction as it attempted inroads into the more “literary” establishment of the time. Writing became more serious and less page-turnery, which led to the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction typified by the writing published in the 1940s and 1950s. While the magazines still featured the same pulpy covers as in the 1920s and 30s (bug-eyed aliens, damsels in distress, space jets and zeppelins, etc.), the stories tended to be more serious and focused more on characters and themes that would appeal to an older, more educated reader. Hard science fiction was in vogue, and wartime technologies were major components. Stories generally celebrated the possibilities that technology could provide in the future, and though there were always critiques within the books, they were generally pro-future, toward a better tomorrow. Writers like Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov are considered to be leading writers of this time period.

The New Wave

Then the 60s hit, and the so-called New Wave scifi trend became prevalent. Soft science fiction came into vogue as social movements and upheavals were the backdrop for people’s lives. It was a repudiation of both the adolescent pulp escapism, the stodgy hard-science materialism and a perceived lack of real social critique in the popular science fiction of the 30s-50s. Writers like Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, Ursula LeGuin, J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delaney and Philip K. Dick, among others, made their mark in the 60s and 70s “New Wave” period of science fiction. Their work was characterized by experimentation with structure, a laser focus on present-day social issues, a sense of altered consciousness and portrayals of characters as irrational (rather than the stand-up heroes of Golden-Age and earlier scifi). Its proponents said that the New Wave helped to bring a depth of feeling, social consciousness and poetry to the genre that up until then it had been lacking. Stream of consciousness narration, unreliable narrators and other literary techniques were employed. Sex and drugs, racial issues and a focus on the character’s interior experience were all brought to the table. Critics said that stories lacked proper narrative structure and relied on unrealistic depictions of technology to describe implausible futures. Responses to those critiques said that none of that was even the point.

The New Wave helped science fiction gain more mainstream acceptance as it was mirrored by similar experimental/radical trends in art, lifestyle and politics. However, as the experimentalism of the 60s faded during the economic woes of the 70s and 80s, New Wave also faded from scifi consciousness, and hard SF came back into vogue briefly, though new life had been breathed into it because authors felt freer to use more radical literary techniques to get their points across.

Post-Wave

In the mid-70s was when science fiction came into its own as a major publishing market. Science fiction had hit such critical consciousness that there were far more flourishings of science fiction sub-genres. Enough people were doing it that there were many groups going in different directions. For instance, the social justice sprout from New Wave hit through writers like Octavia Butler in the late 70s and 80s, while the hard-sf renaissance became established in writers like David Brin and Larry Niven.

The post-New Wave period also saw an influx of writers who just wrote stories, stuff uncategorizable even in the scifi community because they were inspired by so many disparate sources and movements within and outside of scifi. Many terms have been used over the years including slipstream, speculative fiction, New Weird and other such non-names. As science fiction became a genre in the vein of the mystery, the romance, the horror story, or the swords and sorcery fantasy genre, writers sampled tropes and ideas from all to create cross-genre works. Writers like M. John Harrison and Iain M. Banks are among my favorites in this non-group or collection of non-groups that morphed into what I’d consider to be mass market genre science fiction (more on that later). Later writers inspired by the speculative fiction non-movement include Neil Gaiman and China Mieville, two more of my favorites.

Cyberpunk

And, of course, there’s cyberpunk, about which I’ve written. Cyberpunk has been described as perhaps the clearest successor in the social-critique scifi literary sense to New Wave – essentially it’s New Wave meets the Internet. During the 80s and 90s, it achieved critical awareness and popularity with its focus on setting, surface detail and mood rather than plot or even character development. Notable writers include the inimitable William Gibson as well as Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and others. It looked at emerging technologies and tried to extrapolate the experiences (rather than the physical realities) of the futures they might create. A deep sense of social isolation emerged. Whereas New Wave fiction often looked at the possibility that we MIGHT destroy the world via nuclear war unless we came to our senses, cyberpunk took as its basis that we WERE, actively, making the world a worse place rather than a better one. It took a bleak, acerbic tone that continues in work published today, though its heyday was in the 80s and early 90s. There were other “movements” in the Post-Wave era of scifi, but this is one of the chief influences on my style and is definitely one of the most successful.

Mass Market Genre Science Fiction

Around the time of the early 80s was when science fiction came into its own, major shakeups were happening in American culture as a whole. The rise of the big national store chain was in full swing, and bookstores were no exception. Borders and Barnes & Noble got their start in the mid-70s and rose to massive national prominence in the 80s and early 90s. An explosion of literacy created demand for books among kids and adults alike, and chain bookstores scrambled to meet those demands, creating many of the mass market genres we now consider second nature. With all the books shelved next to one another, readers became more savvy to all the different possibilities for books and writing; this also contributed to the explosion of cross-genre and sub-genre growth within science fiction. A greater diversity of readers became aware of science fiction as well as other genres, making for the rich period of growth in Post-Wave writing.

This contributed to the development of the mass-market science fiction book through the 80s and into the 90s. This coincided with movements in other scifi subgenres and didn’t really reach its peak until the late 90s and through the 00s, I think, as science fiction/fantasy started to get “cool” with movies like The Matrix and book series like Harry Potter. The mass market scifi book was characterized by a strong page-turner plot, sympathetic characters, romantic elements, imaginative settings and a well-defined goal. It took the most addictive elements from several genres – the well-plotted mystery, the page-turner thriller quality, the romance relationships, the creative scifi/fantasy setting – and combined them to serve as broad a readership demographic as possible. In my mind, it developed partially as a business decision to take advantage of the growth of American literacy and partially among writers as a push-back against the bleak, serious, critical and generally not-fun tone of many of the New Wave and Post-Wave movements. Scifi writers just took themselves so damn seriously, lighten up and just tell a good story with cool stuff happening.

YA Dystopias

The 00s and early 10s also coincided with the cultivation of the young adult scifi market, which I think is a fascinating direction for the dystopic envisioning that finds lineage from H.G. Wells through the New Wave and cyberpunk movements. Now, post-apocalyptic dystopias are popular among the novels marketed at young adults in series like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfield, and the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, among many others.

I haven’t read all of these, but from what I’ve heard they and others like them take the dystopic vision as a setting but rather than dwelling in the mood or spending a lot of time drawing parallels to the present day, they focus on the character development of young people, making them sort of coming-of-age stories. They make use of a clear good-vs-evil plot rather than the everything-in-shades-of-gray common to cyberpunk. A common critique of cyberpunk these days is that it’s not edgy anymore because everything it described kind of came to pass. In a sense, its purpose was completed – the mass market of readers knows the world is bad, hard,unequal, has this amoral tech-centric underbelly. These YA novels take dystopia as a given and don’t even need to spend time explaining its relevance.

And Beyond…

Science fiction became popular as a result of the New Wave in the 60s and 70s that brought poetry, experimentation, and present-day social themes  into the discourse, elevating the writing into its own art form and making it relevant to readers on a deeper level through thematic exploration and character development instead of the tropes created in the 30s and made serious and expanded upon in the Golden Age. It exploded into many different sub-genres and non-genres, and out of this rich, roiling mass of weird writing emerged the Mass Market Scifi Bestseller, currently reigning supreme for publishers.

As a writer, this is the historical field into which I place my work. I think that the Mass Market Scifi Bestseller has had a good run and will likely remain relevant for many years to come in its present form and whatever future form it might take. It has a strong lineage through science fiction back to the early Gernsback pulp magazines, the “Amazing Stories” sold at newsstands. But I think that science fiction is beginning to yearn again for writing that deliberately and self-consciously sacrifices mass market appeal, if only a little bit at first, in favor of advancing the social discourse. The wide success of books like Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, with its slow build and complex plot involving cyborgs with multiple bodies that don’t know what the other bodies are doing, set against the backdrop of galactic colonialism and empire (see my review), furthers this belief.

My own style owes a lot to the cyberpunk moodiness that I fell in love with as a kid first reading science fiction, but the hopeful, page-turner qualities of mass market scifi and YA dystopia coming-of-age stories also bleed into it. It is a conscious reaching into the past and into my own life experience to combine with the present-day market to create a new reader experience. The story is not just about criticizing or depicting the status quo, it’s about struggling with reality, coming to a decision and building something new.

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