Lately I’ve been reading two books of science fiction short stories from the 1950’s, In the Beginning by Robert Silverberg and The Masque of Manana by Robert Sheckley. I’ve been struck by how unrealistic the science is. In every other story characters hop on a spaceship and zip off to Fomalhaut IV or Betelgeuse III (as if people would give a planet a number according to its order from the star instead of a name). Really, the science is sheer fantasy.
Three of the most common tropes from Golden Age science fiction are fantasy: faster than light travel, time travel (going back in time) and telepathy. If you took away those three ideas, you would wipe out most 20th century science fiction, and all three are impossible. What we think of as classic science fiction is for the most part as fantastic as elves, magic and unicorns, but because it uses scientific concepts it has a veneer of plausibility – until you think about the science.
Science fiction today is much more believable. Serious SF does not glibly zip characters off to Aldebaran V, unless the author is making some self-conscious, postmodern homage to the old stuff. The purest expression of the contemporary naturalism in science fiction is a movement called Mundane SF. If the science is far-fetched, then it’s out.
Much of today’s SF is believable and naturalistic. It is also bad. It is often mind-numbingly boring, anti-heroic and plotless. It has all the traits of mainstream modern literature that intellectuals love, or pretend to love, and readers hate.
In such magazines as Fantasy and Science Fiction and Asimov’s we are watching the slow suicide of SF by naturalism. The process started in the 1960’s with the New Wave and the wave continues to this day. The New Wave brought modern literature to science fiction, making it naturalistic and conscious of style. Since then it has been increasingly difficult to take the tropes of Golden Age SF seriously.
This suicide by naturalism is ironic as SF has taken over movies, TV and video games. Visual media love whooshing spaceships, ray guns, aliens and all those giddy concepts from the Golden Age. The science in Star Wars is comparable to 1930’s written SF.
Since the late 1970’s readers have been abandoning science fiction for what used to be its neglected little sister, fantasy. Readers don’t want plotless non-stories about a neurotic scientist suffering a mid-life crisis as he discovers some form of pollution that will destroy mankind. They don’t care if the science is realistic, they want an interesting story about heroes who are fascinating to contemplate. They want romanticism. Today they know they’re more likely to find it in a paperback with a sorcerer on the cover than one with a spaceship or a cover with some modern smears of color on it.