Shaun Duke raises an interesting point by saying that science fiction has in many ways become a supergenre. Shaun began thinking about this during a discussion with Maureen Kincaid Speller and Paul Kincaid about what science fiction "is," a discussion in which Kincaid said thinking of SF as a genre in the narrative sense is not an accurate application of the term "genre."
Cue the Shaun-Duke-summarizing-and-melding-with-Paul-Kincaid quote:
Shaun then suggests that people consider science fiction as one of the "supergenres" alongside realistic fiction and anti-realistic fiction, underneath of which rest the traditional genres of historical novels, crime stories, romances, fantasies, and so on. "These supergenres would not necessarily define the genres beneath them, but they would suggest a relationship between genres that moves beyond narrative practice, but never quite leaves it behind. A fantasy novel might be as much historical as it is anti-realist; the former is a narrative practice, while the latter is a conceptual 'game.'"
Shaun makes some fascinating points in his essay, which I suggest people go and read. I also look forward to reading Shaun's future exploration of this topic.
However, I wonder if Shaun doesn't take his thought experiment far enough. Perhaps instead of even speaking of science fiction as a genre or supergenre, we should instead speak of SF and other established genres as viewpoints toward seeing the world.
After all, fiction itself is a worldview, a way of saying that certain types of stories have not truly happened and likely will never happen. The "fiction" worldview allows people to approach fictional stories with a different frame of mind than the viewpoints we have when approaching historical texts, or memoirs, or poetry, or even real life.
And within the viewpoint of fiction rest more individualized views of what fiction can accomplish. These viewpoints—our traditional genres like fantasy, horror, romance and so on—essential set up people to understand what they're about to experience. Just as the human mind must learn to interpret the sensory inputs we receive from our eyes and ears—allowing us to know that this image we're seeing is a tree, and that buzzing sound we're hearing is a bee—so too must people learn to understand the fictional stories they experience. Hence the existence of genres, which help people understand the fictional motifs and themes and beliefs they are about to encounter.
Now I know there's more to genre than merely a worldview—there's also a marketing aspect which publishers and authors use to sell books, along with social communities of readers connected with each genre. However, I think this worldview theory is still a useful way to understand part of why genres exist.
And if it's true that genre should in part be understood as a literary viewpoint, this would also help explain why science fiction is in such decline.
During Readercon earlier this year I spoke briefly with a well-known author whose fiction, while incorporating many aspects of SF, is not usually considered a part of the science fiction genre. (Yes, I'm being vague, but this was a personal conversation and I don't intend to name the author.) When I asked the author why he thought fantasy had eclipsed the science fiction genre in recent years, he said that "Unlike with the fantasy genre, science fiction is still trying to discover what it wants to say."
This quote struck me because I'm fascinated with why so few people these days read science fiction. But what if the problem with SF isn't that it merely doesn't know what it wants to say to 21st century audiences (although I believe that is part of the problem). What if the worldview of science fiction, centered around technological change and futurism and humanity's place in the universe, no longer strikes many people as being unique to the genre because this worldview has become common among a sizable portion of humanity.
In short, what if SF's worldview is now the defacto worldview of so many people living through the technological changes of the 21 century that the genre seems rather tame and boring?
I don't know if this is true, but it's what I'm contemplating today. But if there's any truth in this, then if science fiction is to again become relevant to people the way our genre views the world—and our genre's place in our fictional understandings of life—must change.