What happens when the science fiction worldview goes universal?

The title of American author Thomas Wolfe’s famous posthumous novel might be You Can’t Go Home Again, but most authors do go home over and over during their lifetimes. When I visit relatives in my home state of Alabama I am always asked how my writing career is going, where my upcoming stories will be published, and what new stories I’m working on.

But while my relatives are thrilled at my literary success, the funny thing is few of them actually read my stories.

One relative even told me she can’t read science fiction stories. While she reads lots of fiction and particularly enjoys the mystery genre, science fiction doesn’t make sense to her. She can’t read SF stories because she literally doesn’t understand the world creation and themes and ideas which support the genre.

When my relative first told me this, I couldn’t believe it. After all, science fiction is everywhere in today’s world, from TV to films to video games. Even technology fashions such as smartphones and tablets and wearable tech are influenced by science fiction. How could someone not understand the underlying themes and motifs of the SF genre?

But then I read an essay by genre author and critic Shaun Duke and understood why my aunt doesn’t read SF. In this essay Shaun suggested people consider science fiction as one of the “supergenres” alongside realistic fiction and anti-realistic fiction, underneath of which would then exist the traditional genres of historical novels, crime stories, romances, fantasies, mysteries, and so on.

As Shaun said, “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. However, I wonder if Shaun didn’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 individualized 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 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're about to encounter.

Now before people attack this theory of mine, let me state that I also understand there’s more to genre than merely worldview—in our current 21st century world there’s also a marketing aspect to genres 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 my relative is unable to read science fiction. Her worldview—the way she sees the universe and her place in it—does not encompass a science fiction spin on reality. To her, SF is literally outside the realm of things she’s willing to accept as being part of existence.

The good news for the science fiction worldview is that growing numbers of people are both accepting it and seeing the world through SF eyes. We live in a time of vast technological and societal change, where humanity’s old assumptions and cultural norms are being forced to adapt to new circumstances at a dizzying speed. It’s no wonder science fiction films and TV shows and video games and manga are so popular.

But this also raises the question of what happens to the SF literary genre when the science fiction worldview becomes so ubiquitous.

Most people approach SF these days through mediums other than the written word. And while science fiction may be popular in visual mediums like films, fewer people than ever are actually reading SF literature, meaning that those who still read SF are trending older and older. This is the exact opposite of other literary genres like fantasy and horror.

At a recent convention I asked a well-known author why he thought written fantasy had eclipsed the science fiction genre in recent years. This author (whom I can’t name because it was a private conversation) said that “Unlike with the fantasy genre, science fiction is still trying to discover what it wants to say.”

But what if the problem with SF isn’t that it doesn’t know what 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 that the literary genre itself seems rather tame and boring?

I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what I’m contemplating these days as I write my stories. But if there’s any truth in this, for science fiction literature to again become relevant then how our genre views the world—and our genre’s place in our fictional understandings of life—must change.

Note: This essay was originally published as one of my monthly columns in the Czech SF/F magazine XB-1.