The Future of Science Fiction
by James Gunn

From a 2014 exchange between James Gunn a Chinese SF scholar.

...You ask good questions, and I am encouraged about the future of SF coming from outside the U.S. I have felt that the boundaries are blurring that have kept SF well defined through the decades since its form was determined the early years of the 20th century. Even in 1975, when my illustrated history of SF, ALTERNATE WORLDS, was published, I ended with the prediction that the blurring that was then in evidence would accelerate. I was talking about the mainstream then, but the blurring also is occurring on the edge of fantasy.

I think two major issues help explain what has happened. The first is the diminishing influence of the American magazines (there are only three magazines left, and their sales have been reduced to a fraction of what they once were), and the magazines, particularly ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION and then GALAXY and THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, were gatekeepers, who defined SF (and fantasy) by what they let through into their magazines and by what they didn't publish. Now, with the book market dominating what genre fiction is published (and read), there is no one to enforce discipline--or definition--and the reader is losing any way to grasp such distinctions.

Second, science itself has gotten fuzzy in the past few decades, what with string theory and particle theory suggesting that the universe at both ends is far less understood and more uncertain than we thought (although Haldane said much earlier, "Now my suspicion is the the universe not only may be queerer than we think but queerer than we can think." All that gives some license for fantasy.

There may be other reasons, such as the playing out of science-fictional themes, and the greater accessibility of fantasy, and several major fantasy bestsellers in the 1960s, such as Tolkien, Levin's Rosemary's Baby, Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, and, more recently, the Harry Potter series. It is difficult for SF to compete in the best-seller competition.

But this isn't to suggest that SF doesn't have a future. When I first began writing, there were maybe a dozen full-time writers of SF in the U.S. Today there are hundreds. All that is made possible by the book market, which now is close to 3,000 books a year in the U.S. Fantasy may be more popular than SF at the moment, but there still are almost a thousand SF books published each year. And, of course, SF has become a staple in film and in television, and a leader in scope and earnings, where once it was almost non-existent. Science fiction has metastasized into the mass consciousness.

SF in particular thrives on innovation (fantasy is more traditional), and over the years has gone through a period of redefinition in this country every dozen years. Those were created by new magazines or new editors. The last innovation (and it was delayed several years) was cyberpunk; because it was created in the book field and not nurtured by the magazines, it was not as big or as influential as the earlier ones. What one might look for is a place and an inspiration for something new and a response from writers who up to now have not found an audience for what they imagine and create.

So, yes, I do see a future for SF. Unlike fantasy, which is a look inward and backward, SF looks at the real world and its potential for good and bad, and helps us evaluate what we should do about those things, and it is an invaluable educational experience for its readers; we should encourage young people to read it, because it trains the mind to think critically and imaginatively. My motto is "Let's save the world through science fiction," and I mean that only a little bit as hyperbole.


Updated 11/15/2014