But that’ll be up to us.

I tend to read both science fiction and fantasy from the opposite ends of the spectrum. I love new, avant garde, experimental (whatever you want to call it) literary SF and fantasy by the likes of Harlan Ellison, Iain Banks, Catherynne M. Valente, and J.M. McDermott. But I also love the classic pulp SF and fantasy of the Weird Tales/Amazing Stories era. I have a collection of Ace Doubles, and a small collection of pulp magazines from the 40s and 50s (and would love to be able to afford more). I read and love Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Frank Belknap Long, and A.E. van Vogt.

This week, let’s talk a bit about the latter group, and specifically in regards to science fiction as opposed to fantasy.

"Triumph Over Tragedy"--a good cause supported  and a serious theme explored (in my case) via space opera.

“Triumph Over Tragedy”–a good cause supported and a serious theme explored (in my case) via space opera.

I’ve been hearing for more than a decade now about the lack of audience for science fiction. Fantasy in its various forms from Rowling to Tolkien has taken over entirely, and the average SF title sells a slim fraction of what any given imprint’s fantasy titles sell. If you ask the publishing world, science fiction is dead as fried chicken.

But what happens if you ask Hollywood?

Time and again any given year’s breakout blockbuster is a science fiction movie. What was The Avengers if not science fiction? How’s Gravity doing at the box office? And this is hardly a new thing. Some of Hollywood’s biggest money makers have been science fiction movies—the Star Wars franchise, anyone? The Matrix? Alien?

So what’s with the disconnect? Why aren’t science fiction titles leaping from the bookstore shelves?

I think I have the answer:

With very few exceptions, the contemporary science fiction novel simply isn’t fun to read. I’m as fond of the “big idea” SF novel as anyone. I did just identify myself as an Iain Banks fan. But I’m honestly having trouble thinking of a contemporary science fiction author who’s writing SF adventure, space opera, etc.

The Avengers was fun as all get out to watch. Are the SF novels being published this year anywhere near as fun?

A shameless plug for a bit of space opera/western by yours truly!

A shameless plug for a bit of space opera/western by yours truly!

And consider, too, that Hollywood often tries its hand at “serious” SF and there are some indie SF movies that I think are among the best ever, like Primer and Moon. But The Matrix got a much bigger audience than either of those movies. Why?

The Matrix had an underlying philosophical stance. It had a very  Philip K. Dick-inspired sense of reality breaking down, that everything you thought was true was all an illusion. It was, on some level, “serious.” And it also had kung fu and Bullet Time and a really cool helicopter crash and robotic squids attacking an anti-gravity hovercraft, and all sorts of running around and jumping and shooting. It had action, romance, and humor aplenty.

One thing I don’t do is publically criticize other authors, so I’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks in terms of the authors I might be referring to as having forgotten those three important elements to entertaining storytelling. But please stop asking me to choose between a compelling idea and an entertaining experience. Frank Herbert had an awful lot to say about the dangers of a single-resource economy in Dune and managed to make that case against the backdrop of a terrific adventure story with wildly evil villains, knife fights, and giant monsters. In the mid-80s William Gibson all but saved the even-then flagging genre with Neuromancer, which, like Dune, is a book to be taken seriously, but is also a hell of a ride.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

So here I am, out here shouting in the wilderness, hoping that not just authors but agents and editors too will hear the clarion call:

We want science fiction, just not the science fiction you keep trying to sell to us.

Don’t be jaded. Don’t think that a good story, well told, is silly or frivolous, or that no one can have something interesting to say while also actually having a plot, conflict, a protagonist, and other things that team up to make not a recitation of scientific or philosophical or political discourse, but a story.

I’ve been writing some science fiction like that, and some smaller publishers, like Tommy Hancock at Pro Se Productions, have been publishing it. Their anthology Six Guns and Spaceships, as well as the Hurricane Sandy relief anthology Triumph Over Tragedy, includes SF stories I wrote featuring space mercenary Dexter Willis—my very own space opera hero.

I’ve also seen some really fun stuff in the indie e-book arena, obviously set aside by those jaded old editors. The material is out there. If certain people stop ignoring it, and the reality of the marketplace, there’ll be hope for the old genre yet.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Craig says:

    Maybe I’m poking a hornets nest, but in my opinion some genres are better for different mediums. I love sitting down and reading fantasy novels, but I like Sci-Fi on a screen (and I do like Sci-Fi, a lot). Maybe because I was born after Star Wars was made, and raised with Star Trek on TV, but a Sci-Fi book? For some reason it just doesn’t feel right.

    Could be that’s just me and my preferences, but it sounds like there are a lot of people out there who are the same way. If I think of all the guys I’m friends with in my age group (early 30’s), every single person reads fantasy, but only one reads Sci-Fi (and that guy only reads Dune books).

    Kind of like straight up comedy… yeah there are funny books, but no where near the sales volume of what’s out there in movies and television. I’m sure few people say, “I need a good laugh… I’ll go crack open a book.” It’s probably similar for when people need their Sci-Fi kick.

    But, if I want to escape back into a world where a man had to brave harrowing landscapes with nothing but his wits and the sword on his back to keep him alive, well no way I’m letting some Hollywood producer cheapen that experience!

  2. Having written an essay titled “Un-Die Sci-Fi”, I have already mourned the genre as the walking dead. Pun intended. Yet I have not lost hope…

    As much I still read paper based books and not eReading, Sci-Fi may not be in a death spiral to extinction. Where I am finding very interesting Sci-Fi is in video games. For instance, the “Mass Effect” and “BioShock” trilogies are every bit of world class Sci-Fi writing. With multiple endings and plots, same plot with different characters, many included side stories, and other related characters/stories continued in downloadable content, Sci-Fi might be the first genre of literature to go beyond the book form. Everything gets published in some of these video games: back story, world building notes, maps, etc. The next generations will demand this type of interactive multiple ‘read/play’ through. While literature will go the way of opera and modern art, so eclectic that the predominate culture will scarcely notice them, Sci-Fi may just be evolving. And wouldn’t it be Sci-Fi the best genre of literature to embrace technology?

  3. Pingback: WHAT PULP CAN TEACH US | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. Leonie says:

    Yes! This is such a good article! Having grown up reading Heinlein, Norton, McCaffrey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Asimov etc – Some of their ideas were ground breaking, but a lot of them were simply a good story. Readers crave a good story, and sometimes the story can get lost in the ideas, no matter how clever or amazing that they are.

  5. Charles Taylor says:

    I too like Space Opera and hard science so I have been enjoying Jack Campbells Lost Fleet. Big fleet battles but with the reality of manoeuvring at relativistic speeds. The problems of a fleet a long way behind the front line and an interesting lead character in Black Jack.

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