Within the science fiction community, people mark their calendars not with the cycle of seasons, but with a handful of rotating, perennial discussions that usually ignite mailing lists and blogs. One of the most heated of these arguments is whether "science fiction is dying." There are some who believe it to be undoubtedly true, others who believe it to be ridiculous, and still others who are so tired of the subject constantly rearing its ugly head, that to even give it utterance evokes a disgusted eye roll. Some of the more seasoned fans of science fiction have reason to be skeptical of the claim: this same discussion has been going on for decades (which itself is evidence of the truthfulness of the claim). There was even a point in the late 1950s where the advent of the space program was being blamed for the demise of science fiction.
The Rise of Science Fiction Author As Oracle
Between the 1920s and the mid-1950s, the dominant source medium of science fiction was the magazine. One of the most influential editors during this time was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, who was a stickler for scientifically accurate stories. He required his writers to have a sound understanding of science and use that knowledge in their fiction. By using real science, he surmised, the writers could predict future technology and quite possibly future events. The mantra thus became "Today's fiction – tomorrow's fact!"
This sat well with the majority of science fiction readers, as it gave credence to a genre usually looked down upon by people who didn't read it. And look! Science fiction's predictive powers could even be backed up with examples: H.G. Wells had predicted tank warfare in the 1903 short story "The Land Ironclads"; Hugo Gernsback invented the television in his 1929 novel Ralph 124C 41+; and nuclear power plants were foreseen by both Robert A. Heinlein in his 1940 story "Blowups Happen" and by Lester del Rey in his 1942 story "Nerves."
The nuclear theme, in fact, became quite prominent once science fiction, like all literature does, began to reflect the times, specifically the 1945 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the final stages of World War II. Rightfully so, this cast a pallor over the mood of science fiction, as writers and readers tried to cope with the harshness of reality.
In trying to keep science fiction optimistic, John W. Campbell steered stories towards the promise of space travel. He published space travel stories which were, as usual, based on sound science and, as usual, believed to be where we were actually headed. By the early 1950s, science fiction was thriving and had everyone convinced it was just a matter of time before space travel would happen for real.
But things started to change in 1957 when it did become real.
The Fallacy of Science Fiction as Prophecy
You might guess that the launch of the first man-made object into orbit around the Earth – the USSR's Sputnik 1, on October 4, 1957 – would be much cause for rejoicing among science fiction fans. At first, it was. It was the crest of the hill, the other side of which would prove that science fiction had been right all along. The naysayers would finally have to face facts: science fiction was not only valid, it was useful.
That didn't happen. The world largely didn't care that science fiction had been doing space travel for years. Meanwhile, from a fan perspective, all reality did was repeatedly turn science fiction into fantasy once many so-called predictions were shown to be false. Sadly, as momentous as it was, space travel proved to be less interesting than fiction, at least in the eyes of some diehard sf fans. Where was the adventure? Where was the romance of space travel? The answer is that it never existed. Those who asked had fallen into a trap.
The idea that science fiction tries to predict the future is a fallacy. That it has predicted the future is accidental and most times, in so general a manner and so little in frequency as to be nothing more than worth mentioning in passing. We can still cite examples today – “Arthur C. Clarke predicted the geostationary communications satellite in 1945!" – but that's missing the point of science fiction.
Science fiction is not written to predict the future. Science fiction is written to explore the present. It's written from the perspective of telling good stories. Rather than predict the future, science fiction envisions and analyzes a believable world in which to tell that story. Readers don't really want predictions, they want the wondrous visions and insight. Science fiction is not prophecy; it's a shrink session.
Nevertheless, after the time of Sputnik, science fiction magazine sales declined. But science fiction wasn't dying, it was changing. The magazines, for decades the prominent source of sf, withered, but paperbacks sales rose. Yet people focused on the magazines and interpreted their declining sales as representative of the field as a whole. It's a misconception of scope, and the misconceptions are still happening today like clockwork. Science fiction isn't dying, it's changing again just like it did then. It's always changing. That's what keeps it fun and relevant.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also likes bagels.