The ol’ science fiction ghetto

I ran across this article by Chris Beckett, “The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction,” today during lunch while I was reading something else posted at The Atlantic. Later in the day, I noticed that both Dan Frakes and Jason Snell tweeted links to it—approvingly, I believe.

I don’t disapprove of the article. It’s nicely written and the thesis—science fiction deserves respect!—is well supported. But the topic is awfully stale. Defensive articles like this were thick on the ground back when I was first getting into science fiction in the late 70s. The only difference between those and Beckett’s are the examples of stories that don’t get classified as science fiction because mainstream critics like them. Back then, the examples were Brave New World and 1984; now, they’re The Handmaid’s Tale and… 1984. Some things are evergreen, I guess.

Outside of the articles, though, there are some significant differences between the acceptance of science fiction then and now. First, science fiction has taken over popular culture. As I said a few years ago,

But you have to remember that science fiction was a film ghetto before Star Wars. Not only were the movies artistically bad (for every 2001, there were a hundred Logan’s Runs, and sf was still fighting the legacy of the low-budget BEM films of the ’50s), they regularly failed at the box office.

Take a look at this list of top grossing movies by year. Before 1977, science fiction and fantasy are hard to find; after 1977, they dominate. This may not be giving science fiction writers the kind of literary acknowledgement Beckett wants, but their work is much more likely to optioned for film adaptation, which is not only lucrative, it also provides an opportunity for the work to reach a huge audience.

And it’s not as if there’s no literary acknowledgement. Look at the short bio at the bottom of Beckett’s article:

CHRIS BECKETT is a university lecturer based in Cambridge. His short stories have appeared in Interzone and Asimov’s, and he is the author of Dark Eden and the short-story collection The Turing Test.

I know Beckett’s university position is not as a teacher of science fiction, but he does speak at academic conferences on science fiction, something you’d have been hard pressed to find in the 70s. Yes, there were a few science fiction classes being taught at universities back then. James Gunn was doing it at University of Kansas (there’s now a Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction there), but he was a pioneer. Now, science fiction classes are everywhere—the halls of academe recognizing science fiction as a topic worthy of study.

Despite these improvements, I’m sympathetic to Beckett’s lament that people’s eyes glaze over when he introduces himself as a science fiction writer. No one’s more familiar with that situation than an engineer.