Nobody Wants to Buy The Future: Why Science Fiction Literature is Vanishing

Nobody Wants to Buy The Future: Why Science Fiction Literature is Vanishing

By Simon McNeil

A recent Washington Post article indicated that only 12% of the reading public were interested in reading science fiction.  A perusal of bestseller lists for science fiction shows an even more alarming truth: the science fiction books that do sell are a shrinkingly small number of reprints, classics and novels that had been adapted into movies. 

The December 2023 bestseller list on Publisher’s Weekly contained only two novels published originally in 2023: Pestilence by Laura Thalassa (an odd addition to the Science Fiction list as it is marketed as fantasy / romance) and Starter Villain by John Scalzi. The bestselling SF novel in that time period, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, sold almost 17,000 copies. This puts it far below the bottom of the top 10 overall fiction bestseller list where Sarah J. Maas’ romantasy novel A Court of Mist and Fury sits at 19,097 copies sold. 

Science fiction is not selling.

This marks a significant change from the 1980s, a decade in which science fiction novels like Carl Sagan’s Contact and James Kahn’s novelization of Return of the Jedi appeared amongst the bestsellers of any given year. Many of these were adaptations of blockbuster films or were connected to movie projects, but not all, as Contact did quite well on its own merits.

What’s the cause for Science Fiction literature’s decline? 

Demography holds few answers. Most academic work on Science Fiction readership indicates that the genre  skews toward adults aged 30-45, above average wealth and education, and that its readers tend to be heavy readers who engage regularly with other Science Fiction media. But it’s hardly like there’s less genre media. Cinemas are as full of genre blockbusters as they ever were and most of the comic book franchises skew heavily toward Science Fictional interpretations of their source material rather than fantasysuch as in Thor: The Dark World when Jane is presented with an object called a “soul forge” and, after a few brief questions handwaves its magical elements away as being “a quantum field generator.” This tendency to treat gods and magic as being powerful aliens with what Clarke would describe as “sufficiently advanced technology” persists throughout the “cosmic” entries of the MCU in addition to the Snyder entries in the DC comic film franchise. 

This phenomenon holds the key to science fiction’s fall: Science fiction literature has always depended on an ecosystem of non-literary media, and the transformation of this media landscape, especially how the non-literary media landscape has pivoted to adaptation, has had a significant deleterious effect on the success of science fiction literature.

There is a marked difference between E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial on one hand and exhausted IP shlock like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania on the other. Scifi blockbusters of the 1980s, while not exactly the zenith of altruistic creativity, were at least the product of human imagination as opposed to C-suite thinking. It’s possible part of the decline of science fiction as a saleable genre of literature has to do directly with the reduced interest people are likely to have in tie-in fiction. This is especially exacerbated when the movies become largely adaptations of earlier work, or bomb completely

If a person wants to read the tie-in novel to Denis Villneuve’s 2021 film Dune, there’s a reason why the 2005 anniversary reprint has hung around consistently on the Publisher’s Weekly science fiction bestseller list for the last two years. But there’s something else at play here that has reduced the public’s general taste for science fiction. 

We got to one of the futures Science Fiction proposed, and it sucked.

An oft-cited Tweet from The Onion’s Alex Blechman summarizes it perfectly: 

Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale.
Tech Company: At long last, we created the Torment Nexus from the classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create The Torment Nexus.

We are living in the world John Brunner predicted in Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Upone of corporate dominance, political instability and environmental collapse. We are, all of us, in the Torment Nexus. So why would we want to read what future horrors Silicon Valley merchants of human misery are trying to produce next.

This shouldn’t be taken as some sort of call for optimistic genre fiction.

We can’t hope our way out of climate catastrophe, resurgent fascism and the mass death that results from neoliberal responses to global pandemic.  Robber barons Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk both speak highly of Ian M. Banks’ anarcho-communist Culture series despite the books  being a repudiation of everything Bezos and Musk hold dear. An astute reader of The Player of Games might recognize Musk as best reflected through the various Azadi game players rather than the Culture protagonists, but he would still happily draw a Torment Nexus out of that far-left discourse on linguistic determinism. 

Instead we should treat this as merely a diagnostic pronouncement. If people aren’t buying science fiction then it may be because they’ve seen the future and would rather they had not. It is worth noting that academic research on Science Fiction indicates that Science Fiction readers don’t just read within the genre.

In Patterns of Genre Fiction Readers; a Survey of Durham County Library Patrons,” Kathryn Gundlach identified significant crossover between Science Fiction readers and readers of mystery, historical fiction, adventure and fantasy fiction. She also indicated that many of the respondents in her research treated Science Fiction and science non-fiction somewhat interchangeably in their “genre vocabularies”leading to many respondents reading broadly outside of fiction altogether. These findings were supported by Christopher Benjamin Menadue and Susan Jacups in “Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey” who identified that Science Fiction readers tend to be highly educated, to be interested in science and to be persistent and high-volume readers. 

When we look at the crossover interest of Science Fiction readers in other genres it’s clear most Science Fiction readers were never just Science Fiction readers. Keep in mind that those people who like Science Fiction tend to read quite heavily. Here we find the answer to what is happening to Science Fiction: the readers of the genre are simply reading other things. 

In this we might see the rise of novel subgenres such as Romantasy as representative of the collapse of both the Adult YA reading market (which is in even more dire condition than Science Fiction with the survey cited by the Washington Post showing it being read by just 6% of adult respondents)  and that of Science Fiction. These educated, persistent and high-volume readers don’t want predictions of the future. The New Wave and the Cyberpunks called that back between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s and we’ve got to live with the atrocious results. They want an escapeand the romantic escapism of romance / fantasy hybrid books provides precisely that.

Some others have moved toward non-fiction reading and, here I can speak from personal experience, in the last half-decade my reading has shifted heavily toward science, social science and philosophy rather than science fiction with my own fiction reading centering on the gothic and fantasy.

But if we accept that Science Fiction is struggling as a literary genre because of a combination of the shift towards blockbusters-as-adaptation impacting the tie-in market, having caught up with the grim future predicted in lauded sci-fi of decades past, and the rise of new genres and subgenres drawing away the educated, persistent, high-volume readers who constitute Science Fiction’s core readership then there remains two final questions: can we save Science Fiction and should we?

In The Men Who Sold the Moon,” Eden Kupernmintz laid out a thorough critique of Solarpunk that touched in detail on some of the social elements I’ve addressed above. His argument was that Science Fiction could not challenge the present political order by imagining a “liberal conception of ‘hope for a better future’,” but, instead, that we should use Science Fiction as a critical tool to present a “vociferous repudiation of what the powers that be would like us to take for granted.”

The mode preferred by the Science Fiction convention scene, often referred to as Squeecore, fails to provide us this. Instead it aims for a kind of optimistic declaration of progressive liberal victory that is at odds with the material conditions of a more general readership. Beyond this ideological framework it also faces stylistic roadblocks as the tendency of Squeecore books to replicate a cinematic style that prefers the visual and kinetic elements of fiction creates a feedback loop where the books are aping movies that ape older books.

It’s not all grim tidings, however. I think we can see hope for Science Fiction through the likes of Jeff Vandermeerwhose work is often not shelved with Science Fiction at all. Vandermeer, often technically difficult and highly literary, challenges not simply the neoliberal order of the world but, in fact, the basis of how we define a subject. Vandermeer’s books, often built from the perspective of unreliable narrators, are far more about the internal affect of a character than the mere things they do. While an author like Scalzi might engage in postmodern pastimes like deconstruction in Redshirts or pastiche in Kaiju Preservation Society it falls to Vandermeer in Hummingbird Salamander and the Southern Reach trilogy to break down the nature of being in a way that truly attacks our world-view and provides us that vociferous repudiation that Kupernmintz alludes to.

Marketing will not save science fiction. Whether something is shelved as Sci-Fi, whether it’s nominated for Hugo awards, whether it makes volume in sales, these shouldn’t concern us as readers or as critics. It shouldn’t even concern us as writers except within the bounds of whether writers are earning a reasonable living from the fruit of their labor. Instead, we should recover the critical lens of Science Fiction, the power of tethering unbridled imagination to a knife that cuts the present. If the tech barons want to build the Torment Nexus then let’s foster a literature that says, “they built the damn thing and they should be scourged for it.”

Simon McNeil is a genre author and critic living on a small permacultural farm in Prince Edward Island, Canada with his wife, daughter and various animal companions. He enjoys martial arts movies, tabletop games and weird books.


Photo by Daniele Colucci.