It’s been a rough two decades for science fiction fans when it comes to major franchises. The new Star Wars trilogy tanked with the first of the films, the Matrix choked in the second movie, Futurama and Firefly were canceled, Serenity underperformed at the box office, Star Trek: Voyager failed to give many of its fans a sense of closure, Battle Star Galactica and Lost had their 'controversial' endings, and now one of the most popular beacons of optimism in the field for the past five years, the Mass Effect trilogy, managed to negate many of its fans’ sense of emotional investment in the final ten minutes. Meanwhile literary science fiction has continued to lose readers even as fantasy has grown in sales.
Some of this is obviously raw market share dynamics when it comes to television shows being canceled. Space opera and military science fiction are niche tastes, and it’s hard for series within these sub-genres to compete in mainstream venues like TV. Much of this decline though, seems to stem from a fundamental disconnect between the creative writing community and the fan base.
Namely when it comes to escapism.
As writers we want our works to be realistic, though that ‘realism’ is a often a matter of adhering to a set of literary conventions — conventions that promote tragedy as being inherently more meaningful than triumph and grim darkness as more moving than heroism. We also want our stories to be profound and bring important real life issues to the attention of readers, particularly when it comes to the many injustices of the world.
Readers and fans on the other hand have different priorities. They get enough of realism in real life, which includes daily exposure to economic injustices and social problems. For most of them, fiction is a break from mundane life, and at its best fiction helps them to recharge emotionally by offering up inspiration and a reminder that things like triumphs, heroism, and successfully making a difference in the world are real possibilities, even if these are harder to obtain and require more effort than giving in to tragedy.
All of which is a real shame. Once upon a time science fiction helped to play a role in enacting positive social changes, back when brighter endings and a sense of optimism allowed the genre to connect on a profound emotional level with its fan base. After all, that was science fiction’s emotional value added: stories that celebrated the struggle over what we might become rather than bemoaning who we are.