That's coming on the heels of more or less twenty years of stagnation.
The top-ten best sellers list in the genre was dominated by five Star Wars and HALO franchise novels. Four slots were taken up by classic novels: Enders Game, Dune, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and an ultimate edition of Hitchhiker's. There's only a single new work of original, non-franchise science fiction on the list. Ernest Cline's awesome and rollicking Ready Player One.
None of this comes as a surprise. Well, maybe the sheer size of the drop in sales, but not the fact that it was another year of decline; not the domination by franchise tie-ins; and not the fact that the one new work on the list that connected with readers has drawn lot of flack in the creative community. I've long since lost track of how many disparaging comments I've seen posted online about Ready Player One's content, writing style, or its 'pandering' to audiences by delivering an upbeat ending.
Having recently finished Player One, I'm not surprised in the least that it's done so well with both our former readership and people who normally don't read science fiction. At its heart, it's not just a science fiction novel about 1980s culture. It is an 1980s science fiction novel, with 80s-style emotional beats, plot progression, and character development. It's sci-fi from before the genre started down it's long path of stagnate sales and cynicism.
Normally I'm opposed to going back in order to move forward, but at this point I think we really could use a whole raft of 80s-style science fiction novels. Bright books with a hope for progress, and an exploration of what we might become and how we might improve, rather than mourning what we are. Something to re-engage our ex-fan base and hopefully draw in a new generations of readers who grew up on wildly popular young adult novels with heroic themes and that made use of science fiction and fantasy tropes.
From there we can move forward -- try to follow alternate lines of development, rather than the one written SF took during the 1990s.
Science fiction during the 80s certainly wasn't perfect. It often felt slightly childish in a way that I have a difficult time putting my finger on. Many novels presented clear-cut views on there being a single correct path forward as far as politics or economics. Lots of books focused on a lone technology changing the world, rather than a fuzzy package of vaguely related technologies, like the one that drove the Industrial Revolution.
There was also a lot of time and page-space spent describing settings and technology, which, in my opinion could have been condensed down. Then again, maybe that's a very present-day view. One written at time when many science fiction concepts have been around for several decades and no longer require long-introductions.
At any rate, politics wasn't the only thing that felt oversimplified in 80s science fiction. There were a lot of flat, cardboard characters back then. Not that cardboard characters are always a bad thing. A blank-slate protagonist can be an effective means of engaging the readers, particularly if the author isn't above using a little wish fulfillment to hook them on an emotional level. Still, as with the simplified politics and technology, there was a sense of realism that was often missing from characters and their behavior.
Likewise character dialog was definitely Pre-Whedon: flat and often lifeless.
Not one but possibly many. There are several potential developmental pathways that science fiction could have followed during the 90s. Neal Stephenson was a bright spot for sales in an otherwise dark decade, so it's worth revisiting his novels.
My ideal from that period is The Matrix. While the characters were largely archetypes, the first film incorporated action and mind-blowing philosophical and technological concepts in near seamless weaves.* From this past decade, the Mass Effect series hit many of the same notes as far as its story-telling style. Until it nuked the shark in the final ten...
You know what? I'll shut up about Mass Effect. I've probably ranted the ending to death at this point.
Anyways, long answer short, those are two alternate pathways that I like, but there are several others. I'm curious what you, the readers think. If you could go back and redirect the course of literary science fiction in the late 80s or early 90s, which directions would you chose?
*Yeah, human batteries, not very plausible, but whatever. I'd have gone with our machine overlords using our gray matter to run immense non-linear calculations or complex simulations that draw on the power of human imagination.