As long as I’ve been picking my own reading material, a huge fraction of it has science fiction. I’ve been doing that picking since about 1963-ish, so let’s just call it 50+ years. Up until around the mid 1990s, it would have been hard to name a science fiction book or movie I didn’t know (and in many cases, own).
But somewhere near the end of the last century science fiction became a full-fledged mass-produced commodity that through sheer over-exposure became dull and uninteresting. In a way, I blame George Lucas and Star Wars, so I split SF into two eras:
Before Lucas (B.L.) and Anno Stella Bella (ASB).
That’s a riff on Before Christ (B.C.) and Anno Domini (AD) that tries to follow the pattern in as many ways as possible. The key one being that both are about how an individual and his work divides the world into two eras.
Over the years, I’ve found that fans of science fiction view the two eras in distinct ways. Part of it is how much the rolls of fans expanded in the ASB era. That is really the first point here:
Lucas brought science fiction into the mainstream. He showed the bean counters that it could be (massively) popular.
A great deal of SF since then seeks to recapitulate that monster success. But Star Wars isn’t really science fiction; it’s a fairy tale. It’s just been dressed up with science fiction trappings (like robots and spaceships and blasters, oh my).
The greatest science fiction is the fiction of social ideas (with a science-y flavor), so to the extent one is “a science fiction fan” due to Star Wars, one is still sitting at the children’s table — which includes most television SF along with a great deal of movie SF.
But today I write neither to praise, nor to bury, Lucas or his Stella Bella.
For Sci-Fi Saturday, I have another premise in mind:
Science fiction has declined in the ASB era.
This turns out to be a difficult thesis to prove (either way). Crucially, one needs to define objective criteria for quality, and that’s a real challenge.
Among science fiction fans, Sturgeon’s Law (originally: Sturgeon’s Revelation) says that 90% of everything is crap. This obviously applies to science fiction.
With good reason. Most art is crap.
Some suggest that, per Sturgeon’s Revelation, 90% of SF always was crap (true), and of course still is (true), but there’s so much more SF now (true) that it just seems like science fiction has gone downhill.
True? Maybe. Maybe not.
In terms of quality, I honestly don’t know. I have thought about ways to define objective criteria…
One might analyze the word vocabulary used by decade to see if modern SF has a smaller vocabulary. I’d be willing to put a few bucks on a bet that it does. (Does Google have tools to make this analysis possible?)
More challenging would be an attempt to codify and compare the concept vocabulary used by decade. Is there less complexity in modern SF compared to that from the B.L. era?
Is there a significant difference in the quality of television and movie SF compared to the written form?
Is the perception of low-quality (if it’s a valid perception at all) due, in part, to media forms playing such a big role in the modern era?
I think most would agree books are “better” than movies or television if the nuances of storytelling matter. It is usually true that any movie of a book leaves out much of what is in the book.
It’s possible the low bar of movies, and the even lower bar of television, combined with all the science fiction done in those mediums, is what makes SF seem “gone to the dogs” to us old fans. (I’m by no means the only one who thinks this.) The written form does seem capable of still delivering the goods.
But even so, my perception remains, and I finally figured out why.
Science Fiction has become well-plowed ground.
And it’s pretty hard to write, say, a time-travel story that hasn’t been done.
All the old themes have been well-explored: time travel, space travel, spaceships, space battle (time battle), space politics, space corporations, space aliens (and planets), space robots, space vampires (and ghosts), space doctors, space construction workers (space bars!), space police and private eyes, space diplomats and politicians, space spies, and even space burglars.
Robots and AI are a common theme these days, yet these stories (certainly the robot ones) have roots in ancient golem mythology. Isaac Asimov (one of “The Big Three” of science fiction) wrote robotics AI stories back in the 1950s.
(Asimov and I go back to the very beginning of it all for me. His Lucky Starr series is among the first SF books I can recall reading!)
Genetics is a theme that offers some new ground for science fiction. That’s a fairly new technology that we can tell new tales about (although the science does go back a ways).
Nano-machines also offer some possibilities, but ultimately those are just (tiny) robot stories.
Perhaps the bottom line is that, after nearly 55 years of SF, it’s hard to see any new science fiction that doesn’t seem to borrow from lots and lots of past stories. They might be new to those without that history, but all I see is old hats.
If, as ever, only 10% is really any good, but that 10% struggles to find new and interesting ground, then it’s easy to see how it can feel as if the genre has gone downhill. (I find I have a similar view of music.)
There are (at least) two key aspects of “good” (i.e. “quality”) art for me. One of them involves the skill of execution, and that aspect applies to all art. The other involves originality, and that is increasingly difficult as artists explore a genre over time.
Many seem to focus a great deal on the former, but I think a true appreciation of art must also involve the latter. Which means that all genres and mediums of art “tap out” over time.
I’ll leave it there for now, but I suspect I’ll return this topic down the road.
Stay original, my friends!
 I like the terms a lot, but let’s not get too carried away comparing Lucas to Jesus. Certainly, the eras ushered in by both have endured and changed the world, but the parallels of a metaphor don’t make the map anything like the territory.
In fact, to be quite honest, given the full body of his work, I’m more inclined to compare Lucas to someone from the other side.
 If you doubt this just consider how much child’s merchandise there is. Or simple the fact that very small kids adore Star Wars.
“Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away,” is the dead equivalent of “Once upon a time.”
The story is about a Princess and a lost Prince (who thinks he’s a commoner) who oppose an evil emperor and his evil wizard (and all the king’s troopers). There is also a white knight and his faithful squire. Plus, Fozzie Bear!
 By which I mean: trite, unoriginal, shallow, uninspired, unengaging… stuff like that. A term often used is “motel art” — a reference to the almost invisible pictures found hanging on the walls of cheap motels.
(Which is not to say all art is pictures. Literature is art, too.)
 It bugs me even more when they add new things that change the book.
 In addition, SF has become a commodity, and there is always a “least common denominator” aspect to a commodity. They are intended for mass consumption and must therefore appeal to the largest number possible. This almost always dilutes quality.
 It’s even harder to be original in the Fantasy realm. Tolkien and a few other early writers plowed that ground very well (our mythology and parables had already begun to explore it). Once you’ve done dragons and wizards and monsters and swordsmen a few times, there isn’t much more to be said.