Deader Than the Dinosaurs?

A lot of things are happening this weekend, both around the house and elsewhere. One of the biggest and most relevant to SFF as a community is WorldCon, which is underway right now in San Antonio. Sadly, while I’d hoped to make it this year, it wasn’t in the cards for me, but for those numerous friends and acquaintances who will be in attendance, I offer my best wishes for a fun and memorable time.
Where it comes to matters in which I am involved, progress on the rewrite continues. It’s slower than I would prefer, but it is steady and positive—which, to me, is the most important thing. I also head back to work at my day job on Tuesday after a bit of a summer break. This means my writing time will be diminished, so I’m pushing this weekend to make the most of what I have left before the fall semester kicks off in earnest.

But of course, before that—a post. I have something of a whopper of an opinion piece for you today.

Quite recently, an article titled “9 Scientific Breakthroughs That Killed Science Fiction Subgenres”made the rounds in my social media circle. In it, the authors explain how the ineffable march of scientific progress has laid waste to various aspects of the genre. Their first specimen in this apparent charnel house of literary curiosities is the Martian adventure yarn.

As you might expect, that riled me up a bit.

To be fair, they’re not entirely wrong. As I lately cracked to an acquaintance, the Mariner and Venera missions were, in my opinion, the worst thing to ever happen to adventurous science fiction. After all, they gave us the first close looks at Mars and Venus, which were for many years the backdrop for numerous tales of interplanetary adventure.

Finding out, as humanity did, that Venus is a molten deathtrap and that Mars is a cold, arid wasteland put a bit of a damper on that. Publishers (and, perforce, writers) backed away from what had now become relegated to the realm of pure fantasy.

After the fact, the action-adventure type stories, when they did happen, seem to have moved off entirely to other worlds in star-systems either invented or so far from home we had little to no chance of disproving them. Of course, now with exoplanet research, that, too, may be a dying field of play—at least by the article’s measure of things, anyhow.

But therein lies the fault of the article, as I see it. The authors appear to assume that SF attracts readers simply and exclusively because its speculations are scientifically accurate. Taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that any story that becomes outdated by current knowledge can no longer be considered any good.

The rub is that not all of us came to SF for the crunchy bits, and they’re not necessarily why we stay. While I can’t speak definitively for anyone but myself, I can say that I have encountered numerous folks who, like me, seem to have come to it not for the facts and the data, but for the powerful sense of wonder and adventure the stories can inspire.

I may lose something approaching writer street cred for the admission, but my initiation into the genre came courtesy of cartoons. As a child in the 1980s, I loved three things: swords, space, and dinosaurs. (Dragons, too, but they lumped in with dinosaurs in a pretty satisfying way at that age.)

If a program on television had any of those things, I was likely to watch. If it had more than one or even all three, I was pretty much hooked. But this was not because I was interested in knowing how the spaceships worked, or why the dinosaurs were there, or why we could (seemingly inexplicably) have laser guns and broadswords in the same fight.

The appeal was rooted solidly in what those things signified: heroic adventure.

Watching such things, naturally, led to reading them, as it does in a house of readers. Or, rather, it led to attempting to read. This is not, however, an indictment of my family. Few, if any, of my relatives had a taste for science fiction beyond the occasional movie, and while my parents were and remain avid readers, they did not share my interests and could provide little guidance.

So I was mostly on my own. In the beginning, I struck up an easy relationship with fantasy. It was prolific enough that I had no trouble finding something at least mildly satisfying. But I was still in love with space, and I wanted my reading adventures to extend there as well.

When I asked others what they recommended, I was typically pointed to Hard SF, to my infinite frustration. I recall, for example, poring over Foundation, trying rather desperately to care, and eventually returning the book to the library unfinished with the sense that if science fiction overall tended to be like that, I’d had more than enough of it to suit me.

This isn’t because it was too “tough” for me or any nonsense like that, either. It simply did not tell the kind of story I’d fallen in love with, and all the galaxies and spaceships in the universe could not change the fact. So, after a number of disappointments along these lines, I gave it up.

That remained the way of things for a long time. It wasn’t until the latter part of high school, when I belatedly discovered the pulp Sword & Sorcery writers, that I blundered into much of anything SF-flavored that suited my tastes, and then it wasn’t until after college that I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books, which singlehandedly redeemed my faith in the whole affair.

Here was something I could sink my teeth into. Never mind that the whole setup was a fanciful anachronism of the highest order. Never mind I’d sat through enough astronomy class and done enough reading on my own to know that it was all very wrong and could never really happen. I adored it, in spite of the “wrongness” of it. Maybe even because of it. I went on the hunt for more things like it, and in time that opened up a whole new vista for me.

I speak, of course, of the space opera pulps.

I’ve seen folks speak ill of these old gems, and apparently even in their time they were reviled by certain sectors. In the name of fairness, I’ve read some real stinkers, myself. But by and large I wouldn’t trade my love of them. They’re heroic, they’re imaginative, and—yes—usually pretty unrealistic by most standards.

But the rationale behind the interplanetary adventure has never been, as far as I can tell, to intimately explore the laws of, say, astrophysics or such. I don’t fault readers who enjoy those kinds of stories, but I will say without apology that I could not possibly care less about them than I do.

What drew me to the idea of science fiction to begin with was the element of adventure. The idea of what if and not what is. That’s what ultimately drew me back, once I found a name for the kinds of things I liked. The pulps have that, even if they sometimes lack textbook-quality scientific rigor. They’re brazenly, unabashedly fun, and the best among them have a myth-like power, Mariner and Venera and Viking all be damned.

So when folks proclaim, as they do in the article, that certain subgenres have been killed deader than the dinosaurs, I wonder whether they haven’t missed the point.

Nobody’s going to try to convince folks that there really are canals and cities and needy princesses on Mars. It’s a little late for that. But there’s no shame in enjoying such things or in creating them, because the point of them has never been anything more than to tell a good story, to have fun in the telling, and to let others have fun in the sharing.

That much, at least, never gets too old.

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