In a recent Asimov's magazine column, science fiction author, editor, and former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Norman Spinrad, asserts that "hard" science fiction is in a precipitous decline and here's why:
"In a society where the distinction between astronomy and astrology is probably blurry in more minds than not...where very few viewers see anything wrong in spacecraft executing banking turns in a vacuum...and where the teaching of science in primary and secondary schools is itself in steep decline, surely the potential readership for hard science fiction must be dwindling even faster than that for science fiction in general."
Spinrad, whom I know only by reputation, wants to connect the death of a (never that popular) subgenre to the decline of contemporary education. Except that the decline of contemporary education is a myth. Despite the wildly misinterpreted statistics you hear on the news, modern education—even American public education—is doing quite well, thank you. The supposed harrowing trends of public school decline, and of American education falling behind other industrialized nations, is a simple product of lazy analysis.
America has universal education, meaning that we don't track out low performers to vocational schools, and we don't reserve education to particular income levels, so the impoverished and disinclined drag down the average. (That's not to say all poor students are bad students, just the as a whole, poor students perform worse than not-poor students.) If you compare apples to apples—engaged, middle-class students with strong family backgrounds—the American public education system performs as well or better than public or private schools anywhere in the world, and probably produces more potential achievers (and science fiction consumers) simply by virtue of giving every child a shot, regardless of presumed potential.
What Spinrad glosses over—though does mention—is that hard SF is found almost exclusively in prose fiction, and that all prose fiction consumption is in decline. TV, movies and most notably the Internet have become more diverse, more available, and thus more competitive against books. That trend, at least, is real—though whether this is a bad thing is a matter of debate. What's happening here is simple competitive economics: When a whole industry group is threatened by competition, the low-performing niches of that industry are culled, either by the market itself, or by industry leaders doubling down on high performers at expense of the fringe.
Fantasy, being more intellectually accessible than science fiction (especially "hard" SF), is sucking up all the space at the speculative fiction publishers for exactly this reason. The Harry Potter franchise and the Lord of the Rings films certainly helped accelerate the trend, but it was happening anyway. Science fiction authors aren't necessarily taking this lying down—thus the New Comprehensible SF movement—but the real threat isn't to SF, but to prose SF. Science fiction has its own TV channel, dozens of shows on the air with more to come, dominates the movie box office, helped invent the video game medium in which it is a star, and still manages to get thousands of books published every year. Science fiction is healthy, even if prose hard science fiction is not.
I have plenty of issues with contemporary education and with the SF publishing industry, but let's not conflate those issues simply because we don't like the direction science fiction is evolving. For a crowd obsessed with realizing the future, we should be wiser than that.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.