Visions of Paradise

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Science Fiction and the Future

I was never a fan of cyberpunk for several reasons, including too much emphasis placed on current technology. But perhaps my biggest complaint with it was that it almost exclusively featured near-future dismal settings. Unfortunately, cyberpunk’s popularity was the first chink in the wall of far-future science fiction. Soon afterwards the genre saw the emergency of alternative history, followed by urban fantasy and horror.

As a result, the far future has become somewhat of an endangered species in science fiction. While it would be almost impossible to verify this trend by analyzing all published sf novels, I have decided to use the Hugo Award for Best Novel as a snapshot of sf trends. Consider that from 1960-1990, 74% of the 31 Hugo-winning novels were set in the far future:

Far-Future settings (23): Cyteen; The Uplift War; Speaker for the Dead; Ender's Game; Startide Rising; Foundation's Edge; Downbelow Station; The Snow Queen; The Fountains of Paradise; Dreamsnake; Gateway; The Forever War; The Dispossessed; Rendezvous with Rama; The Gods Themselves; To Your Scattered Bodies Go; Ringworld; The Left Hand of Darkness; Lord of Light; ...And Call Me Conrad (This Immortal); Dune; A Canticle for Leibowitz; Starship Troopers

Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings (8): Neuromancer; Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang; Stand on Zanzibar; The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; The Wanderer; Here Gather the Stars (Way Station); The Man in the High Castle; Stranger in a Strange Land

However, from 1990-2010 the trend reversed with only 30% of the 24 Hugo-winning novels set in the far future:

Far-Future settings (7): A Deepness in the Sky; Mirror Dance; A Fire Upon the Deep; Barrayar; The Vor Game; Hyperion; Rainbow’s End

Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings (16): The Windup Girl; The City & The City; The Graveyard Book; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Paladin of Souls; Hominids; American Gods; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; To Say Nothing of the Dog; Forever Peace; Blue Mars; The Diamond Age; Green Mars; Doomsday Book; Spin; Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

In recent years, the trend has not shown any signs of slipping back to the far future. Consider the Hugo nominees for Best Novel the past 4 years:

Far-Future settings:
The Last Colony
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; Brazyl; Halting State; Rollback

Far-Future settings:
Saturn’s Children; Anathem; Zoe’s Tale
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: The Graveyard Book; Little Brother

Far-Future settings
: none
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: The Windup Girl; The City & The City; Boneshaker; Julian Comstock; Palimpsest

Far-Future settings:
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: Blackout; All Clear; The Dervish House; Feed; The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The four year total is as follows:
Far-Future settings: 5
Near-future, present, past, fantasy settings: 16

Only 24% of the recent Hugo Award nominees for Best Novel are set in the far-future, and this is at the height of the New Space Opera movement. Ironically, none of the nominees in the past 4 years can actually be described as “new” space opera.

Granted, the Hugo Awards are only snapshots of current trends in science fiction, but with the evidence from those awards showing such an overwhelming shift away from the far future, it is hard to believe that is not a genre-wide trend as well.

And for those of us who grew up loving the far future, that is a sad future to envision.

[An earlier version of this article appeared in John Purcell’s fine fanzine Askance #2, which is available at]


  • One of my best friends and I have had similar discussions. My favorite type of sf deals with the far future and fantastic settings. It seems like the various awards and U.S. fandom does not recognize the new space opera movement. Jonathan Strahan said that one of Alastair Reynold's stories from last year was one of the best novellas of the year. It did not get nominated. Hopefully space opera will become more popular this year.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 4:34 PM  

  • I'm afraid that is wishful thinking, although I certainly share that hope with you. I think the voting for the Hugo Award has gotten too widespread among thousands of worldcon attendees who do not ever read much "core" science fiction, but prefer fantasy and near-future thrillers. I find that when the worldcon is held overseas, with less attendees but more serious readers, the awards tend to be less fantasy and more sf.

    By Blogger adamosf, At 6:02 AM  

  • It almost makes you wish we could put together a science fiction award that would be voted on by "core" fans like us.

    By Blogger Jim Black, At 7:55 PM  

  • that's why i pick my book-of-the-year each year. it's my very small award. :)

    By Blogger adamosf, At 5:46 AM  

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