Is Science Fiction Mainstream?

So asks Damien Walter, writing at the Guardian website:

Sci-fi has made many predictions about the future, but did any of them forecast that in the early years of the 21st century everyone would be watching … sci-fi? Our TV screens are filled with Dr Who, Lost and now FlashForward. Each summer brings more blockbusters in the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek vein, and a flood of superhero franchises. In comics and video games, sci-fi is the norm. It’s not just part of mainstream culture, it is arguably the dominant cultural expression of the early 21st century…

The walls that defined speculative fiction as a genre are quickly tumbling down. They are being demolished from within by writers such as China Miéville and Jon Courtney Grimwood, and scaled from the outside by the likes of Michael Chabon and Lev Grossman. And they are being ignored altogether by a growing number of writers with the ambition to create great fiction, and the vision to draw equally on genre and literary tradition to achieve that goal. The post-sci-fi era is an exciting one to be reading in.

My thoughts on sci-fi’s recent move into the mainstream are complicated, and I don’t disagree per se with anything that Walter says in the article.  I do have two qualifications, though.

First of all, what Walter here is calling “science-fiction” would better be called “speculative fiction”, since he’s also talking about genres like horror or fantasy.  And I would argue that, for most of human history, speculative fiction has been mainstream.  Shakespeare wrote it (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  So did Poe, Mark Twain, and Henry James.  And I think that the impulse to write speculative fiction – to create stories in which men are endowed with supernatural powers through magic or technology – is a very old one indeed, and may be at the root of most mythologies.

Secondly, I think that science-fiction in particular was never as fringe as it seemed to be, particularly in regard to the written word.  For years it has driven me crazy that, whenever someone writes a science-fiction book that’s halfway decent, it’s immediately taken out of the sci-fi genre and called “Literature” instead.  So the same people who read Cat’s Cradle and Fahrenheit 451 then walk past the sci-fi section of the bookstore without a second glance and claim that they just don’t “get” science fiction.  And who can blame them, really – that sci-fi section is usually full of Star Wars novelizations and Volumes VI – VI of the Bio of a Space Tyrant series, because all the Vonnegut and Saramago and so on have been filed with the “real” authors.  But it’s a shame all the same, and it contributed to the marginalization of science-fiction that went on throughout the 20th century.