Disclaimer: My definition of science fiction is not how others define it. Nor is my approach to Star Trek. I’m just psychoanalyzing myself to understand my emotional reaction to the new Star Trek: Picard. It has given me insight into how science fiction is changing.

Is science fiction always science fiction? The label is so broadly used that it’s almost meaningless. Hasn’t science fiction changed from generation to generation? Wasn’t science fiction different before Star Trek in 1966? And didn’t it change again in 1977 with Star Wars? Before 1966 the audience for science fiction was mainly readers of books and magazines. Star Trek brought in millions of new fans. Star Wars brought in tens of millions of new fans. Didn’t each new wave of fans redefine the genre?

Hasn’t every new decade starting in the 1930s, attract new writers that changed the genre? Wasn’t science fiction before NASA different than after NASA? Didn’t the influx of women writers change science fiction? Hasn’t the success of fantasy influence science fiction? Don’t you think the shift to writing long book series changes things again?

I felt Star Trek: Picard in 2020 works to do something very different than Star Trek in 1966. Can we still call it science fiction? Should a label be changed when the object it points to changes? Language has always been fluid, so we tend to recycle words, which can be confusing. I believe if we study all the different incarnations of Star Trek we’ll see that what we point to with the label science fiction has regularly changed.

Early science fiction was about real things we might invent or discover. Writers said someday we’ll go to the Moon and we did. Someday we’ll invent robots and we’re doing it. Then other writers came along and used those ideas to make up fun stories indifferent to what might happen in the future. They didn’t care what was really possible or not, they just loved the stories. Writers who were idea lovers wanting to speculate found it harder and harder to come up with new possible realist concepts so they switched speculating about fantastic possibilities. And the story lovers embraced those ideas too.

The original Star Trek had many episodes written by idea lovers. With each new Star Trek series the science fiction shifted more to the story lovers. Star Trek: Picard has no speculation at all. In fact, it seems primarily nostalgic and recursive. It even seems to suggest a new phase, character lovers. All the enchantment in this new series seems to come from connecting with old friends, old enemies, and old conflicts. Is that really science fiction?

Everyone has a different definition or concept to explain their love of science fiction. I’m enjoying the new Star Trek: Picard but I feel something is missing, and it’s taken me a while to figure out what. For me, science fiction is that sense-of-wonder rush I get when I encounter a new far-out speculative idea. Plenty of stories are called science fiction, but for me, the real McCoy always comes with a sense-of-wonder epiphany. What I’m realizing is earlier Star Trek series were different from recent series, and something has changed. I’m wondering if this new approach to Star Trek isn’t also a trend with other forms of science fiction. The nostalgic recursion is certainly true of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe.

The Star Trek universe is huge. It’s hundreds and hundreds of hours of television episodes and movies, plus a zillion pages of books and fan fiction. Sure, Star Trek is set in a science fictional framework, but 99.98% of Star Trek is mythos and not science fiction — not by my definition. After the original series, Star Trek is an ever-expanding mythology that seldom adds new science-fictional ideas. Star Trek is mainly Star Trek.

Star Trek: Picard is a chimera. Our senses are dazzled by its special effects while our heart melts with nostalgia, yet something is missing. During the summer of 1966, I began seeing commercials for a TV show aimed directly at me. I actually looked forward to going back to school that year because it meant Star Trek would premiere. That summer was a transition time for me because I was about to begin high school. I had spent my junior high years gorging on science fiction books and short stories, and I was full of sense of wonder and a true believer in science fiction.

There was little serious science fiction on television before Star Trek, notably The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. So it was with great anticipation and excitement that I tuned into to see the first episode of Star Trek, “The Man Trap” shown on September 8, 1966. Maybe I had too much hope because a story about a shape-shifting alien seemed old hat. I may or may not have read Campbell’s classic story “Who Goes There?” by then, but I had read other SF stories about beings that could fool us into thinking they were human.

Yet, I was still excited about Star Trek. The concept of a five-year mission of a scientific vessel exploring the galaxy did instill a lot of hope. Knowing that every week Star Trek would present a new science fiction idea completely sold me on the show. Back then I and my buddies would always discuss a science fiction story by the ideas that wowed us. Good stories, no matter the genre, always have good characters, plots, dialogue, standard storytelling structure, but what made science fiction unique was its mind-blowing ideas.

The following week’s episode, “Charlie X” did generate a better sense of wonder high — the idea of a human kid being raised by aliens was far out to ponder on my own and discuss with friends at school. Sure, Heinlein had done a spectacular job with Stranger in a Strange Land, and “Charlie X” felt like a rip-off, but it still was cool — it was on television to see.

The following week’s show, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was even more sense of wonder provoking  — what if we meet aliens with godlike powers? Unfortunately, not all 79 episodes of Star Trek pushed my sense of wonder button. Many episodes were groan-worthy, especially after the first season. Remember the incredibly painful “Spock’s Brain?” Gosh-doggie, it was bad. There were many reasons to cancel that show in the third season despite fan rapture. Evidently, science fiction’s repertoire of far-out concepts is smaller than 79.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered it brought both hope and nostalgia. By then the writers had figured out they needed relationship stories within the crew, and outside threats to generate enough weekly plots to keep the series going. The series began to shift, aiming at story lovers over idea lovers. I followed the show for its entire first run. The original series was more like an anthology of short stories. For the most part, the Next Generation had self-contained episodes, but there was more continuity. I liked it for the mythos it was building more than its infrequent science fiction episodes.

Over the years, I’ve tried to rewatch Star Trek: The Next Generation and I’ve always failed. I like Picard better than Kirk, and even though I liked Spock better than Data, Data’s character actually provided a greater range of interesting stories. Star Trek: The Next Generation had 178 episodes. Very few of those episodes are memorable to me now. However, collectively the storytelling, the mythos, of the Next Generation was more memorable than the story arc of the original series. And I believe that’s why Star Trek: Picard is so compelling. Picard has no science fiction or sense-of-wonder that I can recall from the first five episodes. And it’s not really generating new content for story lovers — the series is aimed at character lovers.

Of course, people are going to scream at me. What about the spaceships, the androids, the holographic characters, the aliens, teleporters — those elements brand it as science fiction! Star Trek has been using those elements for so long that they have zip sense-of-wonder. We take them for granted. They are part of the mythos. My definition of science fiction, and it might be only mine, requires science fiction to be inventive, to speculate, extrapolate, to come up with something new, or at least, a neat twist on something old. Star Trek has stopped trying, and I don’t think Star Wars ever tried. Only stand-alone movies like Her or Gattaca or Moon even try to come up with a different take anymore. Ditto for books. Series, by their very nature target story lovers, and most of them run out of steam generating new stories and switch to character love.

I’m sure some new science fiction writers try hard to come up with new science-fictional concepts, but the genre has mostly switched to chewing on the old bones.

The reason we have more and more book series in science fiction is that fans have mutated from wanting ideas to stories to characters. Science fiction has become character and plot-driven, and for the most part, have given up being sense-of-wonder idea-driven. The standard set of mind-blowing elements of science fiction — space travel, aliens, robots, AI, end-of-the-world, time travel, are so common in society that most children accept them as dogma well before they even start school.

I think I was in the 5th or 6th grade before I encountered the idea of time travel by watching the 1960 version of The Time Machine. I was old enough for it to be a shocking concept — one that I relished. What a powerful sense-of-wonder rush. I then went and read the H. G. Wells original story. It’s jammed packed with science fictional ideas. But it doesn’t take reading too many time travel tales to get jaded.

Science fiction has a big problem with staleness. Which is probably why so many fans have switched to nostalgia.

In 1966, Star Trek still had a chance to present sense-of-wonder ideas to most viewers. By 1977, Star Wars was so cliche that it was big fun. Sure, little kids probably didn’t feel that way, but for most viewers, George Lucas was paying homage to a lot of old science fiction. Lucas and Spielberg repackaged science fiction for the masses, but it was about the story, the characters, the plot, and the special effects. It didn’t speculate.

I now have to read a ton of SF short stories to find a single one that surprises me with something new. Quite often now when I read Analog or Asimov’s I find stories that use science-fictional ideas I’ve seen time and time again. Some of the episodes of Black Mirror surprised me. The kind of idea-driven stories I love is usually found in magazines or anthologies, and not novels. You don’t often see a story like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Modern television shows have a story arc. The best ones feel like watching a long novel. Star Trek: Picard season one is one long story so that each individual episode adds to the overall story. The plot is a thriller, not science fiction, although the setting is science fiction. We will not get a “City on the Edge of Forever” or “The Inner Light.” And after seeing five episodes of season one of Star Trek: Picard, I’m pretty sure its ten episodes will not equal the sense-of-wonder impact of either of those two individual episodes.

I’m enjoying Star Trek: Picard, but it’s definitely missing something, and to me, what it’s missing is science fiction. We have so much science fiction in the 21st-century that we’ve forgotten the essential nature of science fiction. Well, at least the kind of science fiction I grew up reading and watching in the 20th-century.

Action-oriented thrillers set in space may give the illusion of being science fiction, but they are not. I can understand why some fans claim Star Trek: Picard feels too much like Star Wars. Plots centered around political intrigue, crime, war, kidnapping, revenge, terrorism are about those topics. To be real science fiction the plot has to center around a novel science-fictional concept. All the best episodes in the Star Trek franchise derive their sense of wonder from a science fictional concept. And those standout episodes have become very infrequent.

I’m afraid in future years I won’t spend much time remembering Star Trek: Picard because there’s no cool idea to remember. I can remember more episodes from Star Trek than I can Star Trek: Next Generation even though the later show had more than twice as many episodes. That’s because the original Star Trek was like a collection of science fiction short stories, and Next Generation was more of an ensemble of characters in soap opera set in the future. Even more so for Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise.

Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Sulu, were all very memorable but if you really examine the episodes, they had very little true characterization. They were caricatures where the writers constantly reinforced the same cliche traits. The focus of each episode was a science-fictional idea, sometimes good, often bad. There will be no “The Trouble With Tribbles” or “Shore Leave” episode in Picard. Fans will remember it as season one. And to me, reuniting old friends with old enemies is not science fiction no matter how many space ships you see.

James Wallace Harris, 2/25/20

18 thoughts on “What Happened to Science Fiction?

  1. Hey there, I really enjoyed reading through this! On the definition of science fiction – it’s always seemed up for grabs, but this quote from Ray Bradbury gives me pause: “First of all, I don’t write science fiction…Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal” (Grandfather Time: An Interview with Ray Bradbury, Weekly Wire, 9.27.99). And if you’re looking for recommendations that have a bit of the unusual in them – try the anthology Forbidden Planets, edited by Peter Crowther.

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  2. Hi James

    Interesting points, I don’t watch science fiction series on TV, occasionally I will see a movie. But I found a lot of what you said struck a chord. I love the sense of wonder in SF but I don’t mind seeing the same themes reworked in an interesting fashion. I have gravitated to short stories because as you point out they are often idea driven or take a quick interesting look at a different culture, human or otherwise. These mammoth 800+ novels seem to have vast amounts of backstory, that focuses on character development as much as plot. Fine for some but I can read 20 or more short stories in the same amount of time. They can cover multiple themes, authors, cultures and represent a century of thinking about Sf themes. For me this can more fun that totally immersing myself in a single work by one author, unless they really appeal to me. Even then I prefer a 200 page book to a mammoth series. I do love Neal Asher’s Polarity, it is my guilty exception and I am intrigued by Alastair Reynolds but I have only read his short stories so far. I do think, from watching trailers and the series my wife watches action sf dominates TV sf with strong character driven plots and a lot harkens back to the old space opera definition of stories that summon up images of Gunsmoke or Wagon Train. This can be fun I remember Firefly quite fondly but like you I am still hoping for wonder. Now if you will excuse me, I think there are kids on my lawn.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

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    1. Yeah, I get a lot more reading bang for my time with short story anthologies than I do with novels. At 68, my attention span is dwindling, so I really appreciate something I can consume before I forget it.

      There are some outstanding new science fiction novels out there, but I seldom feel like committing to hundreds of pages. And too many novels are the start of a series which really scares me away.

      I do love a good short story with a clever insight that triggers my sense of wonder. I’m old and jaded, so they are harder to come by, but I still search for them. And I find them.

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      1. If short stories are your source for Idea driven scifi, I recommend the anthology “story of your life” by Ted Chiang. Has some ideas that blew my mind. The movie “Arrival” is based on the titular story in this collection.

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  3. I was looking forward to Star Trek: Picard. I saw one episode, and turned to a rerun of Fraser. There’s no wonder in it, and a good deal of stuff that just seems to be tossed in for shock value. That won’t be bringing me back.

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  4. Science fiction depends on science for its ideas, or it’s fantasy. So. what are the new scientific advances in the last 60 years that could generate new, original sf ideas? Computers, games, virtual reality, etc gave us cyber-punk. Global warming has given sf writers a new apocalypse, replacing nuclear war after invention of the atomic bomb. What else? 1984 pretty much nailed the surveillance state… It strikes me that a lot of today’s scientific advances were already sf tropes decades ago. Maybe that sense of wonder we once possessed, long ago, has just faded away. We know too much.

    I remember watching the original Star Trek every afternoon after classes when it was in reruns in the early 70’s. It was pretty much a soap opera when watched like that.

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    1. Much of science today was built on the speculative ideas presented in the SciFi of yesterday, ideas no one had thought of before germinated thought on what was possible and science ran with it. Talking to grad students in the sciences today you can still find those who find innovative ideas in their fields to run with by reading Science Fiction.

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  5. Hi! I totally see where you are coming from. I feel like the most popular scifis these days tend to focus on distopic scenarios, social collapse, and an ever present implication that under the right circumstances, humans will degenerate to brutal killers… and that this is somehow “our true nature”. I don’t know what is driving this trend, but I it is the antitheses of the idea-driven “what futures might come” sci-fi that older generations grew up with. Whatever cultural reasons there are for this shift, I’m ready to shift to something else 😉.

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  6. James, You may have run across this at some point but if not, here’s Alexei Panshin’s essay cum lamentation on What’s Wrong With SF?, written way back in 1991.

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  7. I have discovered that I prefer science fantasy to hard science fiction. Like Bradbury, Harlan Ellison always considered himself to be a fantasist. I believe Trek and Star Wars both fall into the fantasy category as well. It does all boil down to character and story for me. Star Trek: Picard didn’t quite nail Jean-Luc’s character.

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  8. I think current science fiction struggles to look beyond the next three hundred years without using fantasy as a replacement for science. The current sets of directors also have problems with the genre being complex and rather use mystery as the major plot advancement technique. Its sad because it takes only a little imagination to expand technology enough to blow away the mists of mystery and replace it with solid story and character development.

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