Friday, 21 January 2022

The Closing Of The Lunar Frontier

The most important year in the history of science fiction is 1973, because that’s when science fiction ended.

All fiction is political, and science fiction was the literature of technological triumphalism as a political idea. Like the Western pulps that it largely supplanted, it was primarily an American phenomenon from its inception as a defined genre in the late 1920s. And, like all literature, it was steeped in assumptions about societal and economic progress. The 1970s witnessed determinative changes in these assumptions, shifting the genre’s trajectory beyond recognition.
(Image via

First, a bit of context. While individual stories that we would now class as science fiction existed prior to the 1920s, the genre became codified and defined through the early pulp era. This meant that genre traditions, tropes, and conventions were formed at a time when more new technologies were entering common use in the Western world than at any time before or since (automobiles, telecommunication, washing machines, etc.).

During the five decades of science fiction’s ascendancy as a defined genre, income inequality in the US was on the decline; between 1929 and 1941, the share of total GDP taken as income by the top one per cent of America’s richest people declined from about 20 per cent to 15 per cent. By 1952, that had declined to just eight per cent of the total GDP going to the top one per cent. Combined with the simultaneous doubling of per-worker productivity, this meant a radical improvement in the lives of working Americans.

Three parallel trends of technological, social, and economic progress made it a fecund era for imagining pollyannaish interplanetary monocultural futures clad in chrome and plastic. In just a 30-year span, Jack Williamson went from traveling by covered wagon to traveling by airplane, so one could understand why he might assume that in an additional 100 years people would be going to the stars.

And this is why the year 1973 is so important: it’s the year that shattered the fundamental assumptions that guided science fiction over the previous five decades. This happened in several important ways.

After Apollo 17 left the moon on December 17, 1972, vonbraunian dreams of a rocket-powered conquest of space began to look naïve. Though clearly technology continued to advance, this progress was less and less about raw power, and more about subtlety and efficiency. As the space race ended, the idea of a final frontier was relegated to increasingly fantastical fiction.

It was the same year in which inequality in the US began to increase after almost 50 years of decline. Since then, inequality has gone from eight per cent of income going to the top one per cent in 1973 to almost 30 per cent going to the top one per cent today.

Likewise, the unionization rate among American workers began its steep decline in 1973, from 26.7 per cent of workers belonging to a union to just 13 per cent in 2011.

In 1893, then 33-year-old historian Frederick Jackson Turner addressed the American Historical
They left, much as they had
come: In peace, for all mankind.
(Image via

Association and presented his theory on the closing of the American frontier: "The frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history." Part of his thesis was that this closure had a profound impact on the national imagination of the United States, and it’s difficult to disagree with this assessment.

Likewise, it seems clear that the closing of the lunar frontier had a drastic impact on the imagination of the citizens of science fiction fandom.

When coupled with the fact that 1973 was a turning point in Western economies, the result is even more drastic.

When people imagine the future, they usually imagine one in which they have a part. So the exclusion of the working class from economic progress effectively limited the imaginations of many.

Many of these economic shifts have been attributed after the fact to the 1973 oil crash that marked the end of the era of cheap oil, and ushered in an era of greater control of prices by oil producers. It is possibly the most important economic shift that America has faced since the 1929 stock market crash.

It has often been observed that the secret weapon of science fiction authors is economics; in essence, that insights from economics are crucial to building believable fictional models of the future. So it should be no surprise that these shifts in long-term economic trends had an impact on the types of technologies that science fiction predicts.

Space adventure stories fundamentally shifted from being a near-future genre to being closer to fantasy. It became more and more difficult to suggest that futures depicted in works like A Fall Of Moondust, Farmer in the Sky, or The Caves Of Steel were based on any serious extrapolation of current trends. Also, declining economic fortunes became more of a focus of the genre. Although the term wouldn’t be coined for several more years, we could argue that cyberpunk’s birth was 1973 when John Brunner began writing The Shockwave Rider, and when James Tiptree Jr. published The Girl Who Was Plugged In.

The time it takes to write, edit, and publish a novel means that the distinction between pre- and post-1973 speculative fiction is fuzzy — but evident once you start looking for it.

We would argue that (without privileging one or the other) this shift from technological-triumphalist
In this interpretation of history,
Ursula K. Le Guin could be the
progenitor of  modern
speculative fiction.
(Image via

new-frontiers speculative fiction to economic anxiety-driven social speculation is a significant enough change of focus that they are distinct genres. Science fiction as it had been understood ended, and something else took its place. We might argue that post-1973, the genre split into speculative fiction (cyberpunk, mundane SF, cli-fi) and science fantasy (space opera, time travel).

This new chapter in the history of speculative fiction has been increasingly diverse, less in thrall to destructive hegemonic ideas peddled by an influential early editor of a major magazine, and certainly less centered on the United States. As a result, the intellectual descendants of science fiction have been able to connect with the larger culture in ways that their predecessors were never able to. It is hard to imagine the ascendancy of pop cultural phenomenons like Star Wars and Guardians Of The Galaxy in a genre that was still tied to positivist (and occasionally objectivist) outlooks.

Arguably, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic is as significant an economic event as the Great Depression and the 1973 Energy Crisis. Perhaps it will be the event that moves speculative fiction into the next era.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Hugos Unlike Any Previous

The 2022 Hugo Awards seem likely to be unlike any previous Hugos, because the Hugo-nominating constituency will be unlike any previous.

As far as we are aware, there has yet to be a Worldcon in which the largest single contingent of the membership came from anywhere other than the United States. Likewise, as far as we can determine, there has yet to be a Hugo Awards at which the plurality of votes came from anywhere other than the United States.

Even when the Worldcon was in Dublin two years ago, members living in the U.S. were the group
Even when the Worldcon was in far-off Helsinki,
there were more Americans than Fins in attendance.
(Photo by Tapio Haaja via Pixabay)

most represented in sales, with 2,750 of the 6,918 memberships (and 1,582 of the 4,190 in-person memberships) being purchased by U.S. residents. In Finland two years before that, 3,368 of the 8,748 memberships (and 1,141 of the 3,316 in-person memberships) were purchased by U.S. residents. At Japan’s 2007 Worldcon, 1,907 of the 4,010 memberships sold were purchased by U.S. residents. The complete and exact tally of how many people from each country bought memberships to Discon III is not available yet due to issues with the registration system, but similar patterns repeat in the demographic breakdown of every Worldcon for which we have found the statistics.

This dominance of American voters is reflected in the results of the Hugo Awards; almost 85 per cent of all Hugo-nominated fiction, and almost 85 per cent of all Hugo-winning fiction was written by U.S.-born authors (a statistic that’s even more revealing when one realizes that the calculation counts Isaac Asimov, Algis Budrys, and Manly Wade Wellman as not being U.S.-born.)

Editor and author Xueting
Christine Ni would be a
worthy inclusion on the Hugo
ballot. (Image via Amazon)

We predict that these statistics (which have remained fairly stable over recent decades) are about to change.

Rumours about a large number of supporting memberships being purchased in the days leading up to the 2023 Worldcon site selection vote were viral at Worldcon 2021. Turns out they were also accurate, with more than 2,400 Chinese residents purchasing supporting memberships for Discon III; approximately 1,600 of those memberships were purchased in the 10 days before the convention. The final vote tally was 2,006 votes for Chengdu to 807 for Winnipeg.
Science Fiction World prints more
than 200,000 copies every month.
(Image via

We have trepidation about the Chinese government and its human rights record, but we also have respect for the fans and the bid committee behind the Chengdu Worldcon. As much as we would have preferred to see the 2023 Worldcon happen in Winnipeg, we are embarrassed to have seen the (sometimes racist) response we have seen towards the people working on the Chengdu Worldcon bid. Based on our attendance at related Worldcon 2021 sessions and conversations with members of both bids, the groups behind the 2023 bids seemed to be enthusiastic and professional, and backed by dedicated fans.

The Chengdu bid won this site selection vote through organizing, through outreach to convention runners, and through encouraging their local fans to purchase supporting memberships and to vote. As has often been pointed out by proponents of the Chendu bid, China is the country with the world’s largest number of science fiction fans. 

Based out of Chengdu, Science Fiction World (科幻世界) is the science fiction magazine with the largest circulation on Earth; comparable to the total of Analog, Asimov’s and the Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy combined. The 2,400 Discon III supporting memberships from China represent a fraction of a percent of the circulation of this one magazine.

Canadian author Derek Künsken
does well in North America ...
but more than a million people
read his works in China.
(Cover of the Chinese edition
of Quantum Magician via the

The vast majority of these memberships were bought by people who have never previously participated in voting on the Hugo Awards, as this will be their first Worldcon memberships. And excitingly, they will be eligible to nominate works for the Hugos in 2022. Given that there are usually little more than 1,000 nominating ballots cast in a given year, these supporting members of Discon III could have an enormous influence on what makes the ballot at the Chicago Worldcon. We encourage them to nominate. 

The third-highest grossing movie worldwide in 2021 was the Chinese-language time-travel movie Hi Mom. Han Song has won the Chinese Galaxy Award six times, but remains little-known among English-speaking readers. Xueting Christine Ni has been tirelessly working to promote Chinese science fiction for years, and could be recognized in one of the editor categories. And some authors underappreciated by Hugo voters (such as Derek Künsken) have found a broader audience with their works translated for Chinese-language magazines such as Non-Exist Magazine. We might also hope that these new Hugo voters will not neglect the fan categories.

There is a real possibility that the 2022 ballot could be the most surprising Hugo Awards shortlist in years — and the least U.S.-centric to date.