The popularity of genre books has stayed strong for over a hundred years now, but it’s interesting—the individual genres seem to come and go. Oh, there will always be good horror novels out there, and fantasy books seem to sell regardless of what year it is. But there are definitely cycles at work here. This is a great year for fantasy. A Game of Thrones is huge. There’s enormous interest in the Hobbit movie. In books you’ve got the recent blockbuster success of Brent Weeks and Patrick Rothfuss. Tangentially there’s the John Carter movie and of course the blow-out finale to the Harry Potter series. I don’t think I could have picked a better time to release my own fantasy novel, Den of Thieves.
Meanwhile science fiction is slowing down, and despite the continued (and inexplicable) fascination with vampires and zombies, horror seems to be taking a backseat. I have a theory why this is so. Now keep in mind this is just off-the-cuff stuff, with no historiographical research or longitudinal studies to back it up. But it seems like there might be strong currents in this sea of books.
Science fiction, it seems, is most popular when people are excited and hopeful about the future. It was huge in the 50s and 60s, and well into the 70s, until Star Wars kind of knocked it off its perch (Star Wars being a fantasy story, not science fiction, but that’s a topic for another essay). Obviously the Apollo program and the promise of space had something to do with that. You could say the same about the resurgence of SF in the 80s and say it was the space shuttle (oh, the poor STS!), but I think that had more to do with the rise of personal computers—after all, the big story in the 80s was cyberpunk.
Horror, on the other hand, seems to be most popular when people are terrified of the world around them. Zombies and vampires blew up after September Eleventh and I don’t think it was a coincidence. The last time horror was that popular was in the 30s, when people were terrified of economic depression and Nazi imperialism—a time that gave us both H.P. Lovecraft and also the phenomenal Universal monster movies (Robert Pattison will never live up to the standard set by Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff). Perversely enough when people are scared of each other, they enjoy being scared by monsters, too—especially if, unlike, say, global terrorism, the threat of Frankenstein’s Monster was over after two hours.
But why fantasy, why now? Horror does well in times of cultural anxiety, and science fiction in decades of national optimism. But fantasy—fantasy does great when people are bored.
Fantasy is escapism. When I was a kid I looked forward to being an astronaut (whoops, that didn’t work out so well), but I dreamed of being a wizard and studying arcane tomes or a knight fighting orcs and goblins with a flashing broadsword. It could never happen but that just seemed to make it cooler. People want to escape when their lives seem dull. Not terrifying, and not like something big is just around the corner. It looks like the long nightmare of the Noughts is finally over with the death of Osama Bin Laden—I know, the real bad guys are still out there, but is anyone as scared these days as they were in 2001? The economy is pretty lousy, but not Great Depression lousy. And with the end of the American manned space program the future looks like it’s about smartphones and precision targeted web advertising (gee, I can’t wait), not the glorious adventure of space.
So we’re living in a dusty age. It happens. And at least we have worlds of wonder to fly away to. Thank heavens for fantasy!
- David Chandler