By Annalee Newitz
If geek stuff is so hip, then why are two of the season's biggest scifi hits, CBS show Eleventh Hour and bestselling Neal Stephenson novel Anathem, adamantly classified as Not Scifi? Because nerd culture will never be pop culture. That's why Borders slashed its scifi section. And it's why JJ Abrams, director of the new Star Trek movie, denied that it's for fans of the scifi franchise, instead telling Entertainment Weekly that "it's for fans of movies." Successful science fiction, in other words, is still stealth. To get your spaceships and freaky science into the mainstream, you have to hate yourself just enough to shove your inner dork into a gym locker and keep her there.
Stealth science fiction is nothing new. Creators have been churning out scifi for decades and calling it "adventure" or "suspense" or "slipstream" or "speculative" or "magic realism" — anything to get their stuff shelved in "fiction" or "drama" rather than "nerdville." I shouldn't really pin this on creators, entirely: Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union was classified as literature, despite the author's repeated protestation that it was science fiction. But Chabon's position is a rare one.
Usually you find creators eager to distance themselves from nerdliness, which explains why Eleventh Hour producers emphasized over and over in interviews that the show is "science fact, not science fiction." Their strategy for the Jerry "CSI" Bruckheimer-created show worked. While the weird-science-crime premise of Eleventh Hour is nearly indistinguishable from the unabashedly scifi series Fringe, Eleventh Hour is rising in the ratings and garnered 12 million viewers last week. Fringe, on the other hand, is sinking in the ratings, earning a healthy-but-flagging 9.5 million viewers (down from 13.2 million at its peak ratings during its second week).
Granted, you can't put too much stock in these ratings yet. Both shows are still very young, and are getting a lot of help from the popular shows that air right before they do — hit House leads into Fringe, and mega-hit CSI leads into Eleventh Hour. Still, the Eleventh Hour strategy of "deny scifi" is echoed in the success of other current pop culture.
Neal Stephenson's new novel Anathem, which shot right to the top of bestseller lists when it hit bookstores in September, is an epic tale of alien life on a very Earth-like planet. Though Stephenson has written other science fiction like The Diamond Age and Snow Crash, you wouldn't know it from looking at Anathem. Even though it's a novel about aliens and spaceships, the book isn't marketed as scifi. William Morrow called Anathem "an adventure," and the book jacket makes no mention of Stephenson's scifi novels. Only one of the blurbs included on the novel's dust jacket even makes reference to his scifi work, and that's a Salon.com review that refers to "speculative fiction." Even the marketing campaign for Anathem reflected the "deny scifi" strategy. Marketers didn't mention taking out ads in any scifi publications or websites, except for the Eos blog. And that hardly counts: Eos is an imprint owned by Harper Collins, which also owns the imprint that published Anathem.
Stephenson has spoken publicly about what he calls the "bifurcated careers" of people who do science fiction. He believes that people who become popular among scifi fans don't enjoy the same levels of fame in mainstream pop culture, and gives as an example the actor Hugo Weaving, who played Agent Smith in The Matrix. Weaving is like a rock god among scifi fans, but to the mainstream movie-watching public he's not exactly a glamorous celeb. Stephenson has a similar problem. Though his last four books were science history adventures, he's was still best-known to fans of the scifi genre. But no more.
Perhaps the fear that Stephenson is becoming the literary equivalent of Weaving is what motivated Anathem's marketing campaign, or maybe it was the realization that Borders wouldn't order as many copies of the book if it were labeled what it is: A space opera, pure and simple. Whatever the motivation, it worked. While Anathem enjoys bestseller status as an "adventure," novels that are just as worthy won't even make it to most bookstores because they're labeled "science fiction."
Just a few years ago, I would have argued that a lot of this self-loathing among scifi creators and promoters came from a fear of science itself. The past decade in America has been a bad time for science, with funding cuts to to several NASA space programs and government refusal to fund crucial stem cell research because it might endanger "souls." Aligning with science was not the popular thing to do. But I feel like that time has passed, and science phobia is clearly not what's going on here: In fact, Eleventh Hour is combating the scifi label by calling itself "science fact" (though of course it's practically anti-science in its cluelessness about said facts).
These days, science is an acceptable middle-class pursuit — hell, science might even save the world economy. Writing stories about science isn't geeky because science is a part of everyday life. What's more, it's part of the good life. Techies become millionaires.
So people are rejecting the scifi label not because of science, but because of the fiction. Science has become a part of everybody's pop culture, but science fiction hasn't. And by extension, the people who like science fiction haven't. The nerds at Comic-Con, the dorks at the comic book store, and the dweebs who wish Borders carried more scifi are not the kinds of people that marketers want associated with their cultural products.
Something about science fiction remains grubby and unappetizing to the mainstream. Maybe that's because it's the one branch of science that rarely makes money, and never results in a lucrative patent. Or maybe that's because it's associated with troops of socially awkward people who would rather play war games than actually go to war. Whatever the cause, we know the result. If you want to make pop science fiction, you'd better call it something else.