I think that a lot of people say they don't like science fiction, mainly because science fiction isn't sure what it's supposed to be anymore.
In the old days, you could have an Action Adventure Hero going around beating up Nazis, or Chinese, or Redskins, or killing lots of animals in Deepest Darkest Africa. If he incidentally saved the world or won the heart of the beautiful heroine, so much the better. This made people feel good. They identified with the Action Hero and cheered him on.
None of that is politically correct nowadays, so you have to transplant your Action Hero into the future, or send him into outer space, so that he can fight aliens instead, because space aliens don't yet have poltical lobbies to protect them. You just can't go around demonizing human beings anymore, even if those human beings are really asking for it. The only human beings that it's OK to demonize these days are the rich, but that's an argument for another day.
Science fiction used to speculate about what life might be like on other planets. The galaxy was seen as a sort of vast archipelago, populated by beings both weird and weirdly familiar. Countless little boys (and I guess a few little girls) fantasized about winged birdmen and beautiful princesses with purple hair and blue skin, flying cars and exotic ray-gun weapons that could reduce an enemy to ash in the blink of a third eye. It was all very ridiculous, but it was also so wildly imaginative that few people could resist being enticed by these visions of the future.
Then we started actually exploring space, and it soon became clear that not only was Earth not in an imminent danger of being invaded by Martians, but, unless somebody started phoning home real soon, it was unlikely that there was anything out there at all. So science fiction started having to set itself in galaxies far, far away, where our telescopes and probes couldn't reach to prove the stories wrong.
This had happened before, incidentally. Fantastical creatures that were rumored to live on the neighboring island, or over the next mountain chain, or deep in that mysterious pool, were relegated to Ultima Thule, or the Moon, and then to Venus and Mars, as our insatiable need to explore the horizon pushed our imaginary neighbors further and further away.
Science fiction also turned inward, exploring the possibilities that the human mind is its own worst enemy. Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson were early writers in this facet of the genre, with their grisly tales of scientific experimentation gone horribly awry. The gloomfest continued with the neurotic HAL 9000, Skynet, and The Matrix, and then spread to the world of superhero comic books, where it became no longer enough to just have superpowers and a desire to save the world--you also had to be driven by lots of angst.
People are frightened by what they don't understand. Instead of taking people by the hand and making science fiction fun, the genre chose to accentuate the negative aspects of mankind's quest to reshape Nature to his own desires--the mind control, the renegade robots, the dystopian post-apocalyptic futures, the mutants, the living dead, and the giant monsters. And because the new generation of writers wanted to seem like they were being thought-provoking, they usually ended their stories on some horrifying or depressing note. The hero didn't win anymore. And if things go wrong, it's because humanity asked for it.
Now, I'm not saying that the Woodsman should always save Granny and Little Red from the Big Bad Wolf's belly--in the original, they were unredeemably dead--but you know, if you keep harping on doom and destruction, you're going to end up depressing your audience. The average Joe is already a little suspicious of science, because he doesn't really understand it, and maybe he got condescended to by the eggheads who did understand it. Maybe science just seems a bit too mumbo-jumbo for the average man on the street to appreciate. It really doesn't help to scare the pants off these people by writing stories about mutant bugs who got that way from eating genetically-engineered crops, or designer babies gestated in mechanical wombs and born with all their DNA coded out, or over-arching police states that control people's very thoughts. People are paranoid enough already without science fiction encouraging them.
So science fiction has gotten a bad reputation for being weird, depressing, obtuse, yet at the same time, juvenile. The general population has the impression that only maladjusted whackjobs really appreciate the stuff, and the genre isn't doing much to disprove this.
Your assignment for the week is this: What can we do to make science fiction more palatable? How can we make up for decades of decay and despair, and attract new eyeballs to the subject we hold dear?
What do you think science fiction is? What sort of stories do you want to see? Did you become interested in science fiction because you like science, or was it the other way around?
And if you could recommend one science fiction story, in the hope that it would change the minds of people who disdain the subject, which story would you choose?
I'll give you my answers to these questions next week.