To register the obituary long after the fact: science fiction is dead. Aficionados of the genre who acquired their taste for it in the 1950’s and 60’s probably already know this. What they might not know is that the death of science fiction has significance for the state of American culture in 1997.

With the odd exceptions of Stanislaw Lem (a Pole), the brothers Strugatsky (two Russians), and a tiny handful of American authors, no one has written science fiction in the last two decades that is worthy of the name. Indeed, most of the prominent practitioners of the genre (virtually all of them Americans) have passed on; the 1980’s and 90’s saw the deaths of Robert A. Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak, Isaac Asimov, and many others who pioneered the field in the 1930’s and 40’s when it reached print in pulp monthlies like Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. Ray Bradbury—God bless him—is still among us, as irascible as ever, but his Martian Chronicles belongs to 1952, and he has long since deemphasized science fiction in favor of other modes, like detective fiction and Whitmanesque poetry. The Englishman Arthur C. Clarke is another living legend, but nothing that he has written since the early 60’s comes anywhere near measuring up to Childhood’s End (1952) or The City and the Stars (1956), his two masterpieces. Minor geniuses also belong among the departed, or, though still living, have long since dropped out of print. I would recommend the work of Henry Kuttner, Catherine Moore, Leigh Brackett, A.E. van Vogt, Cyril Kornbluth, Cordwainer Smith, James Blish, Walter M. Miller, Robert Sheckley, James Gunn, Algis Budrys, Chad Oliver, or William Tenn. But unless one knows a good secondhand shop, none of their work is available.

Yes, the rubric of science fiction remains. But publishers today favor the prolific and mediocre serialists (many of them female MFAs) who churn out a treacly mixture of dragon-lore, pseudo-epic, cyberpunk, and 12-step philosophizing, much of it stylistically indistinguishable from the romance novels that the authors would otherwise, and perhaps do, compose. The books in question boast names like Spellfire, Abyssal Warriors, The Dolphins of Pern, Fire Sea, Elfenquest, Into the Labyrinth, and Sacred Ground. The cover artists depict improbably knowledgeable teenage girls communing with Disneyesque animals, antique sailing ships navigating mysterious seas, and Fabio-like shamans taming anthropomorphic dragons. What John Clute says in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction about Anne McCaffrey, author of the popular Pern series, applies to many authors working in a similar vein. Soon after Restoree (1967), McCaffrey “began publishing the linked novels and stories that have made her reputation as a writer of romantic, heightened tales of adventure explicitly designed to appeal—and to make good sense to—a predominantly female adolescent audience.” To visit the science fiction section, so-called, of the local Borders or Barnes and Noble is, for a 40-year-old connoisseur, a depressing experience.

I think that the death of science fiction is one of the late 20th century’s small but genuine tragedies. It is also a symptom of the radical decivilization, predicted by many science fiction writers, that now characterizes the West and, in particular, America. At its best, in the thoughtful pastorals of a Simak, in the Platonic fantasies of a Stapledon, or in the savage satires of a Tenn, science fiction maintained a high level of intelligence; it presumed a level of general knowledge, a familiarity with art, history, science, and philosophy, which contemporary commercial writers simply cannot take for granted in their readers and likely do not possess themselves. In a dumbed-down world, genuine science fiction yields to overproduced film-spectaculars and to endless narratizations of the adolescent role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons.” The rocketships, space aliens, and other paraphernalia are still on hand, but the impoverished sensibility of the mass audience has banished everything else.

Consider last summer’s Independence Day, which raked in big bucks and has since acquired cult status. Despite the fact that the film represents the vaunted state-of-the-art in computer-generated special effects, it fails even at the level of its visual impression. The gigantic alien ships remain disappointingly static, and the knobby alien fighter-craft fly so swiftly as to be optically unintelligible; the epic dogfights between terrestrial combat jets and their alien counterparts, modeled on similar but more successful sequences in Star Wars, likewise baffle the eye. The film’s aliens stupidly forget to install a virus protection program in their mainframe.

Independence Day has neither the visual excitement nor the intelligence of George Pal’s superb 1953 film of an alien invasion, The War of the Worlds, based meticulously on H. G. Wells’ novel of 1898. Pal’s Martians arrive in clunky steel cylinders, but when they emerge, encased in sleek, boomerang-shaped “war machines,” they take on a relentless menace that works from the moment of their implacable appearance until the film’s final scenes. Five minutes before Pal’s film ends, viewers might really be in doubt about the issue. The cornily predictable Independence Day in fact plunders The War of the Worlds without knowing what to do with the booty (both films feature, at midpoint, an atomic attack against the invaders undertaken by a flying wing, and there are many other specific borrowings), and the former never induces a suspension of disbelief.

But it fails by comparison in other ways, too. In Pal’s The War of the Worlds, for example, when the Martians break out of their landing site and begin annihilating the tanks and planes ranged against them, none of the characters cracks a joke. Critics might object that Gene Barry acts rather stiffly in his role as a nuclear physicist who witnesses the debacle, but he manages to convey the deadly seriousness of the situation. As the Martians commence their fiery slaughter, there is no defense, and Barry registers this fact. In Independence Day, after every last one of his wing-mates has been blasted out of the sky by the interlopers. Will Smith sucker-punches an extraterrestrial and makes jokes that might have been lifted from The Jeffersons or Fresh Prince. One of the basic elements of authentic science fiction is plausibility, and the sole survivor of his fighter-wing on an Earth being pulverized by aliens would not crack made-for-TV one-liners. Give me Barry’s Clayton Forrester.

In The War of the Worlds, the Martians systematically destroy Los Angeles. Never having heard of computer-generated images, special effects master Pal worked effectively with cardboard-and-plaster miniatures. Despite the limitations of his means, his scenes of destruction acquire a certain pathos. Independence Day lacks such pathos; its destruction of Los Angeles consists of so much cinematic wow! followed by soap-opera posturing and more made-for-TV one-liners. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and This Island Earth (1955) treat the alien-invasion theme far more seriously than does Independence Day. They exploit a Cold War angst which lends them moral gravity.

Masculine values have also been banished from the field. Barry’s character in Pal’s film acquires a love-interest, but Pal never lets romance stand in the way of thought and action. On the other hand, a good share of the plot in Independence Day concerns the fate of Will Smith’s girlfriend (a goldhearted cliche of a stripper) and her fatherless son in the smoking debris of Los Angeles, to the probable horror of which they seem oblivious. (Millions lie dead, but at least they saved the family dog.) Jeff Goldblum, the other male lead, is a computer nerd who spends a lot of time chatting with his gay friend (Harvey Fierstein) and making up with his estranged wife. No 1950’s director would have mucked up the plot with such irrelevant material.

Of course, science fiction is (or was) primarily a literary genre. Wells and Stapledon brought science fiction to a high level, artistically and philosophically. Clarke, Simak, Bradbury, Miller, Edgar Pangborn, and John Wyndham did their creditable best to sustain that achievement. Marginally artistic writers like Heinlein and John W. Campbell (who edited Astounding Science Fiction for 34 years) nevertheless wrote with a verve totally lacking in their contemporary counterparts. Perhaps, because the genre was new in those days, the innovations were fresher and the sense of wonder was higher. So audacious were Campbell’s interstellar battles and titanic machinery in their day (see The Black Star Passes or The Incredible Planet) that readers could not have worried much about their absurdity. They were likely asking themselves, what will he do next and can the scale grow any greater? (The answer was always yes.) In the aftermath of Star Wars, everyone has seen planets and suns explode, and fleets of space-dreadnoughts nuke it out with each other in the nebular gulfs. Like the audiences of gladiatorial spectacle, we are jaded. Even in the case of a professionally competent and intellectually rigorous writer like Ben Bova, who endeavors to uphold the “hard science fiction” values of the Campbell era, one senses a certain stiffness or artificiality in the prose, as though the story has been told too many times and no longer possesses its original suppleness. The infusions of mild eroticism and slick romance strike one as attempts to enliven a formula that threatens to go stale. One also judges (at least I do) that the dialogue resembles movie or television dialogue, as in Bova’s Empire Builders (1993): “Don’t you understand? The world is being choked to death by the greenhouse effect. The best way to reverse the greenhouse effect is to plant trees. Billions of trees!” The themes, too, are calculatedly topical, having to do with eco-politics and global warming. At one point, to drive the narrative lesson home, a tsunami overwhelms New Orleans. Bova is not at all a bad writer. He does his best to uphold the Campbellian tradition to which he is, in many ways, the chief heir. (He succeeded Campbell as editor of Astounding, which by that time had changed its name to Analog.) Yet a dumbed-down popular culture seems to suborn even the best of contemporary commercial practitioners in the field.

Recursive influence from the films might explain the reduction of literary science fiction to formulaic banality. Science fiction’s assimilation to Hollywood, commencing in the mid-1950’s, probably signaled the beginning of its end. If most science fiction movies have been artistically far below the level of most science fiction stories, there has latterly been a convergence in quality, with most science fiction novels, original or not, resembling synopses of exceedingly nonliterary movies. If Campbell’s The Mightiest Machine (1934) is the typical science fiction story, then director Frederick Stephani’s Flash Gordon (1936) is the typical science fiction movie, and the compromise between them will inevitably be in the direction of the latter. But it is possible to identify more proximate reasons for the genre’s extinction. Two are obvious, one is less so.

The first obvious reason is the decline, if not yet the demise, of scientific literacy among the American populace. In a recent survey, only 15 percent of Americans could define terms like “molecule” or “element.” Once science had been replaced by “science studies,” as it has at many universities, the criterion of rigor, to which the classic practitioners of the genre tried to remain faithful, quickly became meaningless. Non-rigorous practitioners will invade the arena and the most vulgar taste will prevail. Thus, most of the stuff that fills the shelves advertised as science fiction at Borders or Barnes and Noble is about witches, dragons, and quasi-medieval swordplay; it is also about self-esteem, androgyny, and all sorts of therapeutic schlock. It is not even low-grade Burroughs (not so bad a writer, in any case); it is low-grade Tolkien thinned out further with admixtures of Carlos Castaneda, Gaia worship, and vulgarized “chaos theory.” The death of science fiction and the demoralization of the space program largely stem from the same source: public indifference to science as a meaningful endeavor.

Overt politicization is a second reason for the decline in science fiction standards; it constitutes perhaps the fatal influence on the field. I trace this to two sources: Ursula K. Le Guin, who brought her feminist/left-wing outlook to mock-anthropological narratives like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974); and Samuel R. Delany, a left-winger like Le Guin, who infused the gay political agenda and elements of homosexual pornography into his avant-garde novels Triton (1976) and Dhalgren (1981) and who, as a tenured deconstructor of comparative literature at Amherst, completed the colonization of science fiction by the English Department. There are others, but Le Guin and Delany can stand for the rest. Once they had finished with science fiction, the genre now found its raison d’être in affirming radical relativism and legitimizing the particular programs which required radical relativism for their fulfillment. Science fiction, in other words, would now differ in no way from any other branch of postmodern discourse.

Earlier writers had undeniable political affiliations. Wells and Stapledon certainly did, and at a lower but still impressive level, so did Weinbaum and Asimov. They were, respectively, Edwardian and Rooseveltian socialists. But they were more Edwardian and Rooseveltian, in the final analysis, than socialist, and their politics little influenced their writing. Delany and Le Guin belong to the same philosophical and political world as Derrida, Foucault, Fish, and Company, which is to say that they are more political, more Marxist-Gay/Feminist, than anything else. Their writing is the expression of their politics. As such it is tendentious in the extreme. (Ironically, while Delany and Le Guin were putting a neo-Marxist polish on the genre, Lem and the two Strugatskys were finding the workers’ paradise in Poland and the Soviet Union less than fully congenial. Lem finally went into exile in Austria. The Strugatskys contented themselves with foreign publication of internally unacceptable works.)

It might be argued that Heinlein had much earlier attempted to politicize science fiction in the direction of the right (Sixth Column, The Starship Troopers) but I have the same critical misgiving about Heinlein’s politicization of the genre that I do about Delany’s or Le Guin’s. It produced propaganda, not art. (The unabridged version of Stranger in a Strange Land, issued in 1990, only proves that Heinlein’s editors exercised considerable wisdom in cutting away the worst of the preachments.)

Other science fiction writers have also been academics, as are Delany and Le Guin. Tenn, that master of the satirical short, is an example. The 1960’s saw him ensconced at Penn State in the writing program, but by that time he had just about finished being a science fiction writer. In any case, Tenn seems to have been only technically an academic. His spirit always dwelt elsewhere.

Juxtapose, for example, a passage from Delany’s “Afterword” to his Stars in my Pockets like Grains of Sand (1984) with a passage from a Tenn story, “Flirgleflip,” published more than 30 years before (1950). According to Delany, drawing on two Marxist critics, Jameson and Robinson, science fiction (including his own) is now a

postmodernist form which, through an appropriation of complex nostalgia, has eclipsed parody. . . . This turn to pastiche, along with the information explosion (which, as Jameson suggests, has shattered the “signifying chain” of a more focused and unified culture), signals the possibility/necessity of a new sort of art enterprise in response to multinational capitalism . . . just as . . . realism was a response to early industrial capitalism and modernism was a response to later monopoly capitalism (better known as imperialism).

Delany even senses “a deeper discursive split” in contemporary science fiction than that suggested by his two critical allies. (Personally, whenever I hear the term “signifying chain” or “discursive split,” I contemplate the possibility/necessity of reaching for my atomic blaster.)

In the Tenn story, a far-futural academic from a thoroughly decadent society finds himself, via a time-warp, in New York City circa 1950. Tenn has sharply observed the rhetorical absurdity of the professors and makes his unlucky antihero explain himself this way to people whom he sees as his indubitable and irremediable inferiors:

I am a flirgleflip. I flip flirgles . . . [Flirgles] were an energy form which at one time attained intelligence on Mars and left behind them only flirg-patterns which were vaguely equivalent to our music or non-objectivist art [and,] being energy forms[,] they left permanent energy records of all kinds in their only material artifacts—dolik, spindfar, and punforg.

Tenn’s speaker refers “to his forthcoming paper on Gllian Origins of Late Pegis Flirg-Patterns,” which is perhaps what Delany is talking about in his “Afterword.”

My point, of course, is that contemporary science fiction, when it is not a lady’s romance in spacesuits, is so much postmodern flirgleflipping, and that Tenn’s prescient parody is a lot more interesting than Delany’s unconscious self-parody.

Science fiction in its heyday betokened the robustness of the Western enterprise and a faith in the pioneering spirit, which, as Oswald Spengler noted, goes all the way back to the Norse voyages. It is entirely plausible to argue that science fiction provided the impetus behind the space program: the early experimenters in rocketry—Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard, and (notoriously) Wernher von Braun—all read interplanetary fiction and dreamed of sending explorers to the Moon and Mars. It was a primary motivation.

This brings me to a third cause of the death of science fiction, perhaps not so obvious as the others. Science fiction, just like the space program which it inspired and celebrated, always had a spiritual component. Clarke put it simply in his classic essay “The Challenge of the Spaceship” (1946): “The future development of mankind, on the spiritual no less than the material plane, is bound up with the conquest of space.” Possibly Clarke has the causality reversed—as a proposition, the conquest of space always presumed the continued spiritual vivacity of mankind—but the relation is no doubt recursive. Anyone who doubts that science fiction was spiritual should peruse Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Starmaker (1937), Clarke’s Childhood’s End, or Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). In Last and First Men, Stapledon conceives his speculative, two billion-year future of the human race as a set of expanding variations on two themes from the Greco-Hebrew axis: “Socrates, delighting in truth for its own sake and not merely for practical ends, glorified unbiased thinking, honesty of mind and speech. Jesus, delighting in the actual human persons around him, and in that flavour of divinity which, for him, pervaded the world, stood for unselfish love of neighbours and of God.” All human adventure derives from the dialectic of those two creeds. In Starmaker, Stapledon speculates about “the Christs of the many worlds” and concludes his exploration of the universe through space and time in a confrontation with God. Childhood’s End also deals with the eschatological, while A Canticle for Leibowitz is unadulterated Thomistic theology from beginning to end. Lem, too, is a theologian in mysterious works like Solaris (1962) and His Master’s Voice (1968). Even Pal’s cinematic War of the Worlds ends, as does Wells’ novel, on an invocation of the Deity.

One of the outstanding exceptions to the declining standards of the field in the late 60’s and 70’s was Philip K. Dick (1928-1982). Always a maverick, Dick became increasingly theological in his orientation during this period. While undertaking the role of a kind of latter-day Christian apologist in novels like VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1982), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), Dick explicitly attacked Marxism as a pernicious—indeed inhuman—force in the history of our beleaguered century. In the posthumously published account of a mystical vision that befell him in February and March of 1974, In Pursuit of VALIS (1991), Dick makes it clear that, at the end of his disturbed yet clairvoyant life, he saw his own work as a consistent response to the radical moral crisis of his age; humanity faced the choice, in Dick’s analysis, between a humane spirituality passing from Hebrew revelation through Creek metaphysics to Gospel compassion, and an inhuman materialism whose proximate sources were (paradoxically) Karl Marx and Madison Avenue. Despite the claim that the “cyberpunk” authors make on his pedigree, Dick bestrides his shrunken world like a colossus. He was prophetic and magnanimous; they are myopic and self-absorbed. His element was the spirit; theirs the mere ego.

If, as Dick argued, science fiction stems ultimately from the theophanic and cosmic vision of the earliest Western thinkers—from the pre-Socratics, from Plato, from Epicurus—then its spiritual element is understandable. Does anyone remember today that the question of “the plurality of worlds,” of the habitation of extraterrestrial planets by other humanities, first surfaced in Epicurus and was once debated by Catholic and Protestant theologians? (When Pope wrote his “Universal Prayer,” he really meant it to be universal.) To the extent that postmodern humanity rejects the spiritual, it will reject science fiction, just as it will reject any participation in astronautics. Notice the yawning indifference that ensued after Daniel Goldin’s announcement, early last August, that NASA scientists had found a Martian rock filled with microfossils.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, science fiction represented a civilization possessed by its extrovert impulse. What Clarke called “The Challenge of the Spaceship” reflected a transcendental orientation and a boundless confidence in material means. Atomic energy, unleashed destructively at the end of the war, could be harnessed to propel men to Mars or beyond. To Clarke, in 1946, it appeared inevitable.

Once upon a time, the Vikings sailed forth into the uncharted North Atlantic; in 1961, John Kennedy enjoined NASA to put a man on the Moon, whereupon several thousand scientists and engineers, many of them readers of science fiction, accomplished just this. Then youth culture appeared, people tuned in, turned on, dropped out, and finally they went into politics or the academy. In the frog-pond of their torpor they spawned a culture turned, not healthily outward, but neurotically inward in the most debilitating and disastrous way. They have forgotten the stars; they are bereft, it seems, of grand or noble urges. Their interest lies in doliks, spindfars, and punforgs, or in their polysyllabic, postmodern equivalents. They flirgleflip.

Rest in peace, science fiction.