This year, the top twenty movies in the US grossed 3.7 billion dollars. Science fiction movies accounted for 2.5 billion of that. In 2008, scifi rocketed out of the basement to become scicult.
Movies are really just a small piece of the pop culture pie currently being wolfed down by science fiction. You've got space opera and apocalypse in video games like Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Spore, which are just a few of the scifi titles that obsessed audiences this year. Literary types fell in love with Neal Stephenson's multiverse saga Anathem, and comic book readers went nuts over alien invaders called Skrulls in last summer's giant crossover extravaganza Secret Invasion.
When science fiction has become so much a part of our everyday pop culture, does it make sense to call it scifi anymore? Or should it just get folded into other broad categories like "drama" and "action adventure"? Certainly that seems to be the underlying message of some of 2008's most popular new TV shows, such as The Mentalist and Fringe - as well as old favorites like House, Bones and CSI. All of these are fiction shows about science. They contain some classic scifi genre moments - mutants, magically advanced tech, heroic rationalists - but are basically just typical TV dramas that happen to be primarily about science and scientists.
Meanwhile, as Sci Fi Channel president Dave Howe told the LA Times earlier this month:
We're at No. 5 for the year, and within spitting distance of A&E at No. 4, which I think has shocked some people who have assumed that we're so niche and narrow that we don't even register on the Richter scale.
What's going on here? Acclaimed scifi author William Gibson has already explained it in interviews about his latest novels, all of which read like literary science fiction but take place in the present day. He believes that the present has become so saturated by high tech and advanced science that we are effectively living in a science fictional era.
Gibson is asserting that what once seemed futuristic is now part of the present. But it would be more accurate to say that we now accept scientific speculation as part of everyday life. We haven't lost the idea of a future that's way freakier than today. It's just that now everybody thinks about the freaky future, not just scifi fans.
The phenomenal success of a show like House is testimony to this cultural shift. Every episode focuses on a medical mystery which House and his team can only solve using speculative thinking. Nobody would call House scifi, and yet it offers audiences the same pleasures as Star Trek: A chance to imagine how science might solve human problems, and where those solutions will take us.
And it's not just in the realm of pop culture that science plays a starring role. Once Barack Obama is in office, the US will follow the lead of most European and Asian countries by including several top science officials among the President's advisory staff. (Under Bush, no science officials reported directly to the President.) Over the past week, the media has been buzzing about how Obama's closest science adviser, John Holdren, will affect the national economy and the future of resource management.
Living in a science culture could have a certain dampening effect on the kinds of thought experiments science fiction tackles. Scifi could become more like realism, where we explore the problems of ordinary people like House's patients. Perhaps there will be no room for romantic monsters and heroic mutant outcasts in science culture, just as there is little room for those kinds of creatures in your typical episode of CSI. Indeed, this draining away of experimental thought in scifi might explain the rise in fantasy stories right now. There is no danger that everyday life will suddenly fill up with vampires and dragons, so fantasy remains a viable place to stage escapist tall tales.
But in the end I don't think we're going to see a withering away of scifi's mind-bending side. Plenty of scicult remains firmly committed to radical thought experiments: We've still got provocative far-future tales like Wall-E hitting theaters, and writers like Stephenson publishing their strange new ideas on a regular basis. Science culture represents an explosion of the scifi spirit in ordinary life. The speculative saturates the everyday.
Perhaps we have finally reached the apotheosis of a revolution that began centuries ago with thinkers like Galileo and Newton. At last, science has broken free of the laboratories and universities to become a part of everybody's common culture.
APPENDIX: US domestic grosses of top 20 films since 1990, and how much of those grosses came from science fiction.
For movies that sit on the fence between science fiction and something else, we broke that particular film out so you can see how much it would add or subtract from the totals.
Sci-fi Total: $459,600,000
Sci-fi total: $358,600,000
Sci-fi total: $163,000,000
Sci-fi total: $415,100,000
Sci-fi total: $437,300,000
Sci-fi total: $479,200,000
Sci-fi total: $706,000,000
Sci-fi total: $872,100,000
Sci-fi total: $561,900,000
Sci-fi total: $1,384,400,000
The Sixth Sense: 276 M
The Blair Witch Project: 141 M
Sci-fi total: $435,000,000
What Lies Beneath: 155 M
Sci-fi total: $1,213,000,000
Monsters Inc: 236 M
Spy Kids: 108 M
Sci-fi total: $2,361,000,000
Sci-fi total: $1,510,000,000
Spy Kids 3: 112 M
Freaky Friday: 110 M
Sci-fi total: $1,747,000,000
Van Helsing: 120 M
Sci-fi total: $1,781,000.000
Sci-fi total: $698,000,000
Total: $4,010, 000, 000
Sci-fi total: $1,637,000,000
Sci-fi total: $2,504,000,000
Additional research by Katharine Duckett.