When I started working on io9 in 2007, we didn’t have a name for the site yet. We hadn’t come up with any real plans for how we were going to cover science fiction, science and futurism. But there was already a central idea that the site was based around: That science fiction is for absolutely everybody who enjoys it.
This was something that we talked about endlessly, for the six months before io9 launched in January 2008. Gawker Media impressario Nick Denton, who came up with the idea for io9 in the first place, really wanted to create a website that had something to say. He didn’t want it to be just a collection of news and trivia, but something that would challenge people. And at the same time, Nick was passionate about the idea that science fiction is mainstream pop culture, and that we shouldn’t ever aim our coverage at a niche audience.
So io9 founder Annalee Newitz and I worked on a central thesis for io9, based on Nick’s brief, and this is what we came up with:
1) We’re living in a science fictional era, thanks to all the incredible technological and scientific discoveries we’ve made. (At the time, we were just starting to discover exoplanets and sequence the DNA of individual people.) In some sense, science fiction has “come true.”
2) This means science fiction is uniquely qualified to comment on the era we’re living in, and is the only pop culture that accurately reflects the world around us.
3) Meanwhile, science fiction itself has clearly gone mainstream. Absolutely everybody was talking about Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Batman and William Gibson’s novels. Knowing about those things was a matter of basic cultural literacy.
4) So viewing science fiction as belonging to one group of people, or being aimed at a particular niche, is ultimately pointless. Science fiction that panders to hardcore fans instead of being accessible to everyone will probably fail. Also, nostalgia is a waste of time—science fiction should be about the future, and about newness.
And that line of argument was what we decided to hang a website on. We spent ages trying to hone our coverage, before the site even launched, so that there would be a strong point of view in our articles. Obviously, a website is not an essay—you can’t simply state your argument and then be done with it. But Nick, and the rest of us, wanted that viewpoint to come across.
It was Annalee who came up with the notion of including science coverage alongside science fiction news and essays—thus adding a lot more weight to the notion that science fiction had “come true” in the early 21st century. We could cover all those Titan flybys and biotech breakthroughs on the same page as our articles about Octavia Butler and Star Trek. And when we added technology and beautiful crazy machines to the mix, by merging with Gizmodo, it only strengthened the idea that this was all part of the world we live in.
And meanwhile, we tried to make io9 as welcoming as possible—as another way to prove that genre storytelling can be for all sorts of people. We always tried to keep the comment sections as friendly and constructive as we possibly could, and keep a lid on abusive speech. And we were rewarded with, honestly, the smartest and most brilliant community it’s ever been my privilege to interact with. We also tried to keep “inside baseball” stories (i.e., industry news) out of io9, and we did our best to avoid ever making anything personal, or writing about the personal lives of science fiction creators.
When we started out, the notion that science fiction is for everybody was mostly about not wanting to see our favorite stories wasting their time pandering to the minority of fans who had memorized every old episode or movie. We hadn’t yet seen Star Trek Into Darkness twist itself into knots trying to copy as much of Wrath of Khan as possible—but that kind of self-referential bullshit was what we set out to critique.
But over time, I feel like the question of who “owns” science fiction has only gotten more fraught and toxic, in ways that we couldn’t have predicted back in 2007. Back then, there was no “Fake Geek Girl” meme. Women weren’t getting death threats and rape threats on the internet for expressing an opinion about comics or movies. The Hugo Award nominations were still reflecting the tastes of individual readers, rather than voting slates. There weren’t endless think pieces about whether geek culture had gone too mainstream. Geek pantomime The Big Bang Theory aired its first episode while we were planning io9.
There’s a lot more silly gatekeeping in science fiction than there used to be. A lot of people are deeply invested in keeping other people from loving the things that they love. No, I don’t get it, either.
The issue of science fiction and fantasy becoming too self-referential, and wasting too much time trying to recapture fans’ nostalgia, is still a huge one. There are still tons of movies, TV shows and comics that only seem to exist to cash in on fond memories of the past, rather than trying to come up with new visions of the future. But over time, the “gatekeeping” issue has gotten bigger and more insane, and it really does come down to the question of ownership. Who owns Batman? (I’ll answer that right now: DC Comics/Warner Bros. But who has the right to love Batman, or obsess about Batman? Everyone.) The idea that something can be both iconic and the sole property of a core fanbase is a bizarre contradiction.
And so it’s now twice as important to say as loud as we can: Science fiction is for everybody. Science fiction is for anybody who cares about science and futurism, and wants to imagine how the world will be, or could be, different. Science fiction is the truest expression of the terrifying beauty of life in an age where we wear computers (and maybe soon, computers will wear us.) You can’t own any of this, or deny anybody else their right to be both passionate and critical. If your life has been touched by science, then science fiction is for you.
This is my last day at io9, because I need to spend some serious quality time working on my next novel, without any distractions. But I’m not going anywhere. Because after more than eight years at this site, I know more than ever that science fiction and fantasy are the air I breathe, the clothes I wear, the music I listen to and the source of all my most enriching relationships. That means that I’ll always be a part of the conversations here at io9, and anyplace else that people want to talk about our shared dreams of the future.