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It is a fairly undisputed fact that the genre of western fiction has had a declining audience for decades. The Western Writers Association still exists, but if I had never worked in a Border bookstore I wouldn't even know that the genre was still stocked (on an area spanning maybe 2 shelves?) in bookstores. A magazine which tried to focus on the genre and bring it back into more prominence in the 2000s folded after just two issues. The western's appeal - based in television and the cultural ethos of the time - seems to have faded.

Will the same thing ever happen to science fiction? For example in the United States the space shuttle program has ended. Does this mean the end of space-focused novels? Will the genre change to focus on new developments in science or even fade from the popular consciousness? Or is there something different about science fiction's appeal from the appeal of the western, something that makes it more like romance?

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I love this question... I'm not even sure if it's on topic, but I love it anyway. This demands an encyclopedic response. –  Steve the Maker Jan 28 '12 at 22:19

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Science fiction has the advantage of being more loosely and broadly defined than the Western. Westerns are limited by definition to a narrow group of settings. But SF? As Nabokov said, "If we start sticking group labels, we'll have to put The Tempest in the SF category".

Now, maybe "space opera" will go away after we've been in space for a while, sure, or some of the other sub-genres. That in my mind is similar to Westerns going away.

We humans have always loved stories that deal with the nature of our world, the forces that control it, the problem of the future, etc. In ancient times the stories were about the Gods - the Iliad, the Odyssey. In later times we have, for example, the Divine Comedy - a work that falls squarely into the definition of modern fantasy! But now that our world is explicated by science and we've become a scientific people, we use science fiction as the fabric with which we weave our myths. I daresay we're always going to need myths.

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It seems like fantasy would also fulfill the need to weave myths, though. You make a good point, however, that a belief in science as an answer-generating thing helps drive science fiction as a genre. –  justkt Jan 30 '12 at 15:09
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Yes, that's a valid point about fantasy - what's more, the line between fantasy and sci-fi is very fuzzy indeed! –  Mark Beadles Jan 30 '12 at 17:11
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Subgenres definitely decline. They may be superseded by events (first trip to the Moon) or simply fall out of favor (hollow-Earth). –  sjl Feb 5 '12 at 9:21
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While people still wonder what if? I think there will be a place for some form of SF. As @sjl says, sub-genres (like the western in terms of historical novels) will change, but some forms of these will remain. When we stop asking what if? then the human race will be dead. –  Schroedingers Cat May 31 '12 at 7:59

Westerns are essentially historical fiction, set in a very specific time and place. And there's a mythos associated with that time and place that may be out of step with modern life. Most successful modern westerns of which I'm aware have subverted the western tradition, making it grittier and more realistic. I'm thinking of movies, but also Cormac McCarthy's trilogy, etc. So maybe the traditional western tropes of simple, strong heroes and black and white hats/values no longer resonates with people. I wouldn't necessarily give up on the genre entirely, because there have been some successful recent iterations, but obviously it's in decline.

Will the same happen with Science Fiction? I doubt it, just because it's so much more wide-open. Westerns are linked to one place, one time. Science Fiction is anywhere, and almost any time. Science Fiction doesn't have to be about space, it's anything set in the future of the world. So even if society loses its belief in progress and science, it'll still be interested in figuring out what the world might be like in the future.

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You can even set science fiction in the past of the world. It's literally anytime and anywhere. –  kindall Jan 30 '12 at 5:46

It will only go away if interest in/fascination with the future goes away. Even if really bad things happen and science gets demonized (more than it already has been, LOL), it will still be around. I saw a TV show the other day (title was something like the prophets of science fiction) which asserted that the first sci fi work was Mary Shelly's Frankenstein!

Although Sci Fi usually explores new science and technology and its possible impact on humanity, the best works really focus on who we are, where we come from, and "the meaning of life, the universe, and everything" ;) . Mankind will always ask those questions. It's at the core of our beings. Religion won't go away either for the same reasons (and more).

People will always ask, "What if ... ?"

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I'd like to add, in the realm of screenwriting, science fiction as a genre is expanding more and more. With the current state of special effects technology and the lower costs involved in making a beleivable story, the future is wide open for stories that previously were too expensive to make or even imagine on the big screen.

We will always look to the future and speculate on what it holds. We now can bring these stories to light in ways nver imagined before.

And yes, Mary Shelly is considered the first science fiction author. In her time technology was created to use electricity to galvanize metal and this sparked her imagination to speculate on what else it could do. It also touched on themes such as man acting like God and overstepping his bounds. Again, a prevalent concern in the early days of the technological revolution.

In the 1950's we saw science fiction movies that dealt with what could happen during an atomic appocalypse. We were in the height of the cold war and this was on everyone's mind. The original The Day the Earth Stood Still dealt with an alien intervention to stop an inevitable nuclear holocaust.

In the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still we see a theme that deals with the environment and the reason for the alien visit is too stop us from destroying our environment.

Twenty years from now we may see another re-boot of the movie with another theme. Perhaps controlling our population, or preventing us from strip mining every planet and asteriod in the neighborhood...

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