Science Fiction is a lot less Weird than it used to be.
I am using Weird here is a particular philosophical sense (in the vain hopes that one day “Weird in the sense of Burnett” will become a common phrase among philosophers of fiction) meaning “possessing significant story elements which are intended to be unfamiliar to the reader.”
By “story elements” I mean such things as setting, characters, events, and the like. Significance is a difficult thing to quantify, but a general rule of thumb is that if an element can be removed or replaced with a mundane alternative without changing the events of the story than that element is not significant.
As an example of a Weird Element, consider the character of Mr. Spock in Star Trek. The character was introduced as a member of a non-human culture that strove for an ideal life based on reason without emotion. While “Vulcan” has since entered the popular lexicon, at the time the show’s writers intended for the character to be unfamiliar to viewers.
The impact of the character on the events of the program would have been lessened–sometimes entirely absent–if Spock had been purely human. The anti-emotional viewpoint of the character was significant, and the character of a Vulcan was assumed to be unfamiliar to the audience at the time of the first series.
That distinction is an important one. Keep in mind that we are not discussing whether the existence of a Vulcan character is an indication that a work is Science Fiction, but whether or not it is an indication that a work is Weird Fiction. When the initial series aired in the late 1960s, it was. In later works based on the series, Vulcans were familiar to the audience, and hence no longer Weird.
At this point I must reject the concept that may be forming in the reader’s mind that I am insisting that Weird Fiction has an (impossible) requirement for absolute novelty.
This issue is not if a particular story element “has been done.”
The issue is of the shared preconceptions associated with a particular symbol.
When a contemporary author writes a story set in the Star Trek universe, she or he must acknowledge the existence of “Vulcans” and the Vulcans, as utilized in the story, must be as they are described in other works set within the same universe. Otherwise, one is not writing in the Star Trek universe.
At this point a reader who is familiar with that particular franchise may feel the need to point out that the universe has undergone changes in the fifty years since it was first conceived. I am not, myself, a fan of the franchise, but I have heard that there are differences between “TOS Klingons” and “TNG Klingons” and so on.
That rather supports my thesis, actually. Mismatch between author and audience expectations is the surest proof that such expectations exist. What’s more, changes in the continuity of a fictional universe are seldom, if ever, introduced as new and unknown story elements–readers subjected such “retconning” are fed the new assumptions and expected to swallow them whole rather than experience the new information as a process of discovery.
Nor are shared expectations within genre fiction limited to an existing franchise. There are story elements within genre fiction (usually referred to as “conventions” or “tropes”) that are instantly familiar to readers of the genre, and which are deliberately used as such by authors. It is possible to write a Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, or Mystery novel without once introducing a concept that will be unfamiliar to your target audience.
Granted, many of the concepts will be “Fantastic” in the sense that they are false to fact within the universe that both writer and reader live in, but they have been made familiar by repeated exposure within fiction. Faster than light travel, for example, is known to be impossible by the laws of physics as currently understood, but has become such a convention of Science Fiction that writers seldom feel any need to explain it, or even introduce it as a speculative element. There is a magic gizmo that selectively ignores certain laws of physics, and the audience just accepts that.
And none of this is inherently a bad thing. Artist and audience are both comfortable with a story setting that is non-real but familiar. It doesn’t mean that the story itself is bad or poorly told. One can write an excellent story in a perfectly mundane setting, after all. In the same way one can write an excellent in a setting that is unreal, but known to the audience from fiction. Werewolves and vampires are not real, but within the context of a story can be treated by an author as being as familiar to readers as telephones and automobiles.
What this does mean is that genre fiction has largely become divorced from what I am calling the Weird. There are still authors who are working in Weird Fiction–Tim Powers, China Mieville, and Neil Gaiman come to mind–but they are exceptions rather than the rule in modern Science Fiction and Fantasy.