The Decline of Science Fiction

I was playing with Google Insights for Search and Google Trends and discovered that science fiction is in decline, or at least the popularity of searching on the term in Google.  I started with this Google Trends chart on science fiction:

SF-trands

I then switched to Google Insights for the rest of the comparisons.

Warning, the totals given on the graphs are not always accurate – they vary with the cursor position on the time graph.  So ignore them.  Just look at the lines, or I’ll give you the averages from the Google page.

decline-of-science-fiction

Trying to understand what the numbered scale means is hard, but here is Google’s explanation,

The numbers on the graph reflect how many searches have been done for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time. They don’t represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100. Each point on the graph is divided by the highest point, or 100. When we don’t have enough data, 0 is shown. The numbers next to the search terms above the graph are summaries, or totals.

When I was growing up they talked about the big three of SF writers, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, so I did a graph of them.

big-three-SF-authors

Asimov is by far the more popular writer now, but all three writers show a decline in interest.  And why did Asimov have a spike in July 2004, and Clarke in March, 2008?

Because Google doesn’t give actual numbers it’s hard to gauge absolute interest, so I plotted “space travel” versus “Lady Gaga” and got a rather sad graph:

lady-gaga-space-travel

Space travel hits the 0 mark in comparison.  So I did space travel by itself and got this:

space-travel

Interest in space travel is in sharp decline.  So I wondered how science compared to science fiction and created this chart:

time-travel-v-space-travel

Now I’m starting to doubt my methodology.  Why is time travel so much more popular than space travel?  Or is it a matter of how the phrases are used in popular culture.  I thought I try another comparison to test things.

science-fiction-v-nasa

Science fiction is 2 compared to NASA’s 19.  But notice, interest in NASA is in decline too.

time-travel-v-sf

But science fiction is 57 compared to time travel’s 26.  Time travel is probably a common term that’s well used in popular culture outside of the field of science fiction, as is science fiction, but it’s hard to gauge phrase from genre.

st-sw-sf

Star Wars is way more popular than Star Trek and both are more popular than science fiction.   Is that huge spike for Star Wars due to films or the discussion of the defense anti-missile program?

To get some real world perspective I did a comparison to iPods and iPhones.  On the Google page the totals were SF is 0 and the iPhone and iPods averaged 28 each.

sf-ipod-iphone

Trying to zero in on the popularity of science fiction I tried:

sf-kings-of-leon

So science fiction is about as popular as the Kings of Leon before they hit the big time – or at least on Google.

Finally, how does science fiction compare to other genres.

writers

On the web page fantasy and science fiction each get a 2, romance gets a 6, and mystery gets a 28.

Why is murder a more a interesting fictional topic than the future?  Go figure.

I don’t know if any of this means anything, but it is interesting to play with.  I linked to the two services at the top, so go test them yourself.

JWH – 4/9/11

11 Responses

  1. I did the same exact search of “the big three” when you gave us the link to Google insights. Asimov has that spike when the “I Robot” movie came out.

    I did lots of non science fiction related searches. I plugged in God, Jesus and Satan/devil and saw their popularity was in that same order.

    Then I put in the Beatles and Jesus and found that the Beatles aren’t bigger than Jesus at least not anymore.

    • It’s a fun feature of Google to do these comparisons. I don’t know how accurate it is, but these comparisons give us some kind of perspective on things going on in the world. It’s a shame the data doesn’t go way back in time and not just to 2004. It would be fascinating if back in 1966 if The Beatles were more popular than Jesus.

      I just did a comparison of Lady Gaga and Jesus, and she is more popular than Jesus for parts of 2009 and 2010. Jesus has a pretty steady state line, so overall Jesus is probably more popular than any pop figure averaged over time.

  2. Jim, these are just the number of searches on a topic, so you know that they’re going to depend mostly on what’s currently in the news.

    And they’re just for a few years, too. Obviously, we can’t get long-term trends from this.

    Finally, you’d expect that interest in older authors would decline over time, wouldn’t you? Except, of course, when something happens to revive searches, like Clarke’s death in March, 2008.

    I’m just not sure how much this tells us. I’m a huge fan of science fiction, but I’ve NEVER done a Google search for that term. Why would I? As a search term, it’s too broad to be useful for anything.

  3. Will Smith’s I, Robot movie came out in July 2004. Arthur C. Clarke died in March 2008.

  4. However, try “sci fi” or scifi and you get a flatter curve. if you really think that frequency of a search term is an indicator of popularity (and I don’t), then you have to consider all the variants that people would search on.

    In reality, the relative search term frequencies can tell us *how* people search for science fiction related topics amongst the competing terms and not much more than that.

    Unfortunately Google’s (publicly facing) tools are far too limited to get a meaningful data set. We would need to discover the range of searches people run to find out about science fiction topics (e.g. searches for authors, books, different ways it has been in the news and so on). Assuming, that is, that we have a good working definition of what “science fiction related topics” are to start with…

    • Yeah, I know using this method isn’t scientific, I’m just goofing around with Google Insights. I tried Sci-Fi, but it path looks very similar to science fiction. See:

      http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=Sci-Fi%2C%22science%20fiction%22&cmpt=q

      Someone suggested to me at our book club that science fiction is so pervasive in our society that people probably have stopped thinking of it as something special. Probably when the world wide web first started a lot of people were checking out what it offered on the topic, but as time has gone on people no longer use the web that way. This might say more about how people use the web than the popularity of science fiction.

      • second the replacement of science fiction with ‘sci fi'; I’ve been collecting Google Alerts for “science fiction” and “sci fi” (separately) for almost 4 years now and (despite my loud and belligerent protests) sci fi has been delivering far more hits, news articles and mentions than science fiction.
        The decline you’re seeing is not necessarily one of interest as it is one of shifting vocabulary. (And shifting times.)

      • Lets hope that SyFy doesn’t catch on. Also, I think watching Google Alerts would track something different than Google Insights. I think what you are seeing is a refection of what’s being published, and I don’t know for sure, but I think Insights covers the terms people are searching on. If you follow this link, you’ll see that “science fiction” is still more popular for a search term than Sci-Fi.

        http://www.google.com/insights/search/#q=Sci-Fi%2C%22science%20fiction%22&cmpt=q

        I thought of another reason why searching on Google for the topic of science fiction is declining, and that’s Wikipedia. When I want to know something I go to Wikipedia now. I wonder if Wikipedia has any kind of trends data.

  5. Maybe science fiction is no longer appealing because of the speed of change in our society. Technology is transforming our world so quickly and perhaps science fiction has lost some of that gee whiz factor. Stories of ordinary people in alien environments intrigued us, but Facebook engages us now. Science fiction might be past its prime, having enjoyed a genre heyday–something like gothic novels, mysteries and noir. Still around but only a special interest–a hobby with fan clubs–giving way to Oprah book club books about triumph over adversity, tell alls, celebrity bios and the best seller novel. I hope not. I love science fiction, though it’s been awhile since I’ve read any I liked. The future does seem to be singularity on steroids and familiar ground shifts so frequently. Some of my best memories are reading science fiction books–Asimov, Sturgeon,Clarke, Herbert and Bradbury and all those anthologies. Maybe I’ll re-read them–visit the past that was about the future.

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