Meanwhile, the sales of science fiction novels and short stories continue to shrink, with a few notable exceptions. For example, the circulation of Asimov's and Analog and been steadily declining for years. Can this contradiction be explained?
I think it can, but it is an explanation many people do not want to hear, especially those who are firmly entrenched in the industry. Science fiction in the written form has become so self-absorbed that it has lost touch with the larger population of readers. The majority of books that get lauded by sci-fi critics and win awards are inaccessible to the average reader. Yes, the world in the sci-fi novel might be original or the science might be detailed, but the plot is not absorbing, the characters are not sympathetic, and/or the style is dry. While the critic or dedicated sci-fi reader might extoll the fact that the book is either different that any book that has come before or is a clever "tribute" to a book that has come before, all of that is lost on a potential larger audience that might watch a sci-fi movie or TV show. Lost or bored, they'll put the book down after the fist chapter and go back to their steady diet of mysteries, thrillers, or even fantasy. Science fiction, they will conclude, lives up to its reputation as being something reserved for eggheads.
I recently joked with some of my friends about how the fiction reviews in Locus were useful: I avoid the books that the reviewers like and read the ones they don't. This is an oversimplification, but it does bring home a point. I've given up on many highly-lauded sci-fi books. Oftentimes, I'm impressed with the ideas but unimpressed with the story. On the other hand, some sci-fi books have gotten an unfairly bad rap because they were simply entertaining, rather than super enlightening.
In rendering this opinion, I realize I open myself to some standard responses, some of which can be downright nasty. For example, those who fail to understand or enjoy a sci-fi book that has received critical acclaim are not considered "sophisticated" sci-fi readers, or else they are just not on the same intellectual level as those who, for example, enjoy reading a twenty-page explanation about how a particular scientific gadget works. "Sorry, we're going to have to kick you out of the egghead group. You belong with the mouth breathers."
My response? Unite, fellow sci-fi mouth breathers! I know I'm not the only one out there who wants a solid story with his science.