In the 90th (!) episode of the Coode Street Podcast, Gary Wolfe mentioned that he didn’t like to say that literature ‘evolved,’ that he felt it demeaned/diminished early work. As an example, he pointed out that little dystopian literature ever topped Brave New World, so feels a bit wrong to say that dystopian literature ‘evolved’ from that early starting point. I agree with Gary’s main point: that we shouldn’t assume that work that comes later is automatically ‘better’ than what comes before, but I don’t think that ‘evolution’ has to mean that.
That view of evolution is based on an understanding that biologists have been trying to shake from years. It’s epitomized by the classic image below, which depicts evolution as a linear process. (BTW, as a measure of its cultural prevalence, if you do a Google Image search just on the word ‘evolution,’ that image is what pops up.)
Victorians also liked to picture the natural world as a sort of tree with humanity on top. However, evolution doesn’t work that way. Instead, organisms grow into new niches and optimize their presence in those niches so as to ensure survival.
I bring this up because I think that’s a perfectly good metaphor for literature, and doesn’t have the problem that Gary identified. Over time science fiction has colonized various niches, some more successfully than others, and its optimal survival strategies have changed over time. The New Wave filled a different spot than Cyberpunk, but each were appropriate to the cultural moment. When the culture moves on (much the same way as a pool drying up or a valley flooding) the literature evolves into a new niche and does its best there. I think that’s part of what’s happening with our proliferation of sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, and I’ll take it as a sign of a healthy ecosystem!
So it makes no more sense to say that a dystopia like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is ‘better than’ Brave New World (at least simply because it comes later) than it does to say that a lion is ‘better than’ a shark because it ‘evolved’ later. I’m not sure the language will ever evolve to accept the more rigorous biological view of evolution as a commonplace metaphor but I think it works tolerably well–probably better than the more popular model.