How popular is Science Fiction?

    This morning I got up wondering just how popular is science fiction. Google makes a wonderful barometer of popular culture so I did a bunch of searches and put them into Excel. Since I mainly was interested in trying to find out if Robert A. Heinlein was maintaining his popularity after death, I tried to select enough writers for comparison to give a good gauge of things. I searched on names using double quotes to get more accurate returns. Like this: “Robert Heinlein”

    To make comparisons to other genres and pop culture as a whole, I put in SF authors, mystery authors, classic authors, famous historical names, and some pop icons from when I was growing up and now. The results are thus:





Science Fiction


Britney Spears






J. R. R. Tolkien




Bob Dylan




Charles Dickens


Stephen King


J. K. Rowling




Beach Boys


George Lucas


Jane Austen


Tom Clancy


Terry Pratchett


George Orwell


Douglas Adams


Jules Verne


John Grisham




Isaac Asimov


James Joyce


H. G. Wells


Kurt Vonnegut


Janet Evanovich


George R. R. Martin


Orson Scott Card


Jack Kerouac


Mary Higgins Clark


Frank Herbert


William Gibson


Michael Connelly


Audrey Niffenegger


Neal Stephenson


Robert Heinlein


Yann Martel


Sue Grafton


Edgar Rice Burroughs


Elmore Leonard


Cormac McCarthy


Arthur C. Clarke


Philip K. Dick


Michael Chabon


Connie Willis


David Brin


Harold Robbins


Theodore Sturgeon


Vernor Vinge


John Scalzi


Sara Paretsky


A. E. Van Vogt


Kage Baker


Roger Zelazny


John W. Campbell


E. E. Smith



    The phrase “science fiction” did pretty well when compared to “God” and “Jesus.” But it’s a little weird to think that Britney Spears has one third the popularity of the world’s most famous holy figure, and she’s three times more popular than Bob Dylan or Plato, and a touch more popular than the Fab Four. Further it is quite revealing that the SciFi authors with the most popularity are the guys who write silly SF books. And how bizarre is it that James Joyce is sandwiched between Isaac Asimov and H. G. Wells?

    As you can see, my guy Heinlein is just below the middle in popularity. Now I have to wonder if being alive helps or hurts. Jane Austen trumps Tom Clancy, and Philip K. Dick beats out Michael Chabon, but just barely and that’s comparing a lifetime of work, by an author with cult status and many movies made from his stories to a young writer with a very small backlog of books to his credit. How can we explain that? I can’t help but wonder if you get more press when you’re alive. Heinlein is just a touch more popular than Yann Martel who had just one bestselling book, The Life of Pi.

    Doing a search on [“The Life of Pi” Martel] brings up 48,500 hits, and searching on [“Stranger in a Strange Land” Heinlein] produces 188,000 hits. Thus doing book to book competitions produces different results over comparing author names. I’ll save that analysis for my next post and compare a long list of books to see how that barometer works.

    Cormac McCarthy just won a Pulitzer, and has a movie out with Oscar buzz and he’s about two thirds as popular as Heinlein, and a little more than twice as popular as Vernor Vinge who is probably a whole lot less famous. Heinlein is a legend in the science fiction world. Vernor Vinge is a rather famous guy among computer dudes, and since the web was created by said dudes, that may influence his overall popularity.

    Now I have to wonder, if you want to be a famous writer would it help sales to get busted for drunk driving, have a notorious marital dust-up, shave you head for photographers – oh wait, maybe it’s all of that while being a dumb blonde wearing skimpy outfits singing suggestive songs? Would J. K. Rowling get more hits on Google if she wore fewer clothes? If you search on Marilyn Monroe you get 11,500,000 hits, so is being blonde and female a fame factor?

    The main thing that helps I think, at least for writers, is if they have movies created from their books. Heinlein hasn’t been that lucky in this department, with his main success being Starship Troopers. Would Stephen King be as famous if none of his books had been filmed? After Have Space Suit-Will Travel becomes a movie it might generate considerable more than 9,550 hits. We’ll have to wait and see if I’m proven right. But generally when you search on a book title that has been made into a movie, movie sites come up first.

    John W. Campbell and E. E. Smith were giants in their day – back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. “Astounding Science Fiction” gets 63,200 hits, so Campbell’s magazine has remained more popular than his famous editing. Evidently writing the classic “Who Goes There?” which was made into a hit movie twice, as The Thing from Another World and The Thing, didn’t make Campbell a household name. Or maybe that’s a lesson for not writing under a pen name.


9 thoughts on “How popular is Science Fiction?”

  1. If you google-search “Robert A. Heinlein,” as he is frequently credited, you add another 170,000 Google spottings, which gets him up over Stephenson.

  2. I considered “Robert A. Heinlein” which got 169,000 and “Robert Anson Heinlein” which totaled 46,500, but I don’t know if it’s cumulative.

    On pages that referred to RAH as Robert A. Heinlein when first mentioned might would have dropped to calling him Robert Heinlein from then on, so it wouldn’t mean adding 170,000 more hits, but maybe just 20,000 where the page only referred to RAH with the middle initial.


  3. John, you’re everywhere, aren’t you?

    Interesting ‘low granularity’ take on things. I wonder what the results would look like for individual authors if you were to search for, say “Robert A. Heinlein” and/not “Science Fiction”…

    or “Jesus” and “Science Fiction”

  4. Strangely enough [Jesus “science fiction”] produces 555,000 hits. And “Robert Heinlein” without “science fiction” finds 465,000 hits. More telling is “Britney Spears” without “sex” produces 8,380,000, which means about 56 million of her hits do mention her and the word sex.

    By the way, [“Robert Heinlein” sex] produces 142,000 hits. RAH is no Britney, but [“Frank Herbert” sex] produces only 94,700 hits from a pool of links twice as large as Heinlein’s, so I have to wonder if Heinlein would have been a whole lot less popular if he hadn’t written any novels after Starship Troopers.

    Google is a lot of fun.

  5. Fascinating that God and Jesus top the list. Isn’t Google fun? Googling things is my past-time when I’m bored at work.

    I ran across your blog recently, have been enjoying your insightful posts about Sci Fi. I really enjoy Sci Fi as well, just love a great discussion about its merits and contributions to literature. I look forward to reading more.

  6. What an interesting way to determine popularity! I found this while searching for figures on sci-fi popularity, but I was expecting things like 4% of readers, or 12% of books sold. I wouldn’t have thought of relative googleability.

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