Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

A question came up: Has contemporary science fiction become too self-absorbed, or does it still have the capacity to cross over to a mass audience? If so, who are the authors and books that have managed to do so? And who do the folks in our Roundtable discussion group think are likely candidate to break out of the genre and find a large non-genre readership in the future–and why?

Cecelia Holland, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Paul Di Filippo, Ellen Klages, Karen Lord, Carolyn Cushman, Elizabeth Hand, N. K. Jemisin, Gary K. Wolfe, Rachel Swirsky, James Patrick Kelly, Jeffrey Ford, Gardner Dozois, Paul Graham Raven, Rich Horton, Russell Letson, and Guy Gavriel Kay all join in the discussion.

As always, this discussion is broken up into multiple pages for ease of reading. If you’d like to read it all on a single page, select ‘View All’ from the drop down menu above. If you don’t see the drop down menu, please click here.

Cecelia Holland

I confess I read so little of this, but I do read a lot of historical fiction, and it seems to me in just the last year there’s been some kind of sea change, so much of this stuff looks old and worn and second-hand to me. I just read a book of Catherynne Valente’s, Deathless, that felt fresh and vigorous, and as they used to say about the death of the novel, just wait until a live one comes along.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

I oversee the publication of a line of leatherbound “classics” for my publishing house. Recently, we were granted the rights to reprint The Foundation Trilogy. That book needed no introduction to my editorial board, most of whom are not well-read in science fiction; they were familiar with the title and Isaac Asimov’s name. The names of Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Philip K. Dick (thanks in no small part to the stream of movie adaptations and the two Library of America compilations) were also immediately recognized, and William Gibson got a nod when his name was conjoined with “cyberpunk.” But though there are many science fiction authors whose work I enjoy and admire, it occurred to me that many do not have the kind of name recognition that suggests they are breaking out beyond the genre to a wider readership.

In contrast, brand-driven works of science fiction–Star Trek and Star Wars novels–reach a wide enough readership to become best-sellers.

Paul Di Filippo

It seems to me that the breakout success of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl points towards a paradigm for reviving SF: topicality, self-contained neat ideas, appealing characters. Maybe a little optimism about the future too wouldn’t hurt!

Ellen Klages

I think it’s interesting that while science fiction books are generally shunned by the larger, mainstream audience, relegated to the genre ghetto, the same people that would say, “oh, I don’t read that stuff” will line up to buy tickets to a summer blockbuster — and when was the last time that a hugely popular, every multi-plex in the country sort of hit, did NOT involve an alien or a superhero or a wizard or a vampire?

Why are our tropes so widely accepted except in print?

(Yes, it’s a sweeping generalization, but…)

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9 thoughts on “Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

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  • December 2, 2011 at 4:03 am

    There is quite a lot to think about in this roundtable, but what stands out immediately are:

    1) Nora’s discussion of relevancy and the dynamics of privilege and power resonates with me, although I wonder if some young folks read these books for the thrill of what they think won’t happen and not just to find a space of inspiration for tackling the future. The way I hear some readers talk about THE HUNGER GAMES, for example, is like it is a fun, irrelevant video game. SF crossovers very often lose some of their potential for critique and re-lensing of actuality in the process of transition. But we have to keep working on the issues that Nora is bringing up, and I think that a growing list of authors are shaking up the genre and forcing it to confront some of the uncomfortable aspects that often get reproduced. This may be what we’re detecting in the self-referential and sometimes insular production of new SF stories. Perhaps it is time to start elaborating on those examinations and reworkings and consider how to make SF in particular and fantasika in general not just more popular, but more revelant and entertaining in a more satisfying way.

    Reading protocols keep popping up in this discussion as well; I was pondering this just a few days ago, this idea that the notion that “the future is here” alters both the entry requirements and cultural assumptions about SF. I wrote about this over at SF Signal if anyone is interested in reading more.

    I think that again Nora puts her finger on the problem in the end: how do we create fictional gateways that contemporary readers want to walk through?

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  • December 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    There’s another ya sf bridge from the Heinlein juveniles in addition the media tie in Star Trek and Star Wars books: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.

    Currently Cory Doctorow is writing ya sf; Bacigalupi’s Shipbreakers; bit older is Lowry’s The Giver; Westerfeld’s Uglies; if you count the Mira Grant zombie novels as sf; and Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy. (And of course The Hunger Games.) And The City of Ember series.

    Of course none of this is space, and much of it is either economic or political dystopia. (Or zombie apocalypse.) Sawyer’s WWW doesn’t fit into those categories, though.

  • December 3, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    And Pyr is entering the ya sf space with Planesrunner this month.

    Viking Juvenile published the Life on Mars anthology early this year.

    Older stuff: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom books (John Carter of Mars etc.) and the Verne and Wells books. Adams’s Hitchhiker books are generally well received by teens. A Wrinkle in Time.

    When I was a kid there was a near future dystopian series called the Desert Cowboys or something similar. (Wish I could remember the title so I could find them for my kids!$ As a teen, I read Asprin’s Phule books.

    More recent stuff: James Dashner’s The Maze Runner. David Macinnis Gill’s Black Hole Sun.

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  • October 19, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I don’t agree that there’s nothing YA available in sci-fi after Heinlein. I will agree that it’s limited (Anne McCaffrey, Joan D. Vinge & Orson Scott Card being the big exceptions I can think of myself.) I think the problem is that mainstream publishers won’t publish hardcore YA sci-fi. Dystopia and steampunk are fine, but anything that “looks” like space opera or cyberpunk isn’t. I know a metric crapton of indie YA SFF writers, just as many writing sci-fi as fantasy. Why are they publishing indie? They keep getting turned down by mainstream publications. There has been a tendency to go literary in the mainstream SF market in recent years, which loses young people entirely, and many adults too.


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