Might be cynical of me to say this, but maybe for a lot of people it’s less work to accept a world that’s presented visually rather than figure out something described only with words.
Writing up Locus’ Books Received section every month gives me a good look at what’s out there, and I’m still frequently surprised by what breaks out of the pack.
I’m not sure optimism sells, these days. Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games — dark dystopian, action-filled young-adult SF — has been a huge hit with younger readers, and is largely responsible for sparking a flood of such titles. The success of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road suggests that dark futures can be big with adults as well. But the next big dystopia… no clue.
And how do you predict big hits like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series fit in? Or for that matter Harry Potter? All were popular before they were adapted into movies or TV. The general public has wider-ranging tastes than you might expect. I suspect a big part of these books’ success is their accessibility — they don’t toss around terms like “singularity” or “ftl” or even “telepathy” without explanation. That may be why books aimed at a younger audience are reaching so many adults, where adult genre titles have hard slogging. Media tie-in series such as Star Wars or Star Trek have a similar advantage in that readers already know what all the technical terms mean for that series, and readers are introduced to those concepts through a highly visual and auditory medium.
SF and fantasy have traditionally been geared toward readers who crave new ideas, and are willing to wade through expositions or puzzle out meanings and implications for themselves, as needed. Charles N. Brown used to tell me that for books to be bestsellers they had to reach the Lowest Common Denominator — be dumbed down, in other words. I don’t think that’s quite it — I think the books just have to be accessible on some level. Our field tends to make too many assumptions about what is common knowledge. All those paranormal romance/urban fantasies out there have to redefine vampires/demons/witches/etc. for their readers, every time — if the rules of that world aren’t set out clearly at the start, the series won’t fly. The more literary crowd sneers; anyone willing to put up with postmodern, experimental, or surrealist fiction can cope with a little fantasy — but such readers don’t necessarily like having worlds where magic has clear rules. Not only is SF somewhat isolated by the things that make it a genre, but there seems to be a split in the outside audiences we do reach, between the literary and the popular culture crowds. What audience are we aiming for, here?
I recently tried to think of a book to recommend to a lady on the bus who “never read science fiction” and drew a blank. I finally came up with the rather lame suggestion of Fahrenheit 451 or Dune. But recent, non-fantasy titles? Suddenly I’m back to the YA section.
Kelly Link. Her short fiction is wonderful — offbeat, wholly original, and I think would be extremely appealing to YA readers if she wrote something at novel length.
As far as fantasy goes, Neil Gaiman has certainly broken out to a non-genre readership–his novels for adults as well as for younger readers.
N. K. Jemisin
When you ask whether SF (not sure whether you’re including fantasy here) has the capacity to cross over, what do you mean? To a mainstream/literary audience? Or to those members of the already-genre-loving audience who dismiss science fiction, specifically, in favor of other speculative material?
I’m guessing by your last question that you mean mainstream or non-genre readers — but I do think it’s important to note that science fiction currently has trouble appealing even to its own, broadly speaking. In the last few years, again and again I’ve seen established SF authors, editors, agents, and convention organizers seem surprised by the realization that there’s a vast and diverse audience which consumes SF — but that audience still doesn’t think of contemporary adult written SF as “for them”. Which suggests to me that contemporary adult written SF is still doing a great job of putting up big ol’ “keep away” signs as far as those readers are concerned. So before we question why the mainstream balks, we should question why these ready-made readers are balking.
And yes, I do think they’re balking because SF has become too self-absorbed. We have an image problem. Too much of our best skiffy stuff seems to have been written in conversation with other skiffy stuff; there’s little effort to speak to people who aren’t already fans. Then there’s the fact that we call this the literature of the imagination, but it’s really the literature of the white male power fantasy — and I think it’s telling that the stuff that’s been selling like gangbusters lately is science fiction which breaks this pattern. In YA science fiction, for example, the protagonists are young and diverse: lots of women, lots of people of color, lots of people struggling with poverty and disenfranchisement and being at the bottom — not the top — of the power hierarchy. In urban fantasy we’re seeing wizards who struggle with homelessness, werewolves trying to hold their marriages together when they’re not howling at the moon — fantasies of stability instead of sensawunda. It’s a Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs thing, or maybe a paycheck-to-paycheck thing. Power fantasies are great if you’re privileged enough for self-actualization, but for the rest of us, stories of survival are more resonant.
And by the same token, those SF books which have successfully broken the mainstream/literary barrier have mostly been those that didn’t adhere to SF’s stereotyped image and focus. Despite the obviously skiffy subject matter, the successful crossovers have had authors or protagonists that broke the white male mold (e.g., Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whithead), or the power fantasy mold (e.g., McCarthy’s The Road, which stomped all over the traditional postapocalyptic libertarian/survivalist glorification), and they’ve tackled skiffy subject matter with a social realism and artistic nuance that in-genre writers generally shy away from.
As for who’s most likely to cross the genre barrier next — Genevieve Valentine’s just waiting for some big-name literary critic to fall in love with her; Rachel Swirsky’s got the Iowa Workshop cred and will likely have the acclaim as soon as she produces a novel; and Nnedi Okorafor’s already straddling multiple genre lines and is headed for a mainstream finish. To name a few.