Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

James Patrick Kelly

I take Nora’s point and certainly have been applying a filter to my own work: Can a literate non-sf fan parse this stuff? (Luckily I am married to one of these and she is my first reader.) Because if we’re ignoring that vast readership, we’re not really participating in the popular culture which we helped to create. So easy on the neologisms, the matter-of-fact warp drives and the so-what digital infrastructure. And stop writing footnotes to “The Cold Equations,” Jim! And having typed that, I do think that thinking about a YA audience’s tolerance for skiffy code words and tropes is a worthwhile exercise for writers who aspire to a wider audience.

But since no one has mentioned it yet, I think that at least part of the sag in popular acceptance of sf and thus its failure to breakout has to do with our perception of the future. It doesn’t look like an adventure anymore, or at least not the shiny adventure that we were hoping for. And much of the “science fiction” that does invoke the spirit of Golden Age sf — that “good old stuff” that we were brought up on — is full of magic technologies and ridiculous economics. Perhaps it was ever thus, but we know better now. For all the scorn that was heaped upon the advocates of mundane sf, they had a point. If one of the purposes of our genre is to run thought experiments about the future, what if space is not an option and global warming means an attenuated standard of living, as seem most likely? If sense of wonder is one of the engines that has driven our success, such as it is, what are we without it? In short, I’m inclined to believe that the zeitgeist has turned much more pessimistic after a long run of post-war optimism, and that a literature that purports to live in the future is bound to have some falling-off because of this.

N. K. Jemisin

Jim: Only if that literature fails to keep pace with the realism that readers seem to want from it. Again, I point to YA — the dystopian subgenre in YA is selling like hotcakes because it’s harsh and depressing, and because it doesn’t pull any punches with respect to workable economics and the un-shinyness of the future if we don’t change things. Something in that grimness speaks to the teenagers and young people who are growing up in the increasingly craptastic society we’re creating for them. Is it surprising that they need some kind of literary catharsis to deal with this mess? They need a space in which to imagine revolutions and solutions and coping mechanisms. They do not need “welp, no biggie, it’ll all get fixed somehow and in five hundred years we’ll be in spaaace!” handwaving. That’s not sensawunda, that’s naivete and denial, and if SF has nothing more to offer its readers than that then it deserves to fail.

But there is still a sense of wonder to be found in these more pessimistic narratives. It’s just that the wonder isn’t technological, because as you say — we know better now that technology is just a tool, not the solution to our problems. We are the solution to our problems. So personally, I get a thrill out of reading/sharing futures in which humanity has grown the hell up, because what a wonder that would be!

Nobody’s better at imagining better worlds than us, so as long as the futures we create aren’t based on Ozzie and Harriet silliness, SF can easily stay relevant.

Jeffrey Ford

What is SF that it might “suffer?” Action at the boundaries, adventures in the Marchland, breaking through and ransacking other genres, keeps the center constantly emerging and vital. The word “sophistication” is one way of damning it. It strikes me as writers expressing themselves. Some of its going to be crap and some will be cool as hell. Or were we talking primarily about marketing and readership. If so, forget everything I just wrote.

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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