Roundtable: Genre Accessibility

Paul Di Filippo

I find myself hard-pressed now to do more than nod sagely in total agreement with Gary’s insightful and elegant parsing of the situation.

Okay, I’ll add a small codicil: non-fannish, non-hardcore readers are now more savvy than ever about SF tropes–stargates, chimerical creatures, etc–so that they can easily score an A on a modest “entry exam”.

In other words, such a reader cannot immediately proceed to The Quantum Thief, but can easily master Jumper.

And here of course we are squarely in the territory covered by Judith Berman’s excellent essay, “Science Fiction without the Future.” I believe Kris Rusch also had a similar piece around the same time.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Another argument that I’ve heard made (though I don’t know that I agree with it) is that the reality of what we considered the stuff of science fiction–technology, computers, space travel, etc.–has so permeated everyday life that the average person doesn’t need to read the fiction to experience that imaginative leap that the fiction provides.

Gardner Dozois

On the other hand, if you filter it enough that it’s not really SF anymore, you’re not solving the problem but rather avoiding it, whether it breaks out or not. I find it interesting that the most commercially successful SF books of the last couple of years, The Windup Girl and The Quantum Thief, are actually going in the opposite direction, and making their SF content MORE sophisticated. Greg Egan and Charles Stross had success doing the same thing.

I think one of the jobs of science fiction is to imagine viable human futures, futures that somebody might actually want to live in, or want to see their kids living in. SF’s track record with that in the last couple of decades has been spotty. I think extreme pessimism and gloom will only take you so far before the readers become tired of it. Once you read one bleak dystopian story or novel saying that everything’s hopeless and we’re all doomed, why bother to read another one? We’re all doomed, right? So what’s the point of reading another one, or writing it, for that matter? We’ve already reached that point with ecological disaster stories, and are beginning to see stories, from people like Paul McAuley and Carrie Vaughn which try to imagine how people can go on living and working and create a viable human future AFTER the disasters, in spite of them.

SF made a bad mistake as a genre in the 70s and 80s by virtually abandoning the Young Adult novel. There’s practically nothing after the Heinlein juveniles of the 50s and 60s to provide an entry-level SF reading experience (except, ironically enough, the much-hated “media novels” like Star Trek and Star Wars novels, that I think may have actually been keeping this function alive). The fantasy genre did not make this mistake–there’s entry-level and gateway fantasy stuff on all levels, from children’s books to YA, which carry readers on through to more sophisticated adult stuff. As a result, guess which genre sells better?

Gary K. Wolfe

I should admit that I’m far from the first person to compare SF to jazz–Kingsley Amis did it way back in 1959–but Jeff’s point is well taken that there’s a distinction between “breaking out” in the commercial sense and breaking out in the literary/artistic sense, though they’re not mutually exclusive. So by “suffering,” yeah, I was referring mostly to the popular market. As a mode, stream-of-consciousness never came close to “breaking out” commercially, but that doesn’t mean that Ulysses or To the Lighthouse are any less successful as novels, or that they “suffered” because of it.

As for sophistication: In this month’s Locus column, I had occasion to mention that, late in Charlie Parker’s career, a record producer had the idea of matching him up with arrangements for strings, which were still pretty popular in the 1950s. The idea, I suppose, was to make him more viable for the popular market. The records aren’t bad at all, and Parker’s solos are just about as sophisticated as they always had been–they were just packaged differently. I suspect we could all name dozens of SF novels from the last 50 years that, had they been presented differently, might have reached a wider audience.

But–again like jazz–SF has a devoted core of knowledgeable and passionate fans, and it’s very tempting to write and publish books for that smaller but more reliable market than to try to compete with teen vampires for the Walmart crowd. For myself, I have no problem with this. I still enjoy “sophisticated” high-concept SF, but if a talented and nuanced writer like Daryl Gregory wants to try his hand at a zombie novel, more power to him.

Jeffrey Ford

Precisely my point, too, Gary. More power to all of them, whichever manner or way they want to go — toward the center, away from it, where ever. We can only really talk about market trends to an extent and a demographic of readers that “theoretically” exist. Otherwise, every moment holds the potential for some young writer anywhere in the world to have a vision and write herself a novel that would change the entire game or start a new one.

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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