Telling people who don’t read science fiction and fantasy that I write it is still awkward. My mom used to tell people I wrote ‘‘novels like Stephen King,’’ even though I can’t watch a movie more supernaturally terrifying than Ghostbusters without enduring fierce nightmares, insomnia, and night sweats. I prefer corporeal, knife-wielding villains I can hit in the face.
But as a kid, I let it slide. I didn’t want the attention anyway. I felt incredibly embarrassed that I was writing about fake rebellions in made-up countries while my friends were studying to be architects. They were going to build real, adult things. I was going to write about trolls’ hair and dragons’ gold.
When I published my first novel 20 years later, I found myself faced with the same challenge: how do I talk about this book to people whose entire conception of science fiction and fantasy are built around Star Wars and The Hobbit? How do I convince folks that stories about the dissolution of a marriage in Montreal in 2155 are just as serious an endeavor as writing about the dissolution of a marriage in Montreal 1955?
Friends and family happily clamored to buy my first book, but only a thin sliver actually read it. In conversation with other writers, I found this was not an uncommon thing. Folks love to support you. But reading books they don’t consider ‘‘serious’’ or which are presented as intimidating in style or tone is another matter.
Yet I contributed to this very narrative about my work. Instead of talking about my books as serious (or at least fun) literature, I found myself falling into the same self-conscious trap I had as a kid, when I muttered about how I was writing a story about an expedition to Venus where the volcanos erupted with flowers. I said stuff like: ‘‘Oh, you probably won’t like it. It’s pretty weird,’’ or ‘‘It’s not for everyone,’’ or ‘‘You’ll only like it if you read a lot of science fiction.’’
I anticipated their reactions, and pulled my punches.
One might think I said these things in a pure fit of shame. But as I got older and moved in geekier and geekier circles with folks who loved the same books I did, I recognized that some of this was not shame, but pride. There was some elitism in it of the, ‘‘People like me just get this and you won’t’’ variety.
That’s not pulling a punch. That’s punching yourself in the face.
My parents have left copies of all of my books with every unsuspecting waitress – and in every doctor’s waiting room – from Portland to Seattle. But they never did manage to get past the first few pages of any of my books.
‘‘It’s too weird,’’ my mom said.
My uncle, posting on Facebook, said, ‘‘My brain hurts when I read them.’’
Yet I never hear anyone recommend a Dan Brown novel with quite these same qualifiers. Nobody says, ‘‘Well, you really have to be into cryptology and conspiracy theories to enjoy this.’’ And even though A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius certainly made my head hurt, it didn’t stop a lot of people from buying from it.
I started to wonder if I was limiting my potential readership in the way I was talking about what I wrote. These dual feelings of shame and pride were difficult to juggle. I recognized that my pride was fueled by the shame. Acknowledging to the world that I was wasting my time writing non-serious books about interstellar genocide and religious and political strife, I figured I could save face by letting folks know outside the genre that I was in on the joke, while secretly knowing that a few brave SF/F readers didn’t need me to use small words.
When I looked at what I’d call ‘‘breakout’’ books – books that everybody I know is reading, not just my trusted SF/F circle of buddies – I started to notice a common thread. No one ever tried to sell me on Carrie by saying, ‘‘You really need to have a solid understanding of telekinesis.’’ Not a single Hunger Games fan said, ‘‘You’ll only get it if you’ve already read Battle Royale.’’ Instead, they talked plainly about the stories – the bullied high school girl who gets revenge. The older sister who volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in a fight-to-the-death lottery. They sold me on impossible situations and impossible choices. They sold me on stories.
As science fiction and fantasy have become more mainstream, writers and marketers in other fields have become experts at selling these franchises in mundane terms. Yet I still have conversations with other writers in SF/F where I get these long, windy explanations about the technological theories their current book explores. I do it myself, defaulting to long rants about my worldbuilding and giant flesh eating plants and satellite-reliant magic. Predictably, I’ve found that the folks who hook me on their project are the folks who talk about the stories. Not the backstory. Or the narrative experiment. Or the long, grinding history of their whole made-up world. No, it’s the folks who stick to the basics.
It’s the folks who talk about the people.
Unlike most of my family, my sister isn’t big on reading. It’s not her thing. After she got into healthcare work, she started reading some true crime novels while soaking in the tub, but for the most part, she preferred chatting people up to squinting at words on a page. That’s why it came as such a surprise to hear that she was among the first people to buy – and, more shockingly, read – my first book.
‘‘It was hard,’’ she said. ‘‘Really, really hard. But I swore when we were kids that if you ever wrote a book, I was going to read it.’’
When she told me this I just sat there on my hands, mouth pursed, excuses ready. I was going to tell her it was too weird, you have to like science fiction, it’s not for everyone….
‘‘But you know what?’’ she said. ‘‘After the first few chapters, it got easier. I figured out the bug magic thing. And now I really want to know if Nyx and Rhys hook up, and why Inaya’s a mutant shapeshifter. When’s the next one come out?’’
My sister wasn’t reading a science fiction novel about a perpetual holy war on a far-flung future world, fueled by mad boxers and bug-powered magic. Ok, well, maybe she was. But more importantly to her, she was reading a story about people.
Her reaction made me re-evaluate how I talked to people outside of SF/F about the books I love. In SF/F circles, we delight in complexity and sense-of-wonder. We spend millions upon millions of words debating about the slim difference between ‘‘science fiction’’ and ‘‘fantasy.’’ But folks outside of it really couldn’t care less. People outside of the SF/F bubble just want to know, quickly and simply, what it’s about.
No elitism. No BS.
So now when I talk about Joe Abercrombie’s work, I say he writes grisly political thrillers. Best Served Cold is about a woman seeking revenge for the brutal death of her brother. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is a colonial-era mystery (one need not say which colonial era). Jo Anderton’s Debris is about a ruined architect trying to uncover who orchestrated her fall from power.
I often wonder if, in speaking about the books we love the way we do, we’ve created the very ghetto we purport to hate. ‘‘Take us seriously!’’ we say, and then retreat into the familiar world of our sub cultures, insisting that only ‘‘real geeks’’ need apply. The broader the appeal of science fiction and fantasy, the more it’s turned inward. After all, if everyone can understand and enjoy the latest hot SF book without reading Heinlein’s entire body of work, well, how good can it really be?
I fear that the language of exclusion, whether we perpetrate it through self-consciousness or a sniff of geeky elitism, is doing the genre more harm than good. Strangling our own potential audience.
‘‘It’s really weird,’’ I tell people, but what they hear is not a challenge. What they hear is, ‘‘It’s not for you.’’
But at the end of the day, we’re not writing ancient Etruscan law books or extinct programming languages or typewriter instruction manuals.
We’re writing stories.
And stories are for everyone.