December 15, 2005
Science Fiction Outreach
A question from the audience:
Greg Benford and Darrell Schweitzer have written an article on fantasy overshadowing science fiction and what that means to society.
Rather than bias you with my opinion, I would like to hear yours since you’re a rising SF writer of demonstrated intelligence. Hopefully, you’ll blog about it. The article is at http://benford-rose.com/blog/?p=3
I read it. I also read Elizabeth Bear's and Scott Lynch's take on the matter as well, which I commend to folks who are interested in the topic. I won't rehash any of their opinions here, since they're extensive, so go ahead and take a gander; I can wait until you get back. Or just go on ahead; I think what I have to say on the matter is fairly clear regardless.
Speaking specifically about Benford/Schweitzer, I think they're overthinking the matter by a considerable margin, because, of course, overthinking is what science fiction writers do. I think tying in the rise of fantasy and decline of science fiction to ominous cultural trends feels nice, because there's nothing like being held in the pitiless thrall of a world-historical hairpin turn toward entropy to make one feel better about the fact that it's JK Rowling making a billion dollars from her books and not you. Let that woman have her blood money! We'll all be fighting the cockroaches for scraps soon enough! However, I personally believe the problem is somewhat more prosaic, and it comes down to marketing and writing problems that science fiction literature has that fantasy does not; namely, that math is hard, and science fiction looks rather suspiciously like math.
Because science fiction literature is math, damn it. The best SF book of 2005, in my opinion, is Charlie Stross' Accelerando -- more mind-busting ideas there per square inch than any other book this year, and on the off chance Old Man's War gets nominated for any awards this year, I shall be pleased to have my book lose to Charlie's. That being said, and as I've said before, Accelerando is for the faithful, not the uninitiated -- and if you look at the significant SF books of the last several years, there aren't very many you could give to the uninitiated reader; they all pretty much implicitly or explicitly assume you've been keeping up with the genre, because the writers themselves have. The SF literary community is like a boarding school; we're all up to our armpits in each other's business, literary and otherwise (and then there's the sodomy. But let's not go there). We know what everyone else is writing, and are loathe to step on the same ground. This means SF is always inventing new vocabularies of expression, which is good, but it also means the latest, hottest vocabularies are not ones that, say, my voraciously-reading but resolutely middle-of-the-road mother-in-law has any hope of understanding. It's math to her. Which is bad.
Meanwhile: Fantasy. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: My mother-in-law can read that just fine. Harry Potter? She's got the books. American Gods? Maybe a tinge gothy for her, but she could handle it. Just about the only commercially significant fantasy writer of the last decade whose books I couldn't give her right off the bat is China Mieville, mostly because Mieville is generating a fantasy mythology informed by the tropes of recent SF (his fantasy is like his remade characters -- a delightfullly grotesque mashup). I think of giving my mother-in-law Perdido Street Station and giggle for the rest of the night. But, as I said, Mieville's the exception, not the rule (and anyway, I love his writing enough for the both of us). Fantasy writers are no less in each other's armpits than SF writers, to be sure, but they're not pushed to reinvent the wheel every single time they write a book; the vocabulary of their genre evolves more slowly. It's not math, or if it is, it's not math of the higher orders, and people like my mother-in-law can dive right in.
And this is the point: Fantasy literature has numerous open doors for the casual reader. How many does SF literature have? More importantly, how many is SF perceived to have? Any honest follower of the genre has to admit the answers are "few" and "even fewer than that," respectively. The most accessible SF we have today is stuff that was written decades ago by people who are now dead. You all know I love me that Robert Heinlein as much as anyone, but why does my local bookstore stillhave more of his books than anyone else's in the genre? The most effective modern "open doors" to SF are media tie-ins, which have their own set of problems: They're fenced in grazing areas that don't encourage hopping into the larger SF universe, and also, no one but unreconstituted geeks want to be seen on the subway with a Star Wars or Star Trek book in tow.
Thanks to numerous horrifying lunchroom experiences growing up, SF geeks are probably perfectly happy to be let alone with their genre and to let the mundanes read whatever appalling chick lit and/or Da Vinci Code clone they're slobbering over this week (Now, there would be a literary mashup for the ages: The Templars Wore Prada! It'd sell millions!). But then we're back to the Benford/Schweitzer lament, aren't we: SF is getting lapped by fantasy in terms of sales and influence and will probably continue to do so. It's all very well to say the world has turned its back on SF, but if SF authors and publishers are saying this while resentfully suggesting that we didn't much like that stinky world anyway, and that it's much more fun here with all our friends, who, like, totally get us already -- well, let's just say I find I lack much sympathy for the genre if this is going to be our position.
Darrell Schweitzer wrote in his lament that if someone wrote a SF novel as compelling as Stranger in a Strange Land, that people would read it despite it being science fiction. I find this formulation incredibly off-key. People are writing books as compelling as Stranger in a Strange Land today; they're simply writing them for an audience who has already read Stranger. And God knows that any science fiction book that apologizes for being science fiction or that begs the reader to try it even though it's science fiction (horrors!) is doomed to failure, because no one follows up on a pity read. They won't call it tomorrow, they won't send an e-mail, they won't ping it when it's on IM, and they'll pretend not to see it at the next party they're both at. A pity read is an awkward, awkward thing indeed.
What we need are people who are unapologetically writing science fiction -- and are unapologetically writing science fiction for people who have never read science fiction before. You want new people to read science fiction? You want SF books to matter to the masses? Then do some goddamned outreach, people. Write an intelligent, fascinating, moving piece of science fiction for the reader who has always thought science fiction was something that happened to other people.
Don't dumb it down -- people can figure out when you're typing slow because you think they're moving their lips when they read. Just don't assume they've read any science fiction other than that one time they were made to read "Harrison Bergeron" in their junior year of high school. Make it fun, make it exciting, make it about people as much as ideas and give them a fulfilling reading experience that makes them realize that hey, this science fiction stuff really isn't so bad after all. And then beg beg beg your publisher to give it a cover that a normal 30-something human wouldn't die of embarrassment to be seen with in public. If we can do all that, then maybe, just maybe, science fiction as a literary genre would be back on its way to cultural relevance.
Not every science fiction author needs to do this -- the idea of some of our more bleeding-edge folks trying to model a universe for skiffy virgins is one best left unexamined -- but somebody should do it, and the rest of the SF writing crew should cut those brave volunteers some slack when they do. The person who reads intelligent but training-wheels-gentle SF today could be the one who is devouring Accelerando or other such advanced works tomorrow. That's good for us, good for them, good for the genre and good for the whole damn known universe.
And that's what I think about that.
(Update: Having said that there are few "open doors" into science fiction for non-SF readers, I asked folks to prove me wrong by offering suggestions for good "entry-level" science fiction for adults. Their answers are here.)
Posted by john at December 15, 2005 12:00 AM
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