I have been a nerd forever. I don’t get interested in things, I get obsessed. I’ve been reading comics pretty much since I learned to read. I found SFF literature in the library and I haven’t been able to fully let go ever since. I think it must have been a Dragonlance novel, but I’m not 100% certain. That was about thirty*mumble* years ago.
Since then, geek media has taken off. Avengers: Endgame opened to obscene profits. I’m sure that HBO execs are getting ready to fire a bunch of people because Game of Thrones ended and they don’t have a mega-series to take its place. Everyone loves the media I wanted as a kid.
But despite that, there’s also a weird disdain for written speculative fiction. I know that term is loaded, but I’m using it to mark the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Hollywood loves to use books as a starting point, and why not. Books, especially popular books, come complete with a plot, a world, and – most importantly – an audience willing to pay to see it writ large.
But in the written form, speculative fiction is still mostly considered a niche. The publication and publicity of Ian McEwan’s latest novel made this very clear for me. His science fiction being nothing but “travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots” shows a willing obtuseness that is not unique to him. A paper found that science fictional elements in a story triggered a less careful reading in the people doing it. But why is that?
Gatekeepers and the kept
That disconnect, to me, feels strange. Speculative fiction is segregated not just by the people who don’t read it but also by the people who do. A friend of mine recently published a wonderful science fiction book dealing with the human aspect of the future. They’re getting reviews complaining about the fact that there are “ew, feeeeeeeeeeelings” involved in this book. People are using the presence of feelings to argue that this book is not science fiction, because it contains feelings. I bet that people like Ian McEwan who look down on science fiction would be happy to agree with that.
There are many people both within the genre and out who feel like they need to tell people their place. People who try to contain ideas based on who’s creating them and the format they’re presented in. Annoyingly, I have no fix for this problem. Except maybe to try to expand my own literary horizons and reduce my own prejudice toward literary fiction. Because hey, this shit goes both ways!
Modern readers with modern sensibilities
Clearly, people are interested in speculative fiction when it’s presented in an approachable form. But a lot of speculative fiction is not necessarily approachable to modern readers. The world has moved on since books in the Golden Age of science fiction were written. Literary styles have changed. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is heavily inspired by Heinlein’s work, but Heinlein and Scalzi offer very different reading experiences.
It doesn’t help that the people who love speculative fiction really love it. Go to any internet group or thread and you will find people recommending works that they loved when they first got into the genre. Usually without care for what the original poster asked. And in many ways, that’s a wonderful thing. People being so excited about a book that they feel like everyone needs to read it. But that doesn’t necessarily help the person new to the genre get into the feel of the thing. I am absolutely one of those people; shoving my Seanan McGuires, Elizabeth Bears, and Catherynne Valentes into every recommendation thread if I can find an excuse. Because for me, these were the transformative books. I loved my Conans and my Eddingses and my Dragonlances. But it was Seanan McGuire’s work first made me feel like there were heroes who looked like me.
And it is really important to find books that can give new readers those same experiences.
The genre of ideas
Another cause for the nichification (it is too a word) of written speculative fiction is the sheer scale of it. There’s a tendency in many speculative authors to just throw their reader headlong into the world they’re writing about. As a reader, I love that tendency. As a writer, I use it often. I recognize that this can also make it harder for people new to speculative fiction to get into the genre. On the big screen, you can’t miss the setting. You get big honking machines, spaceships, or modern society just from a look. On the page, it’s a much harder balance to hew. I’m fairly certain I’m not there yet.
That tendency, and the fact that we are often working with imagined worlds, often requires a more careful reading for the uninitiated. And that’s where that previously mentioned study comes into play. Just when a reader new to the genre needs to be following the clues more carefully, their own bias tells them to stop. I am, of course, biased but I feel like they’re missing out on a great big world of ideas.