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29 January 2014 @ 07:46 am
Science fiction for people who hate science fiction  
Bizarre idea. If people really hate science fiction, they shouldn't have to read it. It's not cruciferous vegetables in the intellectual diet. So of course, we're really talking about people who erroneously think they hate science fiction, but would love it if they got to the good stuff.

Here's io9 with a panel taking the approach of "entry level" science fiction, which gets rid of some of the problems. One thing this panel makes obvious is that "sf," or as John Clute would say, "fantastika," is a house that contains many mansions. For instance, one panelist wants to get people to read heroic fantasy. I've been reading sf for 60 years, and no one has ever gotten me to read heroic fantasy. Paolo Bacigalupi thinks people will want to read stories about how the world will be even shittier in the near future as long as they're not scared off by that nasty Science Fiction label.

We have recommendations for tales that are full of human interest but go easy on the explanation (The Handmaid's Tale) or have wonderful prose and characterization but How We Got There or How It Works make my crap detector not only ring but set off rockets and smoke bombs ("Aye, and Gomorrah," Never Let Me Go).

I don't want to minimize the problem. A lot of sf is written for people who are familiar with sf, and a lot the older stuff suffers from defects that weren't obvious at the time. N.K. Jemisin recommends Childhood's End, but warns of the racial aspects. Stranger in a Strange Land was a great gateway book in the 60s, but now its acceptance of unexamined assumptions about the roles of the sexes makes it unreadable for many. (And I for one am still grateful for many of the things it taught me in other areas.) With all the difficulties, the panel has some really good suggestions from, among others, John Scalzi and Seanan McGuire, whose own work is recommended by others.

The whole thing reminds me that I am odd, even among science fiction readers. I don't like popular fiction. There, I said it. I do not enjoy suspense and adventure. Pop fiction, like alcohol and sodomy, gets so much moralistic opposition that many of those who enjoy it can't imagine anyone refraining just because they don't find it fun, but that's how I feel. I took up sf because it was Good to Think With--what if they do this? how will it work? what happens next?--and I put up with Story Values to get what I wanted. Perhaps the people who erroneously think they don't like sf should be reassured that it isn't just for people like me.
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browngirl on January 29th, 2014 03:15 pm (UTC)
*makes a note, nodding as I read*
nancylebov: green leavesnancylebov on January 29th, 2014 03:55 pm (UTC)
The general public doesn't seem to have any problem with sf movies and television, so there's something odd about print sf having a bad reputation.
El Coyote Gordo: rocket coyotesupergee on January 29th, 2014 04:34 pm (UTC)
Good question. Maybe to movie fans, sf is like mainstream, only with better special effects.
Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on January 29th, 2014 04:38 pm (UTC)
When Terry Carr published an anthology in the early 1970s titled Science Fiction for People Who Hate Science Fiction, he made the assumption, typical for his generation, that what people hated was either Gernsback or Planet Stories, and he makes this clear in his introduction.

So he picked stories of sober literary quality, many of them real gut-punchers like Clarke's "The Star" and Fred Brown's "The Weapon". But the problem is, that doesn't help with readers who don't like SF because it punches them in the gut too much. (That's essentially Bacigalupi's problem as well.)

Some of the recommendations on the list are of books in their capacities as good mainstream novels, apart from their SF content. The problem is that, of those that I've read, it seemed to me that their mainstream quality was exactly where they fell down. RC Wilson's Spin struck me as an extremely dull, routine, uninteresting mainstream novel with a good, short, punchy SF novel in it trying to get out. And MD Russell's The Sparrow had solid SF content packed inside a truly inept mainstream frame. The popular non-SF novels I read are oceans more competent at it than either of those.

By the way, you say you won't read heroic fantasy, but A Wizard of Earthsea and The Last Unicorn are about as far removed from conventional heroic fantasy as is compatible with "wizard in a faux-medieval setting." I wouldn't call them "heroic fantasy" at all. "High fantasy" is the term I'd use. "Heroic fantasy" seems to be a term used by Sword & Sorcery fans who want to co-opt high fantasy under their umbrella.
Patrick Nielsen Haydenpnh on January 29th, 2014 05:42 pm (UTC)
I've never been interested in the "science fiction for people who hate science fiction" approach. When I talk about "entry-level SF" I simply mean "SF for smart people who haven't been reading the genre for thirty years." Because while, yes, a lot of good and even great SF is (as we often say) "part of a conversation," with any conversation there are more and less welcoming entry points for newcomers.

One of my core beliefs about how most people process fiction is that you can only ask people to take on so much exposition--i.e., explanations of things they don't know yet--before they feel like it matters to them. But if you can make your readers care enough, they'll swallow the encyclopedia if you ask them to. I recognize that I am not describing the way you read SF, and I honor you and the many other kinds of outliers who help make this a more interesting field than it would otherwise be.
El Coyote Gordo: moon landingsupergee on January 29th, 2014 06:14 pm (UTC)
That makes sense to me. One thing this discussion is reminding me of is how many things people can find to enjoy in sf, and what different relative values these can have for different readers.
Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on January 29th, 2014 10:59 pm (UTC)
I think perhaps it's not so much the amount of exposition as the way it's presented. Your phrase "make your readers care enough" is the key. Make the readers care about the characters, and they'll eat up exposition - maybe not unlimited amounts, but a lot. What's deadly is to load down with backstory. This is why I get so frustrated with story summaries (or adaptations) that begin with tons of backstory, like summaries of The Sandman that begin by explaining who the Endless are (which the reader of the series doesn't learn until book 4). Why should the newbie, at that point, care?
(no subject) - Tom Jackson on January 30th, 2014 02:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Baron Dave Rommbarondave on January 30th, 2014 10:29 pm (UTC)
(I can't feeling we've had this discussion before.)

I don't like most "SF for people who don't like SF lists" because it starts with the assumption that good SF will change anyone's mind. I prefer to start with their current tastes, and add to them. For example, if someone liked "The Color Purple", I recommend "Orphan of Creation". If they're into feminism and how the mental health care system puts women down, they I recommend "Woman on the Edge of Time".

And so on.