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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.
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?