Saturday, December 17, 2005

Entry Level Science Fiction

John Scalzi says we need more entry level science fiction. (HT: Instapundit)

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 still have 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.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, all science fiction was entry level. The stories were, with notable exceptions, crudely written and simple; children could read them with ease. John W. Campbell, Jr. revolutionized the field when he became editor of Astounding Science Fiction in 1937. He wanted stories that were well written, had more realistic science and had some ideas in them instead of just action. Other magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories and Captain Future still had the action-adventure stuff teenagers love. Typically, kids would start with the cruder magazines and graduate to Astounding and in the 1950’s, to the more literate Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy.

In the 1950’s, magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories became more sophisticated and the magazines for kids died off. By 1956, only “modern” science fiction was being published. Campbell was unhappy with this development, because he relied on the cruder magazines to feed him readers. He needn’t have worried, because the Silver Age of comic books was about to start. It was a natural progression to go from Fantastic Four and Superman to Dune and Stranger In A Strange Land. I and many of my friends did just that.

The New Wave of the ‘60s and early ‘70s brought the values of contemporary mainstream literature to science fiction. As Sam Moskowitz wrote in 1965, “It has been said, with some justice, that what science fiction called “good writing” merely followed the mainstream vogue of the thirties and that even today, 26 years later, “modern” science fiction reads more like the Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan of the depression era than avant garde fiction.” For better or worse, the New Wave would bring science fiction up to date. Science fiction writers became more conscious of style. Stories became more naturalistic. Plot was less important.

Today the science fiction short story is as sophisticated (and almost as unpopular) as mainstream short fiction. Comic books no longer serve as “feeders” because they are targeted toward adults today.

My sister, a high school librarian, reports that the kids are no longer checking out books by Asimov and Heinlein, although other authors such as Orson Scott Card do quite well. Fantasy is huge with the kids these days; they start with Harry Potter and go on to the fat fantasy books of authors such as Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan.

I have read suggestions from booksellers that bookstores should separate science fiction and fantasy into their own sections. Science fiction publishers tremble at the thought, because right now they hope fantasy readers will pick up an occasional science fiction book.

I also read that readers of western novels are almost exclusively men aged 55 or older. When they die, the genre will be dead, if it isn’t already. Will science fiction go the way of the western? I don’t think so. Science fiction, unlike the western, is about the future. It’s about the impact of change on civilization. As long as the west retains elements of a capitalist economy, there will be dynamic change in culture and society. Science fiction speaks to that change. But I do think the field should give more thought to getting children interested in science fiction. The literature of the future needs to consider its own future.


Jennifer Snow said...

Ahh, you touch on one of my pet subjects.

The primary difference between Science Fiction and Fantasy is setting; a good writer sees setting as background and can choose, say, between writing their novel based in a real city or in a fantasy realm of their own creation.

The primary difficulty, in my thinking, with writing science fiction as opposed to fantasy is that you have to do craploads of research if you don't want your story laughed off the presses.

Personally, I think science fiction is philosophically better than fantasy; unless you have a very good mind and very conscientious psycho-epistemology fantasy will (this is my thinking, mind you) encourage rationalistic tendencies because you get out of the habit of tying your abstractions to concretes that actually exist.

The Grumpy Nerd said...

So, let's see. In the mind of the Trufan, accessible (aka "entry-level") is equivalent to "crudely written and simple"--stuff that is for "children".

I DO hope that you had your "humorous post" face on when writing such preposterous nonsense.

If science fiction really has reached a point wherein accessible is taken to mean "crudely written and simple", then it's time for science fiction to get itself a large pile of natron, buckets of bitumen, spool after spool of narrow cotton cloth, palm wine, and the remaining accoutrements. Then call to see if there are any vacancies in the Valley of the Kings.

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