07 December 2007

Why don’t we love science fiction?

This article in the times got me all riled yesterday. As you will see from the comments, I blame the writers, but Daryl Lim quite rightly turns the focus on the literary world as well. The basic question here is what is science fiction? If your answer is that it’s fiction which addresses scientific issues in order to teach us something about the human condition, then you have fallen into the literary snobbery that has made the genre the pariah it is today.

Bryan Appleyard talks about authors who do not want their novels labelled as science fiction, you know, that isle tucked away at the back of the bookshop where all the titles have black spines. I’m one of those authors – I write adventure stories in a space setting. How is that not science fiction, you ask. Because it doesn’t fit the definition above. On the other hand, if your definition is fiction that starts with the question ‘What if …,’ then I most definitely do write science fiction. An increasing number of authors are choosing to call this speculative fiction to distinguish it from sci-fi. Why?

The issue quite simply is who will read it, how it is marketed, and where it will appear on the bookshelves. Science fiction is read almost exclusively by established sci-fi fans (virtually all male). Most readers would not be see dead in that isle of the bookshop.

The majority of sci-fi books are high concept: the story focuses on the ideas and the consequences for human kind in general rather than on the characters and how they are changed by the story. In fact, these sci-fi story beats are so established that you can’t get your story published unless it fits within the established pattern. This is why sci-fi is a genre on its own and why I don’t write in that genre. Producing another genre in a sci-fi setting is almost impossible in the adult market unless it very well written and cleverly done – The Time Travellers Wife is a superb, and rare, example.

In the youth market, however, there is a lot more freedom from the constraints of genre, which is one of the reasons I write for the youth market. Here I am free to indulge my imagination and produce sci-fi, I mean speculative, adventure stories with the emphasis on character.

So have we fallen out of love with science fiction? No, actually, science fiction is alive and well and a huge sections of the general public have an insatiable appetite for it– in cinemas and on TV. Why the difference? Because the film makers know that to make money they have to create character centred stories that entertain. The science fiction book genre flounders because it has forgotten how to engage with an audience. A constraint from which I expect it will never recover.

So what is the future then? My hope is that children will discover a love of science fiction through youth fiction, which will encourage publishers to invent a new category of adult speculative fiction which is not bound by the rigorous constraints of the sci-fi genre. All that is required to break the mould is a sci-fi version of Harry Potter. Mervyn Bright perhaps? I can but dream.

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