Editor’s note: Nebula Award nominated author Jason Sanford is now publishing a monthly column in SF Signal called “To the Ends of the Universe.” These columns were originally printed in the Czech SF magazine XB-1.
The highest grossing film of all-time is James Cameron’s science fiction epic Avatar. My wife, who is not by any consideration a fan of science fiction, loved the movie. As we left the theater after first seeing Avatar she raved on and on about the characters and special effects and emotional storyline. “Yes,” I replied. “It was a very good science fiction film.”
That stopped my wife in her tracks. “Science fiction?” she asked. “Avatar wasn’t science fiction.”
My mind was literally blown. I pointed out that the film involved aliens on an alien world, along with spaceships, futuristic technology, and so on. But my wife was adamant. The film had appealed to her because of the romance between the main characters and the political and environmental undertones of the human/native conflict. “Avatar might technically be science fiction,” she finally admitted, “but the film worked despite this fact.”
While this argument may sound strange to science fiction lovers, it actually resonates with the general public in many parts of the world. For more than a generation, ever since the commercial success of the original Star Wars film, science fiction movies have been perceived as box office gold. Counting down the top SF films is the same as counting down the most beloved films of our time: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Inception, Independence Day, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and so on, and that’s not even counting the TV series like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica which have also burned their way into the public consciousness.
But what’s interesting is that while the general public loves science fiction films, a corresponding love for science fiction literature isn’t seen. At least in the United States, sales of science fiction novels lag far behind most other literary genres such as fantasy. And while the fantasy genre has its own list of blockbuster films—including series like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean—the general public doesn’t express a similar disconnect with fantasy literature. In fact, literary fantasies such as the Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Song of Ice and Fire series routinely land on the best-seller lists.
So why doesn’t a similar pattern occur with science fiction literature?
Among science fiction fans, many different reasons are given for this disparity, including that “readers fear difficult or challenging material,” that “some readers need to be presented with context before engaging with the material,” and that “mainstream readers do not think the same way” as SF fans. People such as legendary science fiction editor David Hartwell also raise the point that literary SF fandom is extremely insular in the United States. In his book Age of Wonders: Exploring The World of Science Fiction, Hartwell says that because of the historical bias against science fiction in the public’s mind, which saw the genre as a literature for young people and nerds, SF fans banded together, resulting in science fiction lovers being extremely insular and resistant to outsiders entering their realm.
All of these are valid points, although a strong case can be made that these descriptions of an insular SF fandom are not as valid as they were a generation ago.
My own view on why most people don’t read science fiction literature is that 1) There are few entry-level science fiction novels being published these days; and 2) Many of today’s science fiction novels require a certain level of SF literacy before you can read them.
Here’s what I mean. There is a famous saying in SF fandom that the “golden age of science fiction is 12,” meaning readers first learn to love science fiction as young people. However, in today’s marketplace there are relatively few current SF novels aimed at young readers (with the exception of dystopian novels, like The Ember series by Jeanne Duprau and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and movie tie-in novels related to Star Wars and Star Trek). Contrast this with the fantasy genre, where it sometimes seems like half of all the novels published are aimed at young readers.
It wasn’t always this way with science fiction. In the 1940s and 50s, the “Heinlein juveniles” by Robert A. Heinlein introduced an entire generation to science fiction. This also laid the groundwork for science fiction’s domination of the literary best-seller lists in the 1970s and early 1980s. During this time authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, and others routinely published best-sellers and were paid massive advances for their novels. The reason for this was simple: The audience for these authors had been introduced to science fiction as young people. Now that they were grown up, they wanted more science fiction and had the money to buy what they desired.
Unfortunately, without entry-level science fiction novels to read newcomers to our genre can find it difficult to learn to love SF. For example, one of the most exciting science fiction novels of the last two years is The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. But while I loved the novel, I wouldn’t recommend it to a science fiction newcomer. Unless you were already grounded in SF ideas and terminology, the novel might do nothing more than turn you off our genre.
So what’s the solution?
Simply put, science fiction literature needs more entry-level stories. The genre also needs to make a push to bring in more young readers. For example, both of my sons are budding stamp collectors. When my kids recently attended their first stamp convention, people went out of their way to give them free stamps and assistance. This excited my kids about stamp collecting in ways I’d never before seen.
Why can’t science fiction make a similar push to reach new readers? The public’s love of science fiction films demonstrates that our genre has the concepts, ideas, and stories which resonate with people. All we need to do is find a way to bring them over to the literature of ideas.