[GUEST POST] Jason Sanford Asks: Where Are All the Science Fiction Readers?


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.

16 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Jason Sanford Asks: Where Are All the Science Fiction Readers?”

  1. Interesting and solid points, Jason. I worked hard to make my novel, THE WORKER PRINCE, more accessible and, so far, have been pleased by its acceptance outside SF circles. But in marketing it, I very much see the biases you are discussing. There really is a resistance by many to anything labelled SF, and that’s too bad. Because there’s some great stuff being written they would enjoy as much as any of the SF films they go see but their resistance prevents them from trying it.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly, Jason. I wonder if us, writers, should “rediscover” our first infatuation for science fiction writing more entry-level stories or YA (the 21st century version of the juveniles).

  3. Good article and great points, Jason.

    I am wondering how much of this struggle comes down to semantics. In other words, science fiction doesn’t sell well, because many SF titles that do sell well are defined to not be science fiction.

    These examples are all old (mostly because I don’t get to read so many novels anymore), but “The Handmaid’s Tale”, “Brave New World”, “The Sparrow”, Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, etc. They have sold very well but certainly your wife (and the last writing teacher I approached) wouldn’t perceive them to be science fiction. I wonder if there are at a few current titles in that bucket, other than the techno-thrillers, which wouldn’t help as an entree to serious SF in any event.

    In addition to the mounds of YA fantasy that follows in Harry’s broom contrail, there are at least a few science fiction books and series out there for younger readers. The field could use a breakout hit like Harry Potter to be sure.

  4. I do think that some authors are trying to colonize that niche of “SF for young readers” to introduce them to the genre. Planesrunner and The Boy at the End of the World come to mind.

    However, there hasn’t been a SF equivalent to Harry Potter as yet.

  5. Jason, good post, and I agree with your reasoning that there seems to be a lack of entry-level SF. Or put another way, SF is often very insular. But I would make a small point that I don’t see made too often, and I will quote from you: “Simply put, science fiction literature needs more entry-level stories.” The emphasis being on “stories.”

    In the 1940s especially there were almost no published science fiction novels as we know them today. The basic unit of the genre was the short story. Short fiction is less of an investment for people than a novel. It doesn’t take as long to read, often isn’t as involved or complicated (though this isn’t always true). Then, too, one short story can illustrate one facet of the genre very well, while I novel tends to take a bigger scope with bigger assumptions about the readers. Thus, most fans of the 1940s were introduced to genre in short fiction, as opposed today where it seems that most people want to read novels.

    I think that the entry-level for science fiction readers should be through short fiction: the magazines and the original anthologies, much like it used to be for writers in the genre. There is a vast an wide array of short science fiction being published every month, to say nothing of the body of work going back to the mid-1920s. Certainly within all of that are stories that are more accessible to new-comers to the genre–and with less of a capital and time investment, too.

  6. How much need is there for people to pick up the language of the genre from books? There is a whole game-culture out there that uses the concepts, the ideas, the scenery of science fiction. Anyone coming from that background will have the initial familiarity with the toolbox, if not with reading.

    The challenge of bringing those that like Avatar for the personal relations into reading SF is probably the more important one. The people that play Mass Effect for the action sequences can already find what they want in the genre as is readily available.

  7. At the risk of sounding snarky, my answer is pretty simple.

    A fair amount of what is published is, frankly, boring.

    Myself? I prefer a certain level of action, explodey goodness and tension along with my character development plus solid plot. When I wander through the SF book aisles, something I do less of these days than I used to, I’ll frequently pick up books, read the first chapter, realize how they end and put them back on the shelf.

    Additionally, much of what is out there tends to sermonize some given political point of view and in a none too subtle fashion. When message takes precedence over storytelling, I tend to put the book back on the shelf (or throw it across the room if I actually paid for it). If I want politics, I’ve already got a job where I deal with it daily in the classroom. I expect the writer to avoid thumping me in the head with their particular bible.

    The above are age old gripes of mine but I think they hold true today.

    I would concede the point that perhaps more entry level SF is needed. The Hunger Games was cited as an example yet as a student of Roman History, I frequently cringe when I see the cliche of, “America is Rome,” applied to fiction.

    Respects,
    Steve Murphy
    On the Outer Marches

  8. I think the “missing SF reader” is a figment of people’s imagination more than anything.

    SF suffers from a dual personality.

    You have the “SF Intelligentsia” and then you have a whole slew of “normals who read SF”. And never the twain shall meet. Or rarely at best.

    I frequent a wide range of websites, from this one(and others like it) to car forums, gun forums, military forums, political forums etc…and there really seems to be a SF readership out there, and they read lots of SF…just not the stuff that tends to be represented on the Hugo/Nebula ballots. Heck, some of the most in depth and interesting discussions I have read, or participated in, about SF novels have been on gun forums. B

    The “normals” may know Ringo/Weber/Drake and not have a clue about Meiville/Bacigalupi/Willis. They may read Star Wars novels, or Warhammer 40k novels, and not bother to pick up the more “highfaluting” stuff. Especially the stuff that talks down to, or ridicules, those who arent part of the “Locus Crowd”.

  9. > It was a very good science fiction film.

    Actually, no it wasn’t. Avatar was a very bad science fiction film.

  10. I defend similar position in the french SF fandom : popular SF has dissapeared. The guilty is the commercial license what are phagocited the popular SF segment : Star Wars, WH40K et more recently license linked with videogame media like Mass Effect. This license has insane success and covered 90 % of the popular SF landscape.
    In France we have few small presses who publish popular science fiction novels but they are bad distributed and they have not the financial means of large marketing operation. But the essential of SF is difficult text. The thing begin to change. I have the impression the SF was preoccupated proposing more easy reading novels in Europe than in US. In English language, they’re more space opera published in Britain than in USA. Americans seam more interested by dystopia these days or more exactly american editors.
    I have directed recently an anthology (in french language sory. Publication forthcoming) on alien ecosystem. i have thinked this theme is popularised by Avatar, and i want surf on the success of the film. I’m intrigued, no american or english anthologist have the same idea.

  11. For entry level stuff, without much of a learning curve, I’d point to:

    Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Empire books
    Walter John Williams’s Dread Empirre’s Fall
    Kristine Katherine Rusch’s Retrieval Artist books
    Just about anything by Robert Charles Wilson
    Just about anything by Robert Silverberg
    Most of Robert Reed’s short fiction
    Lois McMaster Bujold, Ted Chiang, Nancy Kress, David Levine, Paul Di Filipo, Harlan Ellison, John Scalzi, Fred Saberhagen, the list goes on.

    My point is that compelling characters and well-conveyed tech-speak are easy to find if you dig a little.

  12. The scientific advances that are visible to most readers today have little to do with the most well-known science fiction plot devices. Space travel was plausible in the ’40s and even up through the ’70s because people could see progressive advances toward that goal (not always with that as the goal, e.g., rockets falling on London, but with that as a foreseeable outcome). But progress has slowed and governments have lost interest in much of anything beyond Earth orbit military applications, so cynicism about the long term prospects is difficult to argue with.

    In almost the opposite scenario, cyberpunk had some plausibility in the ’80s and early ’90s because personal computers and interlinked networks were new and exciting and the technology seemed to be advancing by leaps and bounds. But the advances effectively commoditized the technology, turned the PC into an appliance and the internet into a service, so the whole thing became about as science fictional to most people as land line phones would have seemed in the ’50s.

    At least dystopian stories retain some credibility, since we continue to see technology put to destructive uses by the most powerful governments and corporations. On the other hand, post-scarcity societies based on miraculous nanotech must seem like a bitter joke to the majority of citizens who are struggling not to fall out of the middle class and into social invisibility.

    Time travel and genetically created or bionically enhanced superheroes have always been iffy scientifically, and undersea SF has been a diminishing sub-genre for years. So the growth areas with public visibility and plausibility are probably plague fiction and climate change/environmental crisis. But stories in those areas (and dystopian stories) are still in the minority outside the YA SF market. And many of the biggest advances in knowledge and technology are largely invisible to the public, since they’re taking place in highly specialized and usually not very glamorous disciplines, so it’s a challenge for authors to write engaging stories about them.

  13. I think with Gabe Chouinard that science fantasy is the future of the science fiction. Science fantasy would be a new ” genre label” at the sides of Sf and fantasy. Aaron Bradford Starr defend a near idea. He says a part of SF must be became fantasy. For Sf fans the first reaction is a reject of this opinion. But with more reflection, i realise he is right. A great part of space opera isn’t based on science extrapolation but is a mix of anthropologic stuff with space adventures. Yes it’s fantasy, not really SF.

    1. And I present Fabien’s comment as a perfect example of why the sci-fi readership remains small. When you define anything that isn’t a technical manual for technology that doesn’t exist yet as “not really SF” the only people who are going to be interested in reading “real” SF are people who like reading technical manuals. Which, shockingly, isn’t actually a huge portion of the population.

      Whenever a book is published that’s plot or character based or, heaven forbid, based in a scientific field other than physics or computers, hard core sci-fi fans decry it as “fantasy, not really SF” and don’t buy it. Meanwhile, readers like me don’t even look at it, because we know that sci-fi books don’t contain any of the things we look for in a book.

      I love Bujold, Resnick, Arnason, I’d really like to read more sci-fi in that vein, but except for stuff by already established writers, it’s not being published.

      1. In French fandom, SF is considered as idea litterature. For me this conception isn’t suffisant. SF is also image litterature and universe litterature. The three composants are equal. Idea litterature is a restriction and maintains a confusion between concept and ideology. I fight against this opinion but it very well implanted.
        But in France since one year about, new authors arrive with the idea to make an entertaining SF without forget reflexion. It’s an interresting evolution. It’s the same way in Great Britain or in Spain sinc more long times. I suppose in USA the evolution is more slow becaus the marketing of the publishers is more aggressive around genre hype.

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