Friday, June 29, 2007

Winning the lit'ry people over to our side?

David Louis Edelman asks "what are some quality SF books you can hand off to literate non-SF readers as an introduction to the genre?"

It's a fantasy any specfic person has, and I've had it plenty. If you're going to try to get a literary reader, I would agree absolutely with a few of the commenters that short stories would be the place to start. My recommendations: Delaney's "Aye and Gomorrah," Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five," Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days," and China Mieville's "Reports of Certain Events in London."

But say that works, and they like one or more of the stories above. Is that going to have them poring through Zelazny's works? Probably not. I think the flaw in thinking here is the assumption that "literary" people just assume that any counterfactual effects in a story automatically make it non-literary, and if we could just get them over thinking that then they'll be showing up at ReaderCon next.

But this is obviously not the problem, or else we wouldn't see Jonathan Lethem, David Foster Wallace, J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Richard Powers etc., etc., stacked on the "Literary" shelves instead of "Science Fiction." It is entirely possible, even likely, that a literary reader would say "I accept that a work of literature can have science-fictional elements, or even be science fiction. But that isn't going to make me a science fiction reader." If a literary reader finds a scifi book that he likes, he's more likely to file that person and/or story under the exceptions to the rule column.

I can actually understand this. I like Elmore Leonard's books a lot. He's a hell of a storyteller, and I've read 4-5 of his books. But these books have increased my interest in the rest of crime fiction (or whatever his genre is) by exactly 0%. I bet there are all kinds of people who love Walter Mosely and have never touched another mystery novel in their lives.

For a person to become a science fiction reader, they are just going to have to have an interest in the kind of topics that scifi addresses. These would include directions in future technology and how it would affect humans, interstellar travel, contact with non-human sentiences and alternate social constructs under counterfactual situations. As much as I love Alastair Reynolds, and as brilliant as he is, his work just isn't going to be all that interesting (or even make much sense) unless you've thought awhile about relativity. Not that you have to be an expert; but unless you understand what relativistic velocities do there's just too much catching up there.

In truth there are already a lot of literary people who have secret genre habits, and I'd suspect the two biggest would be mystery and scifi. Winning "regular readers" over to scifi is the bigger challenge, I agree. We've got a long way to go.


dave hutchinson said...

Doesn't that assume that non-sf readers have absolutely no background in the kind of topics sf addresses? Doesn't popular culture provide at least part of that background?
For instance, it ought to be impossible for a non-sf reader who's reasonably interested in the world around them not to be familiar with robots or the search for extraterrestrial life or genetic modification. Even if they don't understand relativity (and I have trouble following it) they should have at least heard of it.

Anonymous said...

You make a very good point, Jim. If some one is a "literary" reader--there's a reason for it.

There's a variety of situations where we're trying to pick books to suggest to literary readers--I've been in several different situations myself.

One is where you're trying to convince someone that SF has high literary quality. Another is an open minded "literary" person who asks you to suggest SF for someone of their tastes. A third is where you suspect a person can be drawn into (or back into) science fiction if they are gently assured that what their reading is quality literature (then it's often what the cover looks like that can make or break the deal).

On a certain level all of these situations are silly; we shouldn't worry about people who don't "get it." But some how we do worry about them.

Damian Kilby

Jim Stewart said...

Dave: I certainly don't mean to imply that you have to be a science expert to enjoy scifi. But you have to have a certain degree of interest in the topics. I certainly didn't mean you have to have a degree in physics to read Alastair Reynolds. But if you have any degree in the idea of interstellar travel you will become aware that a) travel faster than light is iimpossible, b) stars are many light-years away, and probably c) when you go near light speed time slows down for you. So it's more a matter of interest than knowledge.

What you said about people being drawn back into science fiction is a good point. I was drawn back in myself; I might not have been if I hadn't stumbled across China Mieville & Alastair Reynolds.

dave hutchinson said...

Jim: I misunderstood you; please forgive me.