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December 15, 2005

Science Fiction Outreach

A question from the audience:

Greg Benford and Darrell Schweitzer have written an article on fantasy overshadowing science fiction and what that means to society.
Rather than bias you with my opinion, I would like to hear yours since you’re a rising SF writer of demonstrated intelligence. Hopefully, you’ll blog about it. The article is at http://benford-rose.com/blog/?p=3

I read it. I also read Elizabeth Bear's and Scott Lynch's take on the matter as well, which I commend to folks who are interested in the topic. I won't rehash any of their opinions here, since they're extensive, so go ahead and take a gander; I can wait until you get back. Or just go on ahead; I think what I have to say on the matter is fairly clear regardless.

Speaking specifically about Benford/Schweitzer, I think they're overthinking the matter by a considerable margin, because, of course, overthinking is what science fiction writers do. I think tying in the rise of fantasy and decline of science fiction to ominous cultural trends feels nice, because there's nothing like being held in the pitiless thrall of a world-historical hairpin turn toward entropy to make one feel better about the fact that it's JK Rowling making a billion dollars from her books and not you. Let that woman have her blood money! We'll all be fighting the cockroaches for scraps soon enough! However, I personally believe the problem is somewhat more prosaic, and it comes down to marketing and writing problems that science fiction literature has that fantasy does not; namely, that math is hard, and science fiction looks rather suspiciously like math.

Because science fiction literature is math, damn it. The best SF book of 2005, in my opinion, is Charlie Stross' Accelerando -- more mind-busting ideas there per square inch than any other book this year, and on the off chance Old Man's War gets nominated for any awards this year, I shall be pleased to have my book lose to Charlie's. That being said, and as I've said before, Accelerando is for the faithful, not the uninitiated -- and if you look at the significant SF books of the last several years, there aren't very many you could give to the uninitiated reader; they all pretty much implicitly or explicitly assume you've been keeping up with the genre, because the writers themselves have. The SF literary community is like a boarding school; we're all up to our armpits in each other's business, literary and otherwise (and then there's the sodomy. But let's not go there). We know what everyone else is writing, and are loathe to step on the same ground. This means SF is always inventing new vocabularies of expression, which is good, but it also means the latest, hottest vocabularies are not ones that, say, my voraciously-reading but resolutely middle-of-the-road mother-in-law has any hope of understanding. It's math to her. Which is bad.

Meanwhile: Fantasy. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: My mother-in-law can read that just fine. Harry Potter? She's got the books. American Gods? Maybe a tinge gothy for her, but she could handle it. Just about the only commercially significant fantasy writer of the last decade whose books I couldn't give her right off the bat is China Mieville, mostly because Mieville is generating a fantasy mythology informed by the tropes of recent SF (his fantasy is like his remade characters -- a delightfullly grotesque mashup). I think of giving my mother-in-law Perdido Street Station and giggle for the rest of the night. But, as I said, Mieville's the exception, not the rule (and anyway, I love his writing enough for the both of us). Fantasy writers are no less in each other's armpits than SF writers, to be sure, but they're not pushed to reinvent the wheel every single time they write a book; the vocabulary of their genre evolves more slowly. It's not math, or if it is, it's not math of the higher orders, and people like my mother-in-law can dive right in.

And this is the point: 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 stillhave 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.

Thanks to numerous horrifying lunchroom experiences growing up, SF geeks are probably perfectly happy to be let alone with their genre and to let the mundanes read whatever appalling chick lit and/or Da Vinci Code clone they're slobbering over this week (Now, there would be a literary mashup for the ages: The Templars Wore Prada! It'd sell millions!). But then we're back to the Benford/Schweitzer lament, aren't we: SF is getting lapped by fantasy in terms of sales and influence and will probably continue to do so. It's all very well to say the world has turned its back on SF, but if SF authors and publishers are saying this while resentfully suggesting that we didn't much like that stinky world anyway, and that it's much more fun here with all our friends, who, like, totally get us already -- well, let's just say I find I lack much sympathy for the genre if this is going to be our position.

Darrell Schweitzer wrote in his lament that if someone wrote a SF novel as compelling as Stranger in a Strange Land, that people would read it despite it being science fiction. I find this formulation incredibly off-key. People are writing books as compelling as Stranger in a Strange Land today; they're simply writing them for an audience who has already read Stranger. And God knows that any science fiction book that apologizes for being science fiction or that begs the reader to try it even though it's science fiction (horrors!) is doomed to failure, because no one follows up on a pity read. They won't call it tomorrow, they won't send an e-mail, they won't ping it when it's on IM, and they'll pretend not to see it at the next party they're both at. A pity read is an awkward, awkward thing indeed.

What we need are people who are unapologetically writing science fiction -- and are unapologetically writing science fiction for people who have never read science fiction before. You want new people to read science fiction? You want SF books to matter to the masses? Then do some goddamned outreach, people. Write an intelligent, fascinating, moving piece of science fiction for the reader who has always thought science fiction was something that happened to other people.

Don't dumb it down -- people can figure out when you're typing slow because you think they're moving their lips when they read. Just don't assume they've read any science fiction other than that one time they were made to read "Harrison Bergeron" in their junior year of high school. Make it fun, make it exciting, make it about people as much as ideas and give them a fulfilling reading experience that makes them realize that hey, this science fiction stuff really isn't so bad after all. And then beg beg beg your publisher to give it a cover that a normal 30-something human wouldn't die of embarrassment to be seen with in public. If we can do all that, then maybe, just maybe, science fiction as a literary genre would be back on its way to cultural relevance.

Not every science fiction author needs to do this -- the idea of some of our more bleeding-edge folks trying to model a universe for skiffy virgins is one best left unexamined -- but somebody should do it, and the rest of the SF writing crew should cut those brave volunteers some slack when they do. The person who reads intelligent but training-wheels-gentle SF today could be the one who is devouring Accelerando or other such advanced works tomorrow. That's good for us, good for them, good for the genre and good for the whole damn known universe.

And that's what I think about that.

(Update: Having said that there are few "open doors" into science fiction for non-SF readers, I asked folks to prove me wrong by offering suggestions for good "entry-level" science fiction for adults. Their answers are here.)

Posted by john at December 15, 2005 12:00 AM

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Comments

Night Dog | December 15, 2005 12:08 AM

*is confused*
What are you really saying here?

The bookstores have more Heinlein because he wrote more books than the younger folks who are writing now. They haven't caught up with him.

And how are you classifying authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? I know people who have read "Virtual Light" and "Snow Crash" and who would swear on a stack of Silmarillions that they are reading SF, not fantasy.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I know the fantasy market seems overwhelming at times, but I don't believe it is.

Hell, look at the mass-market appeal of "The Time Traveler's Wife", by Audrey Nifenegger. Is that fantasy or SF?


John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 12:21 AM

Night Dog:

"The bookstores have more Heinlein because he wrote more books than the younger folks who are writing now."

You're missing the point entirely, I'm afraid. My local bookstore usually has between five and ten Heinlein titles in stock at any one time; there are any number of good, current authors who have at least that many titles who are represented by one title or two -- or by none. I certainly don't object to Heinlein being in the racks, I just wish there wasn't so much of him taking up space from live authors. But my point is that Heinlein persists in large part because he's the "entry-level" SF that other more current authors aren't writing much of.

"And how are you classifying authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson?"

You know what, I'm not going start classifying every single author into a category, because many authors switch hit (Charlie Stross has both SF and fantasy titles, for example), and also because it's aside the point: the issue is not the authors, it's the current works in the SF genre as a whole and their accessibility to non-typical SF readers.

"Hell, look at the mass-market appeal of 'The Time Traveler's Wife' by Audrey Nifenegger. Is that fantasy or SF?"

Haven't a clue, because I haven't read it. It's entirely possible it's both; we don't have to have the discussion that some books are both SF and fantasy here. Although I would note that of what I know of the book, it's not primarily marketed as SF, it's marketed as mainstream fiction (it's a Today Show pick and everything). I'm more interested in SF that's marketed as SF -- but also intended for a readership beyond the already-established genre readership.

Mark Ensley | December 15, 2005 12:58 AM

"Hell, look at the mass-market appeal of "The Time Traveler's Wife", by Audrey Nifenegger. Is that fantasy or SF?"

I'd argue that it was correctly marketed as mainstream fiction, because it was primarily a character study. It was not about the science of time travel, or at least only tangentially, but about the characters. I think that time travel as an intellectual conceit has been mainstreamed enough to be a valid plot point for mainstream fiction. Again, the book wasn't really interested in science, per se.

"... the issue is not the authors, it's the current works in the SF genre as a whole and their accessibility to non-typical SF readers."

May I also add the oft-stated point that we can all sit here arguing what SF is, but the industry is fairly retail-driven nowadays. Thus, a book is SF if it gets shelved there.

So, I'll ask the question: how do we get an *actual* science fiction book that involves real science to be marketed and shelved *both* in the fiction section and in the SF/Fantasy section?

"I certainly don't object to Heinlein being in the racks, I just wish there wasn't so much of him taking up space from live authors."

He wouldn't be there if he didn't still sell. I know that's a catch-22 kinda thing, but let's point some fingers at the marketing departments.

Also, Heinlein got most of his fans from people who grew up reading his juveniles. How many authors write intelligent SF juveniles and intelligent SF for the adult market as well? May I suggest that the idea of growing one's audience is still valid today?

Anne C. | December 15, 2005 01:45 AM

Very interesting argument. I think there are other doors, just not book ones. What about movies being a door into scifi? Or television that promotes science and math (aka CSI and Numb3rs)? Or graphic novels?
And it seems like the question of accessibility should be addressed to a different audience. We are all already in.

Side issue:
I will disagree on Jonathan Strange being accessible to the common reader. It's written in a very old-fashioned style, and it was mainly my geeky curiosity about the mechanics of the writing that kept me going until the more sympathetic character was introduced halfway through the book. If it's been successful in the mainstream, I can't imagine how (unless the recent rise of Austen's novels prepared the way).
I thought it very much depended on an understanding of the pacing of 19th century novels.
As you are someone who has stated your avoidance of novels written before the 20s (except Twain), I'm surprised you found it accessible.

marrije | December 15, 2005 04:12 AM

I think "The Time Traveler's Wife" is romance, pure and simple, with some weirdness thrown in. And the weirdness doesn't thrown the readers off because the romance part is so strong and well done.

And thanks for mentioning the bit about science fiction covers, mr Scalzi. Even my non-reading boyfriend commented on the cover of the most recent 'real-SF' book I read - to the tune of 'you're reading WHAT?!?'. That was Old Man's War, I'm afraid. While I get no such reaction when I read Scott Westerfeld's Uglies & Pretties, who have more mainstreamy covers.

Casey | December 15, 2005 05:13 AM

"The Templars Wore Prada." I am SO totally stealing that.

Abigail | December 15, 2005 05:49 AM

I think there have been attempts to court mainstream readers with less rigorous SF. Maureen F. McHugh's recent collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, has a very mainstream look (you would never guess from the book's cover that the stories within weren't literary fiction, and although there's a blurb on the front from Mary Doria Russell, she's credited as the author of the historical romance A Thread of Grace, not the SF classic The Sparrow). Inside the book, the stories are very beginner-friendly, and at some points verge on under-reliance on their SF tropes.

I can only assume that Small Beer Press is hoping to replicate the same crossover success they had with Kelly Link's short story collections. It seems to be working - Bookslut's Jessa Crispin has been championing the collection and it was recently nominated for the mainstream Story Prize.

(It's a very good collection, by the way, and well worth a look.)

sceptre1067 | December 15, 2005 05:52 AM

I think Mr. Ensley has a good point about the juveniles. RAH wrote some good books that did not talk down the kids. But I'm not seeing very many today in the SF genre. Now I may not be looking hard enough, but this could be the sort of thing some SF authors might want to try a hand at.

Besides, look what its done for Rowling. :-)

Seriously though, that approach, along with Mr. Scalzi's (re: Old Man's War) would help bring more people in.

Then we can start shouting gabba gabba hey without scaring them off.

Rachel | December 15, 2005 06:16 AM

"What we need are people who are unapologetically writing science fiction -- and are unapologetically writing science fiction for people who have never read science fiction before."

I might argue that this is happening. The literary community at my MFA program, while resolutely unable to grapple with the term "sci fi," knows who Kelly Link is. And Octavia Butler. And, of course, some of the people who claim not to be working in SF, like Atwood.

Of course, they seem to compensate for this by not calling it SF. After my last workshop, one student wrote in her response to a story of mine I'd described to her as science fiction, "Why is this science fiction? It seems so plausible." I guess that goes back to retail divisions, though it's interesting to me to look at the ways they're internalized by different people depending on their perspective on SF.

Mris | December 15, 2005 07:00 AM

This is why my next SF novel will probably be a YA.

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 07:14 AM

Rachel:

"Of course, they seem to compensate for this by not calling it SF."

Well, yes, and this points out a marketing problem SF has, which is that if it's good, then it can't actually be science fiction, because the people who fancy themselves readers of "good" writing don't read science fiction. This needs to be addressed in some way, I think.

What's been very interesting so far is that all the examples that people are giving of SF lit that's being marketed as more mainstream are books that have been written by women. Are the men of SF not even bothering to approach the mainstream?

Mark Ensley:

"May I also add the oft-stated point that we can all sit here arguing what SF is, but the industry is fairly retail-driven nowadays. Thus, a book is SF if it gets shelved there."

But to some extent that's avoiding the issue, isn't it? The issue for me is not that works are recognized as SF and shelved accordingly, the issue is that non-genre readers see an imaginary checkpoint at the front of the SF section that reads "You must have completed calculus to enter here." We need to give people the idea that SF is for everyone.

Marrije:

"And thanks for mentioning the bit about science fiction covers, mr Scalzi. Even my non-reading boyfriend commented on the cover of the most recent 'real-SF' book I read - to the tune of 'you're reading WHAT?!?'. That was Old Man's War, I'm afraid."

And the irony there is that OMW's hardcover jacket is fairly understated for SF, thanks to the color scheme and the presence of an older person. The trade paperback's cover is obviously far more SF audience-oriented, with the spaceships and the planet and such. I happen to think Tor did a good job in both cases of balancing the need to communicate the book's SF qualities with not embarrassing the non-SF reader who might want to pick up the book: It's clear it's SF without presenting a juvenile representation of such. This is groovy with me, since I don't want to hide OMW's genre, I just don't want the cover to be an excuse for non-genre people to reject the book. And if a cover that does as good a balancing act as Donato's OMW one still gets the "You're reading what?" double take, it shows what we're up against, perception-wise.

Cover art is actually an incredibly important issue to me, and I will say that there is at least one SF publishing house that I would pretty much refuse to sell a book to unless I had cover art approval, on the basis that I wouldn't want to be seen in public reading a book with the covers they generally provide for their line. I'm not going to say this publisher is wrong to follow the cover art ethos it does -- I would say it very well understands its audience and gives it what it wants, and that's fine -- but I will say I never want to have a situation where I am embarrassed by some element of my own book, particularly the element that is the public face of the book.

Mark Siegal | December 15, 2005 07:18 AM

Nice recruitment pitch. I like the sentiment.

I'd say Orson Scott Card often fits this description, writing books marketed as science fiction but also accessible to readers who don't already read science fiction.

David Klecha | December 15, 2005 07:51 AM

I think, in this way, writing science fiction scares me as much as contemplating a dissertation in Russian History (or, perhaps worse here in the US, American History). It's not enough to be thoughtful and interesting in a story or novel to be taken seriously, to get to sit with the adults, so to speak. One has to have one's own twist on everything, that unique insight, the little bit of the whole science fiction oeuvre that one can pigeonhole and call one's own. Kinda like academia. But in academia, no one writes dissertations for general consumption. Or, well, few do if any at all.

At least, that's how I perceive it, and if I understand you correctly, the problem is certainly one of perception, not actuality. Like the old argument of whether or not SF fandom is inclusive. Individuals might say it is inclusive, the reality on the ground might be that it is inclusive, but the broader perception is that it is clannish, insular, and unapproachable... the aforementioned checkpoint for those who have completed calculus.

That said, I think there has to be a broader reason why Military SF is one of the more dominant subgenres, and it seems to me that it may be because it is more accessible than, say, post-Singularity SF. The same thing with "ordinary" space opera.

Chad Orzel | December 15, 2005 07:53 AM

You're missing the point entirely, I'm afraid. My local bookstore usually has between five and ten Heinlein titles in stock at any one time; there are any number of good, current authors who have at least that many titles who are represented by one title or two -- or by none. I certainly don't object to Heinlein being in the racks, I just wish there wasn't so much of him taking up space from live authors. But my point is that Heinlein persists in large part because he's the "entry-level" SF that other more current authors aren't writing much of.

I don't think I really agree with this. You could make the same basic argument about a whole host of dead mainstream writers-- Dickens, Austen, Faulkner, Hemingway. All of them have lots of books on the shelf "taking up space from live authors," and I don't think you'd call Faulkner "entry-level" literary fiction (well, maybe you would, but I wouldn't). They're on the shelves because they're deemed Important, not because they're the sort of thing you have to read in order to understand the latest hot literary novel.

(Well, OK, the main reason they're on the shelves is because they sell, or at least someone believes they will sell. But they continue to sell in large part because they're Important books.)

I'd say that Heinlein (and Asimov, and Clarke) gets a lot of shelf space not just because he's accessible, but because the books are Important to the genre of SF in the same way that Hemingway and Faulkner and the others are Important to mainstream fiction. Back when I used to hang out on Usenet, it was essentially impossible to ask for a recommendation on rec.arts.sf.written without having the entire Heinlein catalogue shoved at you as a must-read.

cisko | December 15, 2005 08:02 AM

John -- has your mother-in-law read Old Man's War? 'Cos I would think it's a fairly accessible book for SF newbies.

I understand not wanting to get into classifying authors, but the Neal Stephenson case is pretty interesting to me. Cryptonomicon is in some sense no more SFnal than a Tom Clancy novel, and the Baroque Series even less so. But the books have a definite SF ambiance, and (the determining factor) they're always found in the SF racks. And cover art isn't an issue here, either.

My impression is that all the books sold quite well So the key question is, who's buying the books -- core SF readers, or a more general audience? If it's the latter, that points to two models of broadening SF. One would be to take core SF themes and open them up to new readers. The other is to stick closer to mainstream themes, but bring in a lot of the complexity and intellectual challenge that's found in a lot of SF. They're both worthwhile and interesting goals... I just wonder which is (would be) more successful.

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 08:23 AM

Chad Orzel:

"I'd say that Heinlein (and Asimov, and Clarke) gets a lot of shelf space not just because he's accessible, but because the books are Important to the genre of SF in the same way that Hemingway and Faulkner and the others are Important to mainstream fiction."

Hemingway and Faulkner and Dickens such are also on shelves because they keep getting assigned in school, too. Being taught helps one's career.

However, current mainstream fiction does not have the same accessibility issues that current SF has. You can pick up a book of fiction about life in contemporary America with no barrier of entry, save the writers' own artsy-fartsiness, whereas that's a little more difficult to do with SF these days. SF does require "entry-level" fiction in a way other genres do not, and while not discounting the important of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and Bradbury, I have to say that there seems some sort of implicit understanding that these are the guys we have to give all new SF readers as part of the orientation packet.

I say: Bah. By all means, people should read Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke, just as they should read Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway and such. But I don't see why they have to be read first; giving new readers of a forward-looking genre books that were written half a century ago is an ass-backwards way of doing things.

We should able to give them books that are both accessible and contemporary rather than leaving it to R, A, B and C to do the work for us. No offense to those guys, but those books are getting older and falling further out of sync with contemporary readers and also with our perception of what the "future" is. That's bad news if that's our intro material.


Cisko:

"John -- has your mother-in-law read Old Man's War? 'Cos I would think it's a fairly accessible book for SF newbies."

In fact, I wrote OMW with my mother-in-law in mind -- which is to say not for her, but so that when she inevitably picked up the book (she is my mother-in-law, after all) she wouldn't be totally lost. The Ghost Brigades is slightly more complex than OMW, but it's still got the same guiding principle of trying not to lose the newbies. The Android's Dream is the same way.

Re: Cyptonomicon/Baroque Age -- in both cases they're not science fiction, but they sure feel like SF, and I think in form and in marketing they're reasonable touchstones for what we need to be thinking about. None of those are "easy" books, but they're also not inaccessible (well, other than for sheer mass of wordery, in the case of Baroque age).

I don't think it's either/or -- SF can be made to feel more contemporary and accessible and non-SF can incorporate more SFnal tropes; either way it potentiall expands the willingness of non-SF readers to dip a toe in the genre.

Kevin Q | December 15, 2005 08:25 AM

Part of the problem, too, is not that people feel like they need calculus to read science fiction, but they're afraid that reading science fiction feels like a calculus lecture, and that's even worse. The trick is to be able to explain new concepts to people without having them feel like they're being talked down to.

I think the reason that Harry Potter and Ender's Game work well as gateways into their respective genres is because they are set in a situation where it's common to explain things to new people - a school. So new concepts are introduced in simple terms - not for the audience (the reader can tell themself) but for the children at the school. If Rowling wrote the way she does, but set her story in an office, it would feel pedantic.

Chad, I do disagree with you on the Faulkner. I think anything I read in highschool counts as entry-level.

John, what about the fact that more women read fiction (in general) than men? Do you think that has a bearing on fantasy being more popular right now than science fiction?

K

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 08:49 AM

Kevin Q:

"John, what about the fact that more women read fiction (in general) than men? Do you think that has a bearing on fantasy being more popular right now than science fiction?"

I think SF has historically been seen as a men's play area whereas fantasy has been open to both sexes, but I don't know whether that entirely holds today, certainly there are a number of good and popular female SF writers writing good and popular SF (Elizabeth Bear comes to mind among newer writers).

I think outside of genre readers, SF may be perceived as continuing to hold an anti-female bias, partially because it's seen as a geek genre, and we all know how well geeks do with girls, nod, wink and etc. I don't think it's in evidence in SF as it's being written today, because most contemporary writers of SF are not stupid or stupidly sexist. But it's something we have to work on, perceptually.

kat | December 15, 2005 08:51 AM

I got very interested in this question when I was getting my now-on-submission novel critted... the critique group was very mixed, and a lot of people ended up reading my book who didn't read sf, and I got a lot of comments along the lines of, "I don't read sf, but I'd read this because I like the main character and I like the mystery."
On the other hand, there were some very decisive splits: the same people who were saying this were complaining that I didn't explain new terms and they felt lost. At the same time I'm getting critiques from science fiction readers saying "OMG, you explain NOTHING! This is great! Way to go!"

My conclusion was that writing something that would really appeal to both crowds was a nightmare. I still hope that I'll get a little crossover from the mystery crowd if the book's ever published, but realistically? It's set on a space station five hundred years in the future. It's sf. Only mystery readers who can get past the stigma of sf are even going to pick it up.

I do wonder about the male vs. female thing, too. The one example I can think of of "crossover" sf written by a man is Michael Chrichton's stuff, and it's more anti-science than anything and often doesn't appeal to sf readers. Other men...? Not offhand. On the other hand, most of the bleeding-edge people named are male, and then there's Benford and Schweitzer themselves. It's Elizabeth Bear's thing to remark on the Old Guard screaming about girl cooties all over their nice clean sf; I won't steal it from her. ;)

I will add mystery writer Laurie King's book "Califia's Daughters" (written under a pseudonym) to the list of crossover women writing sf. And it's a pretty good book, too.

WizarDru | December 15, 2005 08:54 AM

I think one issue may be that a large chunk of SF is focused, or more importantly PERCEIVED to focus, on the nuts-and-bolts aspect of the story. It's not just that SF is like math...SF HAS TO SHOW THE WORK.

Fantasy: I then used the magic circle to teleport to his dark realm.

Science Fiction: The device then created a miniature event horizon behind us, changed the value of Planck's Constant and allowed us to fall forward into a near-void allowing us to instantly bridge the gap between the two intervening spaces. It was a complicated process, utilizing a minature force-field of immense power that was powered by....[zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz]

The other thing is that, as a casual reader, I don't really much care about the distinctions (some of which seem artificial to me) between fantasy and SF. I mean, clearly Night Dog sees books like "Snow Crash" as fantasy...while I've never met someone who would classify it as such. This is a distinction that people within SF fandom would make, but not outside readers. A friend of mine asked me this weekend if I'd heard of "Magical Realism", as I guess the term came up in a Cory Doctorow book he was reading. I defined it as I understood it, but basically felt that it was a BS term for people who were afraid of being labelled in a manner they didn't like.

I just think that SF, for all intents and purposes, projects two images to non-SF readers: Rocket Ranger space-fantasy and nerdy 'scientific question posed as drama' intellectual pieces. That isn't even remotely true, of course, but I think it's the image many people hold of the genre. That's why Atwood doesn't consider something like the Handmaid's Tale as SF, perhaps.

Abigail | December 15, 2005 08:56 AM

Well, yes, and this points out a marketing problem SF has, which is that if it's good, then it can't actually be science fiction, because the people who fancy themselves readers of "good" writing don't read science fiction.

I actually took Rachel's point to be that her MFA colleagues were concentrating on tone, style and setting (it's not SF because it's plausible - I assume the story was Earth-set, roughly contemporary, Rachel?) as opposed to themes and topics. Which is also a serious problem for both SF and fantasy, not to mention within the genres - witness the most recent tempest in a teapot over definitions of the two genres. The notion that there exists science fiction that isn't space-set or focussed on laser battles can come as a great surprise to some mainstream readers, and often their first reaction is to classify said fiction as something other than SF.

Kevin:

John, what about the fact that more women read fiction (in general) than men? Do you think that has a bearing on fantasy being more popular right now than science fiction?

I can't pretend to speak for the majority of fantasy readers because, with the exception of Harry Potter (which I don't think is a particularly good example of the genre, nor necessarily a good starting point for fantasy readers, but that's a topic for another discussion), I don't tend to read the kind of fantasy that makes it to the NYT bestseller list. On the other hand, I have noticed over the last few years a shift away from science fiction, which I read almost exclusively (within genre) for most of my teens, and towards fantasy. I've been enjoying the fiction of Kelly Link, China Miéville, Jeff VanderMeer, John Crowley, Neil Gaiman, and a whole bunch of others, whereas in science fiction I've been coming up with more disappointments than successes.

So far in 2005, I've read 19 fantasy books and 13 science fiction books. Within fantasy, I would classify 12 of the 19 books as good to excellent, as opposed to only 4 out of the 13 science fiction books (although I suspect the number is going to rise to 5 as soon as I finish Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist). For whatever reason, the fiction I'm interested in is being written by fantasy authors, not SF authors.

Chad Orzel | December 15, 2005 09:20 AM

However, current mainstream fiction does not have the same accessibility issues that current SF has. You can pick up a book of fiction about life in contemporary America with no barrier of entry, save the writers' own artsy-fartsiness, whereas that's a little more difficult to do with SF these days.

I don't think that's really that sharp a distinction. Or, put another way, I would say that the off-putting style of Accelerando is itself a form of "artsty-fartsiness." There's nothing inherent in the nature of SF that requires Charlie to write the way he does, any more than there's something inherent in the nature of modern mainstream literary fiction that requires authors to use unreliable viewpoint characters and non-linear narrative structure.

SF does require "entry-level" fiction in a way other genres do not, and while not discounting the important of Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and Bradbury, I have to say that there seems some sort of implicit understanding that these are the guys we have to give all new SF readers as part of the orientation packet.

I think the importance of "entry-level" SF is greatly overstated, at least in the case of the "classic" authors. The list of books that are truly incomprehensible without having read Asimov, Clarke, or Heinlein is pretty much limited to direct sequels. There are in-jokes and references that are easier to catch if you know something about those earlier authors, but they're almost never essential to an understanding of what's going on.

I think there's also a problem here of mistaking the cutting-edge critically-acclaimed stuff for the totality of the field. Yeah, I wouldn't give Accelerando to someone who doesn't read SF, but I wouldn't hand If On a Winter's Night a Traveler to someone who only reads trashy romance novels, either.

(Actually, I wouldn't give Accelerando to much of anyone, as I didn't really care for it, but you get the idea...)

There is "entry-level" stuff being written out there, but it's not on the Nebula shortlist. And it shouldn't be there, any more than the latest Elmore Leonard should be shortlisted for major literary awards. It's the stuff that displays solid craftsmanship, but not cutting-edge artistry. The example that leaps to mind is Jack McDevitt, mostly because I just finished Polaris, but his Archeologists In Spaaace books are a good example as well. Elizabeth Bear's trilogy (I'm halfway through the third book, and will book-log the whole series when I'm done) is another good example. And there's plenty of stuff in the YA side of the field (Scott Westerfeld is an excellent example-- Peeps is terrific entry-level SF). I suspect that media tie-ins are serving as the entry point for a lot of young people as well.

The "entry-level" books are there, they just don't excite experienced readers of the genre, because they're not doing anything particularly new to expand the literary possibilities of the genre. The same thing goes on in mainstream fiction.

(I could keep going on this for a while. Orson Scott Card's Ender reboot. Steven Gould. Greg Bear's thriller-ish stuff. The books are there, they're just mostly ignored, or dismissed as hack-work.)

Rachel | December 15, 2005 09:29 AM

"What's been very interesting so far is that all the examples that people are giving of SF lit that's being marketed as more mainstream are books that have been written by women. Are the men of SF not even bothering to approach the mainstream?"

Well, I'd say Pahlahniuk writes some science fiction. I can't recall the title, but I recall one book where the characters search for and procure a magic book, which they then proceed to cast functional spells from. I suppose that's fantasy.

Samuel Delany gains respect in literary circles, I believe. And at least among African American scholars, I think Derick Bell does too.

Oh, and maybe Matt Ruff. His book Set This House in Order won the Tiptree in 2003 was definitely marketed mainstream, but deals with virtual reality and physicalizing mental landscapes.

If there is a gender gap, though, it might reflect tradtional divisions in who writes hard SF and who writes soft SF. To use your analogy, sociological SF (Handmaid's Tale) is less like math and thus would be easier for the mainstream market. I don't mean to say that no men are writing soft SF, but if the "softening of the field" has traditionally been associated with women, maybe there's a greater number of women writing it?

Eachel | December 15, 2005 09:45 AM

"Well, yes, and this points out a marketing problem SF has, which is that if it's good, then it can't actually be science fiction, because the people who fancy themselves readers of "good" writing don't read science fiction.

I actually took Rachel's point to be that her MFA colleagues were concentrating on tone, style and setting (it's not SF because it's plausible - I assume the story was Earth-set, roughly contemporary, Rachel?) as opposed to themes and topics."

Abigail:

You're right -- the story was Earth-set, in an undefined (timeline-wise) future.

I was kind of making both points, though... I feel like misconceptions about what SF can handle go hand in hand with the assumption that all SF must be bad.

Something that happens not infrequently in academic workshops I've been in is that someone will bring in a piece of writing and say something like, "I NEVER write science ficiton, but I was experimenting..." and then hand in a story that rehashes ideas which any reader of SF has seen done 800x before.

The next thing that happens is that most members of the workshop say things like, "I don't like science fiction, but this is different..." -- even though the story is usually a low grade version of stuff you could find in any SF magazine, if you bothered to pick up an SF magazine.

I suspect in order to get this reaction, you have to have both the assumption that SF isn't good and that SF can only handle certain themes. Since the speaker usually doesn't know much about SF, the first part "I don't like SF" has to stem from an assumption about its goodness/badness. And since the speaker is asserting "but this is different" he or she must also be making assumptions about what the field can or can not contain, subject-wise.

...not that I spent too long thinking about this, in relation to putting together applications to grad school or anything. ;)

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 09:56 AM

Chad Orzel:

"The books are there, they're just mostly ignored, or dismissed as hack-work."

Well, see. If works that are accessible to non-genre readers are marginalized within SF, that's a big problem, isn't it? I'm not confusing the high-profile SF with the totality of the field, but I do think it's significant that the high-profile fantasy is accessible to non-genre readers in ways high-profile SF is not. I could give my mother-in-law all the fantasy books that have won the Hugo since 2000 to read and she would have no problems. I couldn't give her Vernor Vinge's book, though, nor would Robert Sawyer's book interest her much.

SF isn't interested in accessibility or holds accomdating new and unfamiliar readers in high regard, and yet you get people like Benford/Schweitzer moaning about how horrible it is that fantasy is more popular. It's a joke. Either we acknowledge that outreach is necessary and desirable -- and acknowledge that the works that are performing that outreach can be good and useful books -- or we decide to marinate in our own geeky feculence and stop bitching and moaning about how other genres are more popular than ours.

Donna | December 15, 2005 10:26 AM

If works that are accessible to non-genre readers are marginalized within SF, that's a big problem, isn't it? I'm not confusing the high-profile SF with the totality of the field, but I do think it's significant that the high-profile fantasy is accessible to non-genre readers in ways high-profile SF is not.

But isn't this a nature of the beast issue? I don't pretend for a minute to know everything there is to know about SF, or even a little of it, but I think part of the issue is about the perceptions people have of genre fiction in general. SF is for boys, Fantasy for girls. That's bullshit, of course, but I think people have these preconceived notions that science fiction books are all about icky things like math and science and robots, whereas fantasy is all about unicorns and knights saying thee and thou a lot--or trolls and elves and dwarves.

And it seems to me as well that SF is in something of a major catch-22 here: they can dumb the books down to make them more accessible to people who have the "math? eeww!" mentality, and then market them as such to gain new readers, who, no matter what, will then still be seen by the hard core geeks as not reading "real SF" or they can just go ahead and alienate those people right off the top by not dumbing the books down.

As for why there are more Heinleins on the bookstore shelves than Scalzis, I'd have to agree with those who point the finger at marketing departments. And point another one at the buyers. They buy what sells. Or what they think will sell. The big box store bookstore where I live wouldn't know cutting edge if they bled to death after encountering it.

Mark Tiedemann | December 15, 2005 10:27 AM

Two things: there was a point way back in the early 80s when a lot of fantasy writers (who were not yet clocking SF) kept making the argument that SF was a subset of Fantasy. One could make the argument work, but for the specifics of contemporary story-telling, it was b.s. Then they (fantasy writers) began making more money, and now the argument tends to go the other way--not that fantasy is a subset of sf but that after all sf is a subset of fantasy, so people should be buying sf books too!

Which leads to observation the second. When the sf market began to tank in the late 80s to early 90s, it looked as though our audience was shrinking. But in reality I don't think the "serious" sf audience ever really grew. I think we hold roughly the same percentage and/or absolute numbers of fans we always did. The post Star Wars boom was an abberation.

So your remarks vis-a-vis SF being an "insiders" lit ring true. Because Star Wars (and Star Trek, but less so) dragged in a huge audience the publishing industry capitalized on, everyone expected SF to whomp on everything else. But it turned out that Star Wars was fantasy in SF drag and when the dust settled a good number of those new readers turned to Jordan et al instead of Benford and Brin et al.

There are probably (I think so anyway) sound literary reasons fantasy is more accessible at base than most SF. That doesn't mean SF writers can't do what fantasy does in terms of theme and character and subrext--but the fact is, most of us grew up disinterested in all those things, most of which are also what make "mainstream" literature work. Now it's looking like we really ought to have paid more attention in english lit class.

Stan | December 15, 2005 10:27 AM

Thanks for blogging this. Both your blog and the comments have been very insightful. My take on it was more like Scott Lynch's - it's an invented crisis. Fantasy has always done better than SF. The why of that is probably due to the reasons you've listed on why it's not doing well now.

The problem of being edged out by dead writers is not unique to SF. Fantasy has its Tolkiens just as SF has its Heinleins. Suess, Shakespeare, Austen, and Twain all out sell most new writers. It's not even a literary problem. On any given week, Dark Side of the Moon outsells half of the new releases.

Want to sell a whole bunch of books? There are two routes. The first is to be a perfect match of the consumer viewpoint and what marketing is looking for. Then you might be a best seller.

The second is to become a household name. To do that, do great work that generates word of mouth and wait for a few decades. Also keep doing great work so you're not a flash in the pan. If you're lucky, the process will be helped along by literary establishments giving your stuff their stamp of approval. The hard truth of most creative professions is that it takes a long time to build sales momentum - if it happens at all it might be after you're dead. The vast majority of writers who have been in the business only a decade or two are going to be overshadowed by ghosts.

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 10:49 AM

Stan:

"The problem of being edged out by dead writers is not unique to SF."

Certainly not, nor do I suggest throwing out dead writers just because of their non-corporeal status. However, I think SF's ancestor worship condition is more pronounced than it is in other genres. As a proportion of books on the shelves, dead SF authors, I suspect, have substantially more representation than dead writers of other genres.

Mark Tiedeman:

"There are probably (I think so anyway) sound literary reasons fantasy is more accessible at base than most SF."

Possibly. I blame Hugo Gernsback, myself.

dave | December 15, 2005 10:54 AM


I would have slotted most of the alternate histories and military SF that have come out recently as reasonable "doors" into SF. It doesn't take much shared vocabulary at all to understand Turtledove or Bujold or Stirling.

I buy pretty much anything by Stross/Sterling/Egan/MacCleod sight unseen, but I agree that they are almost impossible to recommend to anyone not already in The Tribe.

Chad Orzel | December 15, 2005 11:04 AM

Well, see. If works that are accessible to non-genre readers are marginalized within SF, that's a big problem, isn't it?

The problem is, I don't think they are marginalized, in the field as a whole. They're regarded as sort of marginal by SF insiders-- I have absolutely no interest in reading Card's re-boot of the Ender series, for example, or Greg Bear's thriller-ish new stuff-- but they sell pretty well. Very well, in some cases.

To put it another way, they're marginalized in exactly the same way that, say, Carl Hiaasen is marginalized in mainstream fiction. When people bring up hot literary writers, he's not going to be in the conversation, but when he comes out with a new book, it goes right on the table in the front of the store. The reviews tend to be of the form "sure to be liked by people who like this sort of thing," and he's not likely to win any awards, but he sells enough books to keep getting printed, and keep making money at it. There are worse fates than that sort of marginalization.

Hell, Jim Baen runs a whole publishing house printing nothing but entry-level books that are mostly ignored by a certain class of SF insiders...

I do think it's significant that the high-profile fantasy is accessible to non-genre readers in ways high-profile SF is not. I could give my mother-in-law all the fantasy books that have won the Hugo since 2000 to read and she would have no problems.

I would say that most high-profile fantasy is in a similar position relative to the exciting parts of the field that the overlooked "entry-level" SF is. That is, if you talk to people who are fantasy "insiders," they tend not to be terribly excited about the best-selling stuff-- they positively sneer at Jordan and Eddings and Goodkind. The stuff that gets great reviews, and gets people inside the field excited is not terribly accessible-- Mieville and Vandermeer and people like that. And if they get within an order of magnitude of the sales of the latest Wheel of Time book (let alone Harry Potter), it's a miracle.

There are some exceptions-- Strange and Norrell, and George Martin to some degree-- but by and large, the stuff that is sort of marginal in a literary sense sells just fine, despite a general lack of excitement about it from inside the genre.

I could give my mother-in-law all the fantasy books that have won the Hugo since 2000 to read and she would have no problems. I couldn't give her Vernor Vinge's book, though, nor would Robert Sawyer's book interest her much.

Robert Sawyer's book doesn't interest me...

That's true as far as it goes, but if you go back one more year, you get Connie Willis, and I suspect that To Say Nothing of the Dog is perfectly accessible to a non-SF reader. You go back a few more years beyond that, and you pick up a whole bunch of Bujold, which is the very definition of entry-level SF. You've also got The Diamond Age and a couple of Robinson's Mars books, which have accessibility issues that aren't related to their failure to sufficiently explain stuff.

elizabeth bear | December 15, 2005 11:09 AM

JS: Are the men of SF not even bothering to approach the mainstream?

I can name a few more--Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Mosely.

Regarding the cover issue, I think the gaudy covers on my books are actually intended to appeal to a non-genre audience. (Apparently, the books do okay in airports and supermarkets. Who would have guessed?) Also, chick with gun, pick up the military SF audience.

What's funny is that in some ways I intentionally was doing an overview of SF for the last thirty years. There's an evolution from the sort of Brunneresque/Effingeresque stuff that was cutting edge when I was a kid, through some musings on singularity and quantum mechanics and AI and all that good stuff. But the books, like OMW, are written so that hopefully anybody who can handle Bladerunner or Aliens or a Tom Clancy novel can get through them. So I'm kind of trying to have my cake and eat it too.

As a writer, I'm personally far more interested in the characters and the narrative than the technology anyway--my shiny! does not lie in the ideas, so to speak. Some of the ideas are pretty cool (I really like my FTL hack, which is based on something a physicist ex-boyfriend of mine said many years ago) but if you approach them with transparency, there's nothing SF plays with that a reasonably intelligent adult can't handle.

I personally enjoy the immersive future shock style SF. But I know I can't write that as well as Charlie does. So here I am doing my own thing, instead of trying to be a pale imitation of Mr. Stross. On the other hand, I think you can tangle with singularity in ways that anybody can understand, and I think I can swing that.

This, of course, can lead to dismissals that the work isn't cutting-edge enough. Which is cool. I personally think it's possible to be interesting without speaking the cant, and I think some of us need to make that choice if the legendary ever-shrinking SF audience isn't to shrink to nothing. You don't kick a kid in off the high dive to teach him to swim.

But I think there's also a tendency to dismiss anything that attempts transparency as kid's stuff, even if it's trying to stretch out and take hold of what SF does best.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Robert Sawyer and Orson Scott Card are pretty good examples of SF writers who remain accessible, and I think their market share shows that that's a pretty successful approach.

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 11:55 AM

Chad Orzel:

"Hell, Jim Baen runs a whole publishing house printing nothing but entry-level books that are mostly ignored by a certain class of SF insiders..."

Eeeeeeeeeeh. Entry level for whom? I think Baen very successfully addresses a particular market, but that market isn't made up of people who aren't of "The Tribe." This indicates the tribe is actually larger than the people who go to conventions and vote for Hugos and get a chuckle at the Geek Heirarchy, which I think is not in dispute (if it wasn't, all us writers would be entirely screwed). And I think Baen is laudably innovative in catering to its audience and growing its audience within SF readers, through the Webscriptions and the Baen free library. But -- anecdotally -- I'm not convinced Baen is doing outreach rather than concientious acquisition and maintainence within the existing audience.

Ann | December 15, 2005 12:07 PM

and then there's the sodomy

And the dinosaurs! The sodomy's no good without the dinosaurs.

Damn you all! I was supposed to be scrubbing the bathtub, and instead I'm reading this!


It seems to me that the perception that SF=geeky math stuff is a pretty strong force. My mother, bless her, wouldn't comfortably read either fantasy or science fiction. They would both be incomprehensible to her. She doesn't have trouble with science fiction because of any geek barrier--she's a biochemist. As far as she's concerned, they're both the same, except one has props that are powered with batteries or antimatter engines, and the other runs on magic. She just doesn't understand why anyone would want to read stories that aren't about "real things."


It seems to me that if you have a taste for the fantastic you're going to have a basis for enjoying both science fiction and fantasy. Granted, folks will probably have a preference for a specific kind of fantastic, but still. It's going to be image, and perception, that keeps fantasy readers from thinking they might enjoy science fiction as a whole (and not just specific books, say). But I don't really have any solid data to back that up, and besides I think others above have said it more intelligently than I can.


So, yeah, more entry-level stuff, and less sneering at work that isn't "real" science fiction, or that's not cutting edge.

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 12:18 PM

Ann:

"And the dinosaurs! The sodomy's no good without the dinosaurs."

A sentiment that has been true since the days of the fearsome Analsaurus Rex.

Kate Nepveu | December 15, 2005 12:18 PM

John, I think you should suggest this topic to the people doing Boskone programming this year.

Jason Erik Lundberg | December 15, 2005 12:21 PM

I'm also glad you blogged about this, John, and appreciate all of the discussion this has generated.

My whole take on the thing is that fantasy is the oldest literary form out there, going back millennia, to the invention of mythology. People have used fantasy as a way of explaining the natural world ever since the dawn of communication, and this is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, which is possibly why it's easier for people to understand. Everybody has heard a ghost story; therefore you don't have to explain what a ghost is.

Whereas science fiction is a fairly modern genre by comparison. Whether you believe it was started by Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells, SF as a concept has only existed for less than two centuries (perhaps much less) compared to the thousands of years of mythology.

So you can talk about marketing and cover art and genre snobbery by the mundanes, but at the heart of it, I truly believe this is why fantasy does better than SF, and will continue to do so.

Just my $0.02.

Ann | December 15, 2005 12:59 PM

Whereas science fiction is a fairly modern genre by comparison. Whether you believe it was started by Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells, SF as a concept has only existed for less than two centuries (perhaps much less) compared to the thousands of years of mythology.


This argument only works if you hold that science fiction is an entirely distinct entity from fantasy. Which, frankly, I don't. Many have tried to convince me otherwise, and have so far failed.


And those thousands of years of mythology mean nothing if they're not part of the education and culture of the reader. A story based on a mythology unfamiliar to the reader isn't going to give you that advantage you're talking about--on the contrary, it will be quite mysterious, possibly even entirely baffling.


Some number of science-fictional tropes have escaped into popular culture--this is why, I think, we're seeing as much cross-over as we are. Some things have been part of popular culture for nigh on a hundred years, long enough to be pretty well established. The advantage is not the length of time an image or motif has been established, but the establishment itself.


Quiz your average person on the street about, say, Greek mythology. Then quiz them about Star Wars or Star Trek. I know that if I went down the street I'd meet more people who recognize Captain Kirk than who could tell me anything about Apollo or Athena.

G. Jules | December 15, 2005 01:32 PM

Here's a (related) problem that's been bugging me: why do so many people tell me they "love science fiction," or "love fantasy" -- but then tell me they don't have a favorite author, because what they really love is Buffy, or Godzilla, or Independence Day, or Firefly?

I know it's easy to think of these people as the stereotypical yokels, inferior to those of the Tribe, who only like the SF for the big shiny explosions. But I don't think that's it, because I also know some very intelligent people who love to read, and love SF -- but don't love to read SF. What's going on there? Is it because the entrance requirements for *both* science fiction and fantasy are set too high?

I definitely agree that the lack of "gateway drug" books is hurting the SF field. But I don't think it's just science fiction that has problems getting people to pick up genre covers and move into the field. I think SF as a field does. Fantasy may be bigger than science fiction as a market category, but they're both getting whomped by romance.

Here's another theory, related to the other ones here: maybe it also has to do with similarity of the reading experience from book to book. If I pick up a thick fantasy novel that has a dragon on the cover, I've got a pretty good shot at getting a story about brave people, and dragons, and possibly a journey. And stew. (I'm not saying all fantasy is like that, but while there are exceptions, the fantasy with dragons on tends to be.) If I pick up a trade paperback with a pastel-drawing of a woman with Accessories, I'm getting a book about a Spunky Woman, having wacky adventures, and by the end of the book she'll most likely have found (a) herself, and (b) her man. But if I pick up a book with a space station on the cover -- well, that could be anything. It could be a dystopian view of a future Galactic Congress, or a cozy mystery set on a space habitat, or political intrigue about an interstellar Emperor and his court, or -- well.

A few weeks ago I realized that I wasn't reading enough modern science fiction, so I picked up several books and started reading. In four books, I read what I'd roughly classify as a military thriller, a secret history time-traveling novel, a far-future interstellar political intrigue novel, and a future-Earth novel focusing on linguistics. All modern science fiction, all marketed as such, and all very different experiences. *shrug* Personally, I like that about SF as a field. But not everyone does.

Chad Orzel | December 15, 2005 02:36 PM

Eeeeeeeeeeh. Entry level for whom? I think Baen very successfully addresses a particular market, but that market isn't made up of people who aren't of "The Tribe." This indicates the tribe is actually larger than the people who go to conventions and vote for Hugos and get a chuckle at the Geek Heirarchy, which I think is not in dispute (if it wasn't, all us writers would be entirely screwed). And I think Baen is laudably innovative in catering to its audience and growing its audience within SF readers, through the Webscriptions and the Baen free library. But -- anecdotally -- I'm not convinced Baen is doing outreach rather than concientious acquisition and maintainence within the existing audience.

I don't think they're consciously doing outreach, but I do think that the style of book they prefer tends to be pretty readily accessible as an entry point to the genre. They won't necessarily appeal to a completely different sort of reader, but they don't require you to be a regular SF reader already to understand them.

This is based off having read most of Bujold's catalogue, and a skim over some of the titles on offer in their free library. When I was about thirteen, I would've eaten this stuff up. Now, not so much, but I don't think a teenager picking one of these up as a first SF novel would have any trouble with it.

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 03:00 PM

Kate Nepveu:

"John, I think you should suggest this topic to the people doing Boskone programming this year."

Excellent idea. I have no clue how to do that.

Chad Orzel:

"I don't think they're consciously doing outreach, but I do think that the style of book they prefer tends to be pretty readily accessible as an entry point to the genre."

Well, no argument there, although I do think the outreach aspect is important. The major issue with the Baen free library -- if one actually wants to call it an issue, is that unless you're already looking about for SF resources you're not likely to come across it. This isn't really faulting Baen -- I don't know how many resources they want to commit to advertising the fact they're giving stuff away. I mean, I don't go out of my way to advertise Agent, either, even though it's been a pretty effective calling card for my work.

Chad Orzel | December 15, 2005 03:16 PM

Kate: John, I think you should suggest this topic to the people doing Boskone programming this year.

John: Excellent idea. I have no clue how to do that.

Just send an email to the information address, and make the suggestion. If you're feeling masochistic, you could probably make it more likely by volunteering to be on it, or moderate the panel...

I agree that it'd be a good program idea.

The major issue with the Baen free library -- if one actually wants to call it an issue, is that unless you're already looking about for SF resources you're not likely to come across it. This isn't really faulting Baen -- I don't know how many resources they want to commit to advertising the fact they're giving stuff away.

Well, they do manage to get their books placed in stores, too, which is probably more effective at getting the word to people who aren't already SF readers (though they need to get past the dreadful covers...). I think they may plug the Free Library in the back of their books, but I'm not sure (I don't read much that Baen publishes).

John Scalzi | December 15, 2005 03:40 PM

Chad Orzel:

"Well, they do manage to get their books placed in stores, too, which is probably more effective at getting the word to people who aren't already SF readers (though they need to get past the dreadful covers...)."

Yes, but then we're again presented with the "here be calculus" imaginary sign that hangs over the SF section of the bookstore, warding off the mundanes, and I suspect your average Baen cover does nothing to counter that perception. So no one but the tribe is going to find out about the free library that way. It's a vicious cycle.

Howard | December 15, 2005 03:43 PM

"Well, yes, and this points out a marketing problem SF has, which is that if it's good, then it can't actually be science fiction, because the people who fancy themselves readers of "good" writing don't read science fiction. This needs to be addressed in some way, I think."

'Sf's no good, ' they bellow till we're deaf.
'But this looks good. '--- 'Well then, it's not sf.'
-- Kingsley Amis, Spectrum 2, 1962

JonathanMoeller | December 15, 2005 06:44 PM

Oh, gods of screed.

"We can distract ourselves with our fantasy novels, our buzz and sass—but not the Chinese and the Indians and the Japanese… I think we’re seeing now the first surges of the next major stage in the development of all humanity. Next will come the domination of their fresh Asian takes on technologies."

So what he's *really* saying is that unless Americans start learning more math and science and physics (and reading more Gregory Benford novels), then the evil godless Yellow Peril will come and destroy our way of life. Just like Sputnik did! And anime and manga and so forth are clearly science lessons in sinister Asian code, designed to keep their nefarious plans for techno-dominance secret.


Peter | December 15, 2005 07:57 PM

The mental image of anime and manga as disguised science lessons... oy. I can just imagine people trying to build mecha after having watched too much Gundam. Oh, wait, href="http://www.sakakibara-kikai.co.jp/products/other/LW.htm">they've already done that...

Seriously, it's been an excellent discussion so far. John, your post was insightful, too. As a sf fan who did get a laugh out of the Geek Chart, but who also prefers reading about Miles Vorkosigan to reading about Manfred Macx any day of the week, I can definitely see your point. To me, characterisation and themes are more important than ideas -- yet "ideas" are what sf is graded by. Despite her Hugos and Nebulas, nobody ever lists Bujold as a Great.

Jon H | December 15, 2005 09:06 PM

Hey John,

How about Mieville's King Rat?

- Jon

Apropos of nothing, i found it distracting, while reading The Scar, how often he used the word "recurved" when describing things.

Scott | December 15, 2005 09:07 PM

You wanna talk relative acceptance in ANIME?

You'll find that it's all secret lessons in love, not science... They teach our faceless, godless Yellow Menace equivalents howto get their asses handed to them by girls that are too good for them, too strong for them, too smart for them... until of course you make a man out of yourself, then you get hated on just out of inertia.

Also, they're secret lessons in love that teach our faceless, godless, Yellow Menace equivalents' objects of desire that men all love each other... and them too, once they get over the embarassment.

Martin Wagner | December 15, 2005 11:59 PM

Belated reply to John: I will say that there is at least one SF publishing house that I would pretty much refuse to sell a book to unless I had cover art approval, on the basis that I wouldn't want to be seen in public reading a book with the covers they generally provide for their line...
Ah yes, and we could call that publisher Baen Books, couldn't we?
Baen Books are embarrassing to anyone whose aesthetics aren't suffering from arrested development. They have actual comic book covers, and they look more juvenile than most of what's shelved in the YA section! I would simply be too mortified to bring one to the register, especially if there were a cute chick working the till. Wouldn't want to be thought of as some mouth-breathing, mom's-basement-dwelling manchild.
You go on to mention that Baen has its niche audience among whom they're very successful. It's interesting to note that Baen themselves, having cultivated this audience, now treats them with a sneering contempt. Early in 2004 I wrote a withering review of one of their titles, Michael Williamson's Freehold. Apart from being the only instance in which an author has flamed me via e-mail for a pan (up to a year later even), Baen themselves came a cropper when they quote-mined my Freehold review for the dust jacket of Williamson's next book The Weapon, as yet unread by me. The blurb, of course, sounded praiseworthy, and I imagine this could have been Williamson and Baen thinking they'd gotten their revenge for the pan. What is really was, was a demonstration of just how sleazily they're willing to deceive this precious customer base that keeps them going. When you lie to people to get them to continue buying your product, well, there are a lot of things you could say about such a policy. But you would have to say it reflects contempt for one's audience as much as contempt for critics. (Personally, I don't mind the blurb, or anything else that sends traffic my way. But it's still a shitty way to treat your customers. Though I am quite certain Baen didn't invent the practice!)
In case you were wondering, yes, there one of the few remaining SF publishers who still don't send me ARCs. It will be very amusing to see if they selectively blurb me for such titles as Cally's War and the Nazi-sympathizing alien invasion saga Watch on the Rhine!

mythago | December 16, 2005 01:54 AM

Part of the reason fantasy may do better than SF, also, is that it's got a much larger pool of cultural knowledge to draw on. We haven't been thinking about, or writing about, rockets and robots and Planck's constant as long as we've been talking about dragons or wizards or heroes with big pointy swords.

I'd argue that it was correctly marketed as mainstream fiction, because it was primarily a character study. It was not about the science of time travel, or at least only tangentially, but about the characters.

I really don't want to get into What Is SF, but I think you're actually touching on part of the problem--the notion that SF is basically a textbook of speculative science, with some fake people thrown in to make it more interesting, and as soon as the book becomes about people rather than gizmos, it's, well, mainstream.

Mary | December 16, 2005 03:26 AM

I've been thinking about this blog entry all day. Here's my take as a not-very-heavy science fiction reader.

Bradbury would be the biggest named Science Fiction author I've read. That said, I mostly enjoy futuristic military science fiction. I'm a fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, but don't read the books. The author's I like most in FMSF are Lois McMaster Bujold, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, S.L. Viehl, and David Weber (in no particular order). A couple of other authors I enjoy are C.J. Cherryh and Wen Spencer.

All the above authors have one thing in common. They write character driven stories involving science fiction. So I have a few questions for you all. Am I mistaken in what science fiction is? Because I'd rather read about what happens to the characters of the book then the science involved, does this make me Not a science fiction reader? Will my SF Reader badge be taken away with this confession?

Or do I fit into yet another reader category? SF light?

John Scalzi | December 16, 2005 05:17 AM

Mary:

"Will my SF Reader badge be taken away with this confession?"

Please stay where you are. Do not run. The Geek Police will apprehend you shortly.

If focusing on character more than geekery is not SFnal, then I'm not writing SF either, so I'm inclined to say it's allowable.

Luke | December 16, 2005 03:45 PM

Then, what is a character-driven romance set in a world with what amounts to magic, but with the physics worked out in detail?

Mary | December 16, 2005 06:25 PM

Luke asked:
Then, what is a character-driven romance set in a world with what amounts to magic, but with the physics worked out in detail?


The above sounds a lot like TINKER by Wen Spencer. I wouldn't consider it romance. The story line was less than 20% about the relationship between the heroine and her hero.


Defining Romance has gotten so spread out that it now requires sub-genres. There must be a HEA (Happily ever After) and the book must revolve mainly around the main characters story of how they got together. Don't know how much of the story it should be, but I would think over at least %50. (And who judges how much actually is?)

However, if the focus of the book is saving an empire/kingdom/way of life (and it still meets the criteria of the science fiction label) with only a side line of romance running through the book, I would think it would be science fiction with a romantic bent.

Just as an aside. Think of how many movies/television shows people watch. How many of these have, at the least, a thread of romance running through them.

Perfect example. In the movie Starship Troopers, the Hero (I've forgotten his name) is in love with his high school sweetheart. Another of his friends, Dizzy, is in love (or lust, take your pick) with him. Both these story lines unfold in the movie nearly parallel to how they would in a romance novel. In the end, there' a HEA for the main couple. Perhaps not how a romance reader would like it to be, but a happily ever after. They're together. They're alive. They can work things out now that their rivals are dead.

Would you classify Starship Troopers-The Movie (haven't read the book, can't judge it) as a romance? I sure wouldn't. But if the movie version were true to the book, I could classify it as science fiction romance. It's all subjective.

Ron Hardin | December 17, 2005 09:03 AM

I never understood the genre.

Fred Hoyle was okay, when I read him as a kid, but chiefly now I like to remember the gathering of scientists in London to save the world, which was the fiction part.

A memory of empire.


Brown Line | December 17, 2005 10:25 AM

Thanks for an interesting discussion. However, much of the discussion involves distinguishing fantasy from science-fiction, and I think that that may be a pointless exercise.

I was born in 1952, and during my first 25 years of life I read a great deal of science fiction in those years. (Yes, I watched "Star Trek" too, but only after I'd read the books.) In those days, the "fantasy" genre didn't really exist: "The Lord of the Rings" was becoming popular on campuses, but there was no "fantasy" section in the bookstores. But it's clear that much of what I read would not be considered fantasy today rather than sci-fi. Or it's sci-fi only by using Clarke's law as an escape clause - they describe a technology so advanced that it is indistinguishable from magic (and which, therefore, spares the writer the need to tell us how it works).

For example, I loved the work of Philip Jose Farmer, especially the World of the Tiers series. That was considered sci-fi in the 1960s. Today, though, it would probably be called fantasy. Or Ursula LeGuin: "The Lathe of Heaven" was published as sci-fi, but today probably would be called fantasy. Or Andre Norton: "Daybreak 2250 AD" uses science to create a shattered world of the future, but a world that has many elements of the fantasy genre (e.g., man-animal telepathy). Is that sci-fi or fantasy? Or J. G. Ballard: "The Drowned World" or "The Voices of Time" veers a lot more towards the fantasy realm than sci-fi, at least in their tone. Or Wells: his "War of the Worlds" is grossly wrong in its science, but being such a powerfully told story of its period, that it survives as a fantasy tale of its period. Or even Heinleim himself - books like "Magic, Inc." and much of the Future History series could be regarded as fantasy.

Or another example, Donald A. Wolheim. As a child, I read "The Secret of the Ninth Planet" with great excitement and pleasure; in those pre-manned spaceflight days, the book seemed filled with wonders that our technology would bring. Recently, I read the book aloud to my eight-year-old son, and it read much more like fantasy than sci-fi, if only because the "future" that Wolheim predicted was so different from what really happened, and his projections of technology so wrong, that the story felt like it was taking place in some weird fantasy universe - a universe where everyone flys around on rockets, but the integrated circuit has not been invented.

My point is that trying to strictly separate sci-fi from fantasy is an exercise in futility. Better to stick with the term "imaginative literature" and be done with it. Writers that attempt to write "pure" sci-fi - a sci-fi that has purged itself of the magic of fantasy - will be impoverishing their own work rather than enriching the genre.

Regards, and thanks for a most interesting exchange.

Donnah | December 17, 2005 10:58 AM

What I want is for my bookstore to have a shelf full of Jack Vance books. If it weren't for Amazon, I'd be out of luck.

newscaper | December 17, 2005 11:24 AM

It occurred to me that science fiction (at least the set-in-the-future kind) and how it is perceived and accepted from the outside, is dependent on the question "what does the future 'look' like?"

For literary SF, whether of the hard or soft variety, the typical answer was "space travel", something which was cutting edge, yet accessible through various nautical metaphors: battles, exploration, etc.

As science and technology have changed, the future doesn't quite "look" like that any more, the forward path doesn't look so direct now: space travel seems much harder (thanks, NASA) and the future "looks" more like computers, genetics and nanotech.
These can be either fairly pedestrian or very, very far out -- not much middle ground.
Given the onrush of technology, singularity or not, the real future seems to be more bizarre than outsiders to SF can handle, eg Accelerando.
Yet to SF veterans so much of the more accessible types of stories are old hat now, boring. I think that is a real disconnect with "mundanes".

FWIW I think Star Trek and Star Wars have hurt as much as they have helped -- the biggest fans of either usually know nothing about literary SF and have no interest. The general public which is aware of these, and who may be casual viewers, erroneously sees them as defining SF, so their (ST and SW) limitations become a barrier in setting restrictive preconceptions.

CJ | December 17, 2005 11:40 AM

Heck, I'd just be happy with some good science-fiction novels that I could recommend to friends without having to insert a caveat that "it's good, except for all the sex."

Not one of the recently published s-f novels--outside of those by Ringo or Weber--that I've read has managed to attain even a PG-13 rating.

Fubar_Vikinghelmet | December 17, 2005 11:56 AM


My father willed me his library of paperbacks. Since he's not dead yet and since I'm bigger and stronger than he is, I took 'em all several years ago. My dad was born in 1935. He was/is a RABID fan of Asimov and A.E. van Vogt. Thusly, I have read much of those two authors. In addtion, I've read most RAH, E.E. Smith, Corwainder Smith, Harry Harrison, Jack Vance, James Blish (if you haven't read "Black Easter," go get it), Harlan Ellison, et al ad infinitum.

I've also managed to read a lot by Ben Bova and Robert Silverberg. And Neal Stephenson and Ian Banks - both of whom know how to and do write "hard" SF.

In all of it, my favorite author of all time is a split between L. Sprague de Camp and Ray Bradbury.

And I must say that it's worth purchasing "Battlefield Earth" (the book, see the movie, too, it doesn't suck as much as it's supposed to), just for L. Ron Hubbard's preface.

How much adventure is there in reading about nanotechies? These days, it's another scientific achievement that will/is make(ing) a lot of money for some people - people to whom the majority of the work, thought, toil, etc. goes into marketing and high finance than the science and engineering. I would compare The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth - written "long ago" - to be just as interesting and important a read than anything that's been written in the last twenty years.

Kyeikki | December 17, 2005 12:44 PM

I don't think the problem's lack of outreach. If I had to guess - and it's only a guess - I'd say the problem was religion.

Most modern hard SF assumes a philosophy of atheistic materialism, and it's generally unfriendly to Christianity and other theistic religions. (This comes through fairly strongly in the Benford/Schweitzer article.) There are some authors who don't fit this trend, but it's the dominant trend all the same.

Now, last time I checked, the USA was about 80% monotheistic, 10% atheistic, and 10% other. So if you write a novel intended exclusively for atheists, you're excluding around 90% of the population. So it shouldn't really be all that surprising if it doesn't turn into a bestseller.

Soft SF and space opera generally isn't as strongly atheistic, and fantasy isn't atheistic at all. And they're all very popular. I think that's a big part of the reason why. Star Wars would never have been a success without the Force, and no-one would read Robert Jordan's novels if it wasn't for the upcoming battle with the Dark One.

People do pick up on these things. Your average guy in the street might not be able to spell "atheistic materialism" but he can figure out pretty well if the philosophy and beliefs behind a book are basically friendly or basically hostile to his own - and it has a huge effect on what he's going to buy.

Of course if your number one priority is to keep the faith - as I think Benford's is - then it's not really a problem. But if you want people to buy your stuff, then you have to consider your audience, too.

Bruce | December 17, 2005 01:04 PM

Martin Wagner: vis a vis your review of this Baen books chunder, you're probably right, but anytime anyone invokes the crypto-antisemitic term "neocon," as youre review does, I immediately stop reading. Also, your literary judgments would be more impressive if you were aware of the difference between "they're" and "there."

Bruce | December 17, 2005 01:42 PM

And of course, the Gods of Commentary dictated that I put an "e" on "your." Ah well.

Skip Key | December 17, 2005 02:04 PM

I read Benford's blog comment and Lynch's followup with interest - Bear's blog is in too small a font to comfortably read for those of us with bad eyes.


I grew up reading mostly science fiction, with only a smattering of fantasy. Heinlein, Niven, Asimov, Dick were my mainstays. And yet the proportions are basically reversed today, 25 years later. And I believe the cause is related to all of this. When I was a teenager, most of my favorite authors released a couple of books a year, and they had a back catalog of works that I hadn't read yet, so this kept me busy.


Most of those authors today are either dead, or only releasing a book every few years. Around a decade ago, I was having more and more problems finding works to occupy my reading time. I would typically scan the shelves at the bookstore, and eventually pick something to bring home. Usually I'd be disappointed. At that point, it seemed that cyberpunk Gibson-wannabes had taken over the SF genre, and most of the books had an art-film style that was simply not fun to read. I read to be entertained. If I have to work at something, it's not fun.


Sure, I'm certain that this isn't a fair description of all of the works published about that time, but the odds were greater that I wouldn't like a random work I picked up than that I would. So then I started branching into fantasy. I used a fairly simple criterion to pick works. I looked for authors who had published a ton of books, that were mostly all still in print, and I'd buy the very first book they published and read it. The odds were that this would be the weakest of his books, so if it was halfway decent the author was worth reading. At this point I'm nowhere near working my way through the established fantasy authors. And one thing's for certain - even if the plot happens to be a trite and hackneyed thing you've read a hundred times before, slogging through most fantasy isn't work.


In the last decade almost 100% of the pure SF that I've read, that didn't come from an author I started reading in the 70s, came from a recommendation from someone else. Snow Crash, Altered Carbon, Revelation Space, the Honor Harrington series, and even Old Man's War itself all came from recommendations from personal friends, or reviews that I read online.

Hal Duncan | December 17, 2005 03:03 PM

Good thread. I think SF is a wider field than just that *maths* oriented SF, so I think there are other avenues which the sort of anti-Fantasy viewpoint Benford's demonstrating is liable to turn into exit routes for writers rather than entry-points for readers. I ended up going off on one about it one me own blog though, rather than post a huge comment here.

Robrt van der Heide | December 17, 2005 06:49 PM

Cisko sezz


"Re: Cyptonomicon/Baroque Age -- in both cases they're not science fiction, but they sure feel like SF, and I think in form and in marketing they're reasonable touchstones for what we need to be thinking about. None of those are "easy" books, but they're also not inaccessible "

It seems to me that what makes Cryptonomicon feel SFy is that it is such a prime example of the "Math Is Hard" school of writing. It's got figures, graphs, equations and code samples fergawdssake! But it is "accessible" in the sense that its level of difficutly is independent of whether you come at it from just having read "Snow Crash" or "Hunt For Red October."

CJ | December 17, 2005 08:43 PM

Kyeikki makes a good point on religion... I can't remember reading ANY S-F in the past 5 years or so that actually depicted a realistically Christian character... or Muslim, or anything else for that matter. Bit of a disconnect from society there, neh?

John Scalzi | December 17, 2005 08:52 PM

CJ:

"I can't remember reading ANY S-F in the past 5 years or so that actually depicted a realistically Christian character... or Muslim, or anything else for that matter."

Try Nick Sagan's Edenborn, in which religion (and specifically, Islam) plays both a critical and positive role.

Ian Argent | December 17, 2005 09:15 PM

Try the Honorverse - religion plays an important role in the actions of several characters (including Honor herself).

On the other hand - the explicit lack of religion on Pern (with the explanation that they effectively "outgrew" religion) kinda rubs me the wrong way, shatters my suspension of disbelief somehow.

mythago | December 17, 2005 09:44 PM

and fantasy isn't atheistic at all

Following your argument, though, it shouldn't appeal to a mass audience, because fantasy is rarely monotheistic either. Why would a monotheistic reader be turned off by agnostic materialism but hunky-dory with the Triune Goddess or an assorted pantheon of godlings?

The Geek Police will apprehend you shortly.

Don't be worried, Mary, you're perfectly safe. The Geek Police will arrive, see that you're a GIRL, and stand around mumbling awkwardly while you make your escape.

Kyeikki | December 18, 2005 06:49 AM

Following your argument, though, it shouldn't appeal to a mass audience, because fantasy is rarely monotheistic either. Why would a monotheistic reader be turned off by agnostic materialism but hunky-dory with the Triune Goddess or an assorted pantheon of godlings?

Good question. To be honest, I don't really know. I do think that the gap between monotheism and the Triune Goddess is a lot smaller than the gap between monotheism and the "religion will become obsolete" attitude. But really, this is just based on personal experience - the people I know who really, really like atheistic science fiction are mostly atheists themselves.

It's probably less of an issue with agnostic materialism, which isn't usually as aggressively anti-religion (more specifically, anti-Christian) as atheistic materialism tends to be.

Martin L Shoemaker | December 19, 2005 12:52 PM

On the subject of religion in SF: a lot of Jack McDevitt's books treat the subject very respectfully, and sometimes make the coexistence of religion and science a major plot element. Religion plays a minor role in A Talent for War. And I don't want to spoil the end of The Hercules Text, but religious groups play a pretty major part there, in ways that are pretty consistent with historical roles they have played. And unlike some SF (Ben Bova, say), the religious groups don't all get tarred as repressive bastards.

It's too old for John's criteria for gateway books, but I would recommend The Hercules Text as a gateway for a lot of people. Written slightly before Sagan's Contact, it's the story of modern society and the effects of the receipt of messages from distant aliens. I think McDevitt does a much better job with the idea than Sagan did. I liked Contact, but McDevitt did it better.

S.A. Gorden | December 19, 2005 08:35 PM

The books are on the shelf for money. Heinlien sells and has a good profit margin for the publishers. A new print run for a Heinlien book is cheap. The only real cost is new cover art. Eyes of an Eagle is a good story but doesn't sell because you need a PR push by a big publisher to generate the starting sales. Eyes is a new book by a new author. Williamson and Foster are a couple of the handful of SF authors who can pull the big publishers and their sales are just okay. To get the push needed for the younger authors you need the genre to start making big money again.

I know a niche publisher who produces many slow sale works by people such as Larry Niven, Nowlan, Crayne, Stine and others. I even have a Buck Rogers sequel through the publisher. The stories are good but the sales are slow without major publishing PR. And major publishers don't want to spend money promoting books in genres unless they first see money in the genre.

A few things need to happen to push SF sales up. Science needs to become a good thing again and not a political whipping boy for politicians. One novel needs to click with the public in a big way. And SF readers need to start complaining they want more novels and then they need to buy them. If you want good SF, you need to search the niche markets and start buying the great stories you can find there even if they cost a bit more because they are short run printings.

Johnny G Ray | December 26, 2005 10:35 PM

Excellent discussion - I think it would be helpful to distinguish between two types of inaccessible-to-the-layman SF. The first are the numerous novels that are inherently inaccessible because of their subject and/or complexity; The second are novels that COULD be made accessible if the author so attempted. Consider the reviewer who posted the following in their Amazon review of Beggars In Spain by Nancy Kress:
"Kress does something that I wish more science fiction writers would (or could) do: She explains how the science in her story works in a way that a non-scientist can understand it! (Imagine that!) Let me say for the record that I have an extremely weak science background, but thanks to the author's talent, I felt that I understood the basis for all the science that was included in the story. In short, I wasn't intimidated at all."
Stating the problem correctly also illuminates why there aren't any easy solutions. Explaining the science for an entry-level reader isn't as problematic if the novel is primarily centered around one or two ideas - Nanotech, time travel - but for an average contemporary SF novel that deals with a wide range of science, explaining everything at an entry-level would put off the average SF reader. People who read more than a dozen SF books a year don't want to keep reading a two-page description of how nano works. One solution is to offer an appendix, which a number of SF books have done; But this returns us to the problem: An average non-SF reader is more likely to be put off by a book that comes with a scientific appendix - That REALLY "feels like math."