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The Gatekeepers of Genre


My friend Bob approached me the other day. It’s not his name, but I call him that and he doesn’t seem to mind. Bob reads a lot, but he’s not an adventurous reader. In fact, he tends to avoid anything that smacks of genre. His preferred reading material is contemporary fiction. That’s what he likes and that’s what he reads. So, anyway, Bob comes up to me and tells me he’s decided to give thrillers a go.This is something of a shock. Perhaps it was a full moon – I couldn’t tell as it was a bright sunny day. But, whatever wires had crossed in Bob’s brain, the ensuing conversation went something like this:

“You know all about them, so what book do you think I should read?”
“That’s easy. Moonraker by Ian Fleming.”
“Sounds interesting. When was it published?”
“So it’s over fifty years old?”
“Er, yes.”
“Why would I want to read a book over half a century old? See this book?” He brandished a copy of A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks – somewhat threateningly, I thought. “It was published six months ago.”
“But Moonraker is a classic. Everyone’s heard of it. They even made a film of it.”
“Ah, right. I think I remember that. James Bond? Space shuttle in the Amazon jungle? Space station?”
“That’s the one.”
“Actually, that sounds pretty cool.”
“Er, they’re not in the book.”
“The book’s different?”
“Surely Bond is the same?”
“No, not really. He’s, well, he’s pretty sexist in the book. And racist too. And there aren’t any gadgets.”
“But it’s a classic?”
“Oh yes. Everyone’s heard of Moonraker.”
“I’m not sure. What else do you suggest?”
“Um, well, there’s Live and Let Die.”
“When was that published?”
“Who wrote it?”
“Ian Fleming.”
“So it’s another Bond novel?”
“Er, yes.”
“I don’t want to read a book about a racist, sexist spy from the 1950s.”
“But you said you wanted to read a thriller. The Bond books are the quintessential thrillers.”
“Oh well, in that case… Now where did I put my copy of Ian McEwan’s Solar…?”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a conversation that takes place about science fiction on a regular basis. I’ve said before – on many occasions – that sf fans who recommend old (alleged) “classics” to readers new to the genre are doing those readers and science fiction a disservice. Old sf bears little resemblance to media sf, and those wanting to move from film and television sf to book sf are going to be turned off the genre if recommended Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith. No one does the same for fantasy – ask a fantasy reader to recommend a novel, and you’re as likely to hear Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson, as you are Tolkien, Robert Jordan or Stephen Donaldson. Is it any wonder science fiction is suffering from declining sales? We’re our own worst enemy.

16 thoughts on “The Gatekeepers of Genre

  1. Hi Ian—I first read you on this topic several months ago. It must have been a further-back post on your blog. that started me thinking, but in fact I did not know what to think. I came to no decision about what to refer; classics–contemporary.
    This post convinces me that you are right. Not only that, it shows me why you are correct. Like the “fantasy reader” you sketch at the end, I’ve read both the classics and much contemporary SF. Many SF readers I have known (not in these circles) are hardly up-to-date. They recommend the classics of course. The results have, in every case I know of, been disastrous for the popularity of SF. You are right.
    There’s a sort of mirror image problem that I don’t know how to deal with. I know some “literati,” all Americans. They laugh at me condescendingly when I mention SF. One read “Neuromancer,” which I dislike. They think SF is still at a lower intellectual and literary level than that (they know about Asimov and Clarke’s existence but have not read them). They do know all about T.S. Eliot and the Western literary, non-SF classics. So how do I get them to read some good SF, assuming that they’d be willing to have a go at it?

  2. So how do I get them to read some good SF, assuming that they’d be willing to have a go at it?

    First of all, don’t recommend Asimov. His books are exactly the kind of thing this blog post is talking about.

    Second, try to think about what they do like in their fiction, and recommend some SF with similar qualities. You can’t give the same recommendation to every reader.

  3. This is an important point. I know many people who have been put off sci-fi entirely because the first book they picked up was one of the so-called “classics” of the genre.

    I wrote a post about it a little while back, entitled “Five Sci-fi Novels For People Who Don’t Like Sci-fi”.

    Here’s the link:

  4. As Wesley has pointed out, it’s best to tailor recommendations to what you understand of the subject’s tastes. I don’t think there is a universal rule that one can apply here.

    I’ve recommended SF and fantasy books both old and new to a variety of people and I’ve been met with a variety of success. I’ve recommended classic SF to people (including Asimov!) often (but not always) with success. I’ve recommended recent fantasy to someone only to find out that their tastes are much more aligned with classics like Dunsany and Eddison.

    Obviously you have a point with people like Bob whose taste is very much contemporary. Recommending classics to such people is probably not the best idea. It might even be the case that the majority of non-SF readers are like Bob. But that does not mean that it’s always a bad idea to recommend the classics. It only means you should try to get a good idea about the tastes of the person you are recommending to.

  5. Thanks everyone. So far, these are all well-reasoned pieces of advice. There’s one person I’m thinking of right now, and Silverberg’s “Dying Inside” might be to his taste. Last night I finished it, for the third time. I was impressed. Temporally, it is neither classical nor contemporary. Like myself, my friend was a participant in the events described in this book.

    Also, the remarks on relativisation are useful. Space-Based SF would definitely not work with my friend. Other people I know shall be referred to appropriate works, and I’ll hold my breath, hoping for the best.

    • I’m not entirely convinced on the effectiveness of tailoring entry-level recommendations according to a person’s usual reading. People to have create their own relationship with sf, come to their own accommodations with the various aspects of the genre. They should be allowed to do that for themselves – they might find something they hadn’t known they would like or appreciate. Providing the book they are recommended is well-written and relevant, then I don’t think you need to specify further.

      • Why is giving them something modern (however well written and relevent) allowing them to “create their own relationship with sf” any more than giving them something older?

        The key here is giving them something they will enjoy so they will (hopefully) come back for more and then find their own way into the genre.

        And giving them something recent is not necessarilly the best way to do this, although I accept it may well often be the case.

        Be honest Ian, if you were recommending SF to someone who generally reads and enjoys a lot of older fiction/classics, would you still assume that something modern is the best way to go? Certainly their reading tastes should tell you that they should be quite tolerant of old fashioned ideas/social attitudes.

        • Well, you can’t really compare an old classic like Jane Austen and a sf classic like Isaac Asimov. One’s a writer and the other is… Asimov. So yes, even for someone who chiefly reads Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, the Brontës, etc… I’d still recommend something recent. Just because they’ve already accepted the world of those old novels that doesn’t mean they’re going to accept the world of 50 or 60 years ago as found in a Heinlein or Asimov novel.

          By giving them something new, they’ll be reading science fiction written to the sensibilities of the world they know. So then they need only to figure out how they feel about the science fiction in the story – whether they “get” it, whether they want to try more of it, whether they think a historical perspective is necessary…

  6. Well yes Ian, that’s right too. Both paths are possible. Let the person sniff around in a good bookshop, or think of something that might work, recommend it, and hope for the best. The problem I have with the first path is motivating my friend to do just that: brouse. I hope I understand your point. I’m not sure I have.

  7. Well, if we were talking fantasy, I would not hesitate to recommend classics of the fantasy genre that I think can stand up against the general classics. But I do see what you mean about classic SF and generally not being very “literary” (although there are definitely some exceptions). Asimov is certainly not who would first spring to mind to suggest to an Austin reader; perhaps an alternate history type thing would be appropriate there?

    But still, I know from experience that recent recommendations of SF can fail to impress when the classics can succeed (in some cases). You might argue that perhaps I just didn’t know enough about recent SF to make a good recommendation, which I can’t really deny, but I do still feel that I have a point.

  8. I agree with what you’re saying about recommending contemporary authors, and in the kind of situation you describe I’d tend to pick someone like Robert Charles Wilson, particularly Spin. It’s got strong characterisation, there’s a classic sf mystery that’s central to the story, and the dude’s a good writer. I’d personally also point them at: Lucius Shepard’s Jaguar Hunter, PK Dick’s Scanner Darkly and maybe something by…Paul McAuley, say? Stuff that’s not too intensely ‘different’ (ie no difficult learning curve for someone unfamiliar with genre expectations), and the setting is essentially contemporary. Sam Jordison’s reviews of Hugo novels in The Guardian is asking essentially the same question, and although I don’t agree with all his opinions (am I alone in actually quite liking Zelazny’s The Wanderer?), it certainly makes for interesting reading.

  9. Oh! And PB’s ‘The WindUp Girl’ would be a shoe-in, I suspect.

  10. I’d say there are several difficulties in recommending SF to noob readers as opposed to the ease with which you can recommend fantasy. SF, especially modern SF, has its own language, its own literary devices, its own idioms that aren’t readily comprehensible when discovered completely cold by the uninitiated. And literary SF usually focuses on plots and ideas rather than more accessible character-driven storytelling. I think The Windup Girl, while a complete stunner, would be extremely inaccessible to a reader with no SF background at all. The immersion into the world is too dense and too fast. It would be like introducing a new listener to jazz by giving him Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension.

    Fantasy, on the other hand, gets by on readily identifiable tropes, more-or-less stock heroes, and easily grasped good-vs-evil themes. So it’s no wonder people can still devour Tolkien today, but those same people would be hard pressed to get behind, say, a Heinlein from the same period.

    So literary SF’s problem these days is that, if it isn’t a tie-in to some popular media franchise, it is written strictly for The Choir. As fantastic as guys like Iain M. Banks and Greg Egan are, their works might be just plain too foreign for even voracious mainstream readers. So the discussion of what would be a good “onramp” novel for the uninitiated is an ongoing one. It’s possible that the future of SF may well be brighter in the visual media (with films like Moon and District 9 both respected and popular, and shows like BSG drawing acclaim through a focus on character-based drama rather than mind-melting ideas) while fantasy will continue to dominate the literary world.

    • I don’t necessarily agree, because those tropes are there in media sf, so someone who has never read a sf novel before isn’t going to find it that difficult to comprehend. The “language barrier” argument is, to me, just another one of the walls thrown up by the ghetto, and exists only in the minds of those who want sf to stay in a ghetto.

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