Sunday, April 06, 2008

Post # 3

My last two posts were probably a bit involuted and thus hard to comment on. I would like to have a discussion, if possible, on why science fiction is less popular than fantasy. Is it really too hard, too hard and too realistic?

I am starting to read The Name of the Wind, because it has blurbs from LeGuin and Jo Walton; and I am finding it a bit too generic. Maybe it gets better; LeGuin and Walton a heavy duty writers, and I respect their opinions; but I really prefer science fiction.


lydamorehouse said...

I prefer SF, too, Eleanor.

I think some of it has to do with the perceived readership of the genres. It's generally believed that women read fantasy more than science fiction, and women supposedly read more than men. Thus, fantasy sells better.

Douglas Hulick said...

My mind is wired more towards the past than the future (hence my history degrees). For me, the settings of fantasy are often more engaging that those of SF. Don't know why, but again, it may be my wiring that fills in the details better for fantasy than for SF. SF often feels too sketched in for me, while fantasy has depth of place. I am sure it is just the opposite for other people.

I am more character driven, and I tend to find more of that in fantasy. Now, that isn't to say that fantasy does character more/better than SF; just that in most of my interaction with the two (and that is a very biased base), fantasy has hit the character nail more than a lot of the SF I've read. There are a bunch of exceptions, of course, but that's the general gut feeling I've come away with.

Likewise, stories of idea don't grab me as much. That alone is likely a big strike against SF for me.

But is Fantasy easier than SF? Is it lazy because it "falls back" on magic instead of using science? Is SF being defensive because it was the initial power behind the pulps, and now is watching Fantasy fill the shelves & theaters? Are people so inundated with technology that they want to read about non-technology in their free time? Is it all just cyclical?

I have thoughts on all that, but I want to let them simmer a bit more. I'll get back to you. In the mean time, feel free to jump on any of the above questions -- it may save me some work. :)

CV Rick said...

I have to disagree with Doug on this one. Fantasy to me is lazier in general because it uses this idyllic setting we've all been brought up to believe in since the Grimm Brothers fairy tales. Dangerous woods, magnificent castles, towering snow-capped mountains. It's unimaginative to rely on this same setting for every story, yet comfortable for writers and readers who want their stories wrapped up in the trappings from those stories they loved as children.

That's one thing, of course . . . but character? Character-based stories happen across genres and some of the most amazing character stories I've ever read were Sci-Fi . . .

Frankenstein for one.
Maybe something a bit more modern?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
Rant by Chuck Palahniuk

All character stories, all science fiction . . . the rub is - they aren't being sold as science fiction, because the best and greatest of our science fiction has been coopted by Mainstream and is being sold outside the genre. Where is that happening with Fantasy? That's what gives me the idea that Sci-Fi is actually more well-recieved than fantasy, because the best of it has moved out of the genre and is on the best-seller lists.

Character stories are brilliant in sci-fi. Some of the most poignant tales in literature were science fiction - Fahrenheit 451, A Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale. Which books using that ubiquitous fantasy setting approach such power?

I'll take the best of Science Fiction over the best of Fantasy any day, every day.

I've taken up enough space.

deCadmus said...

Firstly, The Name of The Wind does find its stride. I enjoyed it.

Secondly, I tend to vacuum up both SciFi and Fantasy in equal amounts, though the pendulum swings more heavily in one direction than the other at any given time.

Both species of genre fiction have authors trotting out the same tired, old tropes; altruistic folk rocketing about the galaxy saving planets imperiled by nasty aliens, or boy-man with muscles and hard-won enchanted sword seeking his destiny, or... well, you know 'em, too.

I'd argue with CV Rick's comments, however; just as SciFi has enjoyed some crossover into mainstream fiction cleverly disguised as something other than its rooted genre, so too has fantasy, cleverly disguised as *horror*. Me, I'm diggin' the whole crossover/mainstreaming of traditional genre fiction, 'cause it's made possible by one thing: compelling stories with rich characters. Rah.

Douglas Hulick said...

To be fair, Rick, I could easily point to simplistic SF and talk generic settings and rocket ship pilots to paint the genre as lazy by that light, too. And you'd be right point out that the good examples don't fall into that bin, just as I will point out that the best fantasy doesn't rely on fairy-story backdrops and worn our framing. There are plenty of hard-working, weight bearing works out there in fantasy, too.

Speaking to the general question, I think it is a bit elitist for one genre to think it is more serious or "harder" or smarter or popular than another (and you can point your finger at SF and F -- and beyond-- for examples of this). At the end of the day, neither camp can really win this argument because the field and pickings are so huge. For every paragon of your team you can find a corresponding punter on the other side, and vice versa. It's a fun game, but it doesn't really resolve anything.

The difficult part of F&SF (or SF&F, if you prefer :) is the writing. After that, I realy don't care which is more popular or who sees one as more or less work than the other. If it's a good story well told, odds are I will be happy. For me, I find them more under the fantasy label, but that's because that is the label I peruse most often. It will be just the opposite for people who live more under the SF label. But neither is better or smarter or harder -- not when you are looking at the top of heap in each field, which is what I think best defines both genres.

Douglas Hulick said...

Point of clarification: I was not calling CV Rick eltist in the second paragraph of the above post. Re-reading it, it may have come across that way. I was speaking to both genres as a whole and using "you" in the general sense.

Sorry for the lack of clarity.

Kelly McCullough said...

I suspect some of the issue is that modern science fiction tends to be quite a bit darker than modern fantasy. I don't find it any more difficult I just find it much more depressing and I don't read to be depressed about the future. I get quite enough of that by reading the several science magazines that I subscribe. I enjoy studying and reading in science, but I find much of modern science fiction to be both tedious and depressing.

tate hallaway said...

Darker? I don't get that. Sure, some cyberpunk in the 80s had a gritty, perhaps even depressing background, but the stories themselves were often as uplifting as any I've ever read.

What's more inspiring than a digital cowboy kicking an evil corporation's a$$?

CV Rick said...


That sounds like a over-used cliche rather than a valid insight into the genre. Science Fiction is no more dark than any other genre. Courtroom and Crime books are mostly dark and depressing and they dominate the bestseller lists, more than tripling the entries from Sci-Fi and Fantasy combined over the last five years (that's the NYT's list, research I did myself for a blog post a while back).

If you're going to be liberal enough with genre definitions to include horror in with fantasy (a notion I flatly refute, as horror has it's own category in most bookstores and notable horror authors like Dean Koontz and Stephen King root their stories in as much science as they do fantasy), then that colors the whole genre dark and depressing.

If it's dystopia you're annoyed with, then say so. But the success of many dystopic movies belies your argument that the general public is turned off by such fare. Science fiction has been speculating about the darker side of technology and it's societal repercussions and destruction since Frankenstein itself, the genesis of the genre.

I suspect that the real issue is that the bigger publishing houses gut the genre of it's best and brightest stars, porting them over to the mainstream sections of bookstores - online and off - while starving the rest of the emaciated house lines dedicated to the genre, leaving nothing for publicity and little to encourage anyone to take notice of the books.

Not because the genre's dark, but because they don't like pushing what they consider to be the geekier side of literature. I speculate that it's also fair to say that those who are truly attracted to science fiction aren't readers in general - they're television and movie watchers.

Kelly McCullough said...

I personally find much of modern science fiction darker and significantly more depressing than fantasy. I used to read a great deal of it. Now, not so much. That's my experience. Others will have different experiences, but as someone who used to read on the order of 60-80 SF titles a year and who now rarely reads more than 10, I have to say that that's a big chunk of why I'm personally reading less of it.

Kelly McCullough said...

Oh, a further note, there are certainly science fiction titles that I enjoy and don't find depressing--Eleanor's stuff is a prominent example (and no that doesn't mean that I find any of the other Wyrdsmith's SF stuff depressing). It's just that at a steadily increasing rate over the last 10-15 years the genre books that I put down because they depressed me have been disproportionately SF.

CV Rick said...

I haven't had a lot of time because I'm working a lot. But today we had a snowstorm and I decided to do a little survey of my own reading habits over the past year.

I read 146 books. Of those: 9 were fantasy, 35 were sci-fi, and 5 were cross-over or a mixture.

Of the fantasies, 56% were dark/depressing.
Of the sci-fi's, 20% were dark/depressing.
The cross-overs were not dark and/or depressing.

I put the specifics on my blog today.

Based on that, I see no evidence that science fiction books are any more dark and/or depressing than any other genre. Barring a formal objective study of this meme to prove my anecdotal reading habits wrong, I'm just not buying that excuse.

I still maintain that the real problem is that the sci-fi genre is being gutted and the best-selling books which ought to be credited to the sci-fi category are instead being published outside the imprints and being categorized as mainstream literature. Therefore the problem is more about columns on a spreadsheet than the reality of various novel's contents.

Kelly McCullough said...

For me it's not a meme, it's an observational phenomena. I used to read a lot of SF, I don't so much anymore because I keep putting the books down because I find them depressing. Though dark might not be the right word. After talking with Eleanor last night I decided that bleak was closer to the feeling I get from much of the SF I've tried to read in the last decade or so, or possibly humorless.

Kelly McCullough said...

Oh and on the sales, it's my understanding from discussions with editors that it's not just a total sales thing or a best-sellers phenomena but that it's at all levels, so that on average a midlist fantasy novel sells better than a midlist SF novel. The OK-sellers in fantasy outsell the OK-sellers in sf, and likewise the flops are less floppy. This is anecdotal and subject to being disproved by a large scale study with hard numbers but that's certainly what I hear.

Anyone out there with hard numbers care to dispute that statement? I'd be perfectly happy to be wrong.

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