Observations… theory?

Got the copyedit of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms today! I’ve never done this before, so I kind of boggled when I started flipping pages and saw all these little squiggly things on it. The folks in my writing group helped me decipher the first few pages, and the stylesheet included with it helps too. It looks like it’s going to be fun to work on this — and I needed to re-read it anyway, now that I’m working on Book 3, for congruity’s sake — but there’s definitely going to be a learning curve involved. Wish me luck.

And in cross-promotional news… over at the Magic District, fellow author Greg van Eekhout has some interesting observations about the state of the science fiction field. He’s got me thinking, and though I’m not ready to put forward a full-fledged theory yet, I do have a few hypotheses:

  1. “Science fiction” is increasingly perceived as just fiction, and just one particular subset of fiction — spaceships and rayguns, basically. This is despite the efforts of people within the field to treat it as a wide literary umbrella (e.g., the Science Fiction Writers of America, whose organizational name includes “and fantasy” even though the acronym hasn’t changed to reflect it, and which also incorporates some horror, YA, etc.).
  2. Science fiction (meaning here all the stuff supposed to fall under the wide umbrella) as a genre is failing to draw in constituents beyond its original target audience — the now-aging white males seen in Greg’s Observation 1. This lost audience includes young people, people of color, international readers (e.g., China), women, and fans of related media like games and anime. There are several factors involved with this failure — issues within the genre itself, an overall decline in book sales, other media’s perception of themselves as unrelated (e.g., video games = entertainment industry, even when the content is science fictional), etc.
  3. For 1 and 2, if the terminology is the problem, then SciFi/SyFi’s decision makes sense.

It’s 1 that interests me most right now, because that’s the new idea for me. I use the term “science fiction” to represent lots of things — science fiction, fantasy, sometimes horror; films, video games, books; the hardcore fandom and the casual watchers who’ve only seen the occasional “Star Trek” episode. But I do tend to use the term “sci fi” only among knowledgeable fellow genre fans, mostly because non-fans don’t seem to use it for fantasy, etc.

For example, when non-genre people ask me about 100K, I say, “It’s a fantasy novel,” or “I’m a fantasy writer.” And I usually further clarify: “You know, like Lord of the Rings or Narnia?” But all my life, I’ve thought of myself as a science fiction writer, and with genre fans I say that. There’s no need for clarification. I write anything that falls under SF’s broad umbrella: spaceships and rayguns, magic, monsters, black holes, dragons, things that go bump in the night. “Sci fi” is the easiest way to say that, among people who read and write the same thing.

But how did it happen that people outside the genre don’t think of it that way — if it’s true that they don’t? This is an hypothesis, after all… but I can’t think of a way to test it. Ideas, anyone?

1 Responses »

  1. It’s an interesting thought problem, that’s for sure.

    May I digress for a moment? I promise it’s related. We periodically have this discussion in puppetry where people feel like the name is damaging, particularly when trying to do Serious Works for Adults. And so you’ll hear someone say, “Oh, no, no– I do Figure Theater.” The problem is that then no one knows what that means and the easiest way to define it by saying, “It’s like puppets.”

    Generally though, I think educating people about what good puppetry is, thanks to mainstream shows like Avenue Q and Lion King, has had more of an impact in how it’s perceived than changing the name. (I say all of this, knowing full well that I’m more likely to say “Speculative Fiction” than Science Fiction, because I think it’s a better umbrella term. )

    I strongly suspect that the same would be true of SF & F. Heck. That’s part of why Fantasy is going through such a renaissance of popularity now, because people had a taste of good Fantasy with Harry Potter. I think the key is not to try to bring the mainstream into the SF world, but to invade the mainstream. Exactly who and how that happens is a topic for when it’s not way, way past my bedtime.

    Thanks for bringing this up. It’s a curious issue.