My Dragon Takes Your Starship!

At a recent science fiction convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul over the Easter weekend, there was a panel on why fantasy sells better than science fiction.   As someone who used to write science fiction, but switched to urban fantasy because, uh, well, because my “numbers sucked” I’m fairly invested in the answer to this question. 

I’ll admit, though I was at the con, I wasn’t able to attend the panel.  I’ve only joined the conversation via these posts by Eleanor Arnason over at the Wyrdsmith’s blog.   It is interesting to note that the usumption might be wrong.  As one of the commentators, Rick Wren, points out, some of the best science fiction is being marketed as mainstream and thus doesn’t “count” when you start laying out SF vs. Fantasy numbers.  (His examples include The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Time Traveler’s Wife).  Similarly, while Lord of the Rings finally proved that fantasy could make a blockbuster movie, previously that honor went mostly to science fiction. 

But, even if you go with the popular assumption that fantasy out-strips science fiction in readership, I find it hard to believe that science fiction is inaccessable to a large majority of people, as was apparently postulated on the panel.  If that were true, Will Smith wouldn’t have much of an acting career and Michael Crichton wouldn’t have anything to write about.

However, I do know that when I did signings for my books in the large box stores, I often heard from non-genre readers that science fiction scared them.  “Barbie” had convinced them that math was hard, and so they were nervous that they might need to have an advanced physics degree in order to enjoy the latest installment in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, I guess.  I told them that my stories (like Scalzi’s and every other SF author I knew) was really about people, and I also promised very, very few confusing acronyms (which I will admit does seem to populate our genre on occassion.)

Somehow people got the impression our genre is too difficult for them to grasp (despite the fact that that they read and watch a lot of it).  Where does that come from?  Any ideas? 

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  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    Could it be gender, not genre? (Now there’s a panel title.) Once upon a time popular SF mostly meant boys’ adventure stories. But boys seem to read much less than girls these days, and a lot of girls don’t seem interested in SF at all (except for the cool girls, of course), but girls love fantasy, so maybe that has something to do with it.

    I’m no sociologist, so this is just a total guess.

  2. 2. Jean Marie Ward

    I think outdated perceptions may play a large role. When I was a wee tyke, I loved it when the PX got SF paperbacks. They had the best covers and featured wonderful adventures–like fairy tales with rocket ships.
    But as I grew older (late ’70s, ’80s) the focus changed from people and adventure to technology and *THEMES*. Ugh. That’s when I got into fantasy.
    I know from my own reading experience there has been a resurgence of people-focused adventure. I discovered Lois McMasters Bujold only a couple years after I gave up on SF and promptly read everything she published as fast as I could get my hands on it. Space Marines, on the other hand? Not a chance. Larry Niven? Philip Jose Farmer? Sorry, see my comments on the ’70s and ’80s. Rinse. Repeat.
    The thing is, even though I know better, I was burned so many times in my formative years, it takes a lot for me to even look at an SF novel. A telling cover, reviews, friends’ recommendations, sometimes good blurbs–an SF novel needs at least three out of four before I’ll pick the book off the shelf and dive inside. Unless I know in advance the writer is fabulous–really fabulous, not critical darling fabulous–I won’t seek out their latest book, because I expect disappointment or mean-spiritedness, not the wonder-fix I got when I was a kid. When I know the wonder and the fun is there, I’ll seek it out–even if I discover the writer in a different guise.
    The reason is simple. Who’s going to give me a better time–Neal Stephenson or Tate Hallaway? ;-)
    Jean Marie

  3. 3. Skip

    I think that it actually may have more to do with comfort zone. If I go to the bookstore and I pick up a fantasy novel, it’s a fair bet that I can predict by the cover art whether or not it’s going to be a fantasy novel I’m going to enjoy.

    With Sci-Fi, for quite a few years, I couldn’t do that, and even today, your typical SF book is much more likely to be “artistic” (in other words, not easily read) than the typical fantasy one.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    I find it hard to believe that science fiction is inaccessable to a large majority of people, as was apparently postulated on the panel. If that were true, Will Smith wouldn’t have much of an acting career and Michael Crichton wouldn’t have anything to write about.

    But what you’re referring to is, of course, the accessible end. Hard SF lost in its own equations, navel-gazing libertarian Singularity dreams, books responding to other books in the genre that the newbie reader has not read — this is what people mean when they refer to inaccessibility. It’s a product of success, in a way: having done all the heavy lifting building a bunch of science-fictional concepts, we now feel free to toss them around as needed, comfortable in the knowledge that SF readers know what we mean by them. But a reader who doesn’t already know what the Singularity is may very well lack interest in a novel about it.

    Media SF can dodge this more easily because it can just show you the neat widget and what it does, and your brain will process the image and action and move on. It doesn’t run as large a risk of getting hung up on questions of terminology. SF that glories in the invention and deployment of terminology is going to be less accessible.

  5. 5. Karen Wester Newton

    I would just like to say that Marie Brennan stole my comment! I was going to say that!

  6. 6. Rhett

    I think it may be the word “science” in the name of the genre that causes people to feel it is inaccessible. We live in an age where the general populace is skewing away from science ( and toward the mystical. In such an age, would we not expect fantasy to out sell science fiction?

  7. 7. Paul

    I do think that its a matter of perceived accessibility to the genre for new readers and for readers whose reading diet is not primarily composed of F/SF.

    Such a reader walks into the bookstore.

    They can choose:

    Alastair Reynolds’ latest novel about the Inhibitors, with lots of jargon, near light speed ships, complex aliens and concepts and dense technological speculation that expects a reader to be immersed in SF.

    Fiona Mcintosh’s new novel set in a fantasy world, with sword wielding characters and some magic (“just like in Lord of the Rings”).

    It’s a much lower bar for the casual reader to pick up fantasy. I suspect that Urban Fantasy is doing especially well because the reader doesn’t even need to be immersed in another world–the world is, or is close to, our own.

  8. 8. Jonathan

    The real difference in my mind is that Fanatsy, like Space Opera, is Pure Escapist lit. – SF, otoh, Done right, Helps me to think about the future, to understand more of modern science.

    OK, so most of the Saga of the Seven Suns, is Space Opera.. Fantasy in a “future” tech enabled sense.. but Alistair, and Charlie (Halting State) Stross, Definitely extrapolate, extend something going on today and consider the impacts.

    do you need to understand Quantum Mechanics / cosmology / EE / Open Source/ Brain Science to understand the stories..?
    It might help in a few cases, but not at the “I can do the math” level, more just at the conceptual level.

    but then, I guess if you don’t have any of THAT framework, grounded in reality, it would seem any different than Fantasy/space Opera.. would it? And if the result is Weirder than the fantasy/space opera stuff, it may get fewer readers, fewer kids…

    But for me, Its the combination of the New Ideas in Sci Fi, that helps me understand the new developments in Science and technology, that helps keep my mind fresh.

    but I think a big part of the deal is that most Lit teachers think that all the GREAT Sci Fi authors are now dead, so the HS kids get Harry Potter, instead of Pushing Ice or Kiln People…

    Now of course some, (Stross again!) can write a Sci fi Story that includes Magic,(even shapechanging) and Sword fighting (GlassHouse) :)

    Bottom line, I want to be entertained while I learn,
    not just entertained!

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    The real difference in my mind is that Fanatsy, like Space Opera, is Pure Escapist lit. – SF, otoh, Done right, Helps me to think about the future, to understand more of modern science.

    Er, that’s the sort of statement inclined to make me (and probably other fantasy writers) flip out a bit. “Pure Escapist” seems to imply cotton candy — a lack of relevance to the real world — and I would dispute that strongly. Fantasy may not tell you anything about modern science, but it’s just as capable of tackling questions of character or morality as any other genre. And frankly, that helps me think about the future, too, since it deepens my understanding of people and society both. For me, that’s more important than technological developments.

  10. 10. Sam

    It’s a terrible generalization, and there’s hundreds of counter-examples, but generally fantasy is the art of stories about people and their Deeds and Quests, and sci-fi is the art of stories about ideas.

    It’s a badly fitting description, but think about it for a moment, you’re far more likely to find that the fantasy novel you’ve just picked up at random in the shop is about people you’ve never met before, in a fairly familiar setting with fairly familiar things happening and maybe reacting to them in a way you’ve not seen before.

    Whereas the random sci-fi book is far more likely to feature people you’ve met before (underdeveloped archetypes) or don’t care to know, in an unfamiliar setting with things you’ve not read about before happening.

    I personally don’t really count space-opera as sci-fi, it’s fantasy-the-genre set in sci-fi-the-setting (“the future”). It’s like many of those pulp magazine short stories that were basically westerns-in-space.

    Anyway, lots of people are uncomfortable with leaving their “comfort-zone” (I guess it’s called that for a reason…) to explore the new ideas that they’re more likely to encounter in sci-fi – the “too weird” factor.

    Fantasy (mostly) offers familiar concepts with the differences being in the detail. You’ll still get “weird stuff” there, and some people will ditch the books because of it, but they’ll think of it as the exception rather than the rule and just avoid that author rather than the genre as a whole.

    I personally love both genres (and space opera too if it’s not shoddy churned-out pulp), what sort of story I want to read next depends on me mood, but fantasy is definitely predictably more “untaxing” to read, whereas sci-fi is more likely to get me thinking.

  11. 11. Skip

    Different types of books have different purposes. I have a friend of mine who goes to the movies with his wife a couple of times a month, as he puts it, “because his wife wants to eat movie theatre popcorn”. For that couple, the movies basically need to be light and entertaining. They’re simply not going to go see anything particularly challinging, because those movies would be totally inappropriate. As long as the film is entertaining and meets minimum production standards, it qualifies.

    I think that the vast majority of the book-buying public wants something similar, most of the time, and on average, fantasy novels are far more likely to provide that than SF. Not 100% of the time, or things like GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series wouldn’t sell. I buy probably a dozen books a month, and I’d say probably a third of them are what I call “airport fiction”. IE, they’re the kind of things that I want to read when I have 3 hours to kill.

    As a secondary item, there is the issue of the knowledge that the writer assumes that the reader has. I’m not talking about hard science, but more to the fact that virtually every SF author today implicitly assumes that his reader probably grew up reading Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Niven, etc. He doesn’t need to flesh out ideas that are similar to things found in the classics.

    All writing does this to a certain extent. But your typical non-genre reader probably “knows” the general characteristics of elves, dwarves and halflings, or in your urban fantasy, that of vampires and werewolves a lot more than they know what the characteristics of a bussard ramjet, or a dyson sphere, or a wormhole are.

  12. 12. Daemon

    I almost exclusively buy fantasy novels myself. Not because I’m scared of science (quite the opposite, I find theoretical physics and the like rather interesting). I don’t find SF any more challenging/difficult/whatever. It’s just that SF tends to not have enough magic for me. Fantasy settings are far, far more interesting to me than sf ones. (Though I’d kill for more Vorkosigan books)

    But if you’re talking about accessability. I know a lot of fantasy authors don’t necessarily want to think of their work that way, but… Hero. Magic sword. Princess. Dragon. The generic fantasy novel can be thought of as a fairytale, or myth if you prefer, with decent plotting and characters. What could be more accessable than a more adult oriented form of fairytales?

    Most of us grow up on fairytales. You can’t get much more accessable than that.

  13. 13. Randy Johnson

    I wonder if that idea that women like fantasy better than SF might have a grain of truth. Though I’ve found that some of the best SF writers are women, I know to many that won’t read them. One woman friend reads women writers exclusively, the Pern novels being the only SF/fantasy she indulges. I know years ago, while taking a writing course, I wrote what I considered a very simple time travel story. The instructor who edited it(she wrote romance novels for a living) said it was too complex for the average reader. Her advice about the mechanics of writing and editing were helpful, but other than that…

  14. 14. Steve Buchheit

    It’s just that fantasy is dealing with the issues that people today want to explore (or are interested). As someone who writes and reads both I was interested in watching some historical trends. It was a revelation for me when I finally saw the link between social and technological advances to when and how fairies appeared in stories and the general culture. they showed up in regular order every time society changed its relationship to technology (which we are now, and surprise, they’re everywhere again). The books we read, the cultural myths we explore, all are cued into the larger world. Classic Golden Age SF rose with the need to counter the Soviet technological threat (hey look, we got better ideas!). Tolkein was published at a time when people felt disconnected by that advancement and that technology was advancing in the wrong directions (the bomb, war technology, advent of “better living through chemistry”). SF then resurged with the computer age. Now with bioengineering, the strange vulnerability of being interconnected through those computers, and general technology advancing faster than we can process and in ways society isn’t all too comfortable with, fantasy once again is taking the fore. There’s good fiction being sold in each genre. And just because fantasy may be “hotter” at the moment, doesn’t mean SF is dead. It’s just where the rest of the reading humanity’s head space is at the current moment.

  15. 15. melospiza

    As a reader of both SF and Fantasy, I find SF less predictable, which has advantages and disadvantages. It might be a dark, incomprehensible, post-singularity tale, or a near-future cyberpunk thriller, or an old-fashioned shoot-em-up-with-plasma-guns space opera, or it might be weird and depressing with no real ending.

    With a fantasy, I can be pretty sure there’s going to be magic and adventure, the hero will (mostly) win, and the biggest variable will be writing quality.

    So digging into a new SF author or title is an endeavor that can take a lot of mental shifting and adjusting, just like a lot of literary fiction. When I’m willing to do that, the rewards can be commensurate, but not always. If I just want entertainment, I stick to SF authors or series I know, fantasies, or mysteries, which also have essential predictability.

    Hasn’t the predictable and formulaic always outsold the unpredictable and effortful, no matter what the genre, or even the art form?

  16. 16. Radish

    I dig SF — but I have a voracious sensawunda that has to be fed, and well-written fantasy/fantastical fiction is its favourite chow.

  17. 17. CV Rick

    I don’t really know, Lyda. I think the question is all wrong. I looked at this question a bit after the panel (which I attended) by examining the New York Times bestseller lists for a 15 month period. What I found was that if you combine Fantasy and Science Fiction together, there are still three times as many Crime novels on the list.

    Most fantasy (especially the heroes trek through dangerous terrain to quest toward an altruistic goal variety) bores me, but then I’m an atypical reader because most space opera bores me also. I want a great story told well. You know what the best book I read last year was? Truman by David McCullough – a biography.

    I’m concerned about the genre – I really am, but I think its demise is premature. I think it’s moving, not disappearing. The most successful sci-fi writers are selling in mainstream (look at where Gibson’s books are displayed). The majority of the sci-fi output is in video games, television series and movies. I’d be surprised if you find fantasy outselling sci-fi in any of those three categories. If you throw in comics and Japanese Manga and Anime, Sci-Fi looks much healthier.

    I think I agree with Steve that Sci-Fi comes in cycles and while it’s not particular prominent in publishing right now, it certainly hasn’t disappeared from our culture.

    Anyway, I continued the discussion on my own blog with an analysis of my own reading habits from the past year.

  18. 18. Liz

    I agree about the popularity of sci-fi being cyclical– I can remember devouring books as a teen and young adult, then completely dropping the genre all together (went for Gothic romances, romances, historical fiction, mysteries, just about anything, really). My oldest daughter is 20 and has had quite a love affair with fantasy novels — and I know she draws quite a distinction between those and sci-fi.

    I’ve also enjoyed thrillers in all their subcategories, including tech thrillers, which have a place in the sci-fi world as well. I recently finished Unholy Domain by Dan Ronco, a futuristic thriller in the tradition of Michael Crichton. There’s lots to like here, including warring factions (secret society of technologists — the Unholy Domain of the title — vs. those who want to return life to the pre-computer era); delayed e-mail from a long-dead father, horrific computer viruses and a mission to find murderers. It’s the best futuristic thriller since “Blade Runner.”


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Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.



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