My friend Tim Hall (a/k/a "Kalyr") has a good piece over at his blog: "Science fiction for people who don’t read SF". I chimed in with a few suggestions of my own, but a bunch of my previous ruminations on this subject came back to mind.
The first and biggest reason why many people don't read SF is because of all that's associated with the things that explicitly assume the label. To most people, SF equals nerdery, and so the only way to get people to read "SF" is to get them to read something that is in a genre that is entirely safe -- a thriller, a romance, whatever -- and drizzle some melted SF over the top of it.
This is why Michael Crichton (sigh) and now Dan Brown (gyecch) are what pass for "SF" for most people, and why George R. R. Martin (oh dear) is the same for "fantasy". They're things most people can read without fear of looking weird, because, well, most other people are also reading them. And the reason most other people are reading them is because the fact that they have SF or fantasy trappings takes a distant backseat to them being other, far more quotidian things: thrillers, historical adventure, romance, what have you.
The other problem with the question "how do we get more people to read SF?" is that to answer it "by giving people these specific books" seems to predicate the whole discussion on a false premise: the idea that there are gateway drugs that can convert the masses. People didn't rush out and buy Batman anthologies when the Dark Knight trilogy entered theaters, because they weren't seeing a "comic book movie". They were seeing a summer action blockbuster which happened to use a comic book as its source material. The only people who care about "where something comes from" are diehard fans or scholars of the material.
It's naïve, bordering on dangerous, to think that if you just give the masses the right gateway drug, they will start looking for the real stuff in short order. This doesn't happen, because those people read for entirely different reasons, and to entirely different ends, than fans do. And every time we expect them to act like fans in the long run, we only frustrate ourselves by taking them to task for being something they never were and never were meant to be. Fans come of their own accord, and the last thing we should be trying to do is convert anyone.
And under all this, there's an even bigger problem. It isn't getting people who don't read SF to read SF. It's getting people who write SF to read something that's not SF, or take their cues from something that's not SF. That, to me, is what does real damage to SF -- far more damage than any amount of non-acceptance from a mainstream that can't remember what trashy franchise it watched five years ago in the first place.
[As an aside, if you're wondering why I've wrinkled my nose every time I mention George R. R. Martin, I have a longish post in the works about that, but I can never get it to come out sounding like anything but a giant whine about his success.]
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