Man, does my heart beat for sci-fi. It’s a pity the genre rarely gets its deserved due in the mainstream. I can cite a dozen SF novels released this year that beat the pants off The Lost Symbol and other New York Times bestsellers in both content and craft…and yet, so many sci-fi and fantasy writers, myself included, scrap like pit bulls for coverage beyond the loyal—if comparatively much smaller—SFF-friendly blogosphere.
We’re a different breed. Our stories sport big ideas, social commentary and brains. We’re ferociously loyal to our favorite SFF novelists (here’s my holla to Sawyer, Scalzi and Vinge—represent!), and we’re often very loyal to the SFF genres, and their subgenres. In fact, most of my sci-fi and fantasy lovin’ friends read nothing but SFF.
I treasure that passion and loyalty, and you should too: ours is an awesome community. Yet I wonder if we—as readers and writers—can learn something from these bestsellers and the genres in which they roll. And I think the best way to learn something is to experience it.
Read beyond the SFF genres? Insanity, I know. But play with me for a bit. I think our community can greatly benefit from exposure to these foreign elements.
I read a lot of non-SFF fiction—thrillers, mostly. Political thrillers, cop procedural thrillers, action thrillers, high-tech, supernatural, it goes on. In fact, I read more mainstream genre fiction than SFF. I do this mostly for three reasons:
I don’t want to get burned out on SFF
I want to be entertained in an easily-accessible fictional world
I want to study how bestselling storytellers spin their tales, so I can emulate them
Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? Of course there is. I’ve gone on SFF binges before and things eventually sour. I tear through great books I have on-hand, and then am left with adequate books, and then all that’s left are stinkers. Along the way, I encounter repeated exposure to what often frustrates me about the SFF space: far too many characters with too many apostrophes in their names, too many stories that are rip-offs of better stories, way too much information about how the engines work…it goes on.
Further, due to my binging, it all becomes a trope-filled blur, like watching a monitor in The Matrix: there’s a blonde, a redhead, another droning palace intrigue scene, another poorly-realized female protagonist, another hive-minded villainous alien race, etc. I extract myself from the genre, lest I become cynical about its conventions.
Reading mainstream thrillers or other genres—and for super-simplicity’s sake, I’m using “mainstream” to mean “stories that take place in/near present day”—certainly clears my literary palate. But it also reminds me that, as a reader, slipping into a fictional world should be a nigh-effortless experience. Since most mainstream thrillers aren’t required to explain the world in which their stories takes place, they’re more likely to focus on crafting (for instance) resonant characters and conflicts, and not deep-geeking about how rabbits in this world are called “narf’tk’glah’ks.”
My intent isn’t to be cruel. I’m suggesting that the best SFF should not present high barriers of entry for its readers. Its stories should absolutely take place in amazing times and places, but that amazement should never come at the expense of grounding the narrative in believable, sympathetic characters and settings. We’ve all read SFF that puts form (world-building, for instance) before function (well-realized characters). Those tales can ultimately alienate readers, particularly genre newcomers.
I'm a novelist—my new human cloning thriller, 7th Son: Descent, was released late last month from St. Martin's Griffin—so I’m always on the lookout for winning narrative techniques…TO STEAL. SHAMELESSLY.
Well, not outright thieving, of course. But if I spot a spiffy subplot execution or plot twist in a Stephen King, Jeffrey Deaver or Brad Meltzer book, I’ll study it, see what makes it tick, and file it away. Can I find a clever way to leverage the conventions of a traditional Joseph Finder thriller into my SF tale, to keep things interesting for myself and my readers? Can I use mainstream-friendly plot beats and character traits in my own fiction to make it as accessible as possible to as many readers as possible?
I believe we should remain ever-curious with our entertainment, and embrace new genres from time to time. Embracing certainly doesn’t mean replacing; it means stories need not go interstellar to be stellar. Writers stand to win, as they can incorporate mainstream elements into their tales (thereby lowering the barrier of entry for newcomers, and creating more SFF fans), and readers benefit from a wider range of narrative experiences (which can transform them into more discriminating SFF readers).
Our SFF stories will become that much better, and this community, that much larger, awesome, and even more enthusiastic. And if it means authors can receive more mainstream recognition for their work? So much the better.
J.C. Hutchins is the author of the sci-fi thriller novel 7th Son: Descent. Originally released as free serialized audiobooks, his 7th Son trilogy is the most popular podcast novel series in history. J.C.’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on NPR’s Weekend Edition.