Nov 18 2009 5:04pm

Why SF fans (and authors) can benefit from reading other genres

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.

Easy Access
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.

Artistic Emulation
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.

Keith R. Potempa
1. Keith R. Potempa
I agree completely. After too much incest within a genre, it becomes a competition to make the most innovative magic or technological system and not the most innovative story.

Plus stealing from other genres means your readers are less likely to notice!
Keith R. Potempa
2. pmbruce
Awesome post. And reluctant as we may be, a very good point for readers and writers of the speculative genre.
Keith R. Potempa
3. omega_n
Amen to reading and taking from other genres.

But don't stop at popular mainstream lit! Go back to English class and grab the classics. There are some great adventure stories amongst them, beautiful writing, and wonderfully realized characters. Pick up old-school styles and turn them to your advantage. Melville, Haggard, and Doyle do fantastic adventure stories, and you'll pick up period dialect for your steampunk novel along the way.

Read what you don't know. Guys (and some girls), if you want to write realistic female characters, read realistic female characters. That's right--chick lit. Put a manly slipcover on it if you must. But take a look at womens' insecurities, manner of thinking, and process of falling in love. Nothing kills a good SFF faster (for me) than 313-type women. I don't care if the eye candy has ten swords and kills people with her eyelashes--her main function is still eye candy, and her personality is nonexistent.
Christopher Key
4. Artanian
Interesting - I don't really see much of the 'too many apostrophes in the name' issue in the SF I read. But and for SF I'd have said the problem in being accessible to newbie readers to the genre isn't "way too much information about how the engines work". It's exactly the opposite.

I know what you mean about the technical minutia infodumps that some authors tend to give you, but seriously, not giving you info to me is a much greater barrier to accessibility. Consider just the specific item you mentioned, propulsion systems. Sci-fi authors today don't generally spend much time describing the difference between hyperspace (a higher or different parallel dimension where distances are shorter, so movement in that realm lets you go faster than light in the normal world), wormholes (instant transport between two disconnected places), or say slower than light technologies like a Bussard Ramjet, etc. They don't need to, because your typical SF reader has read all of his generation's canon, or enough of it, that he's absorbed these things and doesn't need them explained.

50s and 60s SF started with concepts from the classic pulp space operas, the Doc Smith Lensman novels, etc. The 70s SF all assumes that you're familiar with the Heinlein Juvies of the 50s and 60s. Cyberpunk in the 80s-90s was post-modern, essentially rebelling against many of these things, but still you understood them implicitly from this. Military SF over the last 20 years or so draws heavily from earlier generations.

So if I want to hand a sci-fi novel to someone who's not heavily invested in the genre I have to be very careful in what I hand them. But the problem is that I have trouble distinguishing this, because I _have_ read and absorbed the canon from the 50s onward.

I think this is why Fantasy does not have the issues that SF does in this area. Fantasy has its basic axioms, but in general these are fairly well known in pop culture. We have a mental picture of elves, dwarves, halflings, from classical fantasy, and werewolves and vampires from urban fantasy. There's no need to explain how each propagates, for example, unless the way they do so in your story is different from the pop culture understanding.
David Sandey
5. DavidSandey
Hutch, you always hit the nail on the head.

I love my genre stuff be it movies,TV, books, comic books, art, music, etc. etc.

Movies, TV, art and music seem to take care of themselves but comics and books take a lot of work in making sure that I read a wide enough range to keep me happy and not burned out. With books I had to discipline myself and implement a system that generally takes the form SF, Fantasy, Other, SF, Fantasy, Other. And gets interrupted by the occasional new release that I just can't wait to read, e.g. Anything by Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman or perhaps your good self.

With comics I just read what I like.

As for writing. Can't really comment as I don't even make the ranks of an amateur hack. But I am sure that it follows there too.

Hutch, any non-SF/F recommendations?
Lannis .
6. Lannis
Great post! I had a prof once say the first step to being a good writer is to read, read, READ!
Wesley Osam
7. Wesley
I'm currently going into one of my reading outside of SF phases. The funny thing is that even when I look for something other than SF, sometimes it still turns out to be SF.

The last memorable non-SF, non-mystery novel I read was Sunflower by Gyula Krudy. It's a Hungarian novel set somewhere around 1900 or so... and it turned out to include fleeting moments of fantasy. One of the main characters is a woman fathered by a ghost.
Keith R. Potempa
8. Foxessa
Plus stealing from other genres means your readers are less likely to notice!

Counting on that is likely unwise, as Gregory Benford learned when he 'leveraged' William Faulkner's The Bear (1942) into his Against Infinity, which set off a smallish fireworks within the field back in 1983.
Keith R. Potempa
9. Nick Mamatas
I must be a total Pollyanna, as I'm surprised that writers need to be told to read widely.

Can books by writers that don't read widely be labeled such on the cover somehow, so I won't waste my time in the future?
Keith R. Potempa
10. Gary Townsend
I've thought this for years. But I also started off as a fan of mysteries, not SF. It was when I happened upon Jules Verne in my junior high years (there's a phrase that'll age me) that I was first introduced to SFF.

I try to read as widely as possible anyway (to the extent that I've even read some romance novels). When I read years ago that I should read anything and everything, I took it to heart. Lately, I've developed a renewed interest in the classics, but SFF always remains on my plate.
Keith R. Potempa
11. Tracy Krauss
SF junkies unite! I'm a boomer who grew up with Spock and Captain Kirk on my walls instead of the latest heart throb. My kids played 'Star Trek', Star Wars' etc. instead of cowboys, or princesses or house, or whatever else the rest of the kids were playing. In short, I've always loved Science Fiction and Fantasy. BUT - and I say it tentatively, I think you've hit the nail right on the head when you say we need to expand our horizons, if not only just to enjoy what we like best even more. sometimes we can get saturated by too much of a good thing.
Interestingly enough, even though I LOVE the SF genre for my own entertainment pleasure, I haven't quite mastered the art of writing it. I am also an author - my first book was recently released - but although it has elements of the supernatural and fantasy, I would say it is not true Science Fiction. My family and friends are surprised. It has more to do with delving into an imaginary race from the past - giants called Nephilim, who have an impact on the present. if you want to check it out.
Erika A.
12. brownjawa
I love this article--thank you for writing it. You hit a lot of points I think some SFF readers ignore at their own expense! Plus, it's always great to alleviate any anxiety readers might have trying other genres. It can be scary and inspire traitorous feelings, but reading outside the two genres isn't so bad really. Although I have to admit: I read fiction first, Star Wars second, and used that beloved tie-in franchise to open my eyes to the greater SFF world.

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