[Christopher Nuttall sent me this, and I thought it it might spawn an interesting discussion. Yes, I do promise an original — and my — post tomorrow. Sorry. I’m trying to at least catch up on SOME of the things that slid while I was sick. At any rate Chris reminded me of my unhappy attempts to introduce friends to science fiction. While I think what he says is true to some extent, it’s also exacerbated, in the present era, by the tendency to series. While series seem to be a decent deal for writers/publishers, I wonder if they’re not, in some small measure responsible for the diminished printruns of our day. I know I’ve found myself frustrated trying to enter a series in book 10 (this was much worse when the other nine were likely to be out of print by the time I found ten. This is now, fortunately, a thing of the past.)]
Entry-Level Fiction — A Guest Post By Christopher Nuttal
The recent kerfuffle over the direction of SF fandom started me thinking about how I got into the scene myself.
I have a terrible confession to make.
When I first looked at Starship Troopers, I didn’t like it.
In my defense (before I get booted out of the Heinlein Fan Club), when I first looked at it I was somewhere around eight or nine and already reading well outside my age group. Science-fiction had captured my interest from a very young age; I started with basic children’s books, then just kept working my way upwards through the library’s vast selection. But some books were just too complex for me at the time, including both Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. It wasn’t until much later that I actually got into the former. The latter, while very clever in places, never struck me as a readable book.
A few years later, I was asked to recommend a book for a friend who was trying to get into space opera. And I, vast devourer of science-fiction books, recommended Excession, by Iain M. Banks. But my friend didn’t like it! He read through the first few chapters, pointed out that he didn’t have the slightest idea of what was actually going on and then gave up.
My first reaction was shock. Blasphemy! How could someone not like Iain M. Banks?
And then it dawned on me that I’d tossed my friend into the metaphorical deep end.
Excession is a genuinely clever book that rewards its readers, but it really needs some prior knowledge of the Culture Universe before it becomes accessible. This is actually true of most of the later Culture books, even though they’re not sequels in the normal sense; they reward the long-term readers more than they reward newcomers. These days, I would advise readers to start with The Player of Games and then work their way through the universe from there.
This is true of many other terrifyingly-thick books. The Mars books, by Kim Stanley Robinson, are definite doorstoppers. Unlike the Culture novels, there isn’t a single small novel to help someone into the universe from the shallow end. When I first read Red Mars, I enjoyed parts of it, but other parts just bored me. KSR put a lot of work into the series and I won’t deny that it is an impressive achievement, yet it isn’t particularly accessible to the new fan.
Science-fiction is a genre that rewards long-term interest and investment, but it rarely rewards people who try to start out with an inaccessible book.
Consider, for example, David Weber’s On Basilisk Station and Mission of Honor. The former is very accessible (indeed, it was my first Weber book) while anyone who picks up the latter without any knowledge of the previous eleven mainstream books is going to be very confused. Who is [insert name here]? What are they doing with [insert planet name here]?
If one looks at Heinlein in general, it is easy to see that some of his books are more accessible than others, particularly for the young or new SF fan. Indeed, to some extent, the earliest books he wrote are often more accessible to the young. Most of Heinlein’s detractors, I suspect, actually tried to start with his older works. Job; A Comedy of Justice is often funny and quite clever, but it doesn’t pass the accessibility test. Heinlein wrote to reward his fans, rather than invite newcomers into his works.
JK Rowling is another author who passes the accessibility test, at least with her first three Harry Potter books. Compare Harry Potter to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The latter is an immensely clever piece of work, but it isn’t anything like as accessible to a new fan; indeed, I came alarmingly close to discarding the book before deciding to press on and discovering that I rather liked it. Susanna Clarke, too, wrote to reward fans of the thoughtful fantasy novel, rather than lure new readers into the fandom.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because there isn’t. Authors who write in the same universe should allow it to become more and more complex as time goes on. But their readers, particularly their dedicated fans, should be aware that newcomers are simply unaware of the universe’s prior history or of the writer’s reputation. There are quite a few books I number among my favourites that I wouldn’t recommend to any newcomers, simply because they would be inaccessible. The prospective fan would need to build up a familiarity with the genre before cracking open a long, immensely complicated book.
If you’re selecting books for children, there are quite a few decent pieces of SF work out there that kids could read without uncomfortable adult situations. Heinlein and Asimov both wrote stories for children. Selecting books for adults is a little harder; it’s probably better to focus on a given writer’s early works, the simpler the better. Maybe something more in line with the other books they read. (Do they like military stories? Introduce them to Weber or Ringo.) And then move on to the ultra-complex books.