Science for the General Reader

When I started writing science fiction, I had a few “general” first readers who would read what I wrote, and very few, if any “in-community” readers steeped in the language and tropes of science fiction.  I was very glad that “regular” or “general” readers could understand the stories I was writing, and that I was putting together conflicts and characters that regular people could relate to.

Sarcosuchus_imperator Time passed.  Some of my “regular” readers have themselves, passed on.  Others, I wouldn’t impose work upon them, taking time away from their busy schedules.

I’m novelizing “To Kiss the Star” and I thought it would be a good idea to take the first part of it to a more “general” audience to see their reaction.  So, I signed up for the Critiquenic of the Los Angeles-area Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) that was held last weekend.  This is an annual event, and small critique groups break up and read each others’ work for picture books, middle grade, and YA books.

So, I got my general readers at this event, although the entire group was writing something with an element of the fantastic (light fantasy, urban fantasy, etc.), with the single exception of a really cool historical story for older teens.

The picture, by the way, is an illustration of Sarcosuchus, a 40-foot long Triassic crocodile – the infamous “supercroc.”  Point being, this beast isn’t a direct ancestor of today’s crocodilians, it’s an ancient similar animal.  Nature has recreated certain body plans over and over . . . even the clumsy reptilian side-leg arrangement has its benefits.

In my opinion, the average person is going to see this as a giant crocodile, end of story.

What were the advantages of presenting “To Kiss the Star” to a group of general readers?  Well, none of them said it was like “The Ship Who Sang” – advantage #1.  Also, they thought that the idea was original, and liked Melodie.  However, some of them missed things that are clearly explicated in the text, suitable for “in genre” readers.  For example, the story clearly states that Melodie has the opportunity to become a probe controller because she won the cripple lottery.  That didn’t register with some readers.  Others didn’t know how her voiceboard worked, even though she explained its workings in the story.

Her voiceboard is similar to the one used by Stephen Hawking:

” . . .David Mason, of Cambridge Adaptive Communication, fitted a small
portable computer and a speech synthesizer to my wheel chair. This
system allowed me to communicate much better than I could before. I can
manage up to 15 words a minute. I can either speak what I have written,
or save it to disk. I can then print it out, or call it back and speak
it sentence by sentence. Using this system, I have written a book, and
dozens of scientific papers. I have also given many scientific and
popular talks. They have all been well received. I think that is in a
large part due to the quality of the speech synthesiser, which is made
by Speech Plus. One’s voice is very important. If you have a slurred
voice, people are likely to treat you as mentally deficient: Does he
take sugar? This synthesiser is by far the best I have heard, because
it varies the intonation, and doesn’t speak like a Dalek. The only
trouble is that it gives me an American accent.”

So, the moral of this story is – the “reality” of the science in a story isn’t as important as what the reader perceives as reality.  This is basic storytelling 101, and I find this cognitive dissonance between in-genre SF and “regular” SF for general audiences fascinating.  In-genre explanations usually focus on language – i.e. “special” sci fi terms that are “offputting” to the general reader and so-on. I have a feeling that I’ve hit on something that is much more a cause of SF not being picked up for general audiences than I’ve heard from others.  Readers will accept almost any SFnal premise as long as it fits with the story and makes sense within the story.  However, the story needs to make sense on a character and conflict basis – the characters have to be the right ones for the story, and the conflict needs to fit who those characters are.  Above all, readers want to be able to relate to the characters, and the overall conflict needs to be something comprehensible – with “stakes” that the readers can understand.

That, I think, is why some of the very successful SF for young people in recent years, such as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, which is a post-apocalyptic story with a simple, yet frightening premise, have proven so popular.



Science for the General Reader — 4 Comments

  1. Very much so. Those who write and read a particular genre often end up relying on recognized and accepted shortcuts. This invites a certain kind of lazy/formula writing. It also allows publication of works that are mediocre or derivative as fiction, as long as certain minimal parameters are met. The extreme case in point is fanfic or profic (commissioned fanfic, a.k.a. tie-ins), which rely largely on conditioned reactions from the reader, making quality irrelevant.

  2. Athena, after so much time in-genre, I had forgotten my original premise that the story should work as a story (or, not forgotten, just gotten so used to the genre conventions). It was great to find that regular readers “got” the story and were interested in it. The readers who couldn’t follow the voiceboard or who wondered how Melodie was selected (it was a topic repeated twice in the first 10 pages) were neither of them, the most observant individuals. That, nobody can do anything about.

  3. Being an observant reader is its own category, indeed. Regarding genre conventions, I think they may be one of the major reasons that mainstream authors who “walk” into SF/F do not want to be categorized as writers of such fiction. It has less to do with snobbery and more to do with the (mostly justified) perception of writing by-the-numbers. Conversely, many readers crave these easy categorizations. The publishers, now followers rather than leaders, follow the path of least resistance — and genre becomes rote.

  4. I think there was no way for mainstream authors to make themselves heard against the onslaught – or precious little reason for them to, in the case of authors like Michael Crichton. As somebody close to a horror writer who had sci-fi interests of the “space alien” and “superhero” sort, I can sort of relate his experience (always sure to say he’s a horror writer, never SF) to somebody like Stephen King, who has written SF, and who in the 80’s, had a whole special issue of F & SF. You never hear Stephen King refer to himself as a science fiction writer. I’ve been known to criticize Stephen King’s current short fiction myself, but a field that can’t figure out how to encompass a great storyteller like him . . . yeah, there’s something wrong with it.

    I’ve been up against the SFWA Lounge myself. They did kill whatever community there was in the field. And I know there was one.