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.
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.