Recently I have been grappling with this essay over at SFSignal.com. I don’t mean to say I think it’s incomprehensible. I understand it perfectly well, though I have to agree with those commenters who find it overwritten and far too academic. I’m a believer in not muddying things up when you don’t have to. The problem John H. Stevens is discussing can be stated much more plainly: what does it take for people to become readers of speculative fiction? Do they have to learn a different way of approaching stories, a different set of reading skills than it takes to read their preferred genre? Or do they have an innate distaste for speculative fiction because they simply don’t feel like they “get it” very well?
Neither of these hypotheses about “why” is nearly as interesting to me as a solution to the problem. And after some thought, I believe I’ve come up with an idea that would make answering Stevens’s question unnecessary. Whether the problem has to do with a learning curve or an aversion, the answer is the same: acclimation. Following are three ideas I came up with for introducing a friend to the wonderful world of speculative fiction.
Discover what readers like to read, then introduce them to something comparable. One of the best things about the world of science-fiction and fantasy is its breadth. Those of us who are well-acquainted with that breadth need no explanation about why it makes our community so wonderfully vibrant. But your friends may not understand how many types of stories there are inside our literary ghetto. Everything from classics retold to bizarre literary experiments can be found if you’re just willing to look.
Does your friend like romance novels? Recommend a paranormal romance. Does your friend like hard-boiled detective fiction? We have no shortage of that…I would always recommend starting with Asimov’s Elijah Baley novels, but there are many excellent choices. And for those who know western fans, how many old pulp novels are there that simply substitute “blaster” for “six-shooter” and “Mars” for “Arizona”? Don’t try to make them like something alien to them. Instead, show them something familiar dressed up in a snazzy costume. Chances are they’ll fall for it, if you pick well.
Give them the gift of classic literature. Again, this works regardless of the answer to Stevens’s question. If your friend’s problem is a lack of knowledge about how to read sci-fi and fantasy, take them back to the beginning of the genre and give them the core texts, the ones that help to codify all the basic assumptions moving forward. If your friend simply doesn’t like speculative fiction, well, aren’t Jules Verne and H.G. Wells “classic” authors? Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, and Edgar Allan Poe? J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis? Oh, sure, they wouldn’t pick up any of that silly stuff people write now, but these are authors who wrote highly-acclaimed books that have been loved for generations. Surely they’re alright? If they like a book, find them something else in the same vein, almost as old. Then keep moving forward. At some point you are bound to break through.
Take them to the movies. Television also works, as do presentations on DVD or Blu-ray. The idea is to give them a low-commitment icebreaker. If they don’t like a television show, there will always be something else on in thirty minutes. If they don’t like a movie, it’s roughly two hours out of their life. On reflection, I think your best bet here is to go for the big blockbusters (so not Another Earth, as good as it is), as long as they don’t insult your intelligence (leave Transformers on the shelf). Perhaps The Dark Knight might be a good choice. And again, stick close to the type of movie or television show they like.
Do you have any other ideas?