Introductions to SFF

At Lexicon, I had volunteered to be on a panel discussing “Introductions to SFF: Want to introduce a friend—or a child—to the genres you love, but don’t know how to ease them in?” Our panel was on at the same time as another event with more drawing power, so instead of a directed panel, we circled the chairs and had a free-form discussion with the small group attending. The conference is over, but I’ve found myself still thinking about some of the questions raised before and during the discussion.

The books I remember from my childhood were nearly all speculative fiction*, mostly fantasy, in some form or another: Dr Seuss, Edward Eager, Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis (the Narnia books), L Frank Baum (the Oz books), Hugh Lofting (Dr Doolittle), and fairy tales of all sorts. I did read plenty of other, non-SFF books along the way, but, with a few exceptions, they didn’t leave as strong an impression.

And then, as a teen, there were Robert Heinlein, J R R Tolkien, Arthur C Clarke, Larry Niven…

I’ll never claim to be an expert on mainstream or literary fiction, but, except for straight crime fiction, it seems as if I trip over speculative or fantastical elements in just about every other book I pick up, from clones (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) and time travellers (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander saga) to virulent viruses (Dan Brown’s Inferno) and ghosts (Jodi Picoult’s Plain Truth). And it’s hard to turn on the TV or go to the movies without encountering werewolves, vampires, superheroes, or norse gods.

So the question is, why would any adult need an introduction to speculative fiction at all? What makes us turn away from the fantastic?

Tastes vary, of course. Dragons on book covers make me yawn, and I can’t take back-to-back readings of yet more books with detailed maps of new and soon-to-be-forgotten worlds. Fashion in publishing also plays a part. If a reader doesn’t appreciate modern dystopias or grimdark tales set in medieval-style worlds, then yes, they could get the mistaken impression that’s all there is, and be driven away from fantasy. But speculative fiction covers such a wide range of styles and subject matter that—if you can find your way to them—there’s something for nearly everyone.

But I suspect there are readers who have been driven away for other reasons. Some of it is the long-standing tension between “literary” and “genre” fiction, as if a book that fits into a specific genre it can’t be good. Speculative fiction includes such a wide range of talents—some bad, some very good—that tarring them all with the same brush is blatant snobbery. Nor are the boundaries between literary and genre at all well-defined. (Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest for example. Clearly fantasy.)

And then, too, there’s the nonsense we’ve soaked up from well-intentioned but misguided parents and teachers, that escapism is something we should be ashamed of indulging in, and should grow out of. This wonderful speech by Neil Gaiman says, far more eloquently than I ever could hope to, that escapism is necessary, and we have an obligation to daydream.

So I’ll end this the same way Gaiman ended his speech, with a quote from Albert Einstein: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

* Speculative fiction: an umbrella term covering hard and soft science fiction, fantasy, horror, and more blends and sub-genres than I can keep up with.

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