“Some things are so small that you don’t notice them.
Others are so big you run right into them before you know what they are.”
–Samuel Delany, Einstein Intersection
Imagine that you and a group of friends have been in the habit of regularly meeting for dinner at a local pizza place. Let’s say that you’ve been doing it for years, gathering together to sit and eat together, to talk, to have a few beers.
Then one day the subject comes up of why you you like this place.
One of your friends says, “I just love the tables and chairs in here–they are so comfortable!”
Someone else chimes in with, “And the tablecloths–have you noticed how the tablecloths match the curtains? That’s so cool!”
“The neon beer signs are great!”
“The floor is so clean–I love that black and white tile!”
The conversation goes on like this for a while, and you–in all innocence–say, “And the pizza is great.”
Suddenly a pall settles over the table, and people look away, awkwardly. Nobody says anything for a while, so you continue, “I mean, this is a pizza place, right? That is what we’re here for, the pizza?”
Somebody mumbles, “I guess it’s okay.”
And another voice chimes in, “If, you know, they have to have food, then I guess pizza is as good as anything else.”
But another friend disagrees, “I don’t like pizza, I just put up with it because the furniture is great in here.”
This is how I have been feeling lately talking with people in SF/F fandom. Maybe I’m just spectacularly naive, but it’s taken me a long time to realize that what I love about speculative fiction isn’t what other people like about speculative fiction. In fact the elements that I have always believed to be foundational in the genre are widely disliked by other fans of the genre.
Lately I have seen what I want–the number one reason that I read works in the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror genres–being described in very negative terms. “Screwing with readers”, “being kicked in the teeth”, “breaking faith with readers”, “not delivering a good story”, and so on.
And I am standing here thinking, excuse me, but if you don’t want someone to mess with your head the picture books are over there.
I’m here because I don’t want safe stories. I am not looking for something exactly like the last thing I read. I don’t want to open a book and know from the first chapter how it is going to end.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I have no right to define what Science Fiction is. I am not saying that everybody else is doing it wrong. I am simply trying to come to terms with my own feelings upon discovering that what I had believed was a feature is seen by so many people as a bug. Maybe it’s because I did most of my formative reading in the New Wave era of Science Fiction and my tastes were shaped by Delany, Dick, and Disch.
I have to admit that I don’t see what interests people about Science Fiction if they don’t want books that break the rules and hit the reader with the unexpected. It seems to me that a contemporary romance or mystery will provide an escape into a comfortable, predictable world. Why go to Mars if you want it to be just like Earth?
Why would a writer tell a story set in Fantastica if it’s going to play out the same as a story set in Hoboken? Why go to the bother of naming a character Th’ssbegok if he’s going to act just like some guy named Fred?
I don’t get it. I’m not saying that I’m right and everybody else is wrong, from the sales figures it’s clear that I’m wrong and everybody else is right. I just don’t understand how I could have been a fan of Science Fiction for forty years without figuring out what the genre is all about.
Because evidently what I thought it was all about is something that most fans of the genre don’t like.