Here at the blog, I'm often pretty critical of sci-fi and fantasy. I tend to look at these genres as the all-time low in fiction--Well, at least it's better than sci-fi or fantasy! That sort of thing. (And YA fantasy really takes a hit.)
A comment from wxroz on this post got me thinking that maybe I need to explain why this is, and maybe even offer up an apology to sci-fi and fantasy readers... (But not YA fantasy readers. That's going too far.)
(Just kidding. If you like YA fantasy, this apology goes for you, too.)
So here's the apology part (which includes some explaining). In general, I don't read sci-fi or fantasy. I only read said genres if they're classics (and sometimes not even then), or if I have to for school (which rarely happens). I have perfectly good reasons for feeling this way (which I'll explain later in this post), but that doesn't mean I expect everyone to feel the same way I do. That doesn't mean people who like sci-fi/fantasy are not welcome on this blog, or that I won't read their blogs, or that I think they're stupid, or anything like that. There are lots of good reasons to like sci-fi and fantasy! They're just not my cup of tea, that's all. So I hope I haven't offended anyone by criticizing science fiction and fantasy, and in the future I'll try not to be as sarcastic about them. (No promises, though.) But I think the genres have a lot of potential and maybe I'm just not reading the right books.
Also, my experience with the genres is somewhat limited. I mean, obviously, once I decided I didn't like sci-fi/fantasy books, I started avoiding them. But I do like a few, don't get me wrong. I just don't seek out your run-of-the-mill fantasy novel.
But in case you're wondering, I will give the reasons I don't like sci-fi or fantasy. But first, a disclaimer: Most of these are just general tendencies I've noticed in the genres; they don't necessarily describe every single sci-fi/fantasy novel. (So please don't comment with, "They're not all like that!" because yes, I'm aware of that, but I'm just not very good at weeding out the ones that are from the ones that aren't, and so I just avoid them all.)
1. The author spends most of his or her time developing the fantasy world/other planet/future society and often neglects things like character development.
I think a lot of people really enjoy getting caught up in the magic of another world, and it seems that that's what sci-fi and fantasy are for. I understand this, don't get me wrong. When I was a kid I liked to imagine what it would be like to go to Hogwarts, or to find a magic coin that only fulfilled half a wish (like in Half Magic). But now, I'm just really not interested in reading about fantasy worlds that never existed and never will exist. I don't mind reading a novel with that stuff in it, but after several pages of reading about every corner and alley in the city, etc., I just get bored. I want to read about real things, like human nature and life. I read books in order to learn, not in order to escape.
2. The main characters are often dull, annoying, or have absolutely nothing special about them other than things they have no control over.
It doesn't seem like the main characters in these books ever have to work for what they have, or ever have any part of them that they actually developed on their own that helps them on whatever quest they're on. (Except for maybe a pure heart, or something like that.) It's always some mysterious magical power that she so happens to have, or that the task just randomly fell to him even though he is just a twelve-year-old peasant boy (who then miraculously happens to be way more brave and tough than anyone else in the world, which brings me to my next point...).
3. The characters usually have an inhuman amount of emotional strength.
These characters probably have next to no training in whatever it is they're doing (see reason #2), and yet they face their challenges ridiculously easily and then have very little trauma afterward. Yes, afterward, it's all about how they beat the bad guys and saved the world and yippee, aren't they a hero? And yet there is no mention of night terrors or PTSD or anything. I mean, grown men who are trained to fight and know exactly what they're doing and are some of the bravest people on this planet still face emotional trauma. And yet, a teenage boy or girl gets off with absolutely nothing but a bloated ego? Seriously?
4. Why are the heroes/heroines always teenagers?!
This probably happens less in sci-fi than it does in fantasy, and maybe I've just been reading too much of the YA variety, but I just really don't see why kids have to do everything in these novels.
Yeah, okay, it's probably more YA fantasy than anything else, I'll admit that. But still.
5. The people who are supposed to be so smart keep doing such stupid things.
Like the scientist that built the time machine, or whatever. He must have been a genius to do that--but then he has to try it out with absolutely no backup plan--well, no real plans at all--because he's just so passionate and so excited and he just doesn't have time to think about it!
Really? You weren't thinking about that at all during the years it took you to build whatever machine or monster or tool you were building? It never even crossed your mind?
6. Various other factors that are completely silly and unrealistic.
Okay, I know the whole point of these novels is that they're unrealistic, but I still think that if the author is using humans as characters, he or she should at least be true to the fact that they're human. They should have real emotions. They should have some semblance of a personality that doesn't change with the weather. And moreover, I would love to actually get to know the characters, instead of reading pages upon pages of description of the magical world that I just really don't care about.
So there you have it. The six reasons I avoid science fiction and fantasy. I'm sure plenty of you will disagree with me, which is great! And if you have a suggestion for a sci-fi or fantasy novel that doesn't fall into any of these stereotypes, I'd love to hear them.
Some of what you mention is, in fact, considered to be bad SF/F writing. Indeed the writer is not supposed to spend all the time describing the world. Keep in mind however that it's a pretty new genre and so the rules for good writing had to be developed over time, and lots of mistakes made first. One thing I always notice when a respected fiction writer turns her hand to an SF premise is that she makes these rookie mistakes--they are natural, I guess.ReplyDelete
The other thing you're noticing is that a lot of SF writers are guys who like gadgets and aren't really interested in feelings. An example is Stephenie Meyer's "The Host"--my husband read it and complained that it was a decent 300-page story crammed into 600 pages. The whole time he was reading it, he would say "They all have so many FEEEEEElings! Get with the story already!" Meanwhile, women readers complain that there isn't enough emotional development--what are the characters feeling? I don't say that this is a stark men/women thing, but it shows up most starkly in this genre.
The characters are indeed very often teenagers. I think this has to do with the nature of the genre. SF/F is very often a way to examine moral issues or some other sort of question about human nature or the universe, and it does this by isolating the issue and putting it into a world where the question can be worked out without the muddles of our own workaday world. They are fables, in fact--what you complain is not realistic is frequently a way to get away from the petty distractions of the everyday and address universal questions. Thus SF/F is very often a story about character formation at its most intense--therefore, teenagers. Plus it just gets to be a custom. But the point is: done well, SF/F is modern mythology.
I am not a huge fan or anything, but there are some really great books. Here are my favorites in case you ever want to try any:
Diana Wynne Jones, the best of the best. You can't complain that her characters are dull! (Sometimes annoying, yes, aren't we all?) I'll prescribe a book for you if you ever want.
Connie Willis--great at short stories, has tended to get too wordy lately. If you have the patience for a long book, read Doomsday Book. You will sob. Then read To Say Nothing of the Dog as a cure.
Brandon Sanderson is a new up-and-coming name. Try Mistborn. He loves to invent magic systems, but his characters are good too. (Also he teaches at BYU!)
Terry Pratchett started off writing comedic sendups of high fantasy. After a while he got really good at insight with a twist.
Neil Gaiman is pretty good too. He specializes in the macabre.
Kage Baker wrote pretty wild time SF. I like her; you may not.
Many of my favorites are children's/YA fantasy rooted in mythology that I grew up reading. Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, that sort of thing.
Thank you for the suggestions! I've read Howl's Moving Castle, and I did love it. I'll have to try more by her. And I probably will eventually read some Sanderson, since I can't get away with studying English at BYU and not hearing about him!Delete
And thanks for illuminating for me the reasons that these genres are this way. I know that sci-fi is a relatively new genre, so I don't want to totally discount it while authors are still figuring out how to write these genres well.
I should add that there is a subgenre of SF 'travelogue' in which the point is to take a premise--what if we built a universe in this way?--and work it out. For example the Ringworld books do this, and quite a few others, but on the whole too much detailed world-showing is not cool. So you should just stay away from the travelogues.Delete
My husband recommends Peter F. Hamilton's Fallen Dragon for character-building; the story covers decades of a life. But I've never read it.
And go read more DWJ right away! It's DWJ month, the perfect time. :) All of her stories are different.
Excellent post! It's so much more interesting to learn someone's reasons for disliking something rather than just knowing they dislike it. It tells a lot about you as a reader - obviously character development is really important to you in a story. And, many people (sometimes myself included) do read to escape in some fashion, but if that's not your thing, I can see why you wouldn't like these genres. I think I agree with almost all of your reasons for disliking except sometimes #1 can interest me... depending... The Chronicles of Narnia come to mind - I find the fictional world and symbolism fascinating. But couple an interesting fantasy world with a complete lack of character development or unrealistic emotions and I'm usually not a fan.ReplyDelete
Some books that fit this genre that to me don't have as many of the negatives you listed:
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Till We Have Faces - C.S. Lewis
Just out of curiosity... could you name some titles that epitomize the reasons you dislike sci-fi / fantasy??
I like the Chronicles of Narnia as well for the symbolism, and I don't feel like they fit with #1 because I don't see Lewis go into tons of detail about Narnia. There's just enough detail for us to know what's going on, but we aren't forced to read about every rock and tree in the place. And you're right, of course; character development matters a lot to me, and in my opinion, it's often what makes a book classic. Authors that ignored character in favor of other things might be famous in their own time, but their books don't necessarily make it to future generations. (It's not always true, of course, but I like to think it usually is.)Delete
Obviously I'm no expert on sci-fi and fantasy, but here are some titles that I think illustrate my points:
Harry Potter for 1, 3, and 4 (I actually do enjoy Harry Potter, but I think it gets far too much admiration)
Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge, particularly for #1--I got so bored I couldn't finish it, even though it was an assignment for a class
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (although I should give Wells a break because he was one of the first sci-fi writers ever)
Artemis Fowl--I could not stand this one
Ender's Game--it doesn't fit all the stereotypes but I certainly didn't like it at all
There are a few others that I read years ago that really turned me off to the genres, but I'm struggling to remember the titles and authors. (Maybe they were so bad I just put them out of my mind?) But those are a couple of examples.
I've only heard of Harry Potter and The Time Machine (which I already commented on your post about that, saying I didn't like it!) I found HP to be okay... sometimes I enjoyed it a lot, others it was a bit too dark for me. And oh my gosh I couldn't have cared less about the fictional game of Quidditch! Way too much detail about that. :)Delete
I don't read much of this type of stuff, 'cause for 1: I prefer classics, and for 2: I prefer character development as well!
I'm worried that when I read the Lord of the Rings series for the classics club I'm going to feel bogged down by #1... I feel like it's going to be super detailed in that respect. Ever read those books?
wxroz -- I've read the LotR trilogy 6 times. (I know you weren't asking me, but I'm tossing in my two cents cuz I love it a lot.) It does have a good bit of description, but Tolkien was a linguist by trade, so it doesn't get heavily into describing rocks and trees. Unless they're characters. There are a LOT of poems and songs throughout, though, which I'll admit I tend to skip or skim in my later read-throughs. Have you seen the movies? If not, I recommend starting with those.Delete
Oh, thanks! I have seen all the movies multiple times, except I haven't seen The Hobbit. And, I tend to skim poetry in books as well. :) I'm mostly optimistic!Delete
As far as LotR, I've never read them either, for the exact same reason! In what I've read about Tolkien (which isn't a lot), he seemed to be really into creating his world, almost to an insane degree. Yikes. But I've heard really good things about it from people whose opinions I really trust, so I'll definitely read it someday, especially after the comment from Hamlette!Delete
If you've seen the movies and love the characters, then the books are kind of like just getting to know those characters a zillion times better and spend way more time with them :-) Me, I love books that have characters I want to be friends with, so that's definitely an attraction for me with the LotR trilogy.Delete
Tolkien DID create his world to an insane degree. It feels very real, not at all imaginary. However, he did not put all that he created into the trilogy -- that's why there are all those other books like The Silmarillion and The Histories of Middle Earth. That's the incredibly detailed, backgroundy stuff.
It's funny, but a lot of the criticisms you're leveling against sci-fi and fantasy here are the same ones I have leveled against a lot of Christian fiction too. It seems like authors feel that if they just fit the requirements of the genre, whatever those may be, there is no reason to write well.ReplyDelete
I don't read a lot of sf/f myself, but here are a couple I've read that I think you might enjoy because they're very character-oriented:
Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. So absorbing, my m-i-l stayed up all night reading it when she was pregnant with her 4th or 5th child. This is about earth, so not a lot of world-building. Not about teens.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Also about earth, albeit a dystopian future earth. And it's short. No teens.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman. He also wrote the script for the movie. They're both brilliant. And also not about teens.
Thank you! I have read The Princess Bride, and I really loved it. (And I didn't know he wrote the script for the movie!) I'm sure I'll read Fahrenheit 451 someday, and maybe I'll try Lucifer's Hammer as well.Delete
I haven't really read much Christian fiction. Just out of curiosity, what kind of books are you talking about? The only Christian fiction I can think of that I've read was written by C.S. Lewis, but I've never really ventured into the world of modern Christian fiction...
I'm speaking mostly of modern Christian fiction. There are some excellent writers out there, but a lot of Christian fiction seems to be just churned out with little regard for quality. I'm thinking specifically here of Tracie Peterson, who has written dozens of books. I've tried three of hers, and couldn't finish any of them. But there are many others I've picked up in the library or book store and didn't even bother reading after sampling a bit on the spot.Delete
As C.S. Lewis said in his essay"“Christianity and Literature," "[t]he rules for writing a good passion play or a good devotional lyric are simply the rules for writing tragedy or lyric in general." Simply slapping the label "Christian" or "fantasy" or "sci-fi" on a story doesn't excuse it from needing to be written well.
I certainly agree that modern Christian fiction suffers from the attitude that quality doesn't matter as long as everything is G-rated and it has the label of "Christian" on it. It's kind of depressing. But hey, if you want really good stories that also have a strong element of faith, try Elizabeth Goudge.Delete
I used to read a great deal of science fiction. In fact, I think there was a time when that was just about all I ever read. One day I happened to read Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno. I suppose it must have been pretty good by sci-fi standards as it was nominated for Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.ReplyDelete
At the time I thought it was pretty interesting. It is basically set in Dante’s Inferno, represented as Infernoland, a high-tech amusement park with all the circles of hell. The setting captured my imagination and I set out to learn more about the book it was based on.
I tracked down copies of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso and started reading them. I was stunned and amazed. This was so much richer and more complex. I had always thought sci-fi was a fairly philosophical genre--full of imagination and ideas about human beings, their relationship to each other, to technology, to the universe. But in Dante there was so much more to think about, so many different ways to approach the book.
My sci-fi books felt anemic by comparison. They were almost always simple allegories with a single, obvious point of view. I’m not even sure how much I understood what was going on in Dante, but it was very exciting. I read them over and over. After that I was never able to read science fiction. The simple allegories made me feel tricked and manipulated. I wanted to think for myself, and I had found something to read that would inspire that kind of thinking.
Wow. That's a cool story! I agree with you on the simplicity and obviousness of sci-fi. (That probably should have been on my list...) A lot of the time, it feels like a Victorian-style "let's teach everyone a lesson" (except without as much style as the Victorians). And now I really want to read Dante's Inferno...Delete
I am in TOTAL agreement w/ you b/c I do not care about reading fantasy. I just have no interest.
However, a very good friend of mine convinced me to read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. So, I reluctantly bought all four, and I have started The Hobbit. Well, I am only on chapter five, and I LOVE it. It is adventurous and entertaining and exciting. Plus, it seems pleasant enough to even read to my younger children, which I will do when I get done reading it myself.
Having said all of that, I still don't know if I am a fantasy or sci-fi fan, but I am a Hobbit fan for sure. Maybe that is one to try in the future.
I do plan on reading The Hobbit and the LotR books someday. I'm glad to know you like it!Delete
My problem with most sci-fi and fantasy is this simple: Too much good vs. evil. Not to mention with sci-fi at least, most of the (usually futuristic) concepts the authors are trying to make understandable, I've already read about and comprehend perfectly well from news stories or non-fiction books.ReplyDelete
But full disclosure is that I was an English major. And even though there are certainly some books in the sci-fi and fantasy genre that I would consider classics ("Brave New World", "On the Beach" quickly come to mind), the vast majority of genre books are escapist rather than thought-provoking--and that's ok--but I read to relate. I read to be challenged. I read to stir or shake up my beliefs. But I fully realize not everyone shares my goals for reading.
There are a couple of good quotes on classics in "Silver Linings Playbook" (though this is not a recommendation of the book or film). One quote goes something like: "Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly."
The more sci-fi and fantasy stories that embody this approach to literature, the more I'll read.
I love the way you put that. I agree with you completely. I believe that sci-fi and fantasy will probably become more like that as the genres grow and evolve; I hope so, anyway. Thank you for summing all of that up so well; I think that's just where the genre needs to go.Delete
I am a science fiction author. I read posts like this and I thank the high heavens for them. I am currently writing a seven book series but sometimes I feel like no one likes scifi, but couldn't understand why. Now I know. Again I appreciate posts like this is makes me confident in my story.ReplyDelete
So for a suggestion of a science fiction book that doesn't fall into those categories I would recommend Rise of Oliria. Here is why:
1. My answer- In rise of Oliria the description is simple and straight to the point. The actual story has depth and life lessons to learn from. Queen Jinalie, the main character learns that she cannot not do everything on her own. Eli another main character, learns how to trust and be loyal to his friends. The new world is described, but it's not my priority.
2. My answer-The main characters in my book have to work their survival. They don't have magical powers, or all the answers handed to them on a plate. What they have is each other, and they combine all their skills to reach their goals. The overall theme of Rise of Oliria is to learn who you are as a person and why you're important. If you have any obstacles that may hinder you from your goal, find ways around them and persevere.
3. My answer-In the book Rise of Oliria, my main character does not easily handle her situations. She shows real emotions by screaming, pulling her hair out, and losing sleep. Other characters go through trials and tribulations that have effect on them as well. One character literally has post dramatic stress disorder after being hostage in a foreign country. Another character has bipolar disorder that takes a toll on her life and aids to my plot. In the end they all learn something; bravery, kindness, humility, and patience. They go through a journey that has no favorites.
4. My answer-This one's easy. In Rise of Oliria the main character is 21. There is only one kid in this book, but he comes later in the story. In the first three chapters I describe my character growing up. But by the fourth chapter she is getting crowned as queen and starting her journey.
5. My answer- Rise of Oliria has two highly intelligent people in the book. The engineer and the scribe. The engineer creates everything imagined by the royals. When he explains his inventions, it sounds real, almost if it could happen. He has backups and he is also wise in everyday life. The scribe works for my main character. This requires him to be smart at all times. Throughout the book he comes up with ideas even my main character couldn't think of.
6. I explain things logically in my book. The technology becomes similar to magic. My character seem real here are a few of their personalities.
Queen Jinalie: Always wanting to do things on her own, especially after her mother died. She's kind and generous to her people and is always trying to find the good in others. Her flaw is that she needs to learn to allow people to help her. She needs to be more direct, and learn to say what's on her mind instead of holding it in.
Eli: He is loyal, energetic and the life of the party. He has a sense of humor and knows how to speak his mind. His flaws- he can be manipulative, sly and uncertain about himself.
The scribe: He is loyal, always working, reliable and quick on his thinking. His flaws- he's a workaholic and doesn't allow any relationship to develop pass a casual friendships
In the Rise of Oliria series my character's change and develop. They become like real people and the earn what they deserve. I'm not afraid to put them through hell and back if that's what it takes to make a great story. Though in the end, this book isn't just a story, it's a true life lesson.
If your still interested you can get the book on amazon for 99 cents.
Thank you for seeing my post so generously! (If I were a sci-fi writer, I probably wouldn't have...) Thank you for sharing your book with me. I think it's interesting that you sometimes feel that no one likes sci-fi; I'm usually hard-pressed to find a person who doesn't like it! I hope more people find and enjoy your book. :)Delete
You've read Ella Enchanted, right? What did you think of that one? It's one of my favorite books in any genre. But I do often like Sci-Fi and Fantasy when I read fiction. I enjoy a light, exciting read, so I'm not too bothered by a lack of character development or a silly premise. I'm more bothered by characters that I don't like, so the oversimplified good vs. evil that tends to happen in these genres is okay with me because it makes it easy to root for the characters.ReplyDelete
I'd enjoy The Lord of the Rings more if it were about half as long. Tolkien really rambles.
I did like Ella Enchanted! I haven't read it in a long time. I would call it an exception. But I'm warming up to SF/F. :)Delete
I like Sci-Fi and Fantasy if it is easy to read and if it is familiar such as Sinbad or the Arthur Tales or ET. But if it takes itself too seriously like the Thrones or Lord of the Rings I get bored--it just goes on and on until the obvious conclusion of Good over Evil. The same with Stephen King: Good over Evil. It's too simplistic; but it is enjoyable if I want to escape for a little while and get shocked. Or I could just watch the news or a Real Crime series.Delete
This is an interesting opinion section; I'm glad commentators are not taking things personally as they do so often.ReplyDelete
I too have trouble enjoying Si-Fi and especially Fantasy. Mainly because they are about Plot or Theme rather than Character which is what I am interested in: how people think, act and change under trying circumstances. If the people are not real, a wizard or a dwarf or Robalian renegade, then they can behave and act any which way they'd like--just make it up as you go. It's being in a dream with no rules. But Huck Finn, Madame Bovary, Lassie, Sherlock Holmes live in a world where the rules of earth and community force them to behave a certain way. In many fantasy stories, I'm bored learning the rules; I'd rather read a western that has all the morality and heroism without having to learn strange planet rules and crazy names and places that seem like nonsense to me.
Yet I do enjoy fantasy and fairy tales that are earth bound such as ET or Batman and such. This is because the powers of the characters are set and limited. If Superman or Batman came out with the power to turn invisible it would destroy the willing suspension of belief.
And back to your Learning idea. What do you learn when you see Trees attacking a castle of dwarves? Heroism and valor yes. Excitement, yes. But the character don't learn anything about themselves. They are flat as are so many of Stephen King's characters.
This is just my opinion of course; and I like the Princess Bride and Merlin. But i know these tales don't take themselves too seriously and I go into dream-time easily.
For that part about teenagers-as-protagonists, I think its because of several reasons one of which is that teenhood is that time where for a person, the world becomes gritty and things become grey and uncertain. This is that time where adult values and responsibilities start to develop for a young person, which provides a lot of character development potential.ReplyDelete
Its also very close to childhood in terms of youthfulness and energy. Childhood, for many is an untouchable time where everything was innocent, bright, and full of energy. Adulthood a time of hard descisions and responsibilities, full of tough realities. Teenagers are that inbetween area that potentially combines youthful energy and power that some adults secretly crave with that of grown up mindsets that make up wonderfully good characters.
And finally, historically, for much of human history before modern medicine, human life span was close to around 40 years. This made adulthood pretty much starting at puberty!
Interesting points. Thank you for sharing. I'd never quite thought about it that way before.Delete
Thanks so much for posting this. I, too, am not a big fan of most sci-fi & fantasy. I think that Byronart's comment about "having to learn strange planet rules and crazy names and places that seem like nonsense to me" pretty much sums up my frustration with both genres, though I do like what might be considered "soft" science fiction on occasion. Meaning not set too far into the future, and usually having only one sci-fi element (technology, aliens, etc.) without turning into a space opera zombie apocalypse.ReplyDelete
Haha, yes! There are certainly books in the genre that I do enjoy, but having to learn the rules of the world really turns me off to a book. It's not just that I'm lazy...it's that it gets in the way of my understanding of (and usually the author's ability to communicate) the real story and the characters.Delete
Wow, I really like and appreciate this explanation. I will admit that I have friends (mostly women) who can't sit through anything that is not set in the "real world" and I find it frustrating. I do like most genres and have tended to judge those who cannot appreciate sci-fi or fantasy as shallow. If I can enjoy romcoms or soaps with their insipid love triangles and other devices such as bad-guy becomes good-guy etc, why can't someone else expand their mind enough to entertain some ideas for which they have little or no frame-of-reference. But this illustrates it for me and I can dig it. If you watch a soap, you may learn something valuable, like how to manipulate people or steal someone's boy or girlfriend. But you will never have the need to change your phaser setting from stun to kill. I'm kidding. But this is a good blog post. Thank you.ReplyDelete
You should read Michael Vey by Richard Paul Evans. I mean yeah it falls under 4 and 2 but it's a great series and it deals with 3 really well!!ReplyDelete