Science fiction readers love to think of themselves as bold and adventurous souls – intellectually if not literally. The entire genre represents an exercise in pushing past boundaries, in boldly going beyond the known and out into the strange and wondrous realms of the unknown. The slate on which sci-fi authors work is blank and boundless, and readers drawn to the new and bold seek it out. Not for them the sorts of stories featured in the Oprah book club. A book centered on the petty and mundane perils of an English professor struggling to develop a solid justification for cheating on his or her spouse holds little appeal for those whose readings are filled with perils on the scale of a dark lord’s conquests or a planet busting super-weapon. Granted, small touches of humanity – a bit of romance, a dash of a jealous rivalry, or a bit of revenge – add a human grounding to the towering ideas and vivid spectacles that grace the pages of science fiction tales.
Even the inwardly focused stories of science-fiction’s bronze age – the speculations on advances in soft science and how major hard scientific advances would affect mankind on the personal and not intergalactic level – even these stories demand of the reader a inclination to stretch one’s intellectual legs. The variety and the endless possibilities require an imaginative streak and a willingness to take unnecessary risks that is anything but universal among mankind. We’re a different sort, we science-fiction readers.
Or so we like to think.
After more than a decade of analyzing how readers purchase their literary escapes, Amazon.com has compiled a massive database of information on the subject. In an effort to sell readers what they really want, the site reportedly uses hard number algorithms designed to show readers the books they are most likely to purchase. It turns out that readers don’t venture out of their comfort zones on a regular basis, and science-fiction and fantasy readers are no exception. Fans of space fleet action stories buy mainly fleet action stories. Fans of magic girl romance adventures buy mainly magic girl romance adventures. Epic fantasy readers…well, you get the idea.
The situation becomes more plain when you consider how often the most enjoyable stories take on a life of their own. Without exception, they spawn countless additions and spin offs and sequels and expanded universes, all in pursuit of the twin desires of pleasing the reader and maximizing the financial return on the author and publisher investment. A simple fairy tale about a hole in the ground in which there lived a hobbit blossomed into five incredible books, then associated works (which are still being written decades after the original author died), then multiple iterations of films and soon to inspire a television series. A few titles about costumed crusaders spawns a massive multi-verse culminating in dozens of movies that themselves snowball into the monstrosity of Marvel’s Infinity War film…s. Even the greats of old, Captain Nemo and Tarzan and The Shadow and John Carter and Doc Savage and Corwin of Amber, were dragged back into the spotlight over and over and over again.
Which isn’t such a bad thing. When you find somebody to love, you want to spend more time with them. Who could resist another chance to sail with Conan or get into trouble with Northwest Smith or run with The Flash? Their stories serve as escapes into worlds that are familiar, and known, and safe. They don’t ask you to take a chance that this time around the adventure will be bland, the action slow, and the romance lukewarm. You can settle back, easy and secure in the knowledge that you’ve been here before. You know what to expect. The real world carries with it enough uncertainty, shouldn’t your escape from the real world be in part at least an escape from that uncertainty?
Maybe. That’s up to you.
Maybe you want to stick to well trod ground and jump into only the most popular properties. It makes discussions around the water cooler – literal or digital – a lot easier, that’s for sure. Everyone operating off the same base knowledge makes it easy to talk about the latest triumph or train wreck in the hot new saga du jour. Maybe you’re a deliberate reader who prefers the roads well travelled.
But if you were born with an unquenchable wanderlust that extends beyond the things of this world, and the spirit of adventure that leads you always wondering what’s over the next hill, don’t you owe it to yourself to turn your back on sprawling epics and expanded universes? More to the point, don’t you owe it to yourself to be honest with yourself, and to make deliberate choices when it comes to grabbing the next book from the “To Read” pile? If you consider yourself a risk taker, a boundary pusher, or an explorer who pushes past horizon after horizon, then the next time you peruse the shelves, don’t just look for any old new thing. Take a chance. Confuse the algorithms. Find an unknown author. Explore a new genre.
After all, isn’t boldly going where you’ve never gone before part of a genuine science-fiction fan?