Why Do Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction?
I’ve written before about the relationship between spy fiction and science fiction, but after recently re-reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, the relationship is even further solidified in my mind. While Fleming and Le Carré provide good examples of using world-building and neologism in an otherwise realistic environment, Clancy wrestles with the tension between scientific accuracy and the narrative’s accessibility in the same way that hard science fiction authors do.
The more I thought about this fact, the more I realized that techno-thrillers (whether espionage-focused or not) are absolutely science fictional. But that begs a basic question: why do Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc. regularly hit the top of the bestseller charts, while more fantastic titles tend to rank lower?
I think the reason is twofold: on the one hand, thrillers have largely avoided the critical condemnation that has afflicted science fiction for much of its history, and on the other hand, I believe that thrillers place a higher priority on emotional accessibility than science fiction does.
Thrillers and Science Fiction: Two Genres, Both Alike in Narrative Devices
I’ve written before about how espionage fiction incorporates cognitive estrangement and jargon into its world-building, but the thriller genre uses many more science fictional devices. Techno-thrillers in particular throw a tremendous amount of technical detail at the reader, asking them to understand submarine naval engineering (Tom Clancy), microbiology (Michael Crichton), or encryption (Neal Stephenson). The fact that much of the science fiction community claims two of those three authors as “its own” should give some indication of the porous borders separating the two categories.
Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, for example, is brimming with highly detailed explanations of submarine propulsion and sonar systems. With relatively little modification – merely by changing a few words here and there in the text – it could easily be recast as a novel about starships.
The technical detail that techno-thrillers utilize serves a similar purpose to the technical detail included in much hard science fiction: it provides some measure of cognitive estrangement for the reader, signalling that the text necessitates a different set of reading protocols than a mainstream realistic novel. It can also serve as a fig-leaf in the quest for verisimilitude: a profusion of technical details may obscure the blatant implausibility of the story’s technological conceit, for example. And thematically, the technology or its consequences may well be the point (whether metaphorical or not) of the story.
In this, thrillers and science fiction are very similar. However, when we consider the two genres’ histories, their paths begin to diverge.
The Shared Roots of Thrillers and Science Fiction
DISCLAIMER: I’m not really a genre historian, and so this is a broad and sweeping set of generalizations that might not stand up to closer scrutiny. If you know of anything to either support or demolish my theory, please comment and let me know!
While both thrillers and science fiction can trace putative roots back to myth, I think that for all practical purposes both genres really got their start in the 19th century. “Sensational” stories like The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables were published alongside scientific romances like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or gothic fictions like Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.
The two categories shared many of the same narrative devices, and many of the same narrative structures. They both belonged to a macro-class of fiction that one could justly call “adventure fiction”, and which also included the mystery (as pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle), the adventure (as executed by H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson), and later the western (Karl May, Owen Wister, and Zane Grey).
All of these siblings found a popular home in short fiction magazines, particularly in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. And all were – initially – derided by critics as popular literature of an escapist (at best) or immoral (at worst) bent. But then in the 1920s and 1930s, something changed.
Mysteries and thrillers – particularly spy fiction – began to focus inward on the character, and on the character’s emotions and attitudes. Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout for mysteries, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene for espionage, Joseph Conrad (again) and Damon Runyon for adventure – suddenly the focus of their stories had shifted inward onto the character and onto the emotional journey the story took the reader on.
At the same time, Gernsbackian “scientifiction” shifted early science fiction in the exact opposite direction. Where crime, adventure, and espionage writing prioritized the philosophical and emotional exploration of character, science fiction pointedly shifted it outwards onto the larger-scale extrapolation of technological consequences.
The critics in the 1940s – 1980s preferred the new-found inward focus of mysteries and thrillers to the outward focus of pulp-era science fiction. The critics prioritized that exploration of morality and character which early science fiction didn’t focus on. And it was those critical opinions in the 1940s – 1980s that discredited science fiction as “trash” literature in the popular imagination.
A Question of Priorities: Differences Between Thrillers and Science Fiction
The consequences of that shifting focus can still be seen in the genre today. Readers – and editors, publishers, and critics – have certain expectations of thrillers and certain expectations of science fiction.
Thrillers, as the name suggests, thrill. They get our hearts pumping and our fingers flipping pages. We engage emotionally and intellectually with the adventure and the characters. If a thriller fails to develop that intense edge-of-your-seat engagement with its reader, then it fails as a thriller: it disqualifies itself from its own category (like a category romance with no romance).
Though science fiction – and even hard science fiction – have focused increasingly on character, emotion, and moral philosophy in the last fifty years, as a genre we continue to prioritize high-concepts over visceral excitement. We look for the cool novum or the intriguing concept, and feel that the story’s underlying conceits are valuable in and of themselves. If the story is exciting, too, then that’s a bonus. In order to be published, a science fiction story does not need (nor is harmed by) the emotional intensity of a thriller. This is not a criticism, nor is it a complaint. It is merely my observation of priorities in the speculative fiction community.
If science fiction is a genre of ideas, then thrillers are a genre of tension. And even if Tom Clancy includes pages and pages of prose describing the detailed engineering of a submarine propulsion system, that technical detail is in service to the tension of the story, and only works insofar as it helps to contextualize or heighten that tension.
Why Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction
So given all this, why then do thrillers outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? First, I think that the critical condemnation heaped upon science fiction for much of the 20th century cannot be overstated. Mysteries and espionage in particular have gotten much critical love over the years, while science fiction has only relatively recently come in out of the critical cold.
This critical condemnation inculcates – and has inculcated – several generations of readers against science fiction. It is not that these readers reject science fictional narrative devices – they merely reject the category that explicitly contains them. Label those same narrative techniques as a “thriller” and they’ll buy the hardcover.
Furthermore, I suspect that for many readers thrillers are more accessible than much hard science fiction. Thrillers prioritize character and the reader’s emotional journey over science and philosophy. This makes the story more accessible, and anecdotally, I know many thriller readers who gloss over the techno-babble to get to the action (loosely defined).
Technology is rarely the focus of even the most technical of techno-thrillers. Cool Science for the sake of Cool Science is almost non-existent in the thriller genre. Instead, the genre focuses on the application of Cool Science rather than its explication
And finally, thrillers are typically either set contemporaneously to their reader’s experience, or close enough in time that the technology in use seems more plausible. I know just as much about submarine propulsion as I do about starship propulsion (which is not much). But the imaginative effort I must make to understand Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October is far lesser than that which I must make for Peter Watts’ Starfish. Both may be (and are) well-executed and rewarding stories, but the level of effort needed to earn that reward is markedly different.
In other words, thrillers outsell hard science fiction because as a genre they are historically less stigmatised, more emotionally focused, and feature technology that is easier for readers to internalize.
A Future Recombinant of Thrillers and Science Fiction?
Given all of this, and given society’s increasing familiarity with science fictional devices, what does the future hold for both genres? Personally, I think we will see certain branches of science fiction increasingly resemble the thriller genre.
Science fiction – even “hard” science fiction – has been shifting its focus inward for the past fifty years, and this is an ongoing process that is nowhere near complete (if such a process can ever actually be completed). Many notable authors in the genre – William Gibson, Tim Powers, Ian McDonald – write stories that could easily be published either as thriller or as science fiction. And some authors, like Mira Grant in her Newsflesh trilogy, take the strengths of both genres and integrate them so seamlessly as to approach perfection.
I’d like to see more of that. And I’d also like to know what you think. Why do you think thrillers regularly outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? And what are the implications for either genre?
I agree. And the genres are already merging at the edges in Hollywood; present day or near future movies like I Robot, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Total Recall, etc, are absolutely thrillers, and absolutely science fiction. Change is coming more slowly in books, a more conservative medium, but it is coming.
Thanks, George! Total Recall (the original at least, which I love — I haven’t seen the remake) absolutely adheres to the conventions of the thriller genre (paranoia, espionage, identity, politics, etc.), while still maintaining its heavy SF roots.
George, very good point, Minority Report I think is a great example of contemporary merging of those two genres. It’s essentially a murder mystery told in the very near future. Watching it, you realize just how close much of the technology is: driverless cars, individual-specific ads, hand-manipulated computer GUIs.
Chris, great article. I think one of the more general reasons thrillers top SF is because, as you touch on, thrillers highlight the characters more than SF does. SF has long been event-driven, rather than character-driven. What characters there are become so powerful that we can’t really empathize with them (e.g., Paul in Dune). But again as you say, it’s trending the other way, as the genre becomes more literary. I think there’s a lot of exciting storytelling left within SF as we combine character-driven narratives with exciting SF events.
Hmm…you raise an interesting point about how SF is more event-driven than literary fiction and thrillers. It’s an interesting concept, particularly because I think that many thrillers can likewise be characterized as “event-driven” (e.g. terrorists steal a nuclear bomb, a vital computer system goes down, a body is discovered, and then…go!).
I think the difference is that thrillers are heavily driven by the character’s response to events, at an emotional, moral, and practical level. We derive the “thrill” in part from the characters’ multi-dimensional motivations, and in part from the multi-faceted stakes implied by the intersection of the event and those motivations.
While some SF does this well, I think the thriller genre has really honed the technique to a razor’s edge.
Hey that’s a really good point. In your first paragraph I started to think about the show 24, and then by your second paragraph, about character response, it made sense: that entire show was event event event and then: How does Jack Bauer deal with it? It was specific to the Jack Bauer character. Unlike a lot of SF stories, wherein characters can seemingly be interchanged and nothing really changes. One fighter pilot for another, who cares.
It really feels like, as years of storytelling build upon each other, developing unique and interesting characters is more and more paramount. It’s one of the big ways to draw readers in while differentiating it from other stories in its genre.
Absolutely! There’s a lot of structural similarity between episodic thriller/adventure TV (24, Burn Notice, Criminal Minds, etc.) and the best in both thriller fiction and episodic SF/fantasy.
I suspect that having many episodes/books in which to develop a character helps streamline that event/character integration the same way that our familiarity with Jack Bauer pre-invests us in the show’s later seasons. It’s probably one of the reasons why many thriller novels feature recurring characters (Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Dirk Pitt, etc.) and why a lot of episodic SF/fantasy (Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books, Harry Connolly’s Twenty Palaces books, Steve Brust’s Vlad Taltos books, etc.) are structured similarly.