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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?

Post-scarcity and Realistic Utopia: Where’s the fight?


One of the WIPs I’m working on right now is a far future SF novel inspired largely by Le Guin’s classic The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As I’ve observed before, utopian novels are hard to pull off because an ostensibly perfect society removes – in most major ways – meaningful (read: existential) conflict. But I think I might have been wrong about that.

Fictional utopia and dystopia are tools through which we negotiate our society’s ethics. They are, in a very real sense, a debate about the values our society holds. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, or James Morrow’s City of Truth all ask us what price we are willing to pay for a perfect/harmonious society. In all utopian/dystopian stories, conflict occurs at the levels of logos and pathos, and traditionally, there are two structures through which that conflict gets expressed: the Outsider, and the Dissident.

The Outsider: Conflict in Utopia

A utopia is ostensibly a perfect environment, and that perfection tends to make society somewhat static. Lacking conflict, debate, the society becomes relatively unchanging. In some utopian environments, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture or John C. Wright’s Golden Oecumene, “constant change” may be the most static characteristic. But lacking internal debate, most authors positing a utopia turn to the borders of that perfect state to find conflict.

Older utopias, like Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Skinner’s Walden Two, tend to adopt the structure of a travelogue/fish-out-of-water story, and they typically prioritize logos over pathos in their conflicts. What little conflict they generate is produced by putting the utopian society’s values into conflict with an Outsider: typically a guest who comes to visit the perfect society, and thus disturbs – to some extent – that society’s equilibrium. More modern utopias, like Banks’ Culture novels, also rely on the Outsider to produce conflict. However, these stories focus on where the utopia’s remit ends, and where it comes into contact with different value systems. As such, it presents the utopia as being in constant conflict, to a greater or lesser extent, with the world outside its borders.

The Dissident: Conflict in Dystopias

Dystopias are generally characterized by their lack of defined borders. Look at any of the great dystopian novels, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Morrow’s City of Truth or even Collins’ The Hunger Games. The ostensibly perfect society is all-encompassing. Borders in Orwell are political and expedient, as opposed to ideological. Elsewhere, the totalitarian state controls the entire planet save for some few wild places that lack any structure through which the One State can be opposed. The classic dystopian narrative arc takes a character inside the dystopia, and translates them into an Outsider. These stories derive their tension from the fact that there is no Outside. Which is why their conflict stems from the creation of a Dissident.

The Dissident plays a more violent version of the Outsider’s role. His or her purpose is to oppose the dystopia’s value system, to express the nature of that opposition and to either withstand or fall beneath the system’s crushing totalitarian jackboot. And it is precisely that totalitarian, militaristic dimension which sets a dystopia apart from a utopia.

Characteristics of Dystopian and Utopian Environments

A utopia is generally a society which operates harmoniously, effectively, and perhaps most important, equitably. Historically, utopian fiction has been heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th century anarchist and socialist movements. But the basic premise underpinning all utopias is that within their borders, they function effectively and smoothly. Because utopian fiction tends to put value on its utopian precepts, it is typically a given that the society is internally cohesive. There is no dissidence, and nobody falls through the society’s cracks. Utopias are defined by the fact that, in their fictional universes, they work.

Dystopias, however, do not. They present the superficial appearance of effective operation. But that veneer hides the stick that the regime uses to enforce its values. Without the totalitarian police/military force, it would be impossible to concretely express the Dissident’s conflict with their society. When faced with internal opposition to its values, a dystopian regime cracks down, and does so violently, and it is from this conflict that we get a fun, action-packed narrative.

And yet, in thinking about it in light of the United States’ current economic troubles, I think we’re at a point in our societal development where a new type of utopian fiction can be proposed, and one which opens a third source of potential conflict: the Post-scarcity/Realistic Utopia, which can derive its conflict from the Marginalized.

The Realistic Utopia

Post-scarcity science fiction has been around for awhile, and lots of people have talked and written about it before. Much of the philosophical debates around post-scarcity society stem from anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which I’m going to leave to one side. Instead, I’d like to make the case that in essence, the developed world is today already a post-scarcity society. We produce more food than our population could ever consume. Consumer goods are available at a lower economic cost than ever before in the history of our species. We have access to healthcare that would boggle the finest minds of our great-grandparents’ generation. If there is a problem with our post-scarcity society, it is that the benefits of that post-scarcity are not evenly distributed.

Unlike the anarcho-communist utopias dreamed of yesterday, our society today still retains a division between the haves and have nots. And as a species, we have never been able to scale an equal distribution of societal benefit (whether we’re talking economic wealth, military power, healthcare, standard of living, etc.). As a result, the debates of today – as exemplified by the Occupy Movement – are less about ensuring economic equality, and more about negotiating how our society interacts with individuals or groups who otherwise fall through the current system’s cracks. The folks protesting in the Occupy movement are, to a great extent, either the Marginalized or the voice of the Marginalized in what by most measures can be considered a near-Utopian society.

If the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that it is naive to believe that society will ever eliminate crime, or completely eliminate poverty, etc. These are ills that will always plague human society, and any utopia that tries to dream them away fails my plausibility test. Yet the mere existence of these societal ills is less important than how we as a society respond to them. And this, I believe, is fertile ground for utopian SF to explore. By focusing less on the economics of the utopian society, and by turning a lens on the values of that society through its marginalized constituents, we can gain greater insight into the human condition, and at the same time develop conflicts through which to tell compelling stories.

While it isn’t a perfect example, I believe that Samuel Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, his response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, presages this future. His Bron Helstrom is ostensibly an Outsider, coming to the heterotopia of Triton from much more conservative Martian culture. In his new home, he is marginalized through his own value system, which is inimical to that of his new home. Yes, Delany also uses an Outsider structure in this novel, pitting his Triton against Earth in a devastating interplanetary war. And yet, it is Bron Helstrom’s narrative and personal experience of trying to adjust to his new – ostensibly Utopian – home that takes focus. Triton is not a perfect example of the kind of realistic utopia that I’m talking about here, but the focus on a marginalized individual who falls through the cracks of a supposedly perfect society is exactly what I believe utopian science fiction needs.

And I think it is exactly the kind of philosophical discussion that our society needs as well.

REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

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