One of the frustrating things about science fiction is that everyone's seen the year's biggest movies: Even films like Transformers 2, which most people seemed to dislike. But how many books are there that everyone you know has read?
In any given year, there are probably at least a dozen science fiction movies that all your friends are likely to have seen and be able to rave (and bitch) about over lunch. This year, they include Star Trek, Watchmen, District 9, Moon, G.I. Joe, Transformers 2, Terminator 4, and a few others. The same goes for several TV series: You can be in a room with a random assortment of science fiction lovers, and almost everyone will have an opinion about Dollhouse or the BSG finale.
But even though almost everybody I know reads books religiously, it's a lot harder to find a room full of science fiction nerds where everybody in the room has read the same recent book, and wants to praise it or tear it to pieces. Everybody's reading books, but they're all reading different stuff.
From asking around, I get the impression there are two or three exceptions to this rule in any given year. Often, there'll be at least a couple of science-fiction books that every science-fiction reader will read, or at least have a strong opinion about. Often, you'll find these books on the Hugo and Nebula ballots, which tend to select for the books that the most people have read.
Obviously, nobody expects books to get the same level of ubiquity as movies or television — those media have a much broader reach. Plus it's a much smaller time commitment to watch a terrible movie (one evening, versus a week or more to read a decent-sized book.)
But I feel like mainstream (for lack of a better term) books do produce more volumes in a given year that everybody from a particular social class will be expected to have read — or skimmed, at any rate. Every year, you've got your Life Of Pi, your Brief And Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, your And Then We Came To The End. There's a certain class of book, what agent Nathan Bransford calls "Book Club Fiction." As I understand it, this isn't just books that get read by book clubs — it's books that are pervasive and talked about everwhere among "mainstream literary" readers, books that you must read to get your membership card in the bibliophile squad renewed in good order.
Some science fiction books not only break out of the genre paddock, but also cross over to the extent that they become "book club" fiction. Bransford says these books include Neal Stephenson's Anathem, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, Jonathan Lethem's early works (like Gun With Occasional Music), William Gibson's older works, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and Iain Banks' stuff.
And there's a whole apparatus that generates these books and makes the machine keep churning. You've got your book clubs, of course, and publishers have become much more aggressive about marketing to them (just look in the back of any big Simon Says book, and there'll be a list of insipid book-club discussion points, which the paperback of Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters satirizes brilliantly.) There are newspaper book review sections, although those are shrinking and vanishing. There's Oprah.
We asked Bransford more about how a book becomes a "book club" book, and he said there's a certain type (regardless of genre) that seems to achieve mainstream book-clubbability: these books tend to be "accessible, slightly more highbrow than average (but not too highbrow), and different (but not too different)." And for a science-fiction book to reach the mainstream, non-genre book club audience, it helps for it not to be published by a genre imprint in the first place, adds Bransford.
So how does a science-fiction book become a "must read," talked-about book among science-fiction readers? (I.e., a book that every science fiction reader feels he/she must read, or risk being left out of the conversation.) We asked Bransford, and he says:
That's a great question. I hadn't actually thought of it before you brought it up, but there really does seem to be fewer writers that everyone reads in science fiction as opposed to other genres (at least none that are living - nearly everyone who reads sci-fi has read Phillip K. Dick and Douglas Adams).
I wonder if it's a matter of science fiction readers having stronger preferences about the types they like (hard vs. soft, outer space vs. on Earth, etc.) and tend to stick to them? Or maybe it's harder to find a publisher for more literary science fiction that may have broader appeal within the science fiction reading community?
The more I think about it, the more I think Bransford has a point — there's a lot of segmentation in science fiction publishing, between different types and flavors of SF, so it's less likely that you'll find a large swathe of readers who are all drawn to the same posthuman epic, or the same Heinlein-space-opera pastiche.
Another factor that springs to mind is that science-fiction readers may wait for a book to receive the imprimatur of mainstream acceptance before they adopt it as a must-read within the genre — so a book like Spook Country or The Road, by virtue of having been lifted up among the people who don't consider themselves science-fiction readers, becomes a book every science-fiction reader feels is essential reading. So maybe a book doesn't become a must-read among science-fiction fans unless it's already gotten "mainstream" cred — even if it's a much-touted, highly praised, thought-provoking read.
And then there's just the fact that most science-fiction readers are nerds — and nerds are an individualistic bunch, who pride themselves on doing their own thing. The phrase "nerd herd" is actually kind of an oxymoron, a lot of the time.
So how do you start making particular books into "must reads" for all science fiction readers, regardless of their individual tastes? How do you fashion a "book club" out of the mass of science fiction readers?
A few ideas occur to me — some cities already have SF book clubs, and chances are your local SF bookstore may sponsor one. Often, though, those book clubs are jointly reading something that came out years, or decades, ago, which limits the ability to get critical mass. There are ways that authors or publishers could be encouraging SF-specific book clubs to focus on newly published works — by offering a bulk discount, by bringing the author to the club (in person, or via Skype) to take part in the discussions.
Also, some cities have a "one city one book" event, where the local public library encourages everyone to read a particular book during a particular month, so people can discuss it together. (This October, all of San Francisco is reading Doug Dorst's quasi-zombie lit book Alive In Necropolis.) Science fiction bookstores, sites and magazines could get together and do something similar for a new (or new-ish) SF book, and encourage everyone to read it in that month.
Most of all, though, it's up to us, the readers. When we do come across a book that's especially mind-expanding, gut-wrenching or apt to give us three-AM flashbacks, we have to evangelize more. Bug your friends, spread the word, press the book into people's hands. With a constant flood of new books landing on shelves every month, it's really hard for any one book to break out — especially if it's in some way unusual or ground-breaking. Authors and publishers are already spinning their wheels as hard as they can, trying to make their books the ones everyone will want to read — so it's up to us, as readers, to help move the books that move us.