Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Perils of Classification

So, one of the podcasts I'm working my way through is Adventures in SciFi Publishing, and in an episode I listened to recently (I think it's still several years old) they were talking about why Fantasy outsells Science Fiction. As their example, they gave the Lord of the Rings as the best selling fantasy work of all time, weighing in at 150 million copies sold. For the best selling science fiction novel, they gave Dune at a modest 12 million copies.

And my immediate thought was "Dune? Really?"

Here's the thing (this information is coming from Wikipedia):

Dune sold 12 million copies.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sold 13 million.

But, okay, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory doesn't really have science, even if it does have monsters and weird cultures and fantastically advanced machinery. The "science" is mostly magic anyway, and it's not really integral so much as a set piece and plot convenience. And it's for kids anyway?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy sold 14 million.

Okay, I mean, sure, it's in space and all, and there are aliens and robots. And it includes both the origin story for the world and the end of the universe. But it doesn't count because it's funny... I guess?

Nineteen Eighty-Four sold 25 million copies, more than twice Dune.

Surely when people think science fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind? I grant you it's not hard science heavy, but this thing is like the patriarch of dystopias.

Here's the big one though. There are two books that have officially outsold Lord of the Rings.

The first, and best seller of all time, is Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The second is a story about a  travelling alien resident of an asteroid who comes to earth to see the world from an outsider perspective, and to discover profound truths about life: Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry's Le Petit Prince (200 million copies, which, if you're keeping score, is Lord of the Rings plus four Dunes and some change).

Now, that's a children's book, and not per se full of what you would call science, but I'll contend if you line it up next to Doctor Who it's not out of the ballpark. Putting the word "quantum" in front of something doesn't actually make it scientific.

I think part of the problem with BOTH science fiction and fantasy is that they've evolved these really weird distinctions about what's really science fiction or what's really fantasy- borders that are fiercely defended by the more vociferous fans out there, as I'm sure any Urban Fantasy reader will tell you. Nevermind fans of Twilight. And they're not really consistent. Why WOULD you count Dune but not Nineteen Eighty-Four? Why is Star Wars science fiction? Why is John Carter of Mars? Why ISN'T Atlas Shrugged (a book which, mind you, is set in the future, deals with the outcome of societal decay, and has material stronger than steel, a cloaking device capable of hiding a whole valley, a sonic death ray, and an engine that produces limitless free energy, all as major points of the novel)?

The explanations actually given for why Science Fiction (undefined) sold more poorly than Fantasy (also undefined) despite the individual performance of some books were:

1. The market permeation of Lord of the Rings and a desire left in its readers for more books of similar scope and subject (which I think is a fair and excellent point, and demonstrable in authors like Terry Brooks and Christopher Paolini).
2. The science itself is a hurdle many readers either can't or don't care to overcome (this one gets a meh from me, because there's such a wide range in science fiction- there's a lot of it where attention to scientific detail actually hurts you)
3. More women read than men, and women have traditionally preferred fantasy (reasons given for this were the boys own adventure quality of a lot of scifi, the greater representation of strong females in fantasy, the science is hard argument above (grr), and the kind of insular and off-putting elitism found in some of the science fiction fandom).
4. They also kind of flirted with the idea that fantasy tends to be more character-oriented and science fiction tends to be more idea-oriented.

One thing they didn't mention, but which I hope they do as the discussion goes on, is that a lot of the fantasy on the best seller list here is kid friendly. Some of it is out and out FOR kids, but most of it is stuff that both kids and adults can read (Little Prince, Lord of the Rings, Hobbit, Narnia (okay, that one's iffy), Harry Potter, to name a few). Cutting out either kids or adults reduces your audience pool, and let's be honest, if there's any one group that's at a disadvantage, generally, for understanding (or sitting patiently through the explanation of) the science, it's young kids.

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