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Culture and Relatability Are Why People Don’t Read Classic SF, Not Age

SF author John Scalzi published a post on Sunday where discusses why young readers of SF, including his daughter, just aren’t getting into the decades-old SF that he loved when he was a boy:

The surprise to me is not that today’s kids have their own set of favorite authors, in genre and out of it; the surprise to me is honestly that anyone else is surprised by this. As a practical matter, classic science fiction isn’t selling where today’s kids are buying (or where they are being bought for), namely, in the YA section of the book store. See for yourself: Walk into your local bookstore, head to the YA racks and try to find a science fiction or fantasy-themed book that more than fifteen years old.  …

Mind you, generally speaking, book stores stock newer books anyway; book stores, like other entertainment venues, rely on novelty (which in our line of work is called “front list”) to get people through the doors. If you’re doing well as an author, some of your backlist is on the shelf, too. But the shelf in a physical bookstore is only so long. These days, being someone who has been in a lot of bookstores recently, I note the shelf in science fiction and fantasy is mostly skewed to living, working authors, most notably their last couple of books. Some classic (i.e., now dead) authors are there but usually represented by two or three books rather than an extensive backlist.

While all the points he made are correct, I don’t think he gets at the root cause of the shift in reading tastes.

I have trouble accepting the point that commercial availability driving demand because when I was growing up (in the 1990s) I frequented used book stores just to get those older books. I also combed through the library stacks for those three-, four-, and five-decade-old books because I liked the authors and wanted to read them. (In fact, there were a few early Heinleins that I didn’t find for the first time until the early aughts, and I still read them when I found them.)

Instead, I have to agree with the several commenters who argue that culture in the older books and the relatability of the characters have a greater impact.

To name one example, Scalzi links to an older post where he talks about his daughter trying and losing interest in Heinlein’s Starman Jones. I’m familiar with the book, and I still like it even though it’s dated, but I bet I can also tell you why his daughter did not like it.

She couldn’t relate to the characters, or the culture, in the book.

The lead character in Starman Jones is a white male teen from a rural farm, and both of the female characters (that I can recall ) were shallow caricatures.

The female characters weren’t real people, not like what we would expect today. (This brings to mind the complaints concerning Black Widow’s role in the most recent Avengers movie.) And so Scalzi’s daughter just couldn’t bring herself to finish a book recommended by her father.

And she’s not the only one to feel this way.

When I first read Scalzi’s post this morning I was reminded of a post I read about 5 months back where one reader described her teen years and why she burned out on classic SF:

 It’s like this…

You’re fourteen and you’re reading Larry Niven’s “The Protector” because it’s your father’s favorite book and you like your father and you think he has good taste and the creature on the cover of the book looks interesting and you want to know what it’s about. And in it the female character does something better than the male character – because she’s been doing it her whole life and he’s only just learned – and he gets mad that she’s better at it than him. And you don’t understand why he would be mad about that, because, logically, she’d be better at it than him. She’s done it more. And he’s got a picture of a woman painted on the inside of his spacesuit, like a pinup girl, and it bothers you.

But you’re fourteen and you don’t know how to put this into words.

And then you’re eighteen and you’ve given up on classic sci-fi, but that doesn’t stop your brother or your father from trying to get you to read more.

Even when you bring them the books and bring them the passages and show them how the authors didn’t treat women like people.

Your brother says, “Well, that was because of the time it was written in.”

You get all worked up because these men couldn’t imagine a world in which women were equal, in which women were empowered and intelligent and literate and capable.

You can read the rest of the post here. (Kudos to @diversebooks and @michelle_gaudet for helping me find the post again.)

While the above quote is a very specific example of what drives people away from older books, I still feel it falls closer to the truth than Scalzi’s explanation.

Readers want to able to put themselves in a book, and they want to relate to the characters (hence why we need diverse books).

And if they can’t relate to the books, they’re just not going to read them.

image via Portland Mercury

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J. Kirsch November 2, 2015 um 2:05 pm

These are very good points and gets to the heart at something Scalzi doesn’t wrestle with directly.

I think one danger of the diverse books movement, important as it is, is the tendency to conflate two different situations that you sometimes see with older books. There are older books which lack the presence of diverse characters and then there are books which treat minority group characters as caricatures and/or in a negative light.

The latter of those two situations is a legitimate problem, and it’s no wonder that readers respond accordingly. On the other hand, older classics that are simply not diverse by virtue of an omission (often unconsciously) often still deserve to be read and in fact still ARE being read quite widely.

A perfect example of this is The Hobbit by Tolkien. Here is a book loved by boys and girls alike (disclaimer here: it’s one of my wife’s favorite books). I suppose you can argue it has 'diversity' in the sense of different races – humans, elves, orcs, hobbits, etc. But from a gender standpoint it really isn’t diverse at all – and yet that doesn’t fatally undermine the overall strength and appeal of the story. Far from it.

Diversity can be a tricky line to navigate. Portraying minority groups as caricatures or unrealistic is definitely a mistake that too many of the older classics make. On the other hand many of the classics represent just great storytelling period, and even those that are not rediscovered widely by readers may very well become the fertile imagination-instigators from which future writers will draw inspiration and more.

Nate Hoffelder November 2, 2015 um 2:34 pm


I think one danger of the diverse books movement, important as it is, is the tendency to conflate two different situations that you sometimes see with older books. There are older books which lack the presence of diverse characters and then there are books which treat minority group characters as caricatures and/or in a negative light.

Indeed. That is a point I hadn’t considered, and you’re right.

Thank you.

Kevin November 2, 2015 um 7:16 pm

Yes, Kirsch’s distinction seems appropriate. Readers always belong to or have sympathy with some group. If a book belittles that group, the reader will obviously find the book objectionable, but so will most educated readers who now see such abuse as parochial, small-minded, and offensive. On the other hand, if the book sidelines or ignores a group that the reader belongs to or has sympathy with, then the reader will often simply find the book boring and/or irrelevant.
This issue is present not just when non-white non-male readers read older SF from white male American techies. As Ian MacKean noted “…Jane Austen never writes scenes with only men present, for the simple reason that she could never have witnessed such a scene herself.” Somewhat unsurprisingly, despite the best efforts of legions of English teachers, quite a few guys find Austen boring. Quite possibly, the reaction is similar to women reading older "classic" SF.

Kat November 3, 2015 um 8:54 am

Well put. *Some* of the classic SF will continue to be read — but some won’t. And what it comes down to isn’t necessarily if there is diversity (an educated reader can make allowances), but whether there is *room* for diversity in the world portrayed (exceptions for stories where the lack of diversity is the point, of course).

Xtifr November 3, 2015 um 1:40 pm

Seems to me that both Scalzi’s older post, and the entire second half of the newer post, were making the point you claim he’s ignoring. I think the point about bookstores was simply a new factor he thought of in the time since he wrote the original essay. But his point about The Blackboard Jungle in the newer essay is clearly making the same point you are.

As for used bookstores—do they still have those where you live? I happen to live in a college town, so there’s still a couple here, but nowhere near as many as there were when I was a teen in the seventies.

Nate Hoffelder November 3, 2015 um 1:43 pm

I didn’t say that he ignored it; I just think that he didn’t get to the root cause. And I’m not the only one to feel that way.

Edit: And yes, there are three used bookstores in my area.

Jon Jermey November 3, 2015 um 2:49 pm

The type of people who wrote science fiction when I was a boy wrote detective fiction when my father was a boy, and fantasy when my son was a boy. Each generation has its preferred way of presenting the world, and genre fiction shifts and changes to reflect that. I enjoyed science fiction immensely as a teenager, but going back to it now I can see the bones of wish-fulfilment poking through in most of the stories; and there are only so many trick endings you can read before you can see them coming a light year away.

carmen webster buxton November 3, 2015 um 8:48 pm

Absent vs denigrated is a valid distinction. Classic science fiction often lacks female characters in meaningful role; sometimes they are there but only to be saved. It’s much worse in stories like Alfred Bester’s THE STARS MY DESTINATION where the discovery of a teleportation technique somehow results in women being confined to their homes in a kind of purdah. And when the protagonist wants revenge on the universe, he rapes a woman. Suprisingly, this books is still recommended as a "clasic."

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