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by Rick Klaw

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Why Be Normal?

It doesn't seem all that long ago that I was advocating the abolition of genre boundaries. With ignorance that could only be attributed to inexperience and youth, I believed that mainstream acceptance of science fiction was important, and that the only way to achieve this goal was to abolish the genre. In the late 80s, comic books had accomplished just that. Or so I thought. Superheroes, science fiction, romance, and comedic stories were shelved side by side. Sure some sold better, but something always sells better. By the mid-90s, the comic book industry was in shambles due in large part to the difficulty of fans to find something worth reading. The industry was inundated with crap. Sturgeon's Law in overdrive! It became obvious to me that the strength of genres in general and science fiction in particular is distinction from the mainstream. There is limited mainstream acceptance, but the bias still exists. And I, for one, welcome both these facts.

The mainstream ignoring of science fiction created the space that enabled the genre to produce important and influential writers (to both the field and outside of it as well) such as Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and a host of others. An entire dissertation could be written on the effects of the sf genre on mainstream pop culture. A recent example of this phenomena happened with the cyberpunk movement.

Dark Angel Much more than a literary movement, cyberpunk has influenced the very way we think. It has become a part of our everyday lives extending beyond it's science fiction roots into the very nature of reality. Twenty years ago, when William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner and the other Cyberpunks started to envision a new type of future, they scarcely imagined that many of their imaginings would become realities in their lifetimes and right before their very eyes. Every person who reads this column, uses a PDA, watches The Matrix or an episode of Dark Angel, they are tapping into a literary legacy. None of this would have happened if these writers were beholden to mainstream tastes and demands.

This is but one example of science fiction subverting popular culture. And it was all because the genre was left alone.

I want everyone to experience what I love about science fiction. If they haven't, they are missing some mighty fine reading.
Watchmen As many of you know, I am a HUGE comic book fan. How someone could not enjoy stories with pictures is beyond me. It's like those people who thought talking pictures would never be as good as the silent films. They just didn't know what they are missing. Ideally the pictures should enhance the words! When I recommend comic books to non-comic book fans, I am very careful. C.C. Beck, creator of the original Captain Marvel, is a genius but his light-hearted, reality bending stories are not for everyone. When suggesting comics, I always go with things that are as good or better than books in other mediums and genres. Alan Moore and David Gibbons' Watchmen is not just a fine graphic novel, but is also one of the finer science fiction novels ever written. Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn is one of the funniest stories ever. Dave McKean's Cages is an artistic tour-de-force. You get the idea.

For Adults Who Are Curious About Science Fiction
Rick's suggestions include:
Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard by J.G. Ballard
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (any Bradbury before 1965 will do.)
Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll (just about any Carroll will do.)
Scanner Darkly By Philip K. Dick
Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Replay by Ken Grimwood
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Behold The Man by Michael Moorcock
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson
Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Deserted Cities of the Heart by Lewis Shiner
Zod Wallop by William Browning Spencer
Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling

If you want to show someone the brilliance of science fiction, choose your examples carefully. I cannot tell you the number of people that have told me about trying to read Isaac Asimov at the insistence of a "friend" and then being turned off to science fiction. (I understand he is one of those SF gods but let's be honest. He wasn't a very good fiction writer, and the years have not been kind to his work.) I think Robert Charles Wilson is one of the current geniuses in the field, but I would never recommend him to a non-sf reader. His work is grounded in the conventions of the genre. In order to enjoy him, you must have first read and be familiar with science fiction.

An integral part of my career success is my ability to turn people onto SF. (My wife refers to me as a SF dealer or pimp!) My favorite tactic is to discuss the science fiction they have already read.

"I have never read science fiction."
With a grin I reply, "Sure you have. Ever read 1984 or Brave New World?"
"Well yeah, but those are literature. Classics."
"Yes they are, but they also happen to be science fiction."
And from there, I uncover what they liked about those books and off we go. My favorite place to start is with the Alfred Bester classics, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination. Both of these novels could have been written this year, and as matter of fact if they were, we'd all be raving about this amazing new writer. They are that good. The trick is to choose books that can be enjoyed without knowing the rules and conventions of the genre.

gen re n. a class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique or the like.
Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd edition, 2001.
The mainstream itself is a genre. To become a part of the mainstream, science fiction would have to relinquish part of its identity. I am just not ready for that. I enjoy being a person who enjoys things that are not part of the mainstream. A freak or a geek, if you prefer.

I experienced this recently with the hoopla surrounding Spider-Man. I first learned to read so that I could understand what Spider-Man was saying in the comics. The pictures weren't enough. Through my entire life, I have held a torch for the old web-slinger that was shared by few others. Suddenly, Spider-Man is EVERYWHERE! On cereal boxes, in Happy Meals, at Wal-mart! He even has his own E! special! I was never naive enough to think that Spider-Man was anything but a commercial endeavor, but I always felt a certain bond with the comic. Like it was a secret part of me. Something that select few could others could or would want to understand.

I feel like the same way toward science fiction. One of my biggest problems with The Matrix is that afterward, everyone became an expert on cyberpunk storytelling. How many of you out there saw the surprise coming and were shocked when no else around you saw it? Those of us who have been reading Philip K. Dick and cyberpunk for years knew exactly what was going on. Our single biggest complaint was that it just wasn't weird enough. You see it couldn't have been weirder. It had become mainstream. For the masses. For the non-geeks. It was plenty weird enough for them.

The next time you complain that "they" don't get it and how there is a bias against science fiction in the mainstream, count your lucky stars. Science fiction, as a genre, is plenty popular with huge best-selling books, big budget movies, and popular TV shows. The minute that the non-geeks understand and accept science fiction will be the beginning of the end of the genre as we know and love it. Keep things weird. Where else would the VanderMeers, the Links, the Ayletts, and the Miévilles hang out?

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. A former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experienced most aspects of the book business. He is currently reading the non-sf book Stupid White Men by Michael Moore. When he grows up, Rick wants to be Michael Moore. This column marks the one-year anniversary for Geeks with Books. Thanks for reading!


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