Who is Science Fiction For?

Last month, in this very same column, we talked about speculative fiction generally, and science fiction particularly, in terms of their place on the literary fiction/genre fiction spectrum. I concluded that while it may be perfectly accurate to consider science fiction “genre fiction”, we are entering an era in which media does not have to be labeled as “high art” or “literature” to be thoughtful, thought-provoking, and culturally meaningful. But enough recap. If you are interested in that post, go back check it out, and meet me here when you’re done.

You ready? OK.

This month, I wanted to talk about some of the practical implications of science fiction as genre fiction. What has this meant to previous generations, and what does it mean now?

In the past, different genres of popular fiction were marketed to very specific audiences. Romance catered to women, pulp science fiction, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories, were tailored to the presumed tastes of young men and boys. A strange and fascinating phenomenon occurred, though: people actually just liked whatever they liked.

It is a concept that is still catching on in the present era. Women like comic books. Men like romance novels. Nonbinary people like science fiction stories. And on and on and so forth in infinite combinations. It turns out that people’s tastes in stories and concepts cannot be predicted by their gender, age, or race. Individual personalities and preferences are broader than the narrow categories society, publishers, and advertisers still attempt to fit them into.

What does this mean for the present day? How do science fiction and related genres press forward without the traditional demographic constraints to and define them?

I hope the answer is incredibly, powerfully, and beautifully.

When the genres of speculative fiction are open to more voices, and broader representation, the old, tired-out tropes that no longer surprise and mystify will fall away, and be replaced by new ideas.

This kind of transformation in the genres can only take place when the people who love science fiction- in all their diversity and creativity- are unleashed to share their stories with one another. “Gatekeepers”, people who decide who is “in” and who is “out” of the fandom, only hold the stories that they love back from becoming even better, and wilder, and more exciting.

Who is science fiction for? Science fiction is for the people who love science fiction. And the stories of science fiction will become a powerful force for cultural change, and meaningful imagery precisely when they come from the minds of the people who love them the most.