Science, science fiction, and who are those elusive readers? (and where are they?)

First off a little commercial , to pay for the sand in the arena – I’ve just put up my second novel as an e-book – The Forlorn, where I have now gotthe rights back. It’s been available on the Baen Freee Library, but alas the need for dogfood, kittly-kibble and the basic food groups for the nourishing of authors — coffee, chocolate, and… whatever the other groups are.

Across the one human colony world, a place technologically regressed to near medieval, possibly the last place humans still survive, a desperate search continues. Scattered across the deserts, tangled jungles, and alien fortresses, lie the core sections of the matter transmitter.

These sections hold the key to vast wealth, power, or… the fulfilment of the colony’s purpose: to help humankind survive the rabidly xenophobic alien Morkth who will tolerate no other intelligent species. The Morkth managed to follow the colony ship, and, despite their mothership being shot down and their queen being killed, they continue their relentless struggle to destroy humankind… and to reconstruct that incredibly valuable matter transmitter. If they succeed, they’ll be able to return to the hive with the location of the colony of vile humans, and have a new world to occupy. If they fail, they’ll destroy the planet.

The search has gone on for centuries, and it is all reaching an end point. The future hangs in the balance.

The Morkth have lasers, aircraft, nukes. Those who want the core sections for their own ends… have vast armies. Against them are three unlikely reluctant heroes: A street child thief, a dispossessed spoiled brat of a princess, and a confused, amoral Morkth-raised human, armed only with 14th century weapons and their own wits.

It’s a lost cause, a forlorn hope.

But it’s all humans have.

Second commercial (it’s hardly worth reading with all these ad breaks!) – there is a podcast – with Moi and our very own Sarah Hoyt

Earlier this week I was reading a comment by a (female) sf writer who made the interesting and far removed from the usual ‘poor me all the wicked men are conspiring against me and I deserve some extra victim points to lift my income’ point that the overwhelming bulk of her (hard) science sf had a male audience. Was this typical?

This prompted some interesting comments (a rash of the usual, inevitably) but did bring up the fact the harder the science involved (or the more military) the more likely the audience was to be predominantly male. If it was ‘soft’ sf, anthropology, psychology, or fantasy dressed as sf the female audiences were larger. It was mildly amusing to this dour observer to note that it was clearly men’s fault for not reading these in as large a proportion, but not, somehow, women’s fault for not reading the ‘hard’ sf. (My suspicion is as one is talking of proportions here that the number male buyers is relatively constant unless it gets too Motherlines (gee, does she think the audience will come back, now she’s had her catharsis? I buy novels to entertain, amuse, uplift. Not to pay for someone else’s psychotherapy, and hit me once, and I don’t come back for seconds )-bash-the-bad-men, or too slushy romance for men who are worried by their image to be seen reading, or possibly enjoy reading. Hard sf just sells less. I’m guessing that what changes is the number of female readers). It did prompt the response that women preferred character driven stories. Which, um, did make the few hard sf writers quite angry. It is the sort of ‘I’ve never read any myself, but I know I don’t like it’ behavior that makes sff writers bad-natured, and it was fascinating to see the same condemn unread bias expressed by people who get angry when they’re subjected to it. I guess it is different then? As an aside I think that’s why Margaret Atwood irritates me so: she makes derogatory comments about sf being squids in space – which may reflect the prejudices of her audience (she must have one, I am sure) – but just shows the same ‘condemn unread without the faintest attempt to look at it or understand it’ prejudice that she’d violently decry if it applied to her work (I tried. I don’t think much of it, which is fair comment IMO) or the social anthropology of the pre-Western Ping-Ping tribe.

But behind all the sound and fury there are several shall we say subgroups in ‘hard sf’. There is my personal favorite, that Isaac Asimov, Murray Leinster, Poul Anderson, Charles Sheffield and Larry Niven did well sometimes. Oddly enough it often had very little of violence and action that the NYT article decries as appealing to a male audience. The stories were… about science. I’d put them as the science equivalent of the Agatha Christie, where if you have the background, read the clues you can work out the solution. They’re enormously elegant, and incredibly hard to do well, because without a solid engineering/physics/chem/ math research type background, they’re near impossible to write, and finding people in those disciplines who can write well enough to explain the concept to an audience who might be bright, but may well not know that branch is HARD. I’d love to find more of that caliber of writer, and I really don’t care what gender or orientation or skin color the author has! Or their characters have! But it is true: no matter how entertaining Wendel Urth or Gil the Arm are, the story is science driven, not character driven. The characters can make it fun. To be honest – hard to sustain except in short fiction (I’ve written one called Thin Ice, which I feel fits the mold , and damned hard it was too), or you have to mix with other forms. (Robert L Forward does this with Flight of the Dragonfly, and it was quite typical Niven and Pournelle. We (Eric and I) tried it in Slow Train to Arcturus – which part this, part Heinlein style, part social satire.

Then you’ve got the Heinlein branch – where the character does drive – but the science/engineering are solid, or at least well thought out. Without it the story fails. The violence exists, although it’s not always in your face – but the action is always there. Once again, it’s hard – but not near impossible to write without at least frequent recourse to expertise, and, logically – unless extremely well written (see Heinlein) needs some expertise in the same field to follow or not get bored by
I think Military SF is an offshoot of this – where at least for Weber you can say he thought it through… In detail. (My personal big objection to so much mil sf is it’s all about character, and slug it out rather than really out-science or out-think the foe.) Bujold’s stories endeared themselves to me (and so did some Cherryh, if you can call that mil-sf,) because it was about brains. When you’re my size you kinda fancy brains and skill winning. Yes. I know that’s fiction, and that’s why evolutionary pressure has forced human intelligence has downhill since my cousin Og banged the rocks together and made fire, but I can dream…

Then we get to the broader layer, where a science (or pseudo-science) setting is part of the set-up and structure. A little science background helps. It isn’t essential though, as research can do the job – and you’ve just got SOUND plausible.

This is the Forlorn – which as I have the rights back and put up as my own e-book on Amazon – I will tell you if you didn’t read it as a free download from the Baen Free library… you’ll have to buy if you want to read. I think it’s a great read, but I may possibly be biased. I’ve put my original epilogue in to the text. I’m trialing a different price point from A Mankind Witch,

which I put up last week.
And then after that you get well… almost everything else, and mixtures. Some of it is interchangeable with fantasy, and it really takes no science background at all to read or write. The Karres books are my example of this. I wouldn’t call it (or the previous category) ‘hard’ though.

I don’t know how anyone else feels about the singularity/virtual reality/nanotech stuff… maybe I’m too damn empirical, but I find it so hard to read because it always seems to snap my suspension of disbelief. Maybe I have not spent enough time in a cubicle, programming, and too much time trying to make things, or grow food. I think it is now counted as a sort of separate branch of ‘hard’. Maybe. I do think writing it and reading it requires the former. I think it’s a pretty male dominated area, and so I’d expect the readers to be mostly male, at least for the next 20 years.

The curious thing is I do see, historically, why more males would have written, and read, the ‘harder’ sf. It needed that background, that interest.

But I’m lost as to why the militant feminists are not upset with women for not reading more of especially category 1 – because that, (not gender of the author or the lead protagonist – which are really usually irrelevant) is a statement that reader is bright, intelligent and well-versed in the hard sciences.
I guess blaming someone else is easier.

So: what other sub categories can you think of? And is there any reason why gender or anything else should make any difference?


  1. Though 2 generations of feminism have attempted to inculculate otherwise, men and women are (gasp) different. While most parents of boys are now seeing their young men struggle in public school systems that were moved from a tilt towards a male oriented education towards a female oriented education (hence over 20% of boys now medicated for what 2 generations ago would simply qualify as active boy behavior that they would grow out of), it’s becoming apparent to most with sense that while we must treat people with equal opportunity and equal judgement before the law, offering men and women identical options hurts them both (or the one or other towards which the offerings are tilted).

    Every product merchandiser realizes this, rare is the shampoo targeted at women that’s wrapped in black and bold fonts, equally as rare is the shampoo targeted at men that’s wrapped in pastels and soft fonts.

    Why would writing and books be any different?

  2. Hmmm. What drew me to mil-sci-fi was the same thing that drew me to certain fantasy and hard sci-fi writers – characters and settings. Granted, having Hammers Slammers and Falkenberg’s Legion as your intro to mil-sci-fi probably ruins you for a lot of other, later works, but in both cases you have great characters in plausible settings using fantastic equipment (I still want a hover tank) to solve problems. At the time I was getting into it (early 1990s), women in mil-sci-fi tended to be in support roles, much as women in the real military, and they still managed to be major characters and role models.

    I find I enjoy hard sci-fi short stories better than novels. Especially if the science is computer science. Chemistry, physics, biology, geology, all interest me much more than computer science, so I am less willing to tolerate a weak story centering on computers than I am one centered on physics or chemistry. That may be sex-linked or it may be because I’ve never taken computer classes, but study and read the other sciences for fun and for work.

    I learned the wrong lesson from “feminist” sci-fi, I fear. What I came away with is that anyone who offers you “freedom from” is not to be trusted, be they government, corporation, religion, and especially if they are [group]-rights advocates.

    1. There’s an interesting non-fiction book along those lines you may want to take a look at. It’s Escape From Freedom by Eric (Erich?) Fromm. It was written early 20th Century about Nazis and Bolsheviks but the principles still apply.

  3. You are totally missing the point Dave. No woman should ever change her actions to fit in better with men. It is up to the male readers and writers of hard/mil-SF to recruit more women to reading their sub-genre in order to keep our female overlords happy.

  4. Firstly, The Forlorn is a good solid book, I recommend it.

    As a reader, I guess I have a lower appetite for psychology/anthropology, and a purely thinky book is probably less likely to grab me.

    The Forlorn has some pretty good thinky, but it is mixed well with action, and can probably be read fairly well for the action alone.

    I’ve tended to measure hardness/softness in terms of how rigorously the writer understands and sticks to the material on the one hand, and how plausible I think the physical phenomena are on the other. Doc Smith, I think, had a pretty good scientific and engineering education. Yes, he took liberties, but he knew what they where and actively chose them*. Whereas Kratman’s State of Disorder is probably around the maximum for physical plausibility**. (Well, I know very little about explosions, so I can’t speak for all of those. However, I know Kratman’s habits, and those I have confidence in.) The scale gets softer the more the writing indicates a lack of background, the more stuff like, oh, FTL is included, and the more the physical phenomena and technology strikes me as implausible. (Note that I have a bias when it comes to forecasting technology. I generally stop saying that “I don’t know how feasible that is” when the manufacturing line is running, and product is being sold.)

    I can read the VR/singularity/nanotech stuff, as I can read some other absurdly soft sci fi. I just have issues with the ones that go, these tech advances are a certainty, which must necessarily produce the effects that serve my political agenda in whatever way. I also have the same criteria for a tech singularity in 2080 AD that I do for a martial arts singularity in 2080 BC China. Is the story good enough, or at least, are the explosions pretty enough, to keep my common sense from clawing its way from my guts, and slapping me until I quit reading?

    *I don’t pretend I think Space Opera is very hard.

    **Kratman might be a sub-sub-genre of Sci-Fi, or maybe he just better fits outside of it. I can argue either case.

  5. I have a degree in physics but that doesn’t help me write hard SF–quite the contrary. Your intended audience has to have a common vocabulary and basis of understanding (especially if you are writing short form fiction), but until Physical Review Letters adds a fiction section the number of readers who would understand my plot based on the bond hybridization of fullerenes would be..small. Longer fiction can pull off exposition better. H. Beam Piper did that well, (silicon-based lifeforms in Uller Uprising, and some subtle interactions of silicon with chlorine form an important plot point). I think it is hard to have the *entire work* be diamond-hard SF without that common vocabulary. You expend too much of the story’s momentum explaining the basics, and that bogs down the reader’s enjoyment. Leaven it with characters, and then the story isn’t “hard” enough.

    So, what is really needed is vastly expanded science education 😉

    1. “So, what is really needed is vastly expanded science education” YES! YES!! YES!!!!

      As i said – scientists with the skill to write complex matters without that shared background or vocabulary (many of the bad puns in Bolg PI I only expect to be picked up by physicists (I have two sons who both majored in Physics) as the hero’s sidekick is either theoretical physicist or a magician, depending on how polite you want to be) are ultra-rare. I only know one Ichthyologist in that league, you could probably count the scientists capable of this quality, and willing to write sf on my fingers and toes.

  6. Dave,
    WEIRDLY my experience is that my male readers slaver over my Shifter series. I TRULY have no clue why. For the SF I have half and half male/female ratios — roughly. BUT for the shifter series I run eighty percent male.
    Yes, I know “You just have to be different, Sarah.”

    1. In the Shifters series, some of the problems driving the plot involve the Shifter stuff, but a good amount are ordinary real world adult problems. Those latter are solved by adults working with their own hands, making responsible choices, ‘manning up’, per the idiom. Whatever their pasts, and past decisions, Tom and Kyrie now are people a boy can feel good about having as role models, and a man can hope to have as peers.

      You can know a person better from their difficult times than from their good times. Look at how they behave as businessmen, when everything goes to crud, look at how they fulfill the the obligations of their relationships, between employer and employee, between host and customer.

  7. I own all three of your books mentioned, having bought them in Baen’s monthly bundles. I enjoyed them, too, even though they are very different types.

    1. It’s interesting – I find about half my readers will follow me across the different types of stories (I must admit I like writing across a range, but publishers, and some readers, are very intolerant about it. How do other writers feel about it?

  8. Just pondering. Million Dollar Outlines by David Farland has some information taken from his days doing “greenlighting” for movie studios — which apparently means running trailers for sample audiences to try to figure out what appeals to various people. He suggests that age, sex, and emotional appeal provide some pretty good ideas about whether someone will be interested or not. Basically, kids in the 0 to 11 year range are doing discovery — they want to know what’s going on. So wonder, humor, and horror are draws. When boys hit 5 or 6 and up through their late teens, adventure and sex are appeals. Meanwhile, the girls at 11 to 13 and up through late teens are doing romance. 20s to about 40s or so, there’s a similar split between thrillers for the men and romance for the women. Then as we get into the older ages, mysteries and dramas start to dominate for both sexes.

    Note, he’s not talking about gender, really. He’s talking about how Americans in the target audiences responded to various genres of movies. Apparently empirically based information, though. Which is something I find lacking in many discussions of audiences.

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