About 10 years ago, I sat down to watch From Dusk Till Dawn, a film co-written by Quentin Tarantino (then hot off the films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) and directed by Robert Rodriguez (who wowed with El Mariachi and Desperado).
The film started pretty much as I expected—witty banter, over-top-top drama and utterly captivating. But then halfway through, it took a serious left turn. Seriously. (Warning; spoiler ahead. But hey, this is a 16-year-old movie. The moratorium on spoilers has passed. So there.) Suddenly the movie was no longer a crime drama, which I was totally looking forward to watching. Now it was a vampire flick, which I tend to avoid. Wha...? You got your peanut butter in my chocolate!
Read the last SF Signal on judging books by their covers.
I felt a little cheated at first, like I'd been duped. Tarantino and Rodriguez pulled a bait-and-switch! They tricked me into watching—gasp!—a vampire flick! Well, it turned out that not only was I pleasantly surprised, but today I'd also call it one of my favorite movies. How can it not be? It's like two films in one! But I never would have known how good that film was if I hadn't been "tricked" into watching it in the first place.
The same thing can happen with books, too. People who are normally averse to reading science fiction and fantasy drop their guard and suddenly find themselves reading—and more to the point, enjoying—science-fiction and fantasy books.
How People Are Tricked
Here are some ways that people can be "tricked" into reading sf/f:
THROUGH CLEVER BRANDING: One reason is a simple case of mistaken identity. Readers didn't know they were buying a science-fiction or fantasy book. Perhaps there were none of the telltale indications people expect to find on sf/f books; stereotypical things like spaceships, robots, dragons and elves. Perhaps the book cover was more like the art deco design of Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm. In this book, the first of a series, protagonist Sam Thornton is a soul collector tasked with guiding souls to Hell. Or perhaps the cover is a bit more serene like Brian Francis Slattery's Lost Everything, in which a man tries to reunite with his son. That's a perfectly mainstream plot until you consider that it takes place across a post-apocalyptic landscape. These covers don't scream science fiction and fantasy like one might expect, so it attracts readers that might otherwise pass it by.
BY MEDIA HYPE: Come on, admit it. When you saw The Hunger Games being touted as "the next Harry Potter" you caved. It's OK, I still love you...just like millions learned that they loved the book. Even better? Those readers learned that they could like science fiction. What else would you call a society that makes its participants engage in mortal combat for the right to eat? Media hype is the Pied Piper that brings readers to books. And that's perfectly OK. So go ahead, read your Twilight books because you liked the films. Read Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road because Oprah picked it for her book club. Read George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones because you dig the HBO series. You'll be glad you tried.
BY THE AUTHOR: Maybe it's the writers or their reputations that trick readers into reading sf/f. Many people (rightfully) recognize Ray Bradbury as one of the world's most gifted writers. Because of his name alone, people will pick up, say, Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel in which books are banned. Or, maybe a much-loved and must-read author will throw his usual readers a curve ball. Stephen King, an undisputed master of Horror fiction, did as much with his latest novel, 11/22/63, a time travel novel involving the Kennedy assassination. King also ended his very popular book Under the Dome with an uncharacteristically science-fictional ending. Longtime readers expecting the usual fare will often find themselves pleasantly surprised.
Why Being Tricked Doesn't Matter
Want to know what I think? Being tricked into reading is not such a bad thing. Just like I discovered a film favorite with From Dusk Till Dawn, readers are finding that they like science fiction and fantasy. Anything that unites readers with books can't be all that bad. So what if there's a little bit of trickery involved? To my way of thinking, this is one case where the end justifies the means.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo-nominated group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.