How Harry Potter Saved Science Fiction
I’m rereading Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone this week, and since I’ve read it before, I’m not going to do a full review of it. I have, however, been thinking of how it changed the literary landscape. I’ve talked it over with my wife, and several co-workers, and while that sample size isn’t going to compete with Nielsen, I think I’ve got a pretty interesting idea. My thesis is that the Harry Potter series pulled in millions of young readers at a time when it was believed that video games had destroyed the ability for kids to sit down and concentrate long enough to read anything longer than a comic book, and those readers have, in turn, powered a general Renaissance in YA Fiction as they’ve aged. Not only did they revitalize it, they are responsible for driving waves of development and change in YA Fiction during the last ten years.
I can remember the NBC Nightly News covering this ‘Harry Potter Phenomena’ back in 1997 and they wondered, even back then, what the long term impact of that particular fad would have on the world. They openly asked if it would rescue the struggling publishing industry, or if it was a momentary flash caused by an exceptional book. Fourteen years have now passed since it hit the shelves, and I think it’ pretty easy to see that publishing is alive and vibrant. YA / Children’s books are selling like hotcakes and they lead the way in innovative and engaging stories.
The first readers of Harry Potter back in the late 90’s were between the ages of 8 and 12. That would mean that those early readers are now just entering their mid-twenties. I don’t have any scientific studies, but I would think the increasing demand for YA titles during this time is pretty easy to tie back to the readers who were pulled in by the Potter series. As the readers aged, they evolved, and asked for more complicated, darker books. YA Paranormal. YA dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. YA SteamPunk. And yes, in some regrettable cases, glittery vampires.
But I’m starting to see something else now as well: a resurgence in available YA Science Fiction. Ten years ago, to find YA Sci-Fi, you’d have to go back and find the boy books of Heinlein. If you got lucky and found Ender’s Game when you were young, you struck gold. I didn’t find that one until three or four years ago. But now, more YA Sci-Fi is appearing on the market, and you don’t have to look hard to find it. My wife has recently pointed me to some interesting ones I hope to read soon, like Across the Universe by Beth Revis.
But how does Harry Potter tie to Science Fiction? Simple. Dreams. Harry Potter was about dreams and nightmares and fitting in and choosing to live the life you want, not the one you were condemned to. Every child identified, in some way, with being the boy locked under the stairs, and trying to escape to save the world. Those children, reading those books at that time, needed that story to show them that anything was possible. But at that age, magic was barely a metaphor. They didn’t understand the world they lived in, and the idea that great things were possible must have required some kind of magic.
Then they started to grow up, and hormones took over, and they went to high school, where they still didn’t feel like they fit in, and the world was strange and there were cliques and gangs and horrors parents could never understand, and those kids read about glittery vampires and watched Buffy kick some ass. They could identify with every outcast, and every conflicted character.
And then the glittery vampires weren’t enough. The reality of the world set in, with two wars raging and politicians as crooked as mafia bosses, a dying planet, and a corrupted financial system. The kids whose worries revolved around sex and acne, became bigger, more global, and the books they wanted showed them a world without adults, where kids survived an apocalypse to take over, and do it the right way. Their way.
And now, having aged a little more, they begin to dream a little more. Perhaps a little more optimistically. About a future they hope will someday come. And that leads us to a more pure science fiction, where explorers have broken free of the bonds of earth and breached the heliosphere and begin to make their mark on the galaxy. They wonder if their children will be able to have a better world than they had, or will this be the best it will ever be? And they look to science fiction to show them what might – what could – be.
Scott Hanselman, a technical blogger I follow, recently posted about how Young Adult eBooks Will Save Science Fiction. I agree that Young Adult Fiction will save science fiction. I disagree that it has anything to do with ebooks, except that ebooks will be the medium. What saved science fiction was Harry Potter. Harry Potter saved science fiction by getting a whole generation to pick up a book, and then another one, and another one and another one. And they kept on reading, even in their darkest hours. They read, and they bought books that spurred more talented writers to write (young and old) and that quality spurred more reading, and more writing.
I won’t say Harry Potter got me to write. I’m too old for that. But Harry Potter kept the industry alive so that I would have the chance to do what I am now doing.
And I , for one, am so very glad. Thank-you, J.K. Rowling.
Interesting. So, your thesis is basically a demographic one. Namely, kids dug HP as much for the fact that they could empathize with him–he being such a visible example of the same universal growing-up difficulties they themselves were experiencing–as much as for the stories themselves, and thereby, JKR injected a huge pulse of new readers into the age stream. Much like how returning G.I.s injected a huge pulse of babies into the age stream after WWII.
If I take your point, you seem to be saying that now this pulse of kids has grown up enough to where they’re into the requisite sci-fi phase of their lives, and consequently we’re seeing a massive uptick in the demand for YA Sci-Fi (analagous to how those post-war babies have now grown up enough to create a massive uptick in Social Security demand).
It’s not a bad thesis, and I think there’s much merit to it. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to test: we’d have to answer the question “what would have happened if JKR had given up before finding a publisher?” Because either a) for reasons unknown, conditions were ripe within society for a massive book-mania to sweep young people, and if not Harry Potter, then something else would have triggered it and ridden a very similar wave, or b) Harry Potter really was something special in that it resonated _just right_, in a difficult to plan, difficult to replicate kind of way, such that without it that mania would not have happened at all. Seems like one or the other of those has to be true (or, I suppose, possibly both), but there’s no real way to figure out now which it might have been.
If so much of the stuff called science fiction today was not a dumb as Harry Potter I would agree and approve. But today people think Star Wars is science fiction while in 1977 the producers said it was not.
Try The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan to see what science fiction is.
I’ll check out the “Two Faces of Tomorrow”… hadn’t heard of it before now.
I think there is quality science fiction out there. There certainly is crap too. But that’s more a function of a) the dumbing down of society into thinking if it makes a good video game, it must be a good sci-fi book and b) the self/indy pub pipeline gaining momentum and relaxing writing standards.
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