I Am Not a Target Market: Questions for Doug Knipe

My brother could not get enough of the Redwall series when he was a kid. He would only read those books and he would read and re-read them after lights out night after night, year after year. He doesn't read much these days but he did graduate to the Lord of the Rings trilogy and as far as I know, it's still a favorite of his.

When I embarked on this mini-series (probing the habits of the modern male reader) one thing I felt I knew was that there's a special bond between boys and science fiction/fantasy. Sure, as librarian Brian Harvey pointed out, they're into the usual war, spots, crime and comic book stuff, but there's always a boy who's dedicated to his sci-fi and a good number who grow up and still have a profound affection for the genre (often to the exclusion of other types of books).

In previous Q&A's, critic and author Robert Wiersema told us that he loved Madeleine L'Engle's The Time Quartet, bookseller Eric Roundtree described himself as "a big science fiction and fantasy fan" and Mike Astbury confessed that he's the same, though only when his girlfriend's not around!

I decided that it was time to hear from a real sci-fi pro, a man who lives and breathes his sci-fi. There was only one person for the job - the Sci Fi Guy himself, Mr. Doug Knipe. Doug runs the popular Canadian blog Scifiguy.ca. Thanks to his dedication (i.e. the man is a machine!) his site is pretty much the gold standard in genre blogging. He's also an all-round nice guy. Here's his take on men and SFF (sci-fi/fantasy):

B: Let's start off with some good old fashioned flattery. I am in awe of your site - the sheer amount of content, the authors you manage to pull, the level of commenting...should I go on?! How did you get started?

In June 2008 I was totally immersed in reading urban fantasy and paranormal romance and visiting a lot of blogs to read reviews and search out new authors and titles to buy and realized that it might be fun to do that myself and be part of a larger community. I’d also been toying with writing (Pictorial Guide to My Library) all my life. I combined the two thoughts and started www.scifiguy.ca.

B: Who are you outside of Scifiguy.ca?

When I am not reading or blogging, I can be found working with my business partner in a small marketing company where I manage the general operations and develop online projects (websites and e-learning) for clients. I’m 54 and a life-long resident of Guelph, Ontario with twin sons, one here and another living in Florida. My favourite sport is poker, although I have dabbled in golf and curling. I’m also a movieholic, genealogist and photographer.

B: Let's rewind a bit here. Take me back to the days of junior Doug. How did your love of sci-fi/fantasy begin and what books were your absolute favorites?

I think the kernel of my fascination with SFF began the year I tore through the first the entire Hardy Boys series and then all of Tom Swift. But when I discovered the fabulous golden age writers that appeared in the Ace Doubles when I was 12, that was the true start. Picking absolute favourites is tough but to name a few I would include Duneby Frank Herbert, The Foundation Trilogyby Isaac Asimov, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistressby Robert A. Heinlein (or just about any of his young adult titles), When Worlds Collideby Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie, Dying Insideby Robert Silverberg and The Forever Warby Joe Haldeman.

B: How has your love of sci-fi/fantasy evolved over the years? You review a lot of paranormal romance and urban fantasy on your blog and I'm guessing you didn't start out there. What changed?

I always loved science fiction but in the beginning didn’t read all that much fantasy until I discovered the Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy series in the 70’s and then added fantasy as a staple of my reading regimen. Eventually the ‘sense of wonder’ I associated with SFF seemed to wane; the spark just wasn’t there. Big ideas weren’t doing it for me anymore and I sought out more character-driven fiction. I stumbled upon Guilty Pleasuresby Laurell K. Hamilton in 2005 and after discovering Charlaine Harris and others I was hooked.

B: I was fascinated by a recent article in the Walrus where the author, Troy Jollimore, said that he read old school sci-fi (which often lacks female characters or a romantic element) when he was younger because it provided a world free from the confusion of romance/sex. What do you think about his remarks?

I agree that SFF lacked strong female characters and romance and for that matter largely still does. I think everyone’s reading motivations are individual. I read it for the sense of wonder and if it had happened to veer into relationships I doubt it would have thrown me. However the continued absence of these themes in the genre I am sure contributed to my seeking out more humanistic fiction that still contained a sense of wonder. Urban fantasy does that.

A larger question might be why do science fiction authors avoid the topic? There is probably some larger cultural thing going on here because I have observed around the internet on blogs and forums that when the subject of urban fantasy comes up on an SF related site, the commentary and opinions are largely disdainful of the “kick-ass” heroines and romance.

B: Why is paranormal romance and urban fantasy so popular with women these days and are an equal number of men reading them? Is classic male-dominated sci-fi still a booming business?

I think the popularity for women is a combination of factors. Many of the protagonists in UF and PNR are empowered women, an outgrowth from the Buffy generation, engendering an obvious appeal. The genre is also more escapist than its romance and contemporary fiction cousins, and I think people are looking for that in an increasingly complex and worrisome world. Are men reading them? Largely no. There is a very definite gender identification bias that seems to apply.

I know it is a generalization but when I speak to guys that admit they read UF they usually cite authors such as Jim Butcher, Simon Green, Justin Gustainis, M.L.Hanover or Charlie Huston. Guys writing about guys. I would say, although I am not reading it as extensively, that male-dominated sci-fi is still big, and for that matter likely always will be. It’s neither a good or a bad thing – it just is.

B: What's your all-time favorite sci-fi/fantasy book and why?

At the top of my list and always will be is Dune by Frank Herbert. It has a scope and breadth of imagination and that are compelling. Phenomenal world-building and an eclectic cast of characters second to none. It’s full of drama, intrigue and action. And yes even a little romance.

B: What does sci-fi/fantasy mean to you? What do you get out of it that you don't get out of other genres?

Sci-fi/fantasy (including UF/PNR) is my escape from the mundane world. Not only is it the sense of wonder that sends that frisson of excitement though me but the awareness of possibilities that I can’t find anywhere else. Even better is that I don’t miss out on other genres because over the past 80 years or so, the SFF world has developed sub-genres that embrace the themes and tropes of other genres from mysteries to thrillers, spy stories, action and romance and everything in between. It has never looked better.

Thanks Doug! How much do I want to take a month off and go sit in a chalet in the snowy Alps, sipping hot cocoa with extra marshmallows and reading junior Doug's recommendations, the slight must emanating from the tattered paperbacks soothing my soul? ... No wait hold on, hooooooolllld on, I'm still imagining it ...

OK. So next up on ACBA's I Am Not a Target Market series are Regular Guys. Yes! If you know any non-book blogging, non-authoring, non-critiquing, non-bookselling, nononon guys, send me an email (or comment below) and nominate your regular fellow for a short and sweet questionnaire. I would be very grateful.


Marta said...

Thanks for interviewing one of my very fave bloggers! It's great to learn about the man behind the great website.

Glad you're writing about this topic, because it's been of interest to me.

B.Kienapple said...

You've hit upon my semi-selfish reason for interviewing Doug, I wanted to know about the man behind the site! Wait, does that sound creepy?

Marta said...

Don't ask me! I interviewed Doug yonks ago.


SciFiGuy said...

Thanks for including me in the series Bronwyn. I am curious to see what the regular reader has to say.

Yep Marta interviewed me 3/4 of a year ago and it's taken me this long to recover before I could return the favour :)

Chris said...

Great interview - and since I was curious about the man behind the site, too, I don't think it sounds creepy. ;)

SciFiGuy said...

Thanks for stopping by Chris

Keith Melton said...

Excellent interview. Let me say Doug’s library is impressive. I might have drooled on my keyboard a little…

Anyway, this is a fascinating topic. As a reader, I love SF/F *and* UF…the only thing that might annoy me about the infusion of romance into a book is if the world building is shoddy and/or suffers because the focus is too tight on the romance and the writer is sloppy about the rest. Let me be clear: this is an individual writer issue and not a genre issue. I prefer a balance—great, powerful love between people mixed with intriguing places, strange creatures, and exciting events.

Oh, and explosions, if ya got ‘em. ^_^

B.Kienapple said...

I think many of us here have dreams of having such an extravagant library. In fact, I'd like to do a home library series on ACBA. Anyway, thanks for your comments, Keith. I think you've hit the nail on the head. Doug mentions that UF is blasted on SF/F sites for being 'lesser than' but there are good and bad apples in the genre, just as there is in SF/F. As I mentioned in one of my questions, SF can tend towards being unemotional while UF can suffer from the opposite.

charlotteashley said...

It's a shame that strong female roles in speculative fiction seem to be railroaded into a sub-genre or two like UF. The books in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series Doug talks about were chalk-a-block with some of my favourite women in literature: Fushia in Peake's Gormenghast books and the various women of Evangeline Walton's Mabinogion books come to mind. And Dune contains the only woman in the sci-fi canon I was willing to consider naming my daughter after: Alia Atreides.

I love UF probably because of its representation of a wider, more accessible demographic, but I hate to have been pigeon-holed like that.

B.Kienapple said...

It's interesting that UF is perceived, in a way, as a "ghetto" for SFF with strong female characters. Though, it's likely that strong UF is being conflated with not-so-great UF.
I have never read SFF with a strong female character before but I did read Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and even though its main characters weren't strictly male, I still felt a strong bond to the writing. LeGuin's ability to marry concept and emotion really sucker punched me.


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