Updated: Jul 29, 2020
A recent research paper from James Cook University has delved into the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) readership. Who are we? What does the average fantasy or science fiction reader look like? And, most of all, researchers asked, how do we feel about real-world science?
The stereotypes are wrong
Fantasy readers aren’t zit-ridden adolescents (their words, not mine). And science fiction readers don’t conform to the socially awkward stereotypes we see in shows such as The Big Bang Theory. For a start, most of us aren’t male: 55 per cent of respondents to the research survey were female. And while there was a marginal skew for science fiction in older male readers, the results were otherwise relatively even––which is something relatively new.
Historically, male readership has dominated the SFF genres, particularly science fiction. In this collated list of surveys from science fiction magazines between 1948 to 1975, female readership ranged as low as 5 per cent and no higher than 35 per cent. However, this shifting readership is a sign that women are more and more eager to embrace technological orientated stories––and, as the James Cook study shows, use science fiction to help champion real-world science (more on that later).
The age of the SFF readership has grown too. Where once the majority of readers were in their late 20s, our mean age is 42.3 years (median 35), though many of us discover our love of the genres early on in life (before 15).
Lastly, we’re not lonely geeks either: over 70 per cent of respondents were in a relationship.
On an interesting side note, another study has suggested that science fiction and fantasy fans make good romantic partners (go us!) as SFF readers are less inclined to endorse unrealistic relationship beliefs.
What does the average SFF reader look like?
For the sake of entertainment, let’s build what marketers call a buyer persona. A fictional person that represents the typical traits in a specific kind of customer. In this case, western* SFF readers.
Meet Jennifer. She’s a 39 year old American woman who comes from a family of readers. She’s got a university degree, but despite that, she believes that experience and learned skills are more important than education. She’s got a well-paying job and a long-time defacto partner.
English is her first language (though there’s an 18 per cent chance it’s not). And even though she considers herself a “dreamer” rather than a “realist”, she has good manual skills and problem solving abilities. She’s a quick learner and open minded too, especially to new and unfamiliar ideas.
Reading SFF is her favourite pastime. In fact, she reads an average of five books per month! Moreover, she firmly believes that science fiction opens readers up to new ideas in general.
What does Jennifer think of real-world science?
Jennifer might not be a scientist herself, but she is sympathetic towards science and scientists. She believes that science fiction has helped her relate to real-world science, and can do the same for others. She also thinks science fiction can also help cultivate positive attitudes towards science in general.
With this in mind and the growing demand for women in STEM, dare we say that science fiction can help break down the barriers for women wanting to pursue a STEM career?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer this, but my optimistic opinion is yes.
The James Cook survey is no means a full representative of SFF readers as a whole. However, it is the first to investigate general SFF readership without the clout of a publisher to distribute the survey for commercial intent. Also worth noting that the researchers do admit to limitations with the study, namely in how the survey was circulated online*.
Despite this, it does give a modern and interesting snapshot into our who our readers are and how our fictional words and worlds can play a part in attitudes, and even behaviours, in real life.
*The survey was conducted in Australia, in English, and leveraged social media groups based in the US to collect responses, such as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Had the survey been conducted in Brazil, for instance, this persona would likely be different.