The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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In Defense of Science Fiction

I sent a draft of one of my latest stories to a friend with whom I’ve been sharing a lot of my writing lately. Being a writer herself, she gave me some great feedback, and I’m always appreciative of her perspective. Part of her response caught my mind though, and I’ve been thinking about it since. She said that she really liked my approach to storytelling on that piece because it combined futurism and humanity, and that it surprised her. Why? Because:

I hardly read sci-fi and fantasy stuff, one reason being that I find it hard to relate to the subject matter. I can better connect to a story if there is strong character development.

And I thought, wow, does science fiction really have that reputation for being so scrappy? Looking back at what gets popularized in the media, I suppose I can’t blame the “non-geek” public for thinking that science fiction is some niche genre for comic-book-guys who would rather nerd out to Death Star plans than appreciate depth of character or linguistic finesse.

I think this perception of science fiction kind of gets into the difference between what I would call “pop culture” science fiction and “literary” science fiction. For example, consider Star Wars… most people would call that sci-fi, but it really doesn’t meet most of the general criteria for it. I would actually call it more of a highly commercialized “western-meets-fantasy” that happens to take place in space. Oh and it sells a lot of merchandise. Definitely more “entertainment” than “art”, and there are those different camps in every creative field. (And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, I own a ton of Star Wars books and memorabilia myself… it’s a generalization.)

Literary science fiction is quite a bit broader and deeper than some folks might think. There are a whole bunch of sub-genres, such as cyberpunk (advanced computational systems, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, etc), steampunk (parallel world in which steam and mechanical technology developed far faster than electronics), gothic, alternate history, galactic empire type stories, higher abstract life form type stories, etc etc. Within these subgenres there is a range of hardness, from what they call “hard” sci-fi (rigorously defined scientific underpinning for everything going on, clear ties to known physics) to “soft” sci-fi (loosely defined science, more suspension of disbelief). And then on top of that I would say that is a whole separate range of “technology-driven” or “character-driven”.  So yeah! Lots of variety.

Example: Most people have read Flowers for Algernon. It’s a beautiful and touching human story, and not many people consider that to be science fiction just because there are no spaceships and laser pistols, but technically it is well within science fiction as a genre (in fact it was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)… the premise is an element of scientific speculation (the ability to confer boosted intelligence on a sentient being) that leads to consequences and conflict for the characters (does the fact that the subject will lose this intelligence and be painfully aware of his descent back into a mentally retarded state make the temporary boost worth it?).

It’s been said by many that the best science fiction asks one or more “what if?” questions, then explores the consequences of that on people. Some of my personal favorites:

  • What if warp drive were possible, and the resulting contact with dozens of new species rallied humanity around setting aside our differences and embracing exploration and knowledge as our highest pursuits? What if in doing so, however, we were forced to confront the best and worst parts of what makes us human? Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry)
  • What if we created an artificial intelligence so advanced that it didn’t even know that it was artificial? What if we devise a construct that genuinely believes itself to be human and even we “normal” humans can’t tell the difference either without disassembling it… is it effectively human? What if people got very scared of the consequences of this and tried to eliminate them, and they rebelled? Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  (Phillip K. Dick, also loosely made into the movie Bladerunner).
  • What if contact with a particular alien species forced us to re-examine everything we thought we knew and believed about God and spirituality and what it means to sin or be virtuous? What if our anthrocentric perspective of religion was turned on its head? Would it destroy our capacity and desire for faith, or make them stronger? The Sparrow (Maria Doria Russell)
  • What if the relativistic effects of deployment in interstellar war created huge gaps in culture and language between soldiers and the civilians they defend? What if after a 2-year deployment to the front in subjective time, a solider returned to find 30 years had passed on Earth, and after a couple more tours over a thousand years had gone by at home?  The Forever War (Joe Haldeman)

In this way, science fiction is, in my opinion, one of the best vehicles for exploring the human condition. By using a speculative backdrop, we can “artificially” isolate or enhance the various factors that influence how people behave, and thereby investigate what it even means to be human. The novel I just finished reading, The Forever War, for example, was strongly based on Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam. In reading it, we can see how exaggerating the culture shock that real soldiers experience when returning from deployment, by making the conflict an interstellar one, lets us look in a new way at how we count the human psychological cost of war. Does a returning soldier sometimes feel like an alien in his or her own home? I mean, just try and tell me that’s not culturally relevant right now.

I think science fiction can hold its own with any other literary genre in the best tradition of what makes a good story: telling an emotional truth through a literal fiction. Sure, you have popularized, superficial, unadulterated entertainment sometimes, just like any other genre… but the deeper stuff is there, and plenty of it, if you look.

I sometimes wish that people didn’t have this insatiable need to classify things. A good story is a good story, no matter what the marketers and publishers file it under. The sad part is that I feel like there are a lot of people who would really enjoy the themes and ideas in a lot of science fiction, but never get exposed to it because they are not interested in the popular idea of sci-fi, or the culture that surrounds it.

Admittedly, geekdom does go hand in hand with science fiction (yeah that’s me in a Starfleet TNG tactical uniform, so what). You don’t have to be a geek to enjoy what this genre has to offer though.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, as a leader among readers once said… splurge on some free short fiction and check it out yourself. Science fiction literary magazines Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Lightspeed are just a few that I’ve noticed running great character-driven stories. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there, those are just the ones I’ve been reading lately.

I’ll even peg some example short stories I recently read and liked for their focus on character, good writing, and/or thoughtful premise:

Movement (pdf), by Nancy Fulda (Asimov’s)

Ruminations in an Alien Tongue, by Vandana Singh (Lightspeed)

My She, by Mary Rosenblum (Lightspeed)

The Paper Menagerie (pdf), by Ken Liu (F&SF)

Prayer, by Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)

Convinced yet?