Why Sci-Fi?: An exploration of Genre

Recently, one of my Instagram followers commented on how I often passionately post about Sci-Fi writers and works that they have never heard of. Classics that have somehow not been on everyone’s radar, and new writers who have been overshadowed by those in other, more popular genres.

If you don’t already follow me on IG, please do! You can find me @sarahdoesscifi and join in on some of the live discussions we get into, not just about SF but about reading, writing, life, and what makes us tick.

What makes you tick?

The question got me thinking. What is it about science fiction, or speculative fiction, that gives me those visceral reactions?

I read very widely. I love mysteries and crime dramas; I love fantasy and magical realism; I love action and suspense; I love fancy pants literary fiction. The only genres I don’t read are romance and erotica. No, I am not a prude. I just don’t like them. That’s allowed, dammit!

Rarely, though, do I ever gush about any of these other genres. I’ll happily recommend it to others who enjoy similar books, I’ll say that I loved it. “Great book!” I will say, and I will mean it.

But I’m not going to write a blog post or book review extolling its virtues. I’m just not. Because I never, with the exception of some literary fiction and memoir, have ever truly felt changed by any book that was not science fiction.

So, Why Sci-Fi?

Science Fiction is real. It tackles real life problems, or future problems, and it attempts to solve them. Sometimes, it demonstrates how those solutions might fail.

I’m not saying that fantasy or crime thrillers or romance novels can’t be realistic. I believe all good fiction is based in reality in one way or another. Human interactions have to be recognizable to the reader’s experience. The laws of the story world must be obeyed.

Writers across genres are telling us something about what it means to be human. This is why we love to read. It’s a universal bonding experience to reach across the world, or into a fantasy world, and find a character that we love, can relate to, cheer for, or root against.

Terry Pratchett’s observations about human nature are brilliant and philosophical, for example. What Pratchett and most other genre writers don’t do is this:

They don’t offer solutions.

“The Most Important Artistic Genre”

I recently read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus. They, like good science fiction, caused a massive shift in my brain. He changed the way I thought about the world, about being human. He made me reconsider everything, spun me around, and pointed me in a different direction entirely.

“Today science fiction is the most important artistic genre,” Harari says in Episode 325 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.” — “Why Science Fiction is the Most Important Genre,” WIRED, 09/08/2018

Science Fiction is real. It is based on a speculation of what might happen if…

And those “what ifs” are real possibilities. They may be far fetched, the author might not get the science exactly right, but they don’t require magic or monsters to get the job done. They find solutions: the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.

The Solution is Sci-Fi

The SF author’s job is to make people think about this world, the here and now. To inspire people. Science Fiction can provide distant early warnings about the paths we are currently on. They can show us our doom.

Better yet, they can show us our potential.

The Best of the Best

My favourite SF writers right now are N.K. Jemisin (Check out How Long ‘Til Black Future Month), Octavia E. Butler (I’m currently reading Parable of the Sower, and I also highly recommend the Lilith’s Brood trilogy for a serious look at what makes us human), Ken Liu (his short story collection Paper Menagerie is a great mix of SF&F), and Margaret Atwood (the Maddadam trilogy is wonderful).

Discussion

Do you read science fiction? What is your favourite thing about the genre? Who are your favourite authors, and why? Which genre do you get the most out of? Let me know in the comments!

18 thoughts on “Why Sci-Fi?: An exploration of Genre

  1. “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled “science fiction” … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

    “What do my science fiction stories have in common with pornography? Fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world, I’m told”

    ― Kurt Vonnegut

    I can’t claim to be a fan of science fiction, but I am certainly a fan of Kurt Vonnegut.
    I think Science Fiction is like any other genre, though, in that the ‘popular’ stuff can be incredibly bad. TV rarely does the genre any favours, since most of it is just some familiar old story transported into another galaxy. It always turns out that the aliens are just like humans, in the end.
    I remember watching the original ‘Lost in Space’ as a kid. I was a great fan. The most fascinating aspect of it was the character development of the Robot. At the start the robot is dull and entirely functional, occasionally issuing the famous advise ‘Warning, Will Robinson!’, but by the end of the last series it is the robot who holds the show together. He cracks jokes, plays guitar and provides emotional counseling to the kids.

    1. I love Kurt Vonnegut too! I haven’t seen ‘Lost in Space,’ but it sounds great. I love the idea of machines learning to be human, and perhaps some day doing a better job of it.

      Harari shares your feelings about popular SF. I find this particularly true of film and television. A lot of it is just the same old melodrama with a Chrome and white colour scheme.

      In his book HOMO DEUS, Harari talks about the possibility of data becoming the religion of the future, superseding God and the cult of individuality (arguably the two most common religious notions today).

      That’s an idea I’m playing with in my own writing. How does society function if we remove the idea of human rights and replace it with the right to collect data? Does human life become more or less valuable when our value lies in our ability to collect and process data through our experiences? …hmm

      Thank you for commenting!

      1. Lost in Space was actually terrible. But, as a 10 year old, it was something I looked forward to every week. The characters were dull and completely predictable … and so it was left to the robot to save the show. I suspect that the robot wrote his own lines, in fact, and went outside the script with his (it was a male robot, quite obviously, though I don’t know how that’s possible) smart-arse comments and the like.
        Good Science Fiction is really no different than any other good writing in that it’s purpose is to explore ‘what if’s’. Your own project sounds as though it is doing just that.
        My son urged me to read some non-fiction (he religiously alternates from fiction to non-fiction every book) and so I read Sapiens. It was wonderful.
        And I agree with you (at least I think this is what you are saying) in that if any book doesn’t change your thinking somehow, even in a very minor way, then you have wasted your time reading it.

        1. Yes! Although I do allow myself reading “just for fun,” they tend not to be the books I remember. When I first started writing, I was writing “just to entertain.” Although I do hope readers recognize the main character’s internal struggles as something common to human kind! I am driven to explore more seriously as I get older, though, and less afraid of making mistakes.

        1. I actually haven’t read that one yet! My most recent Vonnegut was Hocus Pocus. Maybe The Sirens of Titan will be next!

          1. It didn’t actually get much critical acclaim, and Vonnegut himself doesn’t speak of it that highly, but it hit me in the right place.

          2. You’re right! I had forgotten that. There is a lot of overlap in themes and characters in his work. I wonder if there’s an optimal reading order or if order of release is best? So far I’m all over the place!

          3. Nah. Just go with whatever comes to hand. I think most people start with Slaughterhouse 5 and go backwards and forwards from there.

          4. Yup, that was me. I just grab them when I see them I’m used shops and add them to my teetering pile of future reads!

  2. I love science fiction and am not picky about it. A good space opera is right up there with all the myriad versions. I enjoy near future stuff a bit more, because we can weave some of those warnings and predictions in.

    1. That’s my preference, too. But I agree, a good space opera is hard to beat! Iain M Banks’ Culture novels are some of my favourites.

  3. I’m having trouble signing in to wordpress. I think I’ll have to set up another account. I enjoyed the post and comments.

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  4. Hi ya, you know I read scifi and Clarke is the one I like most but there’s lots of new talent like yourself and a few others that I have read or are on my TBR list. There’s also Iain M Banks you introduced me to.

    It’s interesting that we realise the reality of scifi and yet the literary world thinks we’re out there with the fairies and unicorns.

    1. Yeah, it’s frustrating. But there are lots of SF writers who are starting to be taken more seriously, which is encouraging!

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