Friday, June 1, 2018

What Makes Science Fiction So Unique?

I will never forget the book that opened my mind to science fiction. I must have been in second or third grade. My mom had taken me to get some shots and the library next door was having a book sale. I just remember seeing the book A City of Gold and Lead and knowing it was the book I needed to get. My mom did not seem convinced it would be a book I would like but let me get it all the same.

I devoured it! I loved the world John Christopher created. Aliens invade and take over the earth! A young boy joins the resistance. It took me years as a kid to track down and find the other books in the series as this was book two and I needed to know the whole story (this was before the internet so this actually meant looking through old card catalogs). But I never stopped looking and eventually did find and read them.

There is just something about science fiction that has always stuck with me. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea. Some are content to watch the latest Star Wars movie and that's that. This is all fine and dandy but for some of us, science fiction holds more meaning than what's on the blockbuster hits surface.

So what makes science fiction so unique as a genre?


According to the dictionary, science fiction is, "fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space or time travel and life on other planets."

This is a nice summary, but it leaves out what is implied. When you take on writing about possible futures of our world, deeper issues are exposed. Morals, belief systems, social structures; these are all changed. It is here where I feel the heart of science fiction lies.

Exposing these deeper issues is one of the ways science fiction is unique. It can often mask these issues in the story but because they are different than the world we are currently experiencing they stand out more than in a present-day storyline.

I agree more with the definition from the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction:

 Science fiction is the literature of ideas and philosophy, answering such questions as, "What if?" or "If this goes on...," and is thus sometimes more interested with exploring ideas than developing plot or character, if the memes and ideas under examination are powerful enough to sustain the work. It sometimes seeks to subvert the dominant paradigm, when the author sees the status quo as harmful, and is therefore sometimes considered subversive or transgressive. It explores possibilities and pushes boundaries. It asks the next question, and then the one after that. It is often epistemological - seeking to understand how we know things - ontological, metaphysical, or cosmological. It is concerned with all of us rather than individuals, and with how we got to be what we are, and what we might become.

This explanation of science fiction shows why it is a unique genre. Science fiction asks the big "what if?" questions that face every human. Think of some of the most classic sci-fi stories, such as 1984 by George Orwell. What I love about 1984 is it shows this dystopian world but it was Orwell's way of warning society of what we could become.

It's this idea though, that you can take what you see in the world today and think ahead of what the consequences might be if we keep down the same path. This is the big "what if?" science fiction writers ask.

Another aspect of science fiction that is unique is its concern with humanity as a whole versus individuality. Science fiction stories serve as a way for us as a whole to check ourselves. They cause us as a whole to ask, "is this what we want for our future? How can we change things to keep this from happening?"

The more people asking these questions the more likely there will be change. It's healthy to take a step back and look at the big picture. Science fiction is the act of taking a step back and communicating these heavy questions through storytelling.

It is these facets that draw me to science fiction as a genre. At its core science fiction is a way to ask the big 'what if?' questions and explore what they mean for our future as a whole. Science fiction stories do have familiar memes found in other genres; romance, adventure, mystery, but they also take it a step further. These memes are not the central theme of the story, nor should they be in a science fiction novel. It is the large 'what if?' question the story is asking that the reader is made to confront.

What draws you to science fiction?