When we hear the words science fiction—or sci-fi, or speculative fiction, whatever—we think of spaceships, aliens, time travel, and all things outer-worldly. And, indeed, it often is about those things. But the genre still has this sort of low-brow, fringe association; it’s excluded from literature’s mainstream, in favour of realism, romance, and fantasy. This thinking should be left in the past.
I was no different—I used to also look at science fiction with an uneasy eye. Sure, I loved watching Star Wars: who doesn’t? But reading science fiction? Nah, I wasn’t convinced. Why read science fiction, I thought, when I could read a classic—Dickens, Dostoyevsky, maybe Hemingway?
Now, though, I see that my uneasiness was preventing me from accessing an amazing world and breadth of stories.
Science fiction is one of the most fun, and simultaneously thought-provoking kinds of literature there is.
What is Science fiction?
Science fiction books are, essentially, works of imagination. Of course, all literature is the work of imagination, by their very nature of being fictional. But usually, books use existing places, worlds, countries—even people—and then create a story from that understanding. And that’s great, but science fiction goes a step further: it looks into our potential futures and extrapolated technologies, building distinct worlds for its stories and characters to exist within. Sci-fi novels often foreground radical change and imaginative possibilities. It extrapolates the consequences of those changes in society. This is linked to the concept of cognitive estrangement.
Basically, the science fiction writer sits down and says:
Screw earth, that’s enough of the present moment, I’m out—let’s create some new, earth-shattering technology; let’s see what effect time travel would have on society…
And the results are often amazing, gripping, and insightful.
But these works are not detached from our reality. It’s not a literature of escapism, really. No, the best writers know exactly what they’re doing.
They use this outlandish genre to explore our own world, our societies, and our modes of thinking. It’s a genre that looks outward, to reflect inward.
Ultimately, we may think that science fiction is all about trying to predict the future. And some writers and readers love doing exactly that, it’s true! But more importantly, I think most science fiction aims to illuminate our present moment, to turn the flashlight toward ourselves—it encourages us to think creatively and critically.
The best way to prove my point is to give some classic examples:
- Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (part of her Maddaddam trilogy) raises questions about misuses of bioengineering through exploring a story of apocalyptic consequences.
- Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? raises a great question: what separates artificial intelligence and the human being, once they become outwardly indistinguishable?
- Or even George Orwell—he published Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1948, looking at a fictionalised future society set in the year 1984, to warn against trends he saw rising in his present: totalitarianism and a loss of freedom and individuality.
It’s easy to forget that Nineteen Eighty-Four is essentially a work of soft science fiction. It’s an interesting case because it’s managed to transcend the genre of science fiction, and is rather considered a purely political novel. It feels non-science-fictional because its links to our society are so obvious—because Orwell’s insights into the relationships between technology, power, and people were so powerful. Orwell gave us a vision of a world we don’t want to live in: a dystopia.
There are always wars being waged over genre and it’s boundaries in the literary world. I don’t really keep up with it, but I found this conversation between Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman on genre and its history really cool.
Great science fiction doesn’t try to be exact, predictive, or assumptive; it’s probing and asks the right questions.
Through exploring possible futures—hopeful or otherwise—science fiction begs the reader to ruthlessly question the world around them: what would a different world look like? A world with entirely different historical conditions to our own, with entirely different technologies? How would we navigate sudden changes, and what would our individual roles look like in this world? What can we learn, what can we think about?
If you consider yourself a politically, technologically, or socially-minded person, I think you’ll find science fiction enchanting. There’s a book out there for everyone. Some are in space, and some aren’t. Some of it is humorously far-fetched, for sure, but a lot of it is incredibly insightful. And some of it is just a form of alternate history. Earth, but on a different trajectory due to a change in history, like The Man in the High Castle. Those can be fun.
What about the future of science fiction?
Science fiction has always been there, simmering away. Titles have broken through over the years, like Frank Herbert’s incredible Dune and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, which I read only recently (the writing in Hyperion is something else, by the way).
I think that we’ll see science fiction gain a lot of popularity over the next few years. Now that a major adaption of Dune is on its way, it’s inevitable—as long as it doesn’t flop…
Sales are on the up; perhaps we’re entering a golden age?
Perhaps, leaning even further into this trend, people will want to escape the COVID-19-plagued reality of our world and visit another? The awe-inspiring worlds of Le Guin, Asimov, Bradbury.
But as you read science fiction, after this article, now you’ll know that a cognitive link to our world is always there, giving us new ways to think about what’s possible and what’s desirable or undesirable—shaping us, building the space between now and our undetermined future.
In such an ever-changing and polarised world, it’s important to think of the possibilities and could-be futures, to free our thoughts from constraints.
Overall, reading science fiction is an exercise in imagination, making us think about the futures we may or may not want. By doing so, it encourages readers to grapple with our present moment critically, to wrestle with possibility: what are we doing? What are we heading towards? How will we get there?
It does so in a powerful, entertaining way—especially when done right.
Science fiction promotes an interest in science no matter your age, encourages critical and imaginative thinking, and shows us possible futures that we just don’t think about. It’s easy to forget that books absolutely can and do change the reader.
And how about a final quote from David Brin for good measure? Here we are:
Science fiction is badly named—it should have been called speculative history… Whether you are in a parallel reality or exploring the future, it is all about the implications of change on human lives. The fundamental premise of sci-fi is not spaceships and lasers—it’s that children can learn from the mistakes of their parents.
If you’re feeling lost, picking up some science fiction might just help you find the way. At the very least, you’ll have a good time!
For more recommendations, check out my top 5 science fiction books that’ll get you hooked here.
Thanks for taking the time to read. If you enjoyed this literature post, see my others here. If science fiction still isn’t your thing, I’ve written some other reviews on books such as Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, too!