I wrote this a while ago on my other blog and thought I’d put it up here, since it’s pertinent to writing and fiction in general. It’s basically my thoughts on what science fiction is and what makes for good sci fi. Everyone’s personal definition of science fiction varies, and this is mine.
I originally wrote this in defense of a critique of Firefly I wrote that sparked a lot of controversy in many sci fi circles, so I’ll edit out the rebuttals and other stuff that doesn’t really pertain to the main point.
What Makes Good Science Fiction?
First of all, I think that good sci fi should have the qualities of good fiction in general. That is, it should be written well and be strong in the basic story elements, such as characterization, point of view, dialogue, etc. In particular, the story should have good conflict and character development.
I sometimes help out the people at The Leading Edge with their slushpile, and I’ll often read stories that are well written but just don’t have anything compelling or interesting about them. They basically seem to go like this: “stuff happens, the end.” The characters are flat and the conflict is boring. The story is forgettable, and it’s hard to find something in it that you can really care about. Usually, this can be fixed by developing the characters better and making sure that the reader can relate to both the characters and the conflict. This is important in any fiction.
Moving on to something that a lot of people find controversial, good science fiction (as well as good fiction in general) shouldn’t be obsessed with sex or treat sex as synonymous with love. In the last several decades, there’s been a deliberate and concerted effort in the mainstream American media to get society to abandon most of its traditional moral values concerning sexuality, and I’m personally in the camp that sees this as a bad thing.
Not that I think that fiction has to follow all my morals to be good; I’ve read some good sci fi that is also quite explicit (eg Veil of Ignorance by David Barr Kirtley). It has more to do with pushing the line for the sake of a social agenda, or pushing the sex just to get an arousal out of the readers. These kinds of stories seem to send the message that “true love = sex” and “anything is ok if you’re ‘in love.’ ” It’s not just that I disagree with these ideas on a moral basis, it’s that I think that they’re erroneous in the first place. Yes, you can have sex and love at the same time, and you can even have sincere love and extramarital sex at the same time (eg Braveheart), but you can also have strong romantic love without the sex (eg Cyrano de Bergerac) and sex that really isn’t about love at all, even between consenting adults.
Love, including romantic love, is really about much more than just the sex. To focus disproportionately on the sex while neglecting other aspects of the relationship lessens the quality of any fiction.
Now, to get onto the stuff that distinguishes science fiction from other genres, and specifically makes for good science fiction.
I’m more into the social sciences (eg political science) than the hard sciences, but the fundamental principles that guide both are the same. Science uses empirical methods to make generalizations about the universe we live in. It is a method of asking questions, advancing theories, conducting experiments, making observations, and, based on the observable implications of the experiments and observations, making applicable generalizations that help us to better understand our universe.
Good science fiction, whether it’s hard or soft, follows a similar pattern. It takes something that isn’t currently part of our world (maybe a technological advancement, contact with an alien race, or a significant event in the near or far future), explores the observable implications of that thing (maybe the technology leads to unforeseen social upheaval, or we end up going to war with the aliens), and through those observable implications helps us to better understand the real world which we do live in. The hard sci fi focuses more on scientific plausibility and accuracy, whereas the softer sci fi tends to focus more on the story itself, but both are basically the same in that they try to tell us something meaningful or interesting about the universe we live in.
It takes more than just a spaceship to turn a story into science fiction. In fact, a story can be science fiction and not have any spaceships in it at all. It can even take place entirely on Earth and still be excellent science fiction. One of my favorite pieces of science fiction is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and most people would categorize that as a romantic comedy, not science fiction.
I subscribe to the sci fi podcast Escape Pod, which produces excellent quality sci fi short stories every week, and I’ve listened to many excellent sci fi stories that don’t have the stereotypical spaceships or aliens in them. I would highly recommend Escape Pod to anyone interested in sci fi, and as an introduction to the genre for those who aren’t. In case you do like spaceships and aliens, don’t worry, they have lots of those too.
The first story I listened to was Shadowboxer by Paul Di Filippo, which was about a man who could kill people by looking at them. He was discovered by the government and used as a kind of hit man; they put him in a very comfortable but completely isolated hotel/prison, and gave him pictures of the people (mostly terrorists) that they wanted him to take out. If a man had the ability to kill people by looking at them, I could definitely see the government doing something like that. The government’s reaction to the man would be one of the observable implications. Eventually, the government gave him a picture which only later he recognized as the prime minister of a country allied with the US. Right after that, they gave the him a picture of the President and a mirror.
The message of the story was sort of a different angle on the old theme “power corrupts,” and one of the generalizations I took from the story was that humans and human organizations can’t responsibly handle the power to kill whomever they desire. Other people may take different generalizations; just as the scientific method is as objective as possible, the writer of sci fi lets the reader come to his/her own conclusions, rather than spoon feed a message.
Ursula LeGuin, in an excellent introduction she wrote to The Left Hand of Darkness, made the point that science fiction is not so much about predicting the future as it is about conducting a thought experiment. In a thought experiment, you basically say “what if?” and trace what happens as a result of the way that you’ve set things up. At the same time, science fiction is fiction; it’s not rigorous like science, and it shouldn’t have to be. I don’t believe the science fiction I read in the same way that I believe in science, but I do believe in it the same way that I believe in art or in other fiction. Basically, I don’t believe in science fiction literally; I look to it as a sort of mirror in which I can better understand things that are in the world around me. If the story doesn’t operationalize everything, or is written more for entertainment value, that’s fine. It’s just that science fiction, to be good, should still explore meaningful questions about the universe on some level.
The best sci fi goes beyond many of the outward manifestations of this world and gets right to the heart of the patterns, laws, and systems that determine how the universe works. There are patterns of truth all over the place, but we usually don’t see them because the stuff on surface obscures them. Have you ever noticed how cirrus clouds make the same pattern as ridges of sand on the ocean just behind the line where the waves break? Or that piles of snow on the side of the road start to look like miniature mountains after they’ve melted for a couple of days? I might not be entirely correct to say this, but I think that the two different systems demonstrate similar patterns. In the same way, there are patterns in the ways that we as humans interact with each other. Recognizing and understanding those patterns can lead to some of the most fascinating personal discoveries. The reason that I thought Ender’s Game was such an excellent piece of sci fi was that it helped me get right to the heart of these patterns and begin to understand them.
This is what really attracts me to sci fi; the fact that it really gets me thinking, or really gets my imagination to start working (since, as LeGuin pointed out, truth is a matter of the imagination). I think that good sci fi should not only feature sci fi elements, such as spaceships or space travel technology, but that it should explore the implications of these things in such a way that they’re meaningful and interesting to us as 21st century Earthlings. That is, for me, what distinguishes science fiction from any other genre, and good science fiction from weak science fiction.