The problem with science fiction

Science fiction author Daniel Arenson recently made the fascinating observation that some prominent writers shy away from being labeled as science fiction authors.

Ian McEwan’s novel Machines Like Me is about artificial intelligence, but he refuses to call it science fiction, because he claims his novel explores “human dilemmas.”

Margaret Atwood, a supremely talented author, also shies away from calling her work “science fiction,” despite her novels often being set in the future and dealing with technology. She explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself writes, is “talking squids in outer space.”

Harlan Ellison, another extremely talented author, writes about the future, robots, space, time travel, and artificial intelligence. But he famously said: “Call me a science fiction writer. I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”

Daniel Arenson

It’s tempting to think of this as snobbery or prejudice, but remember, these authors deliberately chose to write these stories—they’re inspired by sci-fi concepts but don’t want to be associated with the overall “brand.” Why?

Historically, there’s been resistance to considering science fiction legitimate literature, but I think this runs deeper as that attitude has, itself, slipped into history.

As an avid reader of science fiction, I suspect the real reason is because of the tendency of sci-fi writers to focus on the sensational over character. With broad, sweeping plots involving aliens and lasers, interstellar war and exotic concepts such as black holes and exploding stars, it’s easy for characters to become lost.

For me, this is the problem with science fiction… all too often, it’s showmanship over substance. I’m three chapters into a book by an indie writer and, as enjoyable as it is, the characters are cardboard cutouts. They’re largely irrelevant and interchangeable. If one of them was to die, honestly, I’d barely notice. If only science fiction writers would focus as much on character development as they do on the weird and the wild.

As a science fiction writer, I make a determined effort to read far more broadly than just science fiction, as I think there’s a danger of becoming caught in the sci-fi thought-bubble. While on holiday last month, I read the historical biography Mawson: And the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen. My daughter is a John Green fan, so I’ve read several of his novels and, yes, I cried reading Fault In Our Stars.

Look at that cover… No spaceships. No gigantic alien super bugs. No lightsabers. No lens flare.

Seriously, though, there’s nothing wrong with a kickass cover, but it has to be backed by character. One without the other is a mistake. And in reality, if you have deep, meaningful characters, you can get away with something as monotonous and boring as this (although I won’t be attempting that)

Science fiction IS literature.

All literature acts as a mirror, providing us with an opportunity to examine ourselves. The reader IS the protagonist as the act of reading allows us to inhabit another’s shoes, to walk in another world, to interact with others in ways we never imagined we ever would.

Science fiction is speculative, letting us see how humanity might cope with the unknown. In that regard, it offers a unique platform upon which to examine humanity. Rather than being an embarrassment, it has the potential to teach us about ourselves, but only if characters are given more credence than concepts.

7 thoughts on “The problem with science fiction

  1. As a science fiction author, you need to strike a balance between science and fiction. It is important for these two things to be properly weaved together when writing a science fiction story. Do not bombard your story with so many facts. Remember, you are writing a fiction story. At the same, try to make your story as consistent to science as possible to live up to its genre. To put it simply, your story should be able to explain thoroughly its science aspect without leaving the fictional aspect behind.

    • Yes. I love near-future science fiction for this reason. It’s easy to maintain plausibility while introducing just a few new concepts based on good science. I’ve written a few far-flung futuristic novels, but I’ve never been entirely happy about my conjecture on how science & technology will progress. I think that can distract from the characters. I like Michael Crichton’s work because it’s mostly near-future and so easy to imagine coming to pass.

  2. Too often the writer’s sympathy sympathy is with the world they create, not the people in it, hence the all too often downer ending where the “Earthlings” die and the “forces of evil” triumph. A deliberate downer ending, in my value system, is the mark of an immature writer.

    • …the mark of an immature writer… and the set up for a sequel 🙂

      It’s interesting to reflect on science fiction as our collective attempt at imagining the future. Often, it’s over-simplistic. Life is hideously complicated 🙂

  3. To help sort out your plot, you need to pinpoint the heart of your story. What is its core? Is it about a son’s revenge against his family’s killers, or is it a story of acceptance and healing? After you’ve decided on your story’s core, you can then build conflict, complications, climactic events, and resolution around it.

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