Why I value the principle of Science Fiction

I was going to entitle this post, ‘In defence of the principles of Science Fiction’. But that seemed too formal, pompous. I don’t have the resources to substantiate such a ‘classical’ academic kind of post (and I’m not sure I’d want to). When it comes to reading the best of Sci-fi I know I’ve got my work cut out, there’s a lot to read and I’m just starting out really. But, here’s the thing, I really like the ‘principle’ of Sci-fi and so when I encounter negative comments about it I feel the need to try to defend it. Here, in clear and simple terms I try to explain what it is about Sci-fi that I think is so important.

 

Like all genres there is good and bad Sci-fi, and of course that is relative to the expectations and the judgement of the reader. For me, good Sci-fi is writing that sets out to imagine different possibilities for the development of society and culture, with science often being the central catalyst for change. At its best I would argue that Sci-fi is a none-essentialist genre, in other words it doesn’t treat people as being naturally predisposed to act in certain ways, but rather, highlights the systems and processes that bring ‘people’ in to being. Change one aspect of the world and you dramatically change how people might dress, behave and consider themselves. JD Ballard comes to mind when I say this, with a novel like ‘The Drowned World’, his first novel, providing a careful analysis of what might happen as a result of global warming. Ballard doesn’t just describe the rising of water levels and the changing ecology, but also describes the changing psychological states of protagonists subjected to a kind of neo-primordial environment.

Aliens, space ships, heroes (and I say heroes because they are often masculine stereotypes) represent, for me, things that are cliché elements of Sci-fi and are actually not essential to the purpose of the genre. In fact, these elements can be the obvious trappings of bad Sci-fi writing that effectively rehashes all kinds of assumptions about race, gender and narrative. It’s just ‘space-themed’ writing, you could take a western script and just swap all the elements so the stage coach becomes a space ship and a lasso a laser. So, I’m being a bit arch in my comments here, suggesting a quality framework for the genre. But ironically that’s because I think it should be a genre that is well placed to affect our assumptions, challenge or egocentric sense of the world around us and make strange the things that are familiar.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Not sure that Ballard’s The Drowned World is “a careful analysis of what might happen as a result of global warming.” That’s all a backdrop, an afterthought, i.e. the mechanics of global warming. It’s discussed only because the main character is scientifically minded. It’s MUCH more about “the changing psychological states of protagonists subjected to a kind of neo-primordial environment.” I find the work a powerful work of almost allegorical power — everyone retreats or copes in their own way. The science that forms the backdrop is so incidental to the point he is trying to make!

    1. Thanks Joachim.

      I don’t make such a distinction between the consequences of global warming, which have resulted in Ballard’s fiction with London being a large lagoon, and the psychological states of the characters. Surely they are tightly connected, the objective and dramatically changed world and the subjective positions from which it is perceived?

      1. Joachim Boaz says:

        Ah, but a Hard-SF novels would have digressed at length and tried to make it all scientifically plausible — the fascinating psychological ruminations would all be secondary…

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