What Makes Great Science Fiction?
A few weeks ago I wrote a post ranking the first 10 novels on my list. Those books ranged from amazing to not so great, and I did my best to think objectively about the merits of each novel. That being said, reading is such a personal experience that I feel it’s impossible to comment on a book without mentioning how the experience was for me.
Stories are funny that way. The author has one intention when writing it, but the second the thing goes out into the world, it becomes something else for someone else. It’s like the novel is a solid and a gas at the same time. (Not sure if that analogy is accurate, but I think you get I mean.) So any comment about the best sci-fi stories, or generally about what makes for good science fiction, is going to be tinted with what I think is a good story or a good sci-fi.
Nevertheless, I thought I’d take a crack at it. What makes great science fiction?
Like all great stories, the best science fiction, at its heart, is about people. We identify the genre based on its exploration of current and future technologies, systems, and situations, but what those technologies, systems, and situations really do is show us to ourselves. When we look at ourselves in unfamiliar situations, interacting with unfamiliar environments, like in science fiction, we gain a new understanding of ourselves. And that’s amazing.
As human beings, our self-awareness is grounded in our interactions with our environment and other people. Sure, we can pull a Descartes and sit in a room alone, reducing our thoughts to “I am,” and even feel fairly certain of that proposition, but most of the time our self-awareness occurs in direct opposition to the other in our environment, whether that’s another person or an object. And humans adapt quickly. We tend to take things for granted. So it’s hard to see ourselves clearly when we’re all wrapped up in our lives with our relationships and familiar objects and spaces. We start to lose the meaning of all of these interactions. So when science fiction comes along, it has that jarring effect because we find characters in direct opposition to the unknown and unfamiliar (to us). And as outsiders, of course, we have a clearer view.
The best science fiction, I think, understands that it’s not just about world-building and writing about cool things. The best science fiction points to that relationship between character and environment and says, “Hey, look at this. Look at this person in this world. What does that mean and how do you feel about it?” It’s almost like spotting a typo. You didn’t see it before, but it was always there, and now you can’t unsee it.
Great science fiction is jarring like that. It plants me at the edge of a cliff staring into an abyss and forces me to ask, “What am I looking at?” And then it provides the answer: “Myself.”
I become familiar by looking at the unfamiliar.
There is freedom in looking at the unknown, in looking at things that are uncomfortable long enough to recognize yourself in them.
I guess what I’m trying to say (hopefully I’ve been making some sort of sense) is that great science fiction is about that interesting intersection of people + environment. It allows us to extrapolate meaning by planting us in the unfamiliar.
And I like that.
I like that a lot.