What Makes SF Worth Reading
If you went to high school during the sixties and had English teachers like mine, you probably were exposed to an attitude of “Only these books are worthy of being called literature”, and science fiction entries were definitely not part of that list. Why?
Part of the reason is history. Science Fiction (hereafter abbreviated as sf) did not really emerge as a separate genre until the early twentieth century, and there were only a few books prior to that that would properly belong in the field, mainly those works by Wells and Verne. But when it did finally emerge, it was championed by some magazine publishers and editors who didn’t much care if it was quality literature (or who wouldn’t have recognized quality if it smacked them in the face); they only cared about making sales. As such, they sought out or commissioned the types of stories they thought would sell to ‘their’ audience, which very quickly was seen to be adolescent boys – who wanted adventure, action, and idealistic dreams. Accurate science, strong character development, properly presented thematic messages, insights into human nature, even proper grammar and realistic dialogue were frills that, even if they did somehow manage to sneak into some of these stories, were not appreciated – and writers who could put these things into their stories usually were better writers who expected more pay than what the editors of these magazines were willing to give. Thus was born the era of ‘pulp’ science fiction, which reigned from about the early twenties till early in the forties. And if stories of the caliber of this period were all that science fiction consists of, your English teachers would be right, that the field doesn’t belong in the world of literature.
Happily, such is not the case. In the late thirties and throughout the forties, new editors and writers entered the field, who had different ideas about what science fiction was all about. Names like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke emerged, each of whom had their own visions of what made a good sf story, but all of whom demanded excellence in their own writing. Certain criteria began to emerge about what elements good sf should have:
1. The story must, in some fashion, be dependent on science (that’s a really broad item). In fact, it’s so broad as to include practically every form of literature – but in sf this relationship needs to be explicit.
2. The story needs to have living, breathing people (or aliens – sf is not limited to Terran models) – else it’s not a story, it’s an essay or idea only. Note there are some exceptions to this: Fredric Brown’s super short-short stories frequently are ‘idea’ only stories, but many of them pack a wallop. But it takes an exceptional writer to violate the rules and get away with it.
3. Character development, realistic dialogue, proper grammar, reasonable style, settings, descriptions, meaning and message are, just as in any other work of literature, necessary elements of science fiction. Elements of irony, symbolism, motifs, poetic style, moralistic sub-text with ‘gray’ areas can, just as in everyday literature, greatly enhance the story – but only if properly used.
4. While imagined ‘new’ science may be present, it must be based on current known scientific fact. Items that violate current theory must either be given reasonable rationales, or else the story really belongs in the ‘fantasy’ camp rather than science fiction. Things like space ships performing sudden U-turns have no place in good sf. Also no fair is changing the rules in the middle of the game – having introduced a gadget on page 3 that will do such and such a whiz-bang thing, at page 200 it can’t all of sudden also do whiz bang thing number 2 – unless such a development has been carefully led up to. Just like in normal literature, dues-ex-machina devices are not good things.
There are a few items that violate this rule, that have become entrenched within the field and are accepted even though there is no (current) scientific basis for them: faster-than-light drives, telepathy, teleportation, time travel, etc. To some degree the acceptability of these items is a matter of emphasis: in a ‘hard’ sf novel, there better be some pretty good rationales given for these items. In a novel more concerned with the social implications of a galactic empire, these items can be mere ‘enabling’ devices for the setup, and not described at all, but taken as givens.
5. There should be a reason why the story is done as science fiction rather than normal literature. If you have Space Patrols romping around spraying their ray guns everywhere, perhaps what you should have written is a Western. If you have a love story set on Mars, but it could just as easily have been set on normal, everyday Earth, then what you have is a romance, not a science fiction story.
6. Conflict is necessary, in sf as in any other literary work. But frequently in the sf story the conflict is not between man and man, but rather between man and universe. Often it is exactly this difference in viewpoint that makes for successful sf; something that can be done in this field that is almost never done in other forms of literature.
7. Necessary background scientific information needs to be presented as part of the story, not as lectures or info-dumps. This particular trick is difficult, and is a stumbling block many writers trip over even today.
8. ‘Suspension of dis-belief’ is a prime requisite of a sf story. Somehow the writer must make the reader buy into whatever society/physics/situation the story has. This is an item that is rather unique to the field – the mainstream novelist typically does not have the problem of creating believable situations and environments. As methods of creating this, accurate science (calculate that orbit correctly!), use of foreseeable extrapolations of current trends, reasonable economic and political models are all helpful, but alone are probably not sufficient. Having the hero build a space drive from the items in his pockets – say, a knife, matches, pen, paperclip, and a ‘special’ ring he just happened to find – is not realistic, and pretty much destroys this suspension of dis-belief (although you can find instances of exactly this in some of the very early ‘sf’ stories).
The above is probably a sub-set of all the ‘rules’ of good sf, but a quick perusal of them will show that writing good sf can be more difficult than writing a good mainstream story, as there are several requirements of sf that don’t exist for the mainstream story. Why would writers even attempt this then (the pay for sf is certainly not better and is frequently a lot worse than equivalent mainstream works), and just as important, why should it be read, and who makes up its audience?
For the writer, science fiction provides a freedom of locale not obtainable in other forms of literature (except perhaps fantasy), where he is not limited to the everyday (or yesterday) environment and milieu with all their attendant baggage. He is free to create his own world for his own purposes; he may wish to investigate just what happens to people under pressures and environments that don’t currently exist (such as extreme world overpopulation coupled with abundant goods for everyone – good or bad? Utopia or living hell?). If the price of achieving this freedom is more difficult writing, perhaps more research than that of a normal novel, and (probably) less fame and fortune, it is a price that quite a few writers seem willing to pay.
There is also an aspect that is unique to the field: many of today’s writer’s grew up as fans of the field. The science fiction fan community is large and active, and not only provides direct and often quite vocal feedback to writers and editors about what’s good and what isn’t, but many fans eventually try their hands at writing the stuff themselves. A few of these ‘fan’ writers at some point get good enough to turn professional, and naturally keep writing in the field that inspired them in the first place.
A third aspect of writing sf is that, once you know its parameters and tropes, it is familiar, an almost self-contained environment, and subject to at least some amount of formulaic writing. Note that this is not necessarily good writing, but if it keeps a meal on your table and a roof over your head, it’s preferable to trying to write for other markets where you don’t know the rules and have a much lower probability of making consistent sales. Of course, such writing is part of an overall problem for the reader, as, like every other form of literature, only a small percentage of what is written is truly worthwhile (or as Theodore Sturgeon put it “90% of everything is crap”), and how is the poor reader supposed to make discriminating purchases of this material? (Of course the reader may want exactly this type of formula story – but he still has the problem of finding it!).
The second half of this equation is the reader – why should someone read this form of literature in preference to others? What does it provide that other forms don’t?
Perhaps the largest item here is the so-called ‘sense of wonder’, a term coined by one of the first sf magazine editors, Hugo Gernsback. It’s also sometimes referred to as the ‘gee-whiz factor’, and has often been cited as sf’s prime attraction. What is it? A dictionary definition is “The emotion aroused by something awe-inspiring, astounding, or marvelous”. Science fiction’s common subject matter, dealing with things and gadgets not yet achievable, the vast span of the universe and its myriad galaxies, how science changes the everyday life of humanity, readily lends itself to invoking such a sense. In the early days of sf, flying to the moon was unheard of, an impossible dream, so stories that had this as a premise were very likely to be awe-inspiring, forcing the reader to consider just what really is possible, just what incredible things man can achieve. Though the specific items and dreams used to invoke this sense of wonder have changed with the progression of science and technology, it is still far more likely to be found within the sf genre, with its emphasis on scientific marvels, than any other form of literature.
Second is the vantage point available in a sf story from which to view the intricacies of the human condition and the societies he lives in. By portraying a futuristic society, with different customs, mores and life styles than our own, the writer is able to highlight the strengths and weakness of our current society, can show how society is impacted by changes in technology, and can further dramatically show just what is constant about being human regardless of when or where he lives.
Third is the broad outlook and acceptance of changing conditions that reading sf engenders. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock described the condition that a large number of people are facing today, that of difficulty in keeping up with all the rapid changes in technology and how they affect their everyday lives. Sf readers have been shown to be much more resistant to this syndrome than non-sf readers. This is not really surprising; the sf reader is constantly exposed to ‘what ifs’, different social organizations, gadgets of every stripe, and having their faces constantly rubbed into the fact that the only thing that is constant is change itself.
And then there is the question of why people read any sort of fiction (if they read at all – a depressing percentage of ‘literate’ Americans read one book or less a year). The most common answer most people will give to this is entertainment, a time when they can immerse themselves in a tale about someone else, often far removed from their everyday existence. They may have subservient motives: an easy way to learn about other people and places, a haven of quiet time divorced from the rat-race, even just to be used as a sleeping aid, but prime is the entertainment factor. Sf certainly can provide this; with its frequent focus on man-versus-universe, it has a tendency to have heroes, people who accomplish great things, and stories where momentous things happen. Most people are more easily entertained by stories which have such elements as opposed to, say, a novel of manners, where the events are very confined, and play on individual characteristics working within a restricted milieu. Even worse are those books and ‘stories’ that forget to tell a story, become exercises in literary ‘technique’, self-referential offloads of the author’s inner thoughts, or displays of his ‘cleverness’. These may become the darlings of literary academics, but they are unlikely to become best-sellers.
So who makes up the audience for sf? There is no one type of person who likes it; indeed, you can find sf readers across all professions, in all social strata. There are some characteristics which seem to be more common: a healthy sense of curiosity, a willingness to consider ideas outside of current norms, frequently an interest in the sciences, and most markedly they enjoy reading – reading anything, not just sf, although it will often make up the bulk of their total reading. Sf readers are not necessarily any smarter than the average populace, but as there is a certain ‘geek’ factor to it, it does seem to attract a greater percentage of those who are on the high end of the intelligence scale than from the subset of those less endowed. And yes, the twelve year-old adolescent that the magazine editors of the very early days of sf targeted is still a prime target – it seems that right around this age is when curiosity about the world, how it works, and dreams about how to change it develops, and sf can fill that void. But it also speaks to readers of all ages, satisfies a hunger for something more than what is present in their everyday lives.
There is another phenomenon associated with sf readers: the great majority of them also like fantasy. Like sf, there is no hard and fast definition of what makes a fantasy novel, and what separates it from sf. Indeed, for many books, whether it should be placed in the ‘fantasy’ rather than the ‘sf’ box is very problematic. But the basic point of departure seems to be that fantasy includes elements that are not possible according to the rules of science. Note that there are quite a few sf works out there that violate currently known scientific data – but at the time they were written, their scenarios were plausible given the state of science at that time. Such works should (in my opinion) still be labeled sf. Another point of departure that is very common to fantasy works is that they are often backward-looking, dealing with the far past and/or legends as opposed to most sf’s viewpoint focused on the future (and like everything else about these two fields, there are exceptions, sometimes very good exceptions, to this characterization of their differences).
SF is a very varied field. Within its confines you’ll find books that delve into history, plumb the depths of the latest scientific theories, tug at your heartstrings with both romance and melancholy, expand your worldview with glimpses of other very different societies and governments from our own, force you to think about your own assumptions and life choices, and walk you through grand adventures. It is, perhaps, the only form of literature that really addresses what life is in today’s technological world and what it might become in the future.