Speculative fiction is my ‘thing.’
Fantasy, horror and sci-fi constitute the big three in my book. They make up a disproportionately large segment of what I love to read, write and watch on TV and movies. They resonate with the kind of headspace I seem to occupy most of the time. I lovelovelove all three, however, sci-fi is my favorite. I can say with all certainty that it’s what I love to write more than anything else.
Why is that? Why do starships, aliens and planets trump elves, magic swords and dragons…or blasphemous books, tentacles and the shrieking, ineffable void?
There are a few reasons for this, which I will explain here (the top three, at any rate). Now realize that this isn’t a case for why sci-fi is better than fantasy or horror, merely why I’m drawn to it as a genre.
1.) Just a Spoonful of Sugar
It’s amazing the amount of social commentary science fiction can pull off without the ruffled feathers you would get if you talked about the same thing in ‘real life.’ In that way, science fiction is an excellent way to talk about something without really talking about it.
Think about it, we can talk about religion, politics, man’s inhumanity to man and the horror and/or necessity of war – all things that can make people truly uncomfortable − if we couch it in a futuristic setting. It somehow insulates us from the pricklier bits of what the story is trying to get across.
More than that, it’s a way for us to step back from our daily lives and look at some of the problems that surround us today. Even if the story takes said issue/problem/social inequity out of context, we still come away with a (hopefully) new perspective.
A prime example of this is the original series Star Trek episode, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield.” It starred Frank Gorshin, known for his role as the Riddler opposite Adam West as Batman. Frank’s character, Commissioner Bele, is tracking a fugitive, Lokai. Bele believes that Lokai and his kind are of an ‘obviously inferior breed.’ Why? Bele’s face is white on the left side and black on the right. Lokai’s color scheme is the reverse. To human eyes, the two aliens look just alike, but this difference of appearance is responsible for incredible amounts of destruction and social upheaval on their home planet of Cheron.
Okay, so the message isn’t exactly subtle; it makes its point with a jackhammer. Even so, it speaks directly to the racial division and strife that was rampant in the 1960s. Do you think that any straight-laced TV show of that time could’ve talked about that issue so openly? Likely not.
2.) Possible Futures vs. Alternate Worlds
Most science fiction takes place in the future. This might seem like stating the blatantly obvious, but there’s something to that. It takes place in the future − our future.
Usually sci-fi stories use the timeline of our real world as a foundation, or at the very least they don’t do away with it completely. Yes, there are always exceptions, such as Star Wars, but I’m talking in general.
For me, the most engaging science fiction stories are the ones that feel like I could jump in my time-travelling DeLorean or blue police box, dial it forward to the proper year and boom, I’m right there in the thick of things. I don’t have to reimagine the world from scratch, I just have to fill in the missing years between when I’m reading the book and the time period of the story.
Consequently, sci-fi feels very organic. It shows you possible futures rather than a completely alternate world that is separate and apart from the one we live in. In this way, sci-fi calls to me a bit more than the fantasy genre. Only in rare cases, such as Lord of the Rings or Conan, is a fantasy story presented as a sort of lost ‘pre-history’ to our world.
So, even though sci-fi takes flight just like other types of fiction, it does so by using us as a springboard.
3.) The More Things Change
The humans populating science fiction universes are a lot like us. Even if they live hundreds or thousands of years in the future, they are still understandable to those of us in this time. Sure, future generations may have figured out a lot of things that we haven’t, such as FTL travel, overcoming disease and hunger, etc. They may even have co-ed showers because gender roles are no big deal anymore.
But they haven’t figured it all out. Most of the time they still have to contend with greed, arrogance, anger, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, war and host of other things that are problematic for us today. Maybe they go to a job but don’t like their boss, or they grapple with the fundamental questions of our existence and place in the universe. They may have access to a host of technological toys that we don’t, but seldom are they that much more advanced than we are right now.
There are reasons for that, of course. The most obvious is that science fiction is written by authors who are relatively contemporary to us. I choose to think of it in a different way, though. I like to think that the inhabitants of the future are like us because that allows us to project ourselves in their place. If only we had the same training and access to technology, we might be able to trade places with them.
I think that feeling is essential in creating that sense of place in any good science fiction story. I’m convinced that it’s a big part of what draws us into that universe, and keeps us there.
Well, there you have it, folks. I could go on and on, but those are the things that give science fiction a special place in my heart. Of the three branches of speculative fiction, it’s the one that seems the most inclusive to the reader just as we are.
I’m sure that purists of fantasy and horror are even now lining up to point out the flaws in my reasoning. Do you agree with me, disagree or are you just sort of ‘meh’ about the whole deal?
Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.