Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

This episode of the Coode Street Podcast starts with some comments on American politics, then quickly segues into asking why we read science fiction. The point that Gary Wolfe uses to pivot these topics is in itself fascinating, and indeed is one answer to the title question, but the entire discussion sparked a mental thunderstorm here at Two Dudes. It forced me to take stock of my reading habits, the reasons underlying them, and the ways in which these habits ripple through my world view. The answers I arrive at suggest that SF fandom stretches far beyond an escapist enjoyment of exploding spaceships and weird aliens. It does, at least, for me. I don’t presume to speak for others.

There are two superficial reasons that I have often given for my taste in SF. First, I love Outer Space and always have. Even before I discovered Star Wars, I was looking up in the sky, then finding books on the Solar System at the library. This is a pretty obvious reason to read what I do. Second, I tend to shrug off questions about my books by explaining that I have enough worries already and just want to read for fun. This is generally directed to people who wonder why I don’t read Booker Prize-type stuff, if I’m going to spend so much time with critique and analysis anyway.

Until now, these answers have sufficed. But listening to the podcast, I started to unpack them a little more, particularly the second. After all, if I’m just looking for light reading, I could be digging into mysteries, comedies, thrillers, or any number of best sellers. Is an interest in Outer Space really the only thing separating me from a James Patterson addiction? Further, it’s not just that I read science fiction, but the sub genres wherein I spend my time: Hard SF, cyberpunk, New Space Opera. I don’t even read all that much fantasy, though the proportion has increased a bit recently (and the fantasy I read tends heavily towards science fictional tropes). What does this say about me?

In the podcast, Wolfe tries to explain to his Australian friend that the current political mayhem here is, among several other questions, a science fictional argument about the nature of the future. On one side, he explains, are people that think the past and present can be measured, ordered, and comprehended; thus the future can be predicted and influenced. On the other are those that feel that the future, in God’s hands, can only be revealed. Climate change is the most obvious front line in this battle, but something like the debt ceiling question is analogous: experts from economics, finance, and big business lining up to invoke a monetary cataclysm, while people who have no real idea what they’re talking about assure us that a national debt default is no big deal. Not everyone I know automatically takes the opinion of a Nobel Prize winner over that of a radio personality.

Why is this science fictional? The answer lies in the purpose of science fiction, which I would define as using the present to extrapolate an internally consistent future for storytelling purposes. (Note that I do not use the word “predict.” SF is about speculation, not prediction.) SF writers must, by necessity, tend towards that first group of people Wolfe describes, all the moreso those authors working in the more rigorous sub genres. I am sure that some fall more readily into the “revelation” camp, but I am guessing that they write in the more forgiving areas of tie-ins, Baen-style military SF, or neo-pulp. After all, why write about a seriously considered fictional future if one is not seriously considering our own future? (Last parenthetical before I move on: this is not to say that all SF authors are Democrats, merely that most SF authors are likely to reject the mindset that says intellect does not matter because the future will come as God/Allah/whoever wills it. This axis is applicable to more cultures than my own, regardless of political and sociological orientation, I merely draw on what I see around me to explain a point.)

We’re taking the scenic route here, but this mirrors the paths my brain trod to find an answer. I should admit right now that I am not good at science. I struggled through high school physics and chemistry, then completely melted my brain in calculus. My daughter’s 4th grade math occasionally stumps me. I am, in the end, a musician. On the other hand, I have a fierce loyalty to the Western empirical tradition and the dreaded Scientific Method. I am suspicious of natural healing, New Age anything, the supernatural, the anti-vaccination crowd, and, despite my own convoluted religious background, organized church. (Again, this cuts across US political lines. I am equally enraged by both the “Jesus rode dinosaurs” Creationists and the crazy hippies in my neighborhood that would choose acupuncture over the hospital, even if they were losing limbs in a horrible Roto-Rooter accident. “Keep them doctors away from me, Moonbeam. Just stick a couple of needles in my shoulder and pass me that crystal.”)

What does all of this have to do with my fiction bookshelf, 90% of which is Hard SF? At the risk of parroting a hoary chestnut, I confess to reading SF for the rush, the, dare I say it, sense of wonder. I enjoy other genres, especially spy novels and literature, and am generally happy when I step out for something new, but almost nothing else gives me the buzz that the best SF can. I couldn’t say if my love of SF comes from my scientific world view or vice versa, but I think them to be inseparable. The same part of me that rejects political fantasy also rebels at unconvincing plot development. (Hello, Hollywood!) Likewise, statistically sound economic policies tickle the same part of my brain that devours a four page FTL drive infodump. I have to think that many in SF fandom feel the same. There are certainly other ways to sense wonder, but for me, Alastair Reynolds is much more convincing than Avatar. I am finally understanding why.

So this is a long way to say something that may be painfully obvious to everyone else, but was a bit of a revelation to me. I have a better answer now if someone asks why I read what I do. Somehow, “Rigorous science fiction aligns with my empirical perspective of the world,” sounds better than, “I like it when spaceships blow up.” I suppose that it is my small contribution in the war against entropy, fought this time on the intellectual front.

5 thoughts on “Why Do We Read Science Fiction?

  1. This is a really excellent post. Weaving what we read and how we interface with the world because of it, is one of the most important things the spec-fic community can be doing at the moment. But, maybe, we’ve got to be doing more than that. Ecological Dystopia is big at the moment, because the science is out there and the fear is out there and the extrapolation is relatively simple and makes a good story. Scaring people away from bad decisions tends not to be so effective, especially when no-one is talking about what the good decisions look like. When did we forget the building part of sic-fi, the call to action part, the part that is delight and hope in our measured, guessed at, calculable future, because those measurements mean that we can still shape it?

    • You sound like Neal Stephenson, with his call for activist, inspiring SF. I was also reminded of David Brin’s self-defeating prophecies, books like 1984 that warned people. I certainly back Stephenson. I think we need more positive stories that encourage kids to face the world with a scientific mindset and see our challenges as problems to be conquered. Doubly so in my home country, where anti-intellectualism is never far from the surface.

      • Neal Stephenson is a compliment I’m sure I don’t deserve, but it proves the need is timeless. The anti-intellectualism is difficult. In my home country one of the biggest problems we have is just talking to each other, and opening circles, like the SF community that have been closed except to a very small, homogenous group. Blogs like yours that are accessible and broad without losing the insight make me very hopeful that the exclusivity isn’t intrinsic to the genre. Thank you for that!

  2. Reading thrillers and fantasy make me feel entertained. Reading ‘literary fiction’ makes me feel more erudite. Reading non-fiction makes me feel smarter. Reading good SF does all three.

    Not to say that SF is, must be, forward looking and all – ALL – other genres must look backwards, unless they include an element of the speculative. In which case…

    Great post, btw.

    • I thought a lot about David Brin’s definitions of fantasy and SF while I wrote this. To wit, something like Star Wars is fantasy because it looks to the idealized past, rather than pushing towards a better future. I think this applies to a point. Likewise, I think that plenty of other fiction can be forward-facing, but it still doesn’t give me the buzz that William Gibson does.

      I should write more about giant robots. It’s easier on my brain.

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