Just because I love reading science fiction stories doesn't mean that I love every science fiction story I read. Some stories simply work better than others. Why? The reasons are largely a matter of personal taste and opinion, sure, but that doesn't mean one can't at least begin to qualify said criteria.
What I came up with are the basic qualities of "good" science fiction literature...
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It Has To Be Good Fiction
Right out of the gate, I'm cheating a little. This criteria doesn't have to do with the "science" part of sf, it has to do with the "fiction" part. That is, it has to have the qualities of good fiction—things like good characterizations, reasonable plot development, well-written dialogue, good pacing, a pleasurable writing style and some degree of originality. Good fiction evokes mood and emotion (you have to care about what happens), maintains a sense of logic and coherency, and is able to put me inside the story. Good fiction makes we want to keep reading a book after logic says it's time to call it a day. Taken together, these attributes, done right, make a story entertaining. And isn't that ultimately the primary reason why we read fiction?
It Has to Evoke Sense of Wonder
If all it took to make me want to curl up with a good book were the elements of good fiction, I wouldn't be specifically drawn to science fiction. But I read science fiction because it offers so much more. The biggest sf draw for me is Sense of Wonder. It's that Wow Factor of seeing something new for the first time or from a different perspective. How incredible would it be to walk on another planet? How cool would it be to teleport instantaneously to wherever I wanted go? How awesome would it be to have the powers of Superman or Spiderman? (But not Auquaman, because nobody really wants to be Aquaman.) How crazy would it be to travel through time and see my younger self? These are the mind-expanding ideas that science fiction brings to the party.
It Has to Maintain Suspension of Disbelief
Given the fantastic nature of science fiction, one might think that believability gets the ol' heave-ho out the spaceship window. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although fiction, particularly science fiction, regularly deals in the unreal, the concepts still have to be grounded in belief. For example, a manned mission to the object formerly known as planet Pluto is not possible today, but it's conceivable. The same goes for faster than light travel, time travel, wormholes and a host of other sf tropes. The foundations of these ideas are based upon proven scientific principles or, at the very least, scientific theories that cannot yet be disproven. The real science underpinning the fantastic concept gives them a handle readers can hold. Otherwise it's not science, it's magic.
In a nutshell, then, those are the basic ingredients of good science fiction. There’s still plenty of other goodness sf has to offer. Science fiction can often present thought-provoking ideas, for example. Some sf introduces cool, futuristic technologies or takes us to faraway alien planets, or shows us how technology might affect our lives, or show us what life could have been like if history played out differently, and more. I like to think of these elements not as required ingredients, but rather as tasty seasoning that adds to the mix.
Yum. Is anyone else hungry all of a sudden?
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also like bagels.