There are lots of reasons people enjoy reading fiction. To name a few: entertaining escapism, connecting emotionally with the characters and engaging in social discussions like book clubs. But one of the most rewarding aspects of reading has a more significant and meaningful impact. It's how literature can make us reflect upon our own lives.
Read the last SF Signal on the academic side of speculative fiction with Karen Burnham.
Here's a secret: No kind of fiction tells us about ourselves better than science fiction.
Today's 50-Cent Phrase: "Cognitive Estrangement"
By immersing yourself in a story, whether written or visual, you get to know the world the writer has created. When things in that fictional world differ from your understanding of how the real world works, you begin to ask questions. And you want answers. You look for an explanation of why these things are the way they are.
Literature scholars have a fancy name for this: cognitive estrangement. (Write that down; you can use it to impress your friends at parties.) Cognitive estrangement puts the reader in a world different than their own such that the reader is provoked to think about those differences and question them from a unique perspective. Cognitive estrangement is essentially literature's solution to "can't see the forest for the trees.” By stepping outside a situation (seeing it from another's perspective), we detach ourselves from it and can better see it for what it is.
Why Science Fiction Does Cognitive Estrangement Best
At this point you may be asking yourself: "All fiction stories create situations different from reality, why does science fiction—a literature known for being so far away from known reality—do it best?" The answer is because science fiction puts those differences in your face. The main task of science fiction is to present worlds that are different than our own by asking "What if...?" questions. For a reader to associate with these stories and characters, you must compare it with your own world view. Science fiction will focus that introspection by positing major differences from what you know to be true.
By way of example, consider The Children of Men by P.D. James, which asks, what if mankind was on its way to becoming extinct? Before the novel even begins, some unexplained phenomenon has rendered all men infertile. That means the current human population will eventually dwindle away to nothing. It's the last generation of man. The story forces readers to ask questions around this premise. Does the situation justify legally forced fertility testing? Would government-sanctioned suicide become acceptable? Would people go casually into oblivion or would anarchy reign? One simple "What if?" premise—so bizarrely different from our own reality—becomes a springboard for these thought-provoking questions that force us to question our own reactions. That's why science fiction does cognitive estrangement best.
Science Fiction as Mirror
Like all literature, science fiction often reflects ideas and events on the minds of the authors writing it, a fact most easily observed over time, where trends—thanks to the wisdom of hindsight—become more obvious. The use of the first atomic weapon to end World War II, for example, gave rise to stories that questioned technology and omnipotent power. The end of that decade saw publication of such socially reflective novels as George Orwell's 1984 and George R. Stewart's Earth Abides.
Thanks to cognitive estrangement, the use of sf as mirror has continued unabated over the subsequent decades, too, with books like The Space Merchants, in which Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth satirize consumerism; Karel Capek's R.U.R., a 1921 play that uses robots to provide social commentary of workers' rights; The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells and Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress, which forces us to consider the consequences of genetic experimentation; and Kate Wilhelm's Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which puts the microscope on the more personal issues of cloning. More recently, you can see the impact of social and political issues raised by the events of 9/11 in books like Flashback by Dan Simmons, Osama by Lavie Tidhar and The Mirage by Matt Ruff. Seven Cities of Gold by David Moles does so, too, but also throws in the events of Hurricane Katrina as well.
The novels mentioned here are just some of the examples of how science fiction literature makes us look at ourselves, a characteristic of science fiction that readers consistently find immensely appealing.John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.