I listened to a podcast entitled Gripping Science Tales Need Not Be Science Fiction on NPR recently. It included interviews with cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist Brian Greene and novelist Ian McEwan. The discussion was predominantly about the depiction of science in fiction. They clarify that their focus is specifically on fiction stories that happen to include real-life science as opposed to science fiction which, they imply, overhypes and skews science. This position both pleased and irked me at the same time.
It pleased me because there is an obvious enthusiasm about the presence of science elements in fiction. I share this enthusiasm. I always enjoyed the science aspects of my education and I therefore enjoy reading fiction stories that contain elements of science. However, the statement bugged me, too. The statement that all science fiction skews science is an unfortunate mis-generalization. Sure, some science fiction—in fact a large majority of it—includes fantastical elements. Science fiction excels at extrapolating current scientific theories and trends into the future. But there are some science fiction stories that are firmly rooted in accurate science. To generalize the entire field of sf, which contains such a wide spectrum of stories, is just wrong.
Why Does it Matter?
Am I just an outraged fanboy? Why does it matter if science fiction is characterized in this way? One answer is because doing so is detrimental to their cause. Clearly, everyone on that panel is excited about science and the presence of science elements in their fiction. And, as is human nature, we want to share with other people the things we like. But if you want others to get interested in reading fiction with science elements, there's no better venue than the pages of science fiction. Science fiction not only entertains, but also educates, illuminates, inspires and provokes thought. And guess what? It exposes readers to all that's cool about science. The reason their stance is detrimental to their cause is because science fiction excels at generating interest in science. That's what it did for me and that's what it'll do for others.
Do You Read Science Fiction? Why or Why Not?
I suspect the majority of readers of this article are science fiction readers. Just having the words "science fiction" in the title of this article will scare away some readers. So I put the question to you: Do you read science fiction? Why or why not?
If you do read science fiction, have you thought about why? What is it about the genre that really stokes your flame? What drives you to the pages of sf?
If you don't read science fiction, do you know why not? Is it based on some preconceived notion of what the genre is? Does science scare you? If so, here's a secret: Science fiction is rarely about science itself. If sf is about any one thing, it's about people. Elements of science are just used to remove the readers’ perspective from the here-and-now. By doing so, readers are able to see situations from an outsider's perspective. Science fiction is the only genre to do that to this degree. Or, as sf author Brian Aldiss once said: "Science fiction is no more written for scientists than ghost stories are written for ghosts."
My Challenge to You!
Are you a science fiction reader? Do you know someone who isn't? I challenge you to give them a book that will delight them. Non–science fiction readers are tough customers, though, so don't hand them a complex book like The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi; save that one for yourself. Instead, seek out an accessible science fiction title like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, or The Children of Men by P.D. James. Also good: Let them sample the science fiction and fantasy in its many guises by recommending The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Seven, edited by Jonathan Strahan. Treat them to one of these books and let us know how they liked it. By all means, tailor the book suggestion to the reader.
Are you not a science fiction reader? I challenge you to take a chance on science fiction. Go in with an open mind and let the story wash over you. You'll hopefully experience some combination of wonder and entertainment. Try going to your favorite bookstore and picking up a book like Robert J. Sawyer's Red Planet Blues (a sf-mystery set on Mars) or the lighter The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (about an out of shape IT technician who harbors an ancient alien life-form in his head). I envy your first exposure to the wonderful world of science fiction.
In either case, report back here and let us know how the experience went.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. In his spare time he likes sit motionless in crowded malls. That's not creepy, is it? You can follow him on Twitter as @sfsignal. Or not. See what he cares.