There always seems to be discussion and debate about the various types of science fiction, and which is more popular, which is more serious, which is cooler, etc. I have no problem saying, right up front, that whatever kind of science fiction you like—or whatever type of any genre, for that matter—is what you like, and there’s no need to rationalize or apologize for it to others. (So, the next time the discussion comes up, I don’t want to have to separate the 2001 and Star Wars fans, okay? Groovy.)
That said, this is what I get the most out of from science fiction.
The entertainment media we consume (or produce) tells us a lot about ourselves; not just what we like, but what it means to us and what we get out of it. Genres speak to particular tastes and interests, as each genre is a unique mixture of many interests, and their fans gravitate toward those particular mixtures. Do you crave adventure, a simpler time and polarized morals? A western might be just up your alley. Are you into love and Elizabethan society? Period romance speaks to you. Do you love science and technology, curious about the future, and interested in what makes people unique? Science fiction sounds right for you.
So we’re attracted to genres based on these mixtures of interests. But there are further sub-interests that narrow our focus even more, and dictate whether we want to read stories about complex characters and deep psychological issues, or whether we just want a hero good at punching his way through a problem.
Science fiction has historically built on the overriding interests of science, technology and the future. But from there, it’s mixed sub-interests like a blender set on frappe, giving us everything from Flash Gordon to Through a Scanner Darkly. A lot of science fiction stories are very similar to stories in other genres, in which it feels like the science and technology tropes have essentially been bolted on: Alien is a traditional horror story set on a space ship; Star Wars is a farm boy-to-war hero’s journey story set in a galaxy far, far away. Take away the SF trappings, and the story is still viable in another genre.
But my favorite kind of science fiction is the story that you’d have trouble telling in any other genre; a story like Solaris, in which the hero must deal with the unexpected and impossible presence of a person from his past, someone who forces him to deal with his strongest and most painful memories, and may even give him a chance at redemption; or Man Plus, about an astronaut who not only agrees to give up his former life, but a sizable part of his very humanity and perception of life, in order to explore a distant world.
These are both powerful stories that deal with deep concepts about individuals and humanity… but the stories wouldn’t be possible, or nearly as strong, if the science fiction trappings were removed. The existence of the SF elements are what makes them such powerful stories… or what makes them stories at all.
This effect transcends what SF fans like to debate as “hard” vs “soft” science fiction, and which has more worth or popularity. The fact is, a story can delve into these elements, whether it has a strong basis in realistic and realistically-extrapolated science, or whether it is based in a fantasy world of warp drives and ray guns. In fact, some of the most powerful science fiction stories have been written for Star Trek, a decidedly “soft” version of television science fiction.
I happen to prefer the kind of science fiction story in which the science, technology and extrapolations of the future are very realistic—what I call Futurist Fiction—with a story that could not be as effectively told without those FF values. I also happen to prefer writing those kind of stories, Sarcology, Verdant Skies and Verdant Pioneers being the best examples from my catalog.
On the other hand, I also love stories in which the science fiction trappings may not be as necessary to the plot, but the characters and their journeys are still strong and entertaining, such as in The Kestral Voyages books, Chasing the Light, Evoguía and As The Mirror Cracks.
Mundane stories—average people leading average lives, set in a world that happens to be in the future or on another planet—don’t interest me much, because the stories are very bland whether set in an SF framework or not. (I’d give you an example, but right off, none are even coming to mind.)
I also have little interest in Star Wars– and New Star Trek-type stories, conflicts in intergalactic space, clear analogues for our own world wars or cold war conflicts. I’ve simply gotten tired of space battles and war heroes, and would like to think we could do better in the future than shoot at each other to solve problems. I’m much more interested in inner exploration.
There, in a nutshell, is what I want out of science fiction, and what I’d like to see produced for audiences. Unfortunately—for me—my desires don’t seem to be in the majority, and the SF I’ve seen in media seems to be leaning much more heavily on space battles and alien conflicts, less on humanity and our future.
But that’s okay: There are a lot of writers out there, more every day, and many more of them share my views; it’s just a matter of giving them the opportunity to make their work accessible to fans like me. That’s the real benefit to the democratization of media, the growth of variety that goes along with it. And as long as the variety of science fiction grows, I should always be able to find some of what I consider the best science fiction.