I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I love science fiction.
I’ve always loved reading. It’s a deep and abiding love and it’s gotten me through when literally nothing else did. It’s saved my life. It showed me a world out there that was not my dark and fear-filled hole and it helped me put words to the things I was feeling. Other people feel like I do! I’m not crazy!
I love to read all kinds of things—fiction above all else. This is because fiction allows the writer to bypass the constraints of “fact” and get at what it really feels like to live. Don’t get me wrong. Fact is important, but in fiction, it has to seem like fact more than actually being fact.
And facts are deceptive. We all know stories that we say, “If I told this story, no one would believe it.” That’s because real life has no arc. It’s just a bunch of experiences and feelings all jumbled together in a bewildering neverending stream. We make our lives coherent by choosing from these things and making a narrative of some kind. We make our lives and our own meanings.
And even fact-based writing like nonfiction books and newspaper accounts are constructed. You can’t tell what happened exactly. There was too much. We have a gentlemens’ agreement on how we present these things. We leave out whole swathes of things. We only include certain POVs. We pretend like what a reporter knows is really what happened. We say “alleged” a lot. I understand this. We need this to understand our world, and a journalist is just doing the best they can.
“Novels are our first and best technology for connection.”
But think about this. Why do we use passive voice in rape cases? “She was raped.” “She went to the bar.” “She received severe trauma.” We never say, “An unknown man assaulted a woman.” “He beat her within an inch of her life.” No. We don’t say. Passive voice first of all allows us to state the facts we know because we can get those facts from the police and sometimes the woman. Is the man going to say what he did? No. But this shifts the blame in our language to the woman. It makes us feel like it’s all on the woman. The man—woops—is a shadow figure with no responsibility. This is an example of how we craft narratives, we construct meaning, and facts are just a small part of what gets conveyed.
I’ve long read lit fic and sci fi. I’m less interested in nonfiction, though I love that too. When I was young I read everything, but then when my brothers and I were teenagers, my mom got my oldest brother a subscription to the Science Fiction Book Club. Oh. My. God. How I loved that. He would get a book and read it and I would be right there on his tail, waiting for him to finish. C.J. Cherryh and Ursula Le Guin. Larry Niven and Roger Zelazny. Frank Herbert and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I can’t tell you how many books there are that I remember vividly but I can’t track down the names, which I would love to do.
But then I went off to college and I turned to lit fic. I was an English major after I was a failed electrical/computer engineering student. I loved and love how fiction is the closest you can be to the insides of another person. Movies do it too, but you’re always external. Books allow you inside.
Novels are our first and best technology for connection.
Over the years, I’ve watched so many sci fi movies, but I wasn’t reading sci fi as much. I was pursuing the lit fic dream. Wrote a lot—11 books so far. Got an agent. Didn’t get a traditional publishing deal. Decided to do it myself and haven’t regretted it. The control is great!
But why do I love sci fi? I love world building. I love getting taken to someplace I’ve never been with a capable guide showing me what’s important. Don’t get me wrong. Lit writers have to build worlds too. They just don’t realize it.
I love characters, and sci fi has some of the best characters. Granted, when I was a kid, at best I didn’t see myself in what I read and at worst what I was represented in a very twisted way. However, rather than rejecting that, I jumped in with both feet. I would be the hero, rather than that craven other image. My own personal misogyny is the subject of another day.
“It’s all about that atavistic urge for human connection.”
I love aliens. You know how sometimes the best part of a videogame is creating your avatar? When I was about 10 or 11, my brother got Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials. Oh my gosh. How I loved that. I poured over it, and I and my brothers sat down with crayons one day at the dining room table and created a whole bunch of creatures. I still have those drawings. I created habitats and all kinds of things related to them.
As a side note, I love fantasy too. I read Tolkien and Le Guin when I was a kid. Then I actually created my own language with its own alphabet and my own yearly calendar. I still have that too, somewhere.
I love science. I mean, there’s nothing better than diving down a rabbithole and finding out that things are way cooler than you thought they were, and you thought they were really really cool. It’s like being part of a not-so-secret society where you know the secrets of the universe.
I love how sci fi can be what you want it to be. If you like swashbuckling adventure, like my dad did, you can write that. If you want psychological horror, to put your characters in a crucible, you can do that. If you like romance, you can have a space romance, and most sci fi has romance, even if it’s human-alien action. You get to find in space what you’re looking for.
And that’s what I love most. I love the connection of sci fi. I love the fandom. I love on the page how it’s often about people trying to connect, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. They try to connect with other people. They try to connect with aliens. And sometimes the writer’s alienation (pun not intended) comes through on the page too. The book itself is an attempt at connection, even though the characters in the book and the author themselves cannot connect.
In reading a book, to misquote a Robin Williams character, “we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds,” and in turn we see the weird little worlds of others. Some I’ve read I’ve thought oh my god I’d never want to meet this person in person. However, I fall in love with most of them. The last book I read is the best book, and I lightly stalk the author because I feel like I know them through the book and I want to know them even more.
So, as I say repeatedly, it’s all about love. It’s all about that atavistic urge for human connection.