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Those who don’t know their science fiction are doomed to repeat their history


While there are between three and thirty-six plots depending on your source, and no such thing as a new idea in science fiction… that’s not what this post is about. Those are topics for another day. Possibly.

Instead, consider this: if a One True Science Fiction FAQ existed, it would consist of a single question: “what if?” Of course, this pretty much holds true for all fiction. But there are two particular types of story, common in sf, that “what if?” inexorably leads to: the thought experiment and the cautionary tale. (Which is not to say that a story can’t be both types.)

The author posits a situation – an invented future, or an invented world – and then tells a story set in it. It might be what will happen, or what has happened. Whichever it is, the author is offering insight into the consequences of the fictionalised situation. The usefulness of that insight depends on whether or not you accept the author’s argument – even if the author’s sensibilities run counter to your own. At the very least, it should provoke thought.

Some people think fiction should be solely for entertainment. It should have no greater ambition than to keep the reader amused. Rubbish. No artform should be just bread and circuses. It needs to engage with the real world, not ignore it. “You watch your X-Factor while we assemble this police state around you.” Why on earth would an author encourage people to turn their backs on what’s happening around them? Good fiction has something to say, whether you agree or not with what is being said.

Science fiction, as a genre, was initially created to do more than merely amuse. Hugo Gernsback intended sf to be both didactic and predictive. It’s no longer either of those – which is not necessarily a bad thing. They were limiting. But that doesn’t mean sf readers should privilege escapism over “message stories”. Besides, there’s no such thing as a “message story”. There are stories that engage with the reader qua reader, and stories that don’t. It’s the ambition of fiction to do the former. Yes, entertainment is important, but it shouldn’t be the one and only aim of a piece of fiction.

Yet despite its infrequent moments of outspokenness, sf’s cautionary tales and thought experiments are often taken as nothing more than amusements. And they’re then pillaged for terms to label the very situation they cautioned against. But if readers are unwilling to attach real-world significance to a sf story, then it’s hardly surprising its concerns are only validated after the fact.

Perhaps sf needs an agenda once again. Perhaps the genre needs to shine a brighter light on the real world, and then document what it sees.

2 thoughts on “Those who don’t know their science fiction are doomed to repeat their history

  1. You are right. SF can – and should – be a spotlight, a magnifying lens, a bench for testing ideas. Done right, hard looks can be plenty entertaining, too. I like your call for an agenda. Sometimes I’d settle for a point.

  2. Certainly one of the prime factors that makes sf both different and differently useful is the fact that it can ask “What if” – no matter how wild that supposition is. By removing itself from the everyday, it has a ‘view from a distance’, and can see more of the forest, and not just the trees. Sf that makes points about our current society and trends in this fashion has always been one of the hallmarks of the field.

    However, I must quibble over your statement “Yes, entertainment is important, but it shouldn’t be the one and only aim of a piece of fiction”. To my mind, any work of fiction that forgets that it is, first and foremost, a type of entertainment will end up being a piece of didactic prose that no one will read, with its message therefore lost. This quibble is probably just a matter of emphasis, but I am reminded of some of the New Wave stories of the late sixties which seemed to go overboard on the message side to the detriment of the story. Perhaps there is room for more message in today’s sf, though works like Doctorow’s Little Brother and Stephenson’s Anathem indicate to me that there is still a very active contingent of sf writers who believe that they have cogent things to say about our current world and society.

    Whether those who don’t normally read sf are getting sf’s message(s) is an entirely different question, which unfortunately seems to always be answered in the negative – from the very beginnings of the field right through today, there is a large contingent of otherwise reasonably intelligent people who continue to believe that sf has no relevance to them and that it truly is just an entertainment medium. Which is perhaps why Margaret Atwood so vigorously denies that what she writes is sf, not wanting her work placed in such a demeaning category box.

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