Why Science Fiction is the only kind worth reading

posted 16 April 2002

I believe that science fiction is basically the only type of fiction worth reading. To see why, you have to go back to basics. Why do we read anything at all? I can think of three reasons:

  1. To inform
  2. To entertain
  3. To "enlighten"

"Enlightenment" sounds fairly pretentious, but what I mean by enlightenment is "giving new ideas". Something that merely informs you is not quite the same: a newspaper informs you about the latest developments in the world, but in a framework you understand. A physics textbook, on the other hand, would enlighten you: you'd gain a whole new concept of the way the world worked, a fairly fundamental new way of thinking about something.

All fiction is meant to entertain. But science fiction is the only genre which enlightens you. Read a suspense novel and you get a mental maze: complicated, but nothing conceptually new. Just because you can't find the way out doesn't mean it's not basically the same as all other mazes, everywhere. Worse again is straight fiction. Straight fiction is basic fiction: stuff that sounds like real life, but never really happened. These are novels filled with different combinations of the same events, endlessly retold. The names are different, the location changes, the combinations of character traits are different every time, but it's the closed variety of a kaleidoscope -- merely the same pieces shaken into a different pattern.

But science fiction is different. Good science fiction feeds you concepts you would never have thought of otherwise: even if completely impossible physically, they give you mental images that are totally new to you -- new forms of life, new ways of looking at the universe, new ways of thinking about life, fundamental questions on the order of "why are we here?" are the bread and butter of well-written science fiction. The most fundamental question fiction can provide is, perhaps "why am I unhappy?".

But why then does science fiction have such a frequently bad reputation? Why do people tend to think about science fiction as not "real" reading? The problem is that science fiction is a relatively young form: basic fiction has been around for thousands of years (starting with the Bible, if you ask me...). Science fiction, on the other hand, was unknown until the nineteenth century and didn't really attract many authors until the early 20th. So while straight or basic fiction has been around long enough to produce some shining examples -- the prettiest kaleidoscope combinations -- science fiction was still finding its feet, and people were comparing the two.

Of course, there is no denying that there is a lot of bad science fiction: people retelling old stories using new words; knights in armour replaced by heroes in shining space suits. But there is also a vast body of worthless fiction. Well-written science fiction is still better than well-written fiction.

The fundamental point is that if I wanted real life, then I would go outside and live my life. There's no point in writing fiction that's just like life anyway. In the realm of sci-fi you change the universe and guess the consequences; nothing could be more interesting. And the best of the best science fiction makes plausible changes: these are writers who looks at the way the world is headed and try and predict where it will end up. This is the most interesting kind of fiction of all, and mentally it helps prepare us for the consequences of our actions. Jurassic Park, to take a popular example, gave everybody their first taste of what the power of genetic engineering might be. The 2001 trilogy predicted a number of concepts of space travel that are still guiding people today. And amongst the countless novels about alien lifeforms, hopefully there is one that has successfully predicted what things really will be like when we meet aliens for the first time.

Needless to say, I can't wait.

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