What Makes Good Science Fiction?
I saw this article on the web today about what makes good science fiction. I question the author’s description of good science fiction. Having a speculative element integral to the story does not make science fiction good; it is a requirement to be considered science fiction in the first place. Indeed, a story can have integral speculative elements and be mediocre (the book Battlefield Earth comes to mind) or just plain bad (Battlefield Earth, the movie, for example).
In my opinion, the ingredients that go into good science fiction, in the relative order of importance, are…
- Entertainment Value – First and foremost, a fiction story is meant to entertain. Anything else it tries to do (teach, postulate, propagandize, inform, convince, or meditate) is just gravy that hopefully adds to the enjoyment and value of the book, but is not essential to fiction. Good, and definitely great, fiction (science or otherwise) will make me not want to put the book down because I was entertained. I felt that with The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Reality Dysfunction, Mists of Avalon (chick fiction though it may be) and The Relic. All good/great books, imho.
- Sense of Wonder – Science fiction must evoke a sense of wonder. That’s what draws me to the genre, not overly complex plotlines and fancy literary style. How cool would it be to travel in space? See other planets first hand? Communicate with aliens? Travel through time? Meet Dan’s mother when she just turned 18? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) All of these are fun to think about, in an escapist sort of way. Good science fiction provides the forum in which we can do these things.
- Good Writing – Writing is a skill that very few have absolute command over and writing style is somewhat a matter of taste. I found the writing in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars to be very dry. This severely detracted from the enjoyment of the story; it became a chore. On the other hand, writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Rex Stout (the mystery writer behind the Nero Wolfe stories) are phenomenal. I’ve yet to read a bad word by either of them. Good writing will propel a story instead of hinder it. While Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is clearly lyrical in its prose, I found it to hamper my reading progress – a bigger annoyance than the lyricism made up for in enjoyment. Other characteristics of good writing include plot development, characterizations, style, pacing, well-written dialogue, originality, mood and emotion, sense of logic, coherency, predictability, and immersion quotient. And good writing applies to movies as well as books. Bad writing can kill a movie (Excalibur…not sci fi, but nevertheless, a good example). Incidentally, other authors/books I enjoy include Asimov (easy to read), Clarke & Baxter (thought provoking), David Gerrold & James P. Hogan (logical), Stephenson (style), Heinlein (sense of wonder), Peter F. Hamilton (plot), and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids and Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (mood), Ken Grimwood’s Replay (plot and pacing)
- Suspension Of Disbelief – The plot and events need to be believable. That’s a tricky thing to adhere to with science fiction. For example, while FTL travel is not possible, it is conceivable. Ditto with time travel, wormholes, and other science fiction elements. Potential belief-killer: older science fiction shows its age when the “predicted” science is proven false. (Men on the moon? Technology based on transistor tubes? Ink pen-based computers? Bah!) That could be a belief killer for some. Personally, I always find it amusing to see what people 50 or 100 years ago thought life might like today.
- Visual Effects – For movies, the visual effects play an important part on immersion. Make fun of Star Wars, but the visual effects were spectacular. For literature, an author should provide a healthy of futuristic objects and places described so that I can almost see it in front of me.
Notice how entertainment is the minimum requirement. I’m unlikely to cite something as an example of good science fiction if it evoked a sense of wonder, maintained suspension of disbelief but was just plain boring. I ultimately disliked the movie Blade Runner because it failed to entertain me, even though I liked the story and the visuals. Many people had a similar argument with Star Wars episodes I & II.
I tend to use these criteria when rating books. There’s no mathematical formula here, just a gut feel on how well I enjoyed the book, the sense of wonder evoked, etc. Generally speaking, the more of these characteristics a science fiction story has, the more likely I am to consider it a great book.
And that is what makes good science fiction.
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