Why Do You Read/Watch Science Fiction?

I Was in Barnes & Noble tonight, loitering in the Science Fiction section while my daughter was waiting (not so patiently) to go to the Kids section, and I spotted a customer with a handful of Dune prequels. Since Dune was mentioned in our recent Poll, I struck up a conversation (beware of bloggers in book stores!) and asked him what his favorite sf novels were. His reply was that he only reads Dune novels. Interesting, I thought. I asked why. He really likes to read non-fiction with a particular interest in history, and he liked the way that Dune portrayed themes and trends that occur in history; the way cultures change; things of that nature.

I thought that was interesting. My first impression of the guy was that he was a fellow science fiction geek. Not true. It made me wonder about what draws people to read science fiction. I know I’m speaking to a sf-fan audience, but I still have to ask:

Why do you read (and/or watch) science fiction?


There are many reasons why one could read sf. For myself, I read fiction as a form of escapist entertainment. Although I dabble in fantasy and mystery and an occasional non-fiction book, I mainly read science fiction because I like the sense of wonder, the “What If?” scenarios, the portrayal of what could be. Science fiction is also a versatile canvas, providing stories that range from adventurous to thought-provoking.

16 thoughts on “Why Do You Read/Watch Science Fiction?”

  1. The sense of wonder is a big part of my interest in sf/f, but not by any means the only one. A norwegian writer of fantastic literature once said that “fairy tales are not important because they tell us there are dragons in the world, they are important because they tell us dragons can be overcome.” (His name is Tor

  2. Becouse regular fiction has become so inbreed self-referential and almost always about being gay (not that there is anything wrong with being gay…just that for a group that constituts less then %5 of the populations there sure seems to be a lot of literature about it) that it has become unreadable…and i need a break from reading non-fiction.

    I will watch anything

    one note about being gay I just saw copote and it was nice to see a movie in which the main character was gay yet the movie wasn’t about him being gay…very refreshing

  3. Asking me why I read science fiction is like asking why I stand upright. Beasts on all fours can attend with care to matters amid the roots and grass and dirt and dung of the forest floor; the nobler creature stands with his head aloft, and he looks at the stars, and wonders.

    Science fiction dreams of the future, about what might be; it is primarily about how things-as-they-are-now is not all-there-is. It is the literature of wanderers standing at a crossroads, wondering which path to take, or of prisoners longing for escape.

    I read science fiction because of curiosity, to slip the surly confinement of the mundane, to delight in the intellectual exercise of speculation, to rejoice in testaments of human progress; and because mainstream literature went stark, raving, mouth-foaming mad at about the time of James Joyce penned Ulysses; nor has it recovered.

    I also read SF for sheer boyish glee. I want to see Richard Seaton and Blackie DuQuesne collide every sun of two galaxies by means of their fourth-dimensional seventh-order rays, triggering one hundred billion supernovae to wipe out the dread and dreaded empire of merciless chlorine-breathing amoeba-men.

    Another reason I read SF is that the fiction of the muggles is boring, except when it is sickening. Modern fiction seems to consist of little else but rooting among the rotting trash of human existence, a freak show of the spiritually stunted or sexually malformed. I suppose someone, somewhere, would honestly rather read about the proximate erection of Leopold Bloom, or the onanism of Stephan Deadelus, rather than the heroism and horror of intergalactic war, but that someone is more alien to me than any chlorine breather.

  4. joshua : “Becouse regular fiction has become so inbreed self-referential and almost always about being gay”

    This is the statement of someone who clearly doesn’t read much “regular fiction” (unless by “regular fiction,” you mean fiction about homosexuals).

    I really can’t imagine where you get the impression that fiction that is not SF is almost always about being gay. Care to produce any evidence to support this? It’s totally false, but it would be amusing to see you try and prove the point.

    Here are links to the hardcover and softcover versions of the current NYT fiction bestsellers:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/23/books/bestseller/0423bestpaperfiction.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/23/books/bestseller/0423besthardfiction.html

    There don’t seem to be any books on there about being gay.

    Your persecution complex is not amusing.

  5. John C. Wright : “fiction of the muggles is boring, except when it is sickening. Modern fiction seems to consist of little else but rooting among the rotting trash of human existence, a freak show of the spiritually stunted or sexually malformed.”

    Using James Joyce to make an overly general and completely misinformed point about the current state of literature is a crock of shit. Take a look at the above-linked NYT lists. How many of those books take Joyce or any other of his postmodern ilk as their model for excellence? More importantly, how many of the people who made these books bestsellers are curling up with Finnegan’s Wake?

    There is a lot of fiction that is inspired by Joyce, and the vast majority of it sells fewer copies than a typical Richard Morgan novel.

    What the hell are you people objecting to? It’s certainly not what’s on the shelves.

  6. Someone, I believe it was James Gunn or Samuel Delany (if I am wrong, someone please correct me), once said that SF was a “bulletproof” genre, insomuch as it could not be made into non-SF. All other genres are mutable to SF. If you put a raygun in a western, it becomes SF. If you out a Colt six-gun into SF, it remains SF. This extends into all other genre crossovers. If you transport a gunslinger into a noir detective story, or a WWII pilot into Imperial Rome, it becomes SF.

    The above is a simplistic principle, but it underpins my reasons for reading SF. I’ve read through most of the western canon of lit., as well as a lot of pop and pulp fiction, and through all that SF has managed to satisfy more than the others. It is not simply a matter of escapism for me, but an active, ongoing thought experiment.

    John’s mention of the bookbuyer reading Dune made me chuckle. If a non SF reader wanted to read SF that dealt with the forces of history there are a LOT of better places to go: The Foundation Books, much of LeGuin’s catalog, Octavia Butler’s work, Resnick’s The Book of Man, and many more. But I bristle when some people claim they only read “sociological SF,” because it is misleading. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, usually branded a “space opera,” is about how a galaxy fragmented by technological and ideological differences copes with threat completely outside their scope of experience. There’s little about the books that isn’t sociological.

    Another example: When I hear bioconservatives claim that we cannot continue research into cloning and biotech until we discuss the ethics involved, I just laugh. Can anyone think of a personal, cultural, or moral aspect of biotech (real, imaginary, or extrapolated) that hasn’t been discussed in SF? What about a true information society (like in Gibson’s books or the comic Transmetropolitan)? Or nanotech? The footwork on ethics, risks, benefits, and possible paths has been done. Repeatedly. Claiming that it’s unknown territory is not valid.

    A good chunk of SF is about human expansion, the medium-to-long term growth of the species. Such discussion used to be central to intellectual discussions, but lately SF seems to be the only place we can find it anymore.

    Sure, there are other reasons to enjoy SF: the lyrical beauty of Silverberg’s Nightwings; the whimsy of Dr. Who; the techno-freakiness of Smith’s The Instrumentality of Man; the mind games of the New Wave. But for me it boils down to this: SF is the only genre that has managed to thoroughly capture the human experience, including its potential. The scope of the ethical and inspiration spectrum it has cast is so broad as to outstrip all other literature (and a good deal of actual human history to boot). It is, at its best, the noblest art that man has created.

  7. The amazing adventures of caviler and clay (pulizer prize winner)

    the broom of the system

    fight club

    life of pi

    are the last non-sci fi book I have read

    I liked Life of Pi and Fight club even though fight club is all about being gay. :)

    but you are right there is something else that is really bothering me about current fiction but it is harder to put my finger on.

    I guess it can be best be described is how absolutly appauled i was at the smarmy politicicly correct crap which is epitimozed by the Amazing Adventures of Caviler and Clay…and that sucker got a pulitzer…anyway it had a gay character in it…which probably really isn’t what bothered me so much.

    I think what pissed me off was that Cavlier was jewish and he wanted to kill as many Nazi’s as he could becouse they killed his whole family yet somehow in 1942 he was not put on the front lines of the European theather dispite his german speaking ability…now can anyone here actaully imagine him not getting to fight. What sort of freako history revisionist comes up with the idea that in WW2 if you wanted to fight that you were not sent to the front of the line.

    Anyway Cavalier gets sent to antartica (never explained why) and his whole camp dies through a comedy of errors so caviler goes off to find the German base in antarctica and kills one of the germans…he of course is guilt ridden (what the hell) and decides never to talk to his love of his life (double what the hell)

    and the whole time i am reading this i realize all the characters and all the language is something out of a 1995 california high school and has absolutly nothing to do with jewish culture or language of 1940s new york…and it got a PULITZER!!!

    So i am stickin with Sci-fi where the aliens are the bad guys and the girls are green. :)

  8. “Why do you read (and/or watch) science fiction?”

    Mainly it’s the hope of originality in a story. Regular fiction is usually hampered (in my opinion) by real life, with real laws of physics, and real people with real problems. I deal with that crap all day every day. With SF there is a chance at reading/watching something new, something that is exciting to experience. Real life just dosen’t throw “unique” in you face that much.

    I think my first discovery with the “unique experience” of SF was with H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds. The whole reason at the end of the book that Earth won against the aliens (hehe, almost no spoiler) was kind of an epiphony for me in that it really got me thinking about how small the Earth really is in the universe. It also inspired me to write stories of my own that deal with the same kinds of questions Wells offered up.

    Sure I had read a good deal of classic authors by the time I found Wells’ little treasure, but none of those classics had really inspired me (other than Salingers’, The Cather in the Rye) in the way that Wells did. Wells vision of SF really got the neurons firing full speed for me and I have been hooked ever since.

  9. Bonus points for Fred!!!

    Personally, I read SF for the what-ifs and I think it offers a much more open environment for story. I really think Jeff nailed it for me by saying:

    “All other genres are mutable to SF. If you put a raygun in a western, it becomes SF. If you out a Colt six-gun into SF, it remains SF. This extends into all other genre crossovers. If you transport a gunslinger into a noir detective story, or a WWII pilot into Imperial Rome, it becomes SF.”

    And that is ultimately why I like to read it. I mean I still read fantasy, but SF offers so much more. So if you will escuse me, I must put my WW2 fighter pilot in Imperial Rome to save the green skinned supermodel chicks from the undead time travelling Nazis (which we at SFSignal have the market cornered on.)

    :-@

  10. I read SF for similar reasons to others – I like the escapism of course, but in a world that might come to pass, or at least explores what might happen.

    The books I enjoy the most seem to be those that explore the future and deals with realistic issues. Books that discuss a future of disembodied energy beings communicating with a race of silicon-based lifeforms might be the height of SF, but it rarely deals with realistic concerns.

    SF that talks about a future involving cloning and our attitudes towards those clones is fascinating and thought provoking. Even if the point of the book isn’t to be that deep I still prefer those that at least get me thinking. I guess I have other forms of mind candy (gaming, TV, etc.) and expect more than just that in my books nowadays (not sure that’s good or bad.)

  11. In no particular order

    Interesting characters who are allowed to deal with situations and ideas we all confront; the science fiction/fantasy buffer supposedly makes things more palatable.

    All fiction is part of this in the sense that it is fiction.

    Doctor Who.

    Escapism.

    The Sense of Wonder

    Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    Doctor Who.

    A generally positive attitude towards life…the universe…etc.

    And did I mention Doctor Who?

    Blessings

  12. Mr. O’Malley, asks (in somewhat salty language) how many bestsellers take James Joyce or any other of his postmodern ilk as their model for excellence?

    Despite his childish potty-mouth tone, the question itself is a good one, I will try to answer if I can. I hope you will excuse the length of this post, but the topic is one that fascinates me.

    First, let us make a distinction between fine literature and genre writing. Mr. O’Malley is correct if he means to say that few genre authors copy the style of what passes for fine literature these days. I respectfully disagree if he contends that the ideas of fine literature have not influenced genre writing. Where the intellectuals have not influenced genre writing, the bestsellers are perfectly decent books, and I have no beef with them.

    I humbly submit that the intellectual life of a civilization is an interconnected web. It is beyond the scope of this short note to prove this conceit one way or the other: merely take for granted that I am convinced that the unspoken and commonplace assumptions of the common men do not spring from nothing. At one time, these commonplaces were rare and rarified abstractions pondered by a minority of intellectuals. Hence, any commonplace idea now taken for granted was once a revolutionary idea proposed by an intellectual.

    Some revolutions in thought are good and some are bad, even as revolutions in politics can with like an American Revolution, ushering in liberty, or like a French one, ushering in terror.

    The morals and ideals introduced by the modern movement in art and philosophy (and I include James Joyce, Bertrand Russell, Sartre, Nietzsche in this general category) revolved around one theme: God is dead; morals are arbitrary; each man may do as he will. The whole point of ULYSSES (insofar as that monstrous freak of a book has a point) was to re-write Homer in modern terms, ‘modern’ here taken to mean lacking in heroism, dignity, decorum. The spirit of rebellion against reason, rebellion against morality, which animates the modern mood, was manifested in Joyce as a rebellion against the conventions of novel-writing: hence whole chapters written without punctuation, and other deliberate stylistic deformities.

    However, let us not confuse what is accidental with what is essential. The essence of the modern movement is a rejection of moral law, of reason, of sense, civilization, civility. These attitudes and commonplace assumptions prevail often enough in bestsellers to render many of them distasteful to me.

    There are occasional best sellers (Tom Clancy springs to mind) whose unspoken assumptions are more to my taste. The heroism of his soldiers and patriots would have been right at home in a Homeric poem.

    In older times, the fine literature had the same themes and mood and philosophy as the genre writing of its time. PARADISE LOST, a highly literate work, dealt with the same themes as, for example, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, a work written for the common man. LE MORT D’ARTHUR dealt with the same themes as GEST OF ROBYN HOOD.

    It is no longer the case that fine and common share their worlds: they have gone their separate ways. The body of literature has been decapitated. The ideas of the intellectuals are now at odds with the tastes of the common man, except where those tastes have been corrupted.

    Each genre literature has a special mood or moral code fit for it. Chivalry is what one sees, for example, in a Western. Cool deduction and cooler courage is what one sees in the heroes of a Murder mystery. Faithfulness is the virtue explored by the Romance genre. The virtue most often thematic of fantasy is another kind of Faith.

    And the virtue most natural to Science Fiction is Reason.

    Now, I am not mocking Westerns, or Detective novels, or Romances. When Mr. O’Malley wonders what I am complaining about, it is not that! And I beg his pardon for not being clear.

    It is merely that what I want out of a book, I will find MORE OF IT in a science fiction tale. A space opera has the same things as a horse opera, plus it has the planet Mars. Lucky Starr the Space Ranger is just as good as the Lone Ranger, plus there are robots from Sirius. Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance and Larry Niven pen detective tales in space as good as anything I’ve read by Dashiel Hammit. (I cannot think of any space romances, but, then again, I am a guy, and shallower than most, so the love affair between Dejah Thoris and John Carter Warlord of Barsoom is good enough for me.)

    In all this genre writing, to a degree, the corruptive message of modern fine literature is absent. To a degree. Outside this narrow scope, however, the message overwhelmingly trumpeted both by fine literature, and genre writing which takes its theme from literature, is the message of the moderns: God is dead; there are no rules; do as thou wilt.

    This message, which seems liberating, at first, soon betrays us. Without standards, one can have no heroes who excel those standards. In a world without duty, no one gets a medal for performing above and beyond the call of duty. So literature becomes concerned with the commonplace, the non-heroic; and also with the troubled, the failed, and the anti-heroic.

    I must also add that there are science fiction books who also bear more than a whiff of this modern corruption, and praise adultery or sexual malfunctions: but even at their worst, a sense of wonder, a sense that this world is not all there is, cannot be absent. Lazarus Long might travel back in time to seduce his own mother, but at least he is time-traveling. The despair of the modern intellectual is absent.

    Mr. O’Malley quoted the New York Times Best Seller list to me. I will return the favor and quote another list back to him:

    http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100bestnovels.html

    Look through the list and draw your own conclusions. Note the marked contrast between the reader’s list and the board’s list. The readers seem to like SF more (and heroic literature much more) than the board.

    If you cannot tell what I am complaining about after viewing this list, look at the non-SF books, and perform the following thought-experiment: take the same tale and put it in space, or in a future year, or on another world. Would it have been an SF tale good enough for John W. Campbell Jr. to buy?

    The first book on the list is ULYSSES. This thought experiment is easy: the SFF version of ULYSSES is Homer’s ODYSSEY. The one thing Joyce was careful to remove from his work is the very thing the thirst for which I go to the fountainhead of science fiction to quench: a sense of the scope and magnificence of the world, an admiration for the noblest in man. A sense of wonder.

    GREAT GATSBY. A man moves to the moon, let us say, and find that the life of the wealthy consists of emptiness and moral decay. A man having an affair with another man’s wife kills that other man’s mistress with his flying car.

    PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN. In the year 3505 AD, a young man argues with his father about religion, visits prostitutes, masturbates, rededicates himself to religion, but then, seeing a girl on the beach, decides to throw off all the constraints of society and his upbringing, and live life as an artist, finding fulfillment in utter self-absorption.

    LOLITA. A murderer awaiting execution writes about a love-affair he had with a twelve year old. She dies in childbirth and the child is stillborn.

    Do I need to go on? Can you really not see what I am bellyaching about? My fingers are yawning merely by typing these one-sentence summaries of what passes for greatness in the modern world. I feel like I fell into an oily dumpster. The modern book manage the trick of being dull and disgusting at the same time. Not one of them could be made into a good SF book.

    Contrast the Reader’s List.

    ATLAS SHRUGGED. Whether you love her or hate the authoress (and no one seems to have a merely neutral reaction) you have to admit Ayn Rand’s yarn make a perfectly sound science fiction story. A super-intelligent inventor discovers a new form of energy, a science too dangerous for immoral mankind to use, and is hunted and reviled by an oppressive society, which he uses his wits to overthrow. Doesn’t this sound like a Jack Vance or a Robert Heinlein yarn? If John Galt is not a Slan, then he is at least Robur the Conqueror or Captain Nemo.

    The next few items on the reader’s list are science fiction or pretty darn close to it. Even CATCH-22 is like something written by Harry Harrison or Robert Sheckley.

    TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD could be sold to Campbell merely by changing Boo into a Martian. Science Fiction shows the foolishness of race-prejudice more clearly than any earthly genre can: you have to step out to the point of view of the universe to see how small a speck the world is, and to compare us to the Insect-men of Klendathu to see how alike we are. These themes easily fit themselves into good SF.

    Popular writing has not divorced itself from sanity, the way modern fine literature has: and much that is rational, wholesome and decent can be found in it. But, in my humble opinion, Science Fiction has more of what makes good popular genre writing good.

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