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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…


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
These traits are roughly listed in order of importance. So, I’m willing to call a poorly written book “good” if it’s rip-roaring fun (The Perry Rhodan series comes to mind, although the “bad writing” could just be the result of poor translation). Who cares if a story depicts men on the moon if it is hugely enjoyable anyway? So what if a story is poorly worded if it’s though-provoking at the same time? What’s the big deal if a sci fi movie provides cool explosion audio in the vacuum of space – it’s fun! (Imagine how anti-climactic space battle scenes would be without the audio explosion.)

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.

About John DeNardo (13014 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

22 Comments on What Makes Good Science Fiction?

  1. I am ready to write my own article on what makes good science fiction but it may be a little short. Here is the unedited version: “yeah whatever I like that I consider to be science fiction”. I think I can flesh that out to about 500 to 1000 words . . . anyways Battlefield Earth, I read that when I was a teenager. Lets not do the math, suffice it to say that decades have now passed. So about a year or so ago I decided I would re-read it because my memories of reading it were that it was good. Perhaps senility has begun to set in because I can’t understand how I could remember that as being “good”. I am not sure that I would mark it as “bad” but perhaps John was being kind when he referred to it as mediocre.

  2. Basically your article isn’t about what makes GOOD science fiction, it’s your opinion on what is good or not.

    What is the defenition of good?

  3. Yes, I wish I had stated it was “my opinion”. Oh wait…I did! “Good” catch, Neptune (if that is your real name). :O

    I’ve defined “good” in the post. My definition of “not good” would be commenting on an article without reading the whole thing.

  4. ChaosWolf Drako // December 3, 2006 at 6:55 pm //

    Interesting thoughts. I just came across your article because I am writing an English paper on what makes good writing and, more specifically, what consitutes good science fiction. I think it has most to do with how the author uses language to build characters and worlds and make them come to life. I have picked up so much sci-fi lately that simply failed to hold my interest for more than a minute. Have people forgotten what a good story is supposed to sound like? Have they forgotten that science fiction should place some emphasis on the science element??? Seriously, I keep picking up stories and flipping through them, and they read like dull soap operas.

    I must say some of my opinions on good/bad sci-fi differ with your own, but nevertheless you’ve definitly made a good point.

  5. there should be more tips on the action side of the story

  6. xox h8inSciFi xox // March 10, 2007 at 10:18 am //

    Ok so i hate sci- fi and now i have to make up my own sci fi story

    (at college)

    i need to know what are people looking for in sci fi?

    Why do people get attached to sci fi?

    would be grateful if someone could help!!!

    xox

  7. I’ve loved sci fi since I was 12. John’s right, it’s got to entertain and it’s got to evoke that sense of wonder–it’s got to take you there. Actually, I think that this should be first because it is a more defining element of sci fi. Schlocky hi action sci is so generic–you could replace the stun gun with a kalashnikov with a pistol with a bow and arrow, make the requisite sartorial changes and you would still get the same bang (as it were). Whatever else a good western or a good war story or a good whatever gives you it is not usually that sense of wonder.

    But I guess if Mars is not the place you want to be taken to then sci fi is not your bag.

  8. JaKeNaToR // December 9, 2008 at 3:00 pm //

              I’m trying to use this for a project in my high school class. The class is called “Theater Appreciation” and I didn’t find much of any of this useful. Just thought you should know, that no one needs your opinion on stuff like this. It just makes research a pain in the neck. SO anyone reading this, if you have a website that is literally nothing of any interest to people you don’t know, shut it down. People like me, who work hard to find bits and pieces of info don’t want to have to deal with this kind of search flood. -JaKeNaToR

  9. Thanks, JaKeNaToR. It’s good to be reminded every so often that opinions and open communication should be kept off the InterTubes so you don’t need to better your Googling skills. :-@

  10. I would not have given these particular priorities in this order. There is substantial truth the the opinion piece even so. I balked at the notion of making a works entertainment value the first requirement. Because is depends upon what you consider entertainment. A lot of people consider blowing things up and sexy actors to be all there is to entertainment. This is why so many of the tv and movie products end up with pretty much nothing else. But Science Fiction also “entertains” in that it speaks to the human condition and the human heart and mind in unusual ways. What is more deeply usefull than blowing things up or soft porn is that good science fiction casts political, social, moral and spiritual issues in new lights. This allows us to examine ourselves, our society and our institutions from a disassionate distance. IS this entertainment? Not inharently so but to me its the real core of what makes good science ficton good. 

  11.  

    John, I thought this was very well written and I would agree with you.

    The only thing I feel is missing is to put some importance on characters. I find it hard to be interested in new planets and space battles when the main characters are lame.

    JaKeNaToR, learn to google. I was looking for someone’s opinion on what makes good science fiction and OMG I found exactly what I was looking for. LORD HAVE MERCY.

     

     

     

     

  12. Anonymous // March 8, 2009 at 3:02 pm //

    crap!!!

  13. Thanks for this John!

    I’m writing a speech for English about what makes good sci-fi and I’m stealing your ideas! Thanks alot for posting this, it’s pretty much what I was thinking but with more direction. You’ve helped me to get started, move into the middle, and finish the speech!

    JaKeNaToR, I’m pretty sure writing that reasonably lengthed comment would have used up much more of your time than reading John’s post and realising it’s not what you want. Should he be sorry he didn’t check that it was what EVERYONE searching the net was looking for? Chin up Jakey, work gets us all stressed.

  14. I enjoyed your piece here, thanks.  What follows isn’t a disagreement, just my reaction.

    I’m sure it isn’t possible to expand to the ultimate generic list of what makes SF good.  Take out the particulars and you get the syntax of appreciation for SF (oh god, I listened to too many TED talks today, sorry) which is as you selected in your five points, more or less. 

    You and I differ in our views on what should be top in each of those categories, and perhaps in their order of importance, but I wouldn’t argue too much with the categories you picked.  You covered pretty much everything.  Any effort to try and form a general equation about what equals good SF is going to fall down if you go any further than laying out a (in any order you like) list of appreciation features.  There is no one formula, more like a large number of possible formulae containing the mentioned features, none of which will satisfy everyone, some of which will satisfy very many people.

    That won’t help people who want a quick answer though.  Or any answer except to the question How Do You Rate Your SF, John? 

    It was a good answer to THAT question though:)  I’d read yer reviews.

  15. >>There is no one formula, more like a large number of possible formulae containing the mentioned features, none of which will satisfy everyone, some of which will satisfy very many people.

    Agreed.

    Over the years, I’ve come to see books and stories as things that affect an internal “equalizer” of approval.  Like the equalizer on your audio equipment, there are many levers (all the things listed above, plus thought-provoking, writing style, subject matter, action, originality, etc.) that go up and down — and each story sets those levers at different heights.  Some stories crank up the action and are light on thought-provoking issues (popcorn books); others are meaty in content but hard to trudge through.  That doesn’t mean that each of these diverse books can’t be equally enjoyable.  Like you said, there is no magic formula.

  16. Glenn Lockhart // June 9, 2009 at 7:45 am //

    I have finally come to the conclusion that sci-fi writing, or moreover, GOOD sci-fi writing is simply distinguished by our many tastes.   Very similar to so many other thing in life….I may love tomatoes…you may hate them….same thing.  Also writing a good story is not something I did the first time out either!  It to is like life.  It is learned behavior which materializes over the years.  There again I did not awaken on the second day outside my mothers womb and begin to dress myself, or cook my meals….I learned how.  These tips are just like the many people we meet…some we remember some we don’t….and some we wish would have met the author of the last book we tried to read!

  17. You sound like a SF noob.

  18. Zachary Paff // February 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm //

    what is the works cited page for this website?

  19. You know you have to put these 5 ratings, every time you review a book now.  :p

     

  20.      Just came across this piece. I am over fifty years old, and have read enough scifi during my time to fill a large semi trailer. Some of the more well known older works I have found to be among the best include the “Known Space” series by Larry Niven as well as his “Ringworld” series”, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, E.E. Doc Smith’s “Lensman” series, Robert Heinlein’s books from juvenile novels all the way to “Stranger in a Strange Land, and Arthur C. Clarks’s scifi as well as his hard science works. I could go on and on but these suffice to characterize my personal tastes. I tend toward “Hard” scifi. Being thoroughly grounded and steeped in hard science myself. However knowing this, one would think I would find Jules Verne unappealing since many of his concepts are scientifically out dated. I find Jules Verne’s works enthralling as they are very well written and satisfy the “sense of wonder” criteria you cited.

         More contemporary favorites include Iain M. Banks “Culture” novels, all of David Brin’s works with “Earth” and “Clay People” being my favorites, and Frank Herbert’s “Dune” series including the later books collaborated on more recently by his son Brian. The latter books in the Dune series aren’t comparable to the ones written by Frank himself, but they are very good and worth reading in their own right.

         Watax’s post stated;

         “you could replace the stun gun with a kalashnikov with a pistol with a bow and arrow, make the requisite sartorial changes and you would still get the same bang.”

         Watax is essentially correct, and I agree with the poster in that the “bang” we receive from it would not be of scifi nature. I would like to submit the assertion that really good scifi should take us to places we could never go without the “sci” prefix. Without sci you are left with just ordinary fiction. The main stream fiction works written by Iain M. Banks under the sudonym Iain Banks (without the M. in the middle) come to mind as being excellent examples. Scifi plots and even characters when necessary should be defined by and be slaves to the “what if we extrapolate on this scientific concept” premise. I would also make it clear that there exist multitudes of “fantasy” stories that are excellent entertainment. These include J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, and J.R.R Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” books. Engrossing and very well written “must read” stories that invoke our sense of wonder, but should never be confused with scifi. Thank you John for a thought provoking and concise article. I’m glad I found it.

  21. Hey guys,

    I find this dialogue quite interesting, however I’d love to ask you all about your take on the medium and sci-fi. For example I think Sci-fi exisits with amazing success in many mediums such as print, films, televison, video games and audio books. Yet I have failed to find any sci-fi webisodes that really work…

    I wonder if it may be due to the “good writing” part (low produciton vaule) or the often ghetto SFX’s… Just wondering if any one has seen or found any webisodes that succeed in doing this… I find web video so dominated by comedy and often wonder why. So any ideas on the lack of good sci-fi webisodes or it is just that I’m looking in all the wrong places…

  22. hugo smith // December 5, 2011 at 8:50 pm //

    I actually disagree with this article. 

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