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The SF Fanatic: SF Explores The Ideas Mainstream Fiction Won’t

My name is JP and I’m a science fiction fanatic. Sure I’ve tried other genres, fantasy, horror and mainstream come to mind, but science fiction is always my primary interest and the genre that I read almost exclusively when it comes to fiction. The reasons are numerous, and in future installments I’ll go over other reasons why I like science fiction over all other genres, but today I’m going to focus on science fiction’s arch nemesis, at least in the minds of many fans: mainstream fiction.

A look at the New York Times Bestseller List shows an all too common site for fiction, namely it’s populated by thrillers, crime/mystery stories and other assorted dramas. Most of them don’t venture outside the realm of the mundane, focusing on the “real”, albeit fictionally. There are the exceptions, but those are usually in the fantasy/supernatural department. Rarely does a science fiction book hit the list, and rarer still does one stay on for an extended period of time. A glance at the summaries of most of these books does absolutely nothing for me. They are mundane, slightly boring and most definitely not interesting to me. That’s why I love science fiction. It’s not afraid to explore those ideas that mainstream won’t, or can’t.

Time Keeps On Tickin’, Tickin’, Tickin’…

One idea that mainstream almost never plays with is time. The universe has been around for billions of years and will be around for billions more, but mainstream is stuck in the “now”, with brief forays into the recent past or near future. (But it’s not science fiction!) SF stories aren’t afraid to take the long view of time and explore just what that would mean for humanity. For instance, “Utriusque Cosmi” by Robert Charles Wilson (a short story in The New Space Opera 2) takes its protagonist to the very end of the universe and beyond, with a bit of time travel thrown in for good measure. It explores the idea of what it means to be not only human, but also a sentient being, when you’ve lived for billions of years. Add in a bunch of mind-blowing ideas to go along with it’s immense scope and you have a story that blows most mainstream fiction away, and all in a tidy short story package.

I love me some Alastair Reynolds. His Revelation Space books are some of the finest space opera you’ll ever read so it was with great anticipation that I picked up his House of Sun. All the usual Reynolds style was there: terrific world building, interesting characters and an intriguing story. But its main characters also take the long view of time. To them, the sweep of the galactic arms are nothing more than years. They think nothing of jaunting off on ten thousand plus light-year journeys, expecting to meet up again eons in the future with nary a hiccup (except, of course, for the events in the story). This idea really fires my imagination, making me think about what it would be like to experience time like that, to be able to explore the galaxy and not worry about how long it would take. The story is like the icing on the cake for great science fiction. Mainstream just doesn’t come close to stimulating my imagination like science fiction.

How Much More Black Could This Be?

After our recent Stargate SG-1 Watchathon I went ahead and finished watching the rest of Stargate SG-1. Yes, all ten seasons. I’ll leave off my thoughts of the show in general, but there was one part that stuck in my mind. Towards the end of the series, where the Ori are the big bad guys, the our heroes manage to nullify the Ori’s supergate into the Milky Way by hooking it up to a black hole, dialing the Ori galaxy and then leaving it on, thanks to the black holes almost limitless power, thus robbing the Ori of their one link to our galaxy.

That got me to thinking: Hey, Stargate Universe, are you telling me that one measly over-tectonically active planet is going to supply more power than one average sized black hole? Why can’t you hook up a gate to a black hole as was done in the original series and dial the Destiny? Hell, if you really need power, head off towards the giant black hole at the galaxy’s core. Plenty of power there.

That got me thinking: just what would that central black hole look like? How cool would it be to see it “up close” (but not close enough to be fried)? What would it be like to view that maelstrom from a nearby system? The wonders of our galaxy are all there, above our heads, yet mainstream never raises it eyes above the horizon. Science fiction does.

Larry Niven gives us the Pierson Puppeteers, who, as a race, have corralled their planets into a group and are fleeing the shock wave from the central black. Fleeing. The. Shock. Wave. The mind boggles here. Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center novels (which are very good) conclude in the final volume with a battle between man and machine in a protected body of space-time hanging just outside the central black hole. Just…wow. Then to put it into a story and have it make sense is awesome. Who in mainstream world is going to write something that crazy, that wild and make it work? No one as far as I can tell.

You may call it “sense of wonder” or something similar, but this is one of the main reasons I keep reading science fiction. The big ideas, the incredible scopes, the huge sweeps of time, all of these fire the imagination in a way that, for me, mainstream fiction just can’t, won’t even. For whatever reason, mainstream audiences are afraid to expand their minds to truly amazing ideas.

Hell, all I have to do to experience mainstream stories is turn on the news.

Yeah, like that’ll happen.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

5 Comments on The SF Fanatic: SF Explores The Ideas Mainstream Fiction Won’t

  1. A few months back, I gave a speech entitled “The Role Of Science Fiction”, which touched on many of these issues: Click here for link


  2. Mark Stephenson // February 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm //

    I totally agree on the issue of mainstream fiction versus SF.  Science fiction, as it is often referred to, truly is a literature of ideas — big ideas, medium-sized ideas, weirdly wonderful ideas, exquisitely horrible ideas … but lots and lots of ideas.  It seems to me that most mainstream fiction is, instead, about style.  If you like one writer’s style, it’s good.  If you don’t like it, it’s bad.  But it’s usually stuff written within the same milieu and continuum, our world pretty much as it is.  The essence of mundanity.

    For fiction, I prefer and largely stick to SF.  Just finished Jack McDevitt’s “The Engines of God,” as I launch into his Priscilla Hutchinson “Academy” Universe.  For other reading, I prefer well-written non-fiction, where it’s not just about style but also about reality.  Right now, I’m reading Nick Reding’s non-fiction “Methland: The Death and Life of a Small Town.”  Recommended.

  3. Honestly, this chronic cheerleading that sf is “the literature of ideas” is getting old and sounding a lot like the nerds at the dance who can’t get the cool kids to dance with them.

    ALL literature is about ideas. Just because it’s not packaged in the way you prefer does negate its value. It’s childish and insecure to trumpet that sf ideas are better or unique. They’re not. They are no  better or worse than any other genre.

    If the yardstick for great ideas is the bestseller list and sf is not making the bestseller list, then a) either those ideas are not so mind-bendingly profound as claimed since they’re met with a shrug b) the claim is arrogant and condescending since the unwashed masses don’t understand or c) maybe, just maybe, a lot of people are perfectly content to understand the human condition through other genres that do the exact same thing as sf.

    The cool kids don’t have to dance with you. You don’t have to think they’re cool. Let’s move on.

  4. I have to agree with mkay. The goal of writing is to convey ideas while hopefully holding a reader’s attention. This holds true for flash fiction (shameless plug like my stuff at up to hideously expansive space opera epics.


    Simply dressing up tired ideas in a space suit and surrounding it with laserfire and sexy aliens does not cutting edge fiction make. Unless a writer has something interesting to say, who cares?


    Good sci fi uses neato gadgets and concepts to comment on the human condition in ways that might be difficult to express in a modern-day setting. When it’s a means to an end, that’s great. When it *is* the end, it’s lazy writing.

  5. I totally agree with you but I want to add that it’s more than concepts from space that are played out in science fiction.  By casting even familiar concepts in fantastic worlds so different from our own, I think science fiction enables us to see new things.  Just look at the explanation of religious warfare and power in Dune, or the next phase of human evolution in Singularity Sky.  What other genre tackles these questions so effectively?

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