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[GUEST POST] Carrie Salo on The Essential Question That All SF/F Asks

Carrie Salo is the author of The Sounding, which asks: what if we could affect biblical prophecy with our own choices and bring about the end of the world before God wants it?

What-if? The Hard Core of the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reader’s Imagination

As a new author, one of the first things you must decide is what genre your book falls into, and therefore, who your audience is. Having just launched a novel myself, I faced this particular problem. My novel, The Sounding, is about an early Armageddon brought on by events in our world today. It’s grounded in true history real prophecy and theology, and is meticulously researched. Technically, there is no science, nor is there magic. I have often heard it should be labeled a mystery, a religious novel, or just a plain thriller. But to me, the potential realities it explores places it right here.

As both a novelist and a reader, I have always found the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre to be an enigma. Hard to break into but fanatically supported, often criticized but avidly read, sometimes overlooked but constantly breaking new ground, the genre is unlike just about anything out there. And not because of its subject matter. When I look at all the titles and ideas and stories that belong here, it isn’t the science or necessarily the fantastic that defines it. Rather, I think it is the essential question that ALL sci-fi and fantasy novels ask so much better than any other genre: What if?

What if? Think about it. Think about your favorite novel or the one you just read, or the one that first introduced you to Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Take a look at all the books featured on this blog. Each and every one of them is about different technologies, worlds, times, governments, the undead, the newly dead, the soon to be dead, creatures, machines, apocalypse, rebirth, and on and on. But, if we take them in their simplest form, they all come down to one amazing, kick ass question. What if…

Not convinced? Let’s pull apart a few that everyone knows, but that are very unlike each other. In fact, they are so dissimilar that many people might say these books are not all Sci-Fi/Fantasy. But, I would argue, the questions that they leave us with and the potential what-if they force us to imagine make them sci-fi/fantasy to the core.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – what if you could erase someone from your mind completely, while leaving all other memories in tact?

Matrix – what if this world is just a dream?

Jurassic Park – what if cloning became so advanced that dinosaurs could be put into zoos?

Back to the Future – what if you could time travel and change the events leading to your own birth?

The Time Traveler’s Wife – what if you could jump back and forth between all the years of your life, the ones you’ve already lived, and those you haven’t.

Harry Potter – what if there was a school to teach wizards?

2001: A Space Odyssey – what if computers were so smart, they learned to stop taking our commands?

These bold plot statements are nothing like what the rest of the fiction world puts up on the shelf. All other genres must rely on execution alone to hold attention, because the ideas are simply more everyday. What if I found my adoptive parents? What if my sister had cancer and I had to help her? What if there was a bank robbery? What if a 40 year-old woman went through a divorce? These ideas can certainly (and should) be written about. But, they’re not Sci-Fi/Fantasy.

This genre – our genre – is defined by the ability to imagine the world greater and lesser than it really is in an unlimited fashion. It’s not the science that ties us together. It’s not the magic that weaves this particular spell. It’s the ability to question reality without restraint: What-if…anything? The Science Fiction and Fantasy reader is never afraid to ask.

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