In my series of articles on classic science fiction stories as well as the contemporary stories that I recommend I am hoping to make it clear that the genre, which is so often dismissed as escapist garbage, is actually a genre filled with deep ideas. Through a lens of the future or alien-ness or artificial intelligence or any of the other common or not-so-common science fiction tropes readers are allowed to view themselves, their culture, from a distance. How people react to completely fanciful situations often mirrors how they react to all-too-real situations in their everyday lives. This goes toward solving a problem that I think is prevalent in our society. It is the problem of self-centeredness. If one thinks only in terms of “me,” of “here,” of “now,” then one’s perception is greatly limited.
I consider myself to be a Universalist. If one thinks of one’s relationship to the Universe as a series of spheres, the first sphere is that which encompasses oneself. The next expands to include one’s family, the next includes one’s friends, then one’s immediate acquaintances, then perhaps a neighborhood, a city, a state or province, a nation, and so on. These myriad spheres (see what I did there?) expand to the edges of the Universe and, if you believe in parallel universes, they expand into those as well. I think that the farther humans are able to expand their spheres of understanding the better off we will be as a species, both in regards to one another and in regards to possible future contact with other intelligences.
So what does science fiction do? It allows this expansion. It allows one to examine the Universe not from the sphere of, say, a young white male living in America in the early 21st century (me) but, literally, from any infinite number of spheres of varying sizes, each originating from an infinite number of points in time and space and reality.
Through science fiction and other forms of speculative fiction I can find myself relating to and sympathizing with a character who shares nothing in common with me other than sentience, maybe not even that. Mainstream fiction--which I also enjoy, don’t get me wrong--limits one to the viewpoints of other human beings. If it’s from the viewpoint of an animal, sorry, that’s speculative fiction. Alternate histories? Also speculative. Dystopian views of the future? Definitely speculative. Unless a story is set in our current reality as we perceive it, either in the present or in an accurately depicted past, it is speculative fiction. As Damon Knight said, "science fiction is what I mean when I point to something and call it science fiction.” By this definition a lot of “mainstream” stories and novels do not escape the stigma of “genre fiction.”
Despite that, it is, for some reason, “hard” speculative fiction that bears the brunt of the stigma. Space ships and aliens. Elves and wizards. Surely this is the dominion of the overweight, videogame-playing, Mountain Dew-guzzling, basement-dwelling, D20-tossing, socially awkward nerd. Sure, a “normal” person will dabble in it now and then but no serious individual would spend any great deal of time engaged in such frivolity.
And, yes, I will admit that “nerds” do have some unfortunate stereotypes associated with them that aren’t entirely undeserved. But this is where escapism comes into play. Many of these people are either not comfortable with the “real” world or else do not like it. The future, or in a magical kingdom, is where their hearts lie. But is that any different than reveling in detective stories or thrillers about lawyers? Why are the latter two acceptable and top the best seller lists with science fiction or fantasy only making an occasional appearance, Harry Potter and other recent teen-oriented fantasy notwithstanding. Many adults have jumped onto these fantasy series but they are still largely viewed as “for kids.” They are not “serious” literature and encompass the “dabbling” I mentioned last paragraph.
I, for one, love science fiction (enough to be a writer and create fantastic worlds of my own) and I feel that I am a well-adjusted, presentable, socially competent nerd. And I love it for all the reasons listed above. Sure, maybe your neighbors' kid who plays D&D is playing it because this life, this reality, is ultimately unfair and unjust. He wants to imagine himself in a world where courage and dignity still count for something, and perhaps courage and dignity are things that he is unable--through whatever internal or external mechanism--to experience in real life. But maybe the grown man you see reading a science fiction novel isn’t necessarily trying to “escape” but is rather imagining a better future, a future in which anything is possible if we only have the will to make it happen. Novels detailing the emotional trauma of narcissistic doctors or dysfunctional Midwestern families are fine but what about the emotional trauma of people exploring other star systems? Science fiction is, ultimately, about people (not necessarily human people) so why not make them people that challenge one’s perceptions, that make one imagine what it would be like to be so different, yet so similar. Why not make them stories that force us to expand our spheres of understanding away from ourselves, away from family and friends, away from cities and nations and even away from planet Earth; let it expand to the farthest reaches of the Universe and beyond! There is so much possibility in science fiction that I don’t even know how one begins to even scratch the surface of what it encompasses. But, fortunately, we have writers who guide the way, who pluck some of those possibilities out of the ether and form them into stories. “Look,” they say. “Imagine the possibilities.”
I hope that my writing will one day become strong enough to be able to do that for other people. I hope to one day say “what if?” and take you along with me into the deep recesses of those infinite, myriad spheres.