Why read science fiction? Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not about science.
Given that so many of us have been reading science fiction for years, you’d think the answer to this question would be obvious, wouldn’t you?
Especially as my new year resolution for 2017 is to read more contemporary sci-fi. It’d seem strange if I didn’t have a clear idea about why I’m bothering.
But when I sat down to write this post, I found that my love of science fiction wasn’t such a straightforward matter.
So here’s my attempt to pin down the appeal of this enormous literary genre.
Because Some Of Us Just Feel Like Aliens, Okay?
Like many other sci-fi fans, I started to read the genre when I was quite young. I was attracted to space opera most of all, maybe because I was a child of the space race.
But then I discovered Isaac Asimov’s Robot stories.
Not only did these prominently feature a female scientist, Dr Susan Calvin, but they introduced some amazing characters. And yes, I do mean the robots.
At that point in my life, when people were strange and random and unappealing to me, I could at last relate wholeheartedly to a character in a book.
I guess I felt a bit like the author Nikesh Shukla, who recently wrote about a similar experience while reading Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia.
When you feel like an alien, what better place to turn in search of your peeps than space?
To Find Companions In Social & Political Critique
As I got older and began to despise politicians and authority figures (well, this was the 1980s), I began to see another side to my beloved science fiction.
Just as Asimov’s robots had helped me understand more about being human, I began to read Sci-Fi which mirrored my disgust at social injustice.
War of The Worlds by HG Wells was a trenchant critique of Britain’s colonial endeavours (one of which was playing out just up the road in Northern Ireland), and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids seemed horribly prescient at the height of cold war nuclear tensions.
Why read science fiction now I’m no longer a bolshie teenager? Social critique is one reason this genre continues to fascinate me.
And fortunately we’re once again living in a golden age of socially aware Sci-Fi like The Power by Naomi Alderman and The Core of the Sun by Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo.
For Gloriously Vertiginous Encounters With Huge Imaginations
Social critique is all well and good, but some science fiction authors aren’t really concerned with petty earth matters: they’re in it for the big ideas.
This is the kind of work which fully answers the question, ‘Why read science fiction?’ It answers the question by squeezing your mind into very small spaces, then stretching it out over vast distances.
It makes you realise there’s more to life and the universe than the machinations of human beings.
We all need a bit of this from time to time. It gives us perspective.
There aren’t too many writers who manage to operate successfully at this level, I’d say, although any such attempt gets a gold star from this reader.
The finest currently-practising inducer of mind vertigo is Liu Cixin. If his 2012 debut The Three-Body Problem doesn’t make you feel existentially giddy, nothing will.
Why Read Science Fiction, Again?
You’ll have already spotted that for me science fiction is not about actual science. I love science, but if you really want to get a fix of the latest research findings you should really read a journal.
But if instead you long to wander through a cosmopolitan, challenging landscape filled with strange ideas and big opinions, that’s why you should read science fiction.