The short answer? Okay, I confess; I write science fiction fantasy novels.
Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Please, just wait a second and put your connotations on hold. I know some see it as weird, but in all fairness I have to say that there has been literature written in every genre that can rate as truly weird, so let’s not cringe away from any one class of fiction too quickly, please!
Now, I know that there are a lot of people who aren’t fond of my favorite genre, and they tend to jump to certain mental images or conclusions the moment “sci-fi” is dropped in a conversation. Perhaps your mind immediately goes to well-known movie franchises with light sabers and space stations. It could be that, as a child, you were subjected to watching some barely funded British science fiction series whose monsters look like they were an accident of the local hardware store. It may be that you’ve seen news reports about a bunch of odd people milling around a convention center wearing pointy ears or speaking a fictional alien language. Yeah, I get all that. I’ve even been to those conventions, and – believe it or not – I’ve worked as part of the staff. So, yes, I have seen “weird” up close and in the flesh.
However , consider this – why is science fiction so popular? There are many reasons why this could be – escapism is as good a reason as any. For example, with a story about dear Aunt Rose’s tulip garden and the sweet old mailman who has carried a torch for her since high school, you might well be escaping your own personal situation, but you’re not actually escaping “all the way.” Aunt Rose still pays taxes, watches the television, and plays bridge every Friday with the girls. She drives a regular old car with regular old car problems, and she deals with automobile insurance companies, the federal government, and city hall. She has a bank statement, a phone bill, and a dog from across the street who won’t stop leaving gifts on the lawn. After awhile, although I’m glad Rose is making new emotional connections, I’m burdened down by all of the reminders of my problems … in her story.
Science fiction doesn’t work like that (most of the time). At its worst, it’s some apocalyptic version of the future – depressing to no end (think California governors in the movies). At its best, it becomes something like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series – stories which detail a world and a way of life that is completely different than our own, fashioned around different imperatives. There are no vending machines or cell phones on Pern. There are no interstate highways on Pern. It’s a beautiful, strange world with a unique charm and refreshingly different problems. It’s a system of life that, while different from our own, makes sense in its own way.
As an alternative, take the frightening and complex world created by Frank Herbert in the Dune series. The imperatives and politics of that universe are completely different than almost anything we’re used to – full of multigenerational programs and complex hierarchies. Yet, there are no tacos or wine coolers or pizza! Dune is a different place filled with very different people than what you or I are likely to ever meet. Dune might be a scary place, but at least it’s not this place.
That’s where science fiction excels – offering a real escape, a complete escape. Authors in that genre are free to discard parts of our world at will, taking only what they wish. No matter how hard you try, you can’t pretend lawyers don’t exist if you’re writing about present day Minneapolis. They may not figure prominently in the story, but if it’s not lawyers, it’s something else mundane that limits what the characters in a story could plausibly think or do.
Now, some people love the connectedness they feel reading a story about real places and real people, and I don’t fault anyone on that score. Some enjoy the feeling of being transported in time by the details woven into the pages of historical fiction or gaining tremendous insights about a popular figure in a well-written biography. That’s perfectly okay. It’s simply not what I enjoy the most.
I would also like to put one other point on the board for science fiction and fantasy. With a completely blank social canvas, the author’s freedom to describe and experiment (and warn) is much greater. Imagine, as an author, you see a trend in society that disturbs you – graffiti on walls. As a science fiction author, you can take that premise to the extreme and develop a world that revolves around graffiti on walls – where people are defined by it, study it, and excel at it. Or, perhaps you don’t like a particular person’s world view. As a science fiction author, your world can have that view become completely dominant with only a valiant minority struggling against the oppressive darkness. Alternatively, you could take a vexing problem like discrimination and twist it so that the bigotry doesn’t fall along lines we’re used to; perhaps, preferential treatment is given only to a group who choose to keep their hair dyed purple. In the end, the specific social issue, problematic world view, or discrimination doesn’t matter. Science fiction and fantasy provide a sort of safe, allegorical mirror for us to reflect upon those larger issues.
So, in the end, science fiction doesn’t have to be a book full of “geek-outs” about planets, starships, beaming, lasers, and all of the other techno-trappings common in popular science fiction. It can be about something far greater, more personal, and yes, even meaningful.
For myself, I write science fiction because I love that blank social canvas. I relish being able envision a world without all of the societal or even the physical defaults we endure today. I cherish the freedom to speak out on problems in our world by changing those problems just enough as to be palatable to read about without, perhaps, being offended but still, perhaps, being changed.