The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction

Why do so many readers still look down on the genre of Orwell and Atwood?
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When I’m introduced to someone as a writer, a now familiar pattern of events often follows.

“Oh, really! How interesting!” the someone—let’s call her Jane—says, sounding quite enthusiastic. “What do you write?”

“Science fiction,” I say.

Jane instantly glazes over. “I’m afraid I never read science fiction.”

In other instances, people who know me have read a book of mine out of curiosity and then told me, in some surprise, that they liked it—“even though I don’t normally like science fiction.” Indeed, when a short story collection of mine won a non-genre prize, it was apparently a surprise to the judges themselves: According to the chair of the judging panel, “none of [them] knew they were science-fiction fans beforehand.”

The assumption seems to be that a book that comes with a genre label like “science fiction” must necessarily be lightweight stuff—not really comparable with “non-genre” works.

This may partly be due to the fact that the word “genre” has two different meanings which are often muddled up. The basic meaning of “genre” is simply kind or category or form of fiction, and in that sense, any work of fiction can be assigned to some genre or another. But "genre" is also used in a different way to make a distinction between “genre” and “non-genre” fiction. “Non-genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed on the “general fiction” or “fiction and literature” shelves in Barnes and Noble. “Genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed in its own designated corners: Crime, Fantasy, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction.

And now, a qualitative distinction creeps in. The assumption is made that the stuff on the “general fiction” shelves is the serious stuff—after all, it includes the literary greats—while the stuff cordoned off in those corners is, by definition, light, inconsequential, or even trashy. In fact, generalizations are made about the whole of “genre fiction” as if it were all one thing. “Genre fiction,” says Wikipedia, “also known as popular fiction, is plot-driven fictional works written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre, in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre.” (Notice how, in a single sentence, the word “genre” is used in both of the two different ways I’ve described.)

Don’t get me wrong: You can certainly find lightweight stuff on the science-fiction shelves, and if you think of yourself as someone who doesn’t like science fiction, you would have no difficulty at all putting your hands on books there that would confirm all your assumptions completely. But then again, the fact that you can find lightweight, formulaic stuff on the “Romantic Fiction” shelves doesn’t mean that you dismiss any novel that deals with romantic love. Anna Karenina? Sons and Lovers? The Great Gatsby? Just because it is possible to assign a book to a “genre” (in the neutral sense of the word), doesn’t mean that it is “genre fiction” (in the loaded sense).

It’s not for me to say whether I’m a good writer or not, but I am certainly a serious one. By that I mean I don’t write simply to cater to my readers’ needs for an easy escape from life, but have a vision of the world that (for whatever reason) I have a strong need to communicate. And it just so happens that the science-fiction form is the one I’ve found to be best suited to my needs.

Why is that? Well, all fiction writers, by definition, make stuff up, partly to entertain readers, and partly to allow them to enter imaginatively into parts of the world that would otherwise be closed to them. Modern realist novels—the kind that would most often be categorized as "non-genre"—make up characters and situations, but set them against a backdrop that purports to be the world we actually live in. This allows writers to explore the psychology of different characters and allows us to look out of eyes other than our own. I like to make up situations and characters, too, and for the same kinds of reasons, but I also like to go an extra step and make up the world as well. This allows me to reflect on the way we relate to the world, and on society. The science-fictional setting of my novel Dark Eden, for instance, allowed me to reflect on how societies and cultures grow and change and rupture. By making up a society, I could reflect on society in general, in just the same way that a realist novelist can reflect on relationships in general by making up a relationship.

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Chris Beckett is a university lecturer based in Cambridge. His short stories have appeared in Interzone and Asimov’s, and he is the author of Dark Eden and the short-story collection the Turing Test.

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