The Underrated, Universal Appeal of Science Fiction

Why do so many readers still look down on the genre of Orwell and Atwood?

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.

It’s a strategy that’s rich in possibilities, so much so that it hasn’t just been used to brilliant effect by the great science-fiction writers but has been borrowed, not just once but again and again, by supposedly “non-genre” writers in books that appear on those general fiction shelves: Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro, to name a few. (I once came across one of those people who “don’t like SF” whose favorite book turned out to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: set in an imaginary society, with imaginary technology, some way off in the future!) Not all science fiction is good, or serious, or equal in weight to the great works of literature, but the science-fictional mode is as capable of generating great works as any other.

Why should some books get to be seen as “non-genre?” It seems to me that the word “genre” is a bit like the word “ethnic”: While in theory we all belong to one ethnic group or another, in practice the word is used—and sometimes pejoratively—almost entirely for minorities. It so happens that in our culture at the moment the dominant, “majority” form of fiction is realism—no matter how well futuristic, dystopian Young Adult fare like The Hunger Games and Divergent sells. This is so much the case, in fact, that you can sometimes hear fiction spoken of as if its actual function was to provide a kind of record of how life is lived now. “How does the novel become new again?” wrote Rachel Cusk in a recent review. “One way is by its movement into fields of life not yet documented.” I was struck by the word documented. As if novel-writing were necessarily a form of record-keeping!

It can be, of course, but it doesn’t have to be, and I suspect it’s a very recent conception of the function of literature. Look at Shakespeare’s plays, and it’s difficult to see any of them as an attempt to document or record the present. They do reflect the time they were written in, of course (just as the “futures” imagined by science-fiction writers also tell us a great deal about the time period in which they were written), but I see no evidence that they were written with the intention of documenting those times. Many of the plays are nominally set in foreign cities (like Athens or Verona) but without any attempt to portray those cities as they actually were. Quite a few of them would be categorized as “fantasy” if their plots were presented now as proposals for novels. Go back further into the classics of literature—Beowulf, the Iliad, the Journey to the West—and you find even less realism. Almost all of them are fantastical to some degree.

Science fiction, I’ve always felt, is part of that fantastical tradition. It’s a modern variant of it, for a world in which things that once would have been thought of as magic are now part of everyday life. Currently it’s a minority interest, but a time may well come when realist fiction is cordoned off in its own little corner, and the fantastical is once more the dominant form.