Tobias Bucknell’s relatively recent post about why he loves science fiction got me thinking about why I read more science fiction books than any other fiction genre.
Anyone who believes that science fiction is about space ships, laser, time and/or faster than light travel, teleportation, and other technological oddities either has never actually read a SciFi (hereafter, SF) book, or they didn’t read a good one. For those people, here is the secret of good SF: SF is about people, ideas, and the consequences of those ideas. SF is a giant laboratory in which writers and thinkers experiment with the effects various philosophies, politics, and objects have on people and society.
Want to see the effects of a wildly corporatized society in which like tends only to associate with like? Are you interested in how memes are passed from person to person and where a meme stops and a virus begins? Read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Are you curious about where the real world ends and the virtual world starts in a society that has fully immersive entertainment technology? Try Joe Haldeman’s Old Twentieth. Can a society of ideas triumph over a society of technology? Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series may shed some light on the problem. What, exactly, is the definition of life? Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker saga is an interesting examination of the answer.
SF gives authors a place to operate that isn’t bound the rules of history or modern society. History can only be rewritten so much before it is no longer true to some sort of consensus about what actually happened. Modern society can only be twisted so far before it fails to resemble itself.
The future, on the other hand, is the vast unknown. Societies built entirely of corporations can exist there without creating cognitive dissonance in the reader’s mind because such a setting does not conflict with any known facts. Entirely immersive entertainment techonologies exist in the future of SF, giving us an option to explore the consequences of that technology now, before we are confronted with it.
I read SF because I enjoy the ideas explored by the authors writing in the genre, not because I’m a huge fan of laser, space ships, and aliens.