As a college student, and former English major, I can count on the fingers of one hand the classes I have taken in which we read anything you’d call science fiction. As an editor of FLARE, I can count on the fingers of the other hand the amount of submissions I’ve read that fit the genre.
This lack of representation in “distinguished” writing seems to be largely thanks to a cultural understanding that science fiction can only have the goal of escapism, the goal to entertain people who have nothing better to do than distract themselves from the real world. Science fiction, it seems, rarely has anything to strive for, any reason to exist, other than entertainment.
Okay, then, what’s fiction literature? Just a less-inventive way of doing the same thing? No, nobody will reduce it to that, not the old greats; it’s for talking about how you think the world works. It’s for drawing parallels, for making arguments about how people think, or should think.
So what’s the argument against science fiction? Why have I read thousands of works of fiction, and less than ten of science fiction, in my college career? One might say that science fiction is distracted by its invented features; that the attention isn’t on the characters, or the whims of fate, but on what shiny things and scary monsters the world has been populated with.
Though this may be fair to say for many works of science fiction, it isn’t true for all of them, any more than it’s true for all works of fiction. If one great goal of a work of literature is to show the author’s opinion of how people react to events and other people, then all that science fiction does differently is invent a wider range of things, without constraining itself to the world its author has actually seen, for characters and events to tie themselves to. In this way, the invented features of a work of science fiction can be, rather than incidental to its merit, one of the sources of its merit.
There are examples of this kind of sociological hypothesizing in classic stories like Fahrenheit 451 (“What would a modern world look like if books were outlawed?”) by Ray Bradbury, as well as in recent stories like the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (“What would happen if someone invented a way to travel to alternate, untouched Earths?”), and The Road by Cormac McCarthy (“What what would life actually feel like in a post-nuclear North American wasteland?”). Rather than bowing to the standard of escapism, these stories use their protagonists as a means to explore the world they live in, and its differences from ours, on a personal level, rather than treating them as an end in themselves.
Science fiction has long suffered this stigma thanks to its looser attachment to reality, but this looseness is useful; it’s useful not only for getting a better look at reality, but for discussing what reality might conceivably look like in the future, and what changes the future could make to what exists now. The genre deserves the same dignity offered to realistic works, and the recognition that, just as fiction has both its pulp and its masterpieces, the creative realm of science fiction has masterpieces of its own.