An Honest Question

I was talking to my doctor today, and I gave my standard explanation for my tattoos: “I’ve got a robot reading a book and a dragon reading a book because I’m a fan of both fantasy and sf stories.” She asked me what I could tell was an honest question: “Why do you enjoy reading science fiction? Is it just pure escapism?”

I blurted out: “No! I’d say it’s just the opposite.” Then I paused and groped around for a concise answer to such a huge question. Here’s what  I came up with: “I love reading science fiction because it’s all about potential. Reading about all these things that haven’t happened yet, but have the potential to happen, is something I find fascinating.” After that we talked about the space program in the near and long term.

I’ve been thinking about it since, and I haven’t been able to come up with a significant improvement on what I said. What’s your take? Why do you enjoy this crazy brand of literature?

18 thoughts on “An Honest Question

  • February 28, 2012 at 3:27 am
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    I read science fiction because its fun to ponder the possibilities. To wonder “Could this really happen?”

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  • February 28, 2012 at 3:31 am
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    Karen, I have been asked the same question by one who is, perhaps, harder to impress, my teenage son. My answer to him is that I love science fiction because of the extrapolation from what we know to what we may know. It speaks of our nature as a race and as creatures.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 3:48 am
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    Corporate America and academia have brain-washed us to focus on the quarter /semester. Fortunately, Science Fiction takes a broader, long-term view. The science fiction community fills me with a s sense of optimism, because they look at our current reality through this future-focused lens-even if it isn’t always pretty…

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  • February 28, 2012 at 5:55 am
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    I read it because I like the possibilities presented in terms of societies, technology and ecologies. It makes me think more about where our current lifestyles are leading us.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 11:42 am
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    I enjoy the speculation and the possibilities and the explorations…but I also enjoy the escapism of it all. I’m transported to a place far away and am thinking about what something is or what something means.

    I read considerably less of SF right now…but, every now and then, something catches my interest, and I read it, and am still transported.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 3:37 pm
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    Robert – I think part of why I reacted so strongly to the question was the term ‘escapism,’ which always has a negative connotation for me. It’s almost like ‘escapism’ has an opposite in ‘social value.’ I’d say that when you’re “thinking about what something is or what something means,’ that’s no mere escapism but a very important function.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 5:31 pm
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    Because I enjoy it and it’s cool.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 6:34 pm
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    For me, I think there are three things that draw me inexorably towards science fiction.

    First, most people don’t understand that science fiction has rules. An SF writer asks you to give him certain prerequisites that are necessary to his story, such as perhaps the viability of faster-than-light travel. Given those prerequisites, everything in the story has to flow logically and consistently from those enabling assumptions.

    This makes SF stories sort of like “thought experiments,” where authors can explore the consequences of technological trends, extrapolate social factors into the future or even imagine alternate worlds where history took a different course. To me, this give-and-take between the necessary assumptions and the imagined worlds that are created by authors is endlessly fascinating.

    Second, I think SF has a “resonance” with the real world that we live in whereby it inspires and influences scientists, writers and other people to help create our everyday world. Consider Jules Verne writing about rocket travel in 1865 and popularizing space travel, and how this eventually led to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon 104 years later. When I read SF, I feel like I’m part of something that matters.

    Finally, I think SF can serve as a lens to focus attention on issues in a way that ordinary fiction often can’t accomplish. Look at H. G. Well’s novel “War of the Worlds” and you might see it as a slightly out-dated piece of fiction; but blink, and it’s a searing commentary on British colonialism.

    What more do you want from your fiction? The SF field encourages imagination and innovation, influences people in the real world and can help shine light on issues that really matter.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 9:49 pm
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    We read scifi because the author can tell ANY story, without any constraints that the real world places on the author.

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  • February 28, 2012 at 11:16 pm
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    C. S. Lewis pointed out that the folk who most disapprove of escape are jailors. And I would add, puritans of various stripes–the same folk who are suspicious of pleasure untethered to utility or duty, and who often see literature as a set of coded messages about something other than the pleasure of language and story and imagined experiences–who look *through* a text, not directly at it. “Escape” is a major, perhaps the major function of fiction–otherwise all prose would collapse into journalism, history, tech manuals, and the PDR.

    SF is only one of the genres into which I escape. I get just as much pleasure (with different flavors and textures and densities but with a surprising amount of overlap) from mysteries and historical novels. Not so much from contemporary-representational genres about coming of age or bereavement or recovery or family dynamics, though even those areas can be interesting once the texts have been filtered through the sieve of history. (Jane Austen, yes. Jane Smiley, no thanks.)

    Why SF? Because I have enjoyed just about all of its cousins in the fantastic. Rockets, rayguns, and robots; golems, Gollum, and gods. Drunks and druggies and divorce I can get any time by sticking my head out the door, but for things that go whoosh or zap or bump in the night, I need stories.

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  • February 29, 2012 at 5:43 am
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    Wow, what a question:

    David Keener makes brave points. The future is all we have left, therefore…

    Russ Letson says it all: “Drunks and druggies and divorce I can get any time by sticking my head out the door, but for things that go whoosh or zap or bump in the night, I need stories.”
    Excellent!

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  • February 29, 2012 at 11:22 am
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    Of necessity, we endure reality so it’s a pleasant change to see someone create a new reality and explore the consequences of its rule-system. The best examples show strict rationality given the premises and are highly creative within the self-imposed limitations. If it is to be credible, contemporary fiction must recreate a version of reality that we believe we could encounter. Conforming to our expectations in this respect is inherently boring.

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  • February 29, 2012 at 7:36 pm
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    Great question.

    I read science fiction because it often describes the present, not the future. Using the present as a starting point, science fiction takes the reader to possible outcomes of our current ills. The outcomes may be optimistic and the future is bright, or we will screw up and the future is bleak.

    The concerns have changed over time from nuclear annihilation, totalitarian regimes, bio-engineered calamities, grey nano-goo to environmental catastrophes, and science fiction has created cautionary tales as well as exciting stories based on these initial conditions.

    It is escapism most certainly, but at the same it expands one’s horizon away from the ordinary. Along the way at times it also raises some very interesting moral questions.

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  • March 1, 2012 at 4:52 pm
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    Karen — in response to your coment to me: It is no accident that scifi and fantasy are grouped together. They are just the two ends of a spectrum of speculative fiction. The author decides what world to create and whether it is more what we consider the scifi end or the fantasy end of the spectrum. But let’s face it, much of hard scifi contains some things that, to us today, are fantasy — such as faster than light travel, time travel, teleporting, etc. It just depends on whether it is set up in a future setting of scientific development or a setting of fantastical powers. To someone from 250 years ago a lot of our science today was pure fantasy. I also note that there are a lot of great stories that seem to start in the fantasy camp but turn into scifi, or vice versa.

    My real point is that, whether writing scifi or fantasy, or a combination using both, we read these books because the author can can tell whatever story he or she wants, unconstrained by the bounds of actual events or the current reality. One story that comes to mind is Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” — where a Jesuit priest wrestles with the fact that the star in the sky heralding Christ’s birth was a supernova that destroyed an entire advanced civilization. Clarke posed a great question that could only be approached from a scifi setting.

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