How to read science fiction

How to read Science Fiction - or how to stop worrying and learn to love aliens and spaceships.

These are my notes from which I gave my "How to read Science Fiction" talk at the Greenbelt Arts Festival, August 2006. Because these are my notes, they differ slightly from what I actually said. The list of my ten recommended books is at the bottom of the page.

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How to read Science Fiction

A talk given at Greenbelt 2006 by Simon Morden

What is SF?

Science fiction has a many definitions as there are people who want to define it.

Wikipedia says that "Science fiction is a genre of fiction in which the story depends (at least in part) upon some change in the world as we know it that is explained by science or technology (as opposed to magic)."

Robert Heinlein said that SF was "Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method."

My working definition of SF is closer to Theodore Sturgeon’s: "A good science fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content."

But best of all is Damon Knight’s: "Science Fiction is what I say it is when I point to something and say that’s science fiction."

Like most people, we know what science fiction is and what it isn’t. So we’ll stick with Knight’s version.

What science fiction isn’t

It isn’t about squids in space, or rather, it isn’t all about squids in space. Despite my fondness for all things tentacly, SF isn’t all aliens and spaceships. A large proportion of SF never leaves the planet or encounter aliens. Perhaps fully half of the Clarke award books didn’t do either. Out of the six shortlisted books, two had no alien/space content whatsoever.

It's not only for scientists. Sometimes I still don’t understand what’s going on, and I have two degrees. But when I was eight I didn’t have any degrees. Some SF is written by and for genre fans who know what a Singularity is, how big a Dyson sphere is, and the problems inherent with grey goo. Most is not – and any good author will take their reader along for the ride, whether it’s the first SF book they’ve picked up or the fiftieth.

It won’t turn you into a glasses-wearing übergeek or a tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy nut. That is, unless you want it to. Most readers of SF are perfectly normal, and completely harmless.

What science fiction can’t do

It can't predict the future. If science fiction could predict the future, I’d have my flying car by now. Just from the law of averages, some SF predictions have come true, but the vast majority don’t. This is because SF authors don’t use SF to predict the future – they use it to explore it. For the very great part, they don’t like what they find. Ray Bradbury once said "People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it." From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to last year’s Kim Stanley Robinson book, Fifty Degrees Below, SF has sought to warn people about current social trends by extrapolating them into a plausible future. SF is very much a literature of the present.

It can't make up for the fact you dropped science at GCSE. Or, "Everything I know about science I learnt from SF books". Whilst you will undoubtedly learn new stuff about science from SF books, you’ll undoubtedly learn new stuff about law from John Grisham books. But the chief part of Science Fiction is that it’s fiction. Writers make up stuff all the time. In fact, it’s the writer’s job to make you believe the untrue stuff as much as the true. In fact, we delight in making the junction between true/untrue as seamless as possible.

It won't win the admiration of your friends, family and work colleagues: but at least with the size of some current SF novels, you can hit your detractors with a near-lethal blow. I appreciate that the latest Stephen Baxter doesn’t have the ‘look at me, I’m an intellectual’ cache of Dickens or Proust (in French, of course). But authors very rarely have any input as to what goes on the cover of their book – and book publishers seem to go in for a lurid ‘squids in space’ style of cover art that doesn’t often have anything to do with what goes on in the text.

There’s also a lot of snobbery involved – so much so that when an SF book crosses over to the mainstream, there’s a flurry of reviews saying to the effect ‘this is too good to be SF’. Even some authors are involved in this: Margaret Atwood being an easy target here. If The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t SF, we’ll have our Arthur C Clarke award back, thank you.

What science fiction can do

It can entertain you. SF is one big playground. If we can think of a decent reason to do something outrageous, we’ll do it. We can blow up planets and stars, mass thousands of spaceships, change both the past and the future, and even cheat the end of the universe. Jilly Cooper can’t do that for you.

It can make you think. One of the biggest unanswered questions is "what if?" Science Fiction is all about "what if?", and SF stories are deliberately told to explore the possibility of, whatever – time travel, genetic engineering, computers in people’s heads, teleportation, what happens when the oil runs out, what do we do if we’re contacted by aliens. If more politicians read SF, we wouldn’t be in half the messes we’re in now.

It can give you a whole new set of stuff to worry about. From nanotechnology turning the planet into grey goo, through giant asteroids delivering a civilisation-killing blow to the Earth, to a genetically engineered plague wiping out all life, we have it all. Highly advanced aliens coming to destroy us all. Global climate change. World-spanning repressive dictatorships. Wars without end. Clones. Cybernetics. Intelligent machines. It beats lions and tigers and bears, oh my, into a cocked hat.

We also get to pity those poor souls who don’t know what they’re missing. It’s good to feel superior. Science fiction is often smart fiction – sassy, intelligent, forward-looking. And so will you be when you read it.

Yes, there are different types of science fiction

SF isn't a monolith - it's a multi-faceted jewel. No, honest...

Alternate history – Change on point of history. PK Dick, Man in the High Castle. Almost anything by Harry Turtledove. Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt

Cyberpunk – high-tech low-life. Neal Stephenson, Charlie Stross, William Gibson, Pat Cadigan

Military SF – soldiers in space. Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War, Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

Post-apocalypse – Nevil Shute, On the Beach. Philip Reeve, Mortal Engines. John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids.

Authors of ‘Literature’ who have written science fiction

A brief and inexhaustive list of some literary toffs who've been seen slumming it in the genre gutter:

Douglas Coupland – Girlfriend in a Coma

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake

PD James – The Children of Men

Kasuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

If you like…

Family sagas, try Julian May's Pleistocene Saga. Four books set in prehistoric times plus another three in the future. May's work is fantastically detailed and follows one family through a magnificently epic story.

Detective stories – Hardly anyone does SF/detective stories like Jon Courtney Grimwood: his earlier Arabesk books can be followed by his 2005 novel, 9Tail Fox

Technothrillers. Is Clancy your man? Then get a load of Alaistair Reynolds' Revelation Space and Pushing Ice. More tech that you can shake a stick at.

‘Literature’. Not straying too far from the shore? The winner of the 2005 Arthur C Clarke Award, Geoff Ryman, will soon land you in deep water. Air is everything a lit book needs to be.

Gothic novels your thing? China Mieville is the writer of choice. Look no further than Perdido Street Station and The Scar

Politics, anyone? Everyone's favourite Scottish Libertarian Socialist, Ken MacLeod, writes mean SF often with a political riff. Try The Cassini Division, or Learning the World

Comedy: Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Nuff said.

SF books you ought to read

HG Wells – The War of the Worlds

Wells’ classic novel of alien invasion, published in 1898, has three-legged Martian war-machines crushing the most technologically advanced culture on Earth – the British – with the survivors hiding from a fate worse than death in the rubble of London.

George Orwell – 1984

Orwell’s political masterpiece is set in a dystopian future of Big Brother, Newspeak and thought police. Winston Smith is the lone dissident whose job is to rewrite the past to fit in with the Party’s ideology. First published in 1949, it has had a huge cultural impact in the English-speaking world.

Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth – The Space Merchants

Satire wasn’t born with the election of Margaret Thatcher – Pohl and Kornbluth’s razor-sharp filleting of global capitalism in general and the advertising industry in particular dates from 1953, and shows a future dominated by overpopulation, resource shortages, and an imminent land grab for Venus.

Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451

1953 turned out to be a golden year for science fiction: Bradbury’s gentle, luminous writing illuminates this tale of Montag the fireman, paid to burn books. Disillusion with his homelife, friendship with young Clarisse, and his encounter with a bookhoarder finally turn force him to read. Almost everything by Bradbury is brilliant – but this is the only book he would ever admit to being science fiction.

Frank Herbert – Dune

Forget the slightly dodgy film, Dune is a complex, multi-layered story revolving around a chemical called ‘spice’, which makes space travel possible, and is found on only one planet in the galaxy. Whoever controls the spice, controls the Imperial throne. Throw in human computers, giant sandworms, treason, espionage and healthy dollop of mysticism, and this 1965 book never fails to deliver.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle – The Mote in God’s Eye

This 1975 novel of first contact with aliens is not without it’s flaws – the authors are much more concerned with the science and the aliens than they are with the human society they depict – but where they score is with the aliens: the Moties are some of the strangest, most tragic creatures ever to live within a book. The finale is both poignant and full of hope.

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

Published in 1975, Vietnam vet Haldeman writes a elegy to his generation: super soldier William Mandella crosses both space and time, and becomes increasingly detached from the civilisation he’s supposed to be defending, until relativistic effects strand him and the surviving soldiers a thousand years in the future.

William Gibson – Neuromancer

With the first sentence of ‘The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel’, Gibson crafts a startling and disturbing future where cyberspace (a term he coined, along with ‘The Matrix’) is more real than reality, and it’s where more than information that wants to be free. All the more amazing for having been written on a manual typewriter in 1984.

Orson Scott Card – Ender’s Game

This controversial book, first published in 1985, is set in the middle of an interstellar war against the hive-mind Buggers. Children are taken by the military and trained to fight the enemy – and none is more brilliant and ruthless that Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin. The psychological depth and sharp social insight make this book a genre classic.

Greg Bear – The Forge of God

It’s the end of the world as we know it – enigmatic, unknowable aliens have done something to the planet and it’s counting down to disaster. Humanity, however, is not friendless. This is wide-screen, effects-laden fiction, and it gave me memorable and terrifying nightmares. Well worth it, I say! (1987)

Mary Doria Russell – The Sparrow

The Sparrow was the winner of the 1996 Arthur C Clarke Award, involving a complex alien culture on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri and the Jesuit mission which makes contact with them. It is a deeply affecting story of faith and humanity which produces as many questions as it does answers.

Michael Marshal Smith – Spares

An alcoholic veteran of one of the most bizarre wars ever fought falls foul of a rich and powerful gangster – and hides out working as a guard on a Spares farm where all the rich and powerful gangsters keep their clones ready for the day when they need a new organ or two. Savage, funny, passionately angry, Spares is a sharp, gritty book full of surprises. (1996)


Published under a Creative Commons license - Simon Morden 2006