The One Thing Great Science Fiction Writers Have in Common
Updated: Sep 29
Note: This post uses Amazon affiliate links. Running a website is costly and time consuming and every little bit helps. I promise I will never recommend books that I do no believe in, am quoting, or directly discussing.
This post is a bit of a rant on my part, getting out some thoughts I've had rolling around my head for a while.
Science fiction has been an integral part of our culture. A defining aspect of it, really. You may think I am giving sci-fi too much credit, but I'm sticking by my statement. Nothing marks the value systems of the current era like speculative fiction has and does. Pick up an acclaimed science fiction book of any decade, and there you will find all the time's principal cultural, societal, and technological issues wrapped up neatly for you in a glued binding.
Even more, some of these books seem to transcend the era they were written in. I recently reread Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (Amazon affiliate link) and was surprised to see just how relevant it has been to our society in the last few years. Describing cancel-culture to a T and the thinking behind what would bring people to ban a book, a tv show, or even a person.
Though, I think the reason sci-fi has been (or could be) so profoundly "on-the-nose" is not because SF writers have some innate and uncanny ability to see into the future. But because they are able to see something right now as it is. Objectively as it is, and what it could become if left untethered.
Neil Gaiman, in the introduction of Fahrenheit 451, states:
"What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It's cautionary."
Ray Bradbury didn't receive a revelation given to him by the gods in a dream one night. But he saw something about society (in the 1950s, remember) with the rise of television and entering the era of media for entertainment value. He saw an intellectually suppressed society that put a good time over a meaningful experience and took what he saw to its logical conclusion. He just so happened to nail it.
His book rings so true in our time because we failed to listen to the warning that he was giving us. It was the logical conclusion, after all…
I've been thinking a lot lately about the purpose of fiction. Perhaps I'm going through some kind of pre-mid-life crisis, or maybe it's just a consequence of leaving my ear on the wall for too long, paying too much attention to current events and the state of our societies.
But I'm comfortable enough with my opinions on the matter to say this next thing out loud. We are in the midst of a global transition period. This is not just a transition of power shifting from one group to another, which the modern world has seen numerous times before. But this transition is something more profound. It's the kind that marks a shift in the paradigms that hold our societies together, and this kind of shift comes at a much steeper cost and shakes the foundations of civilization quite a bit more.
This is the same kind of shift seen at the end of the Classical period, at the beginning of the Enlightenment and so on. I'm not saying this is some sort of doom and gloomy way. In fact, I find this all rather exciting.
But it does bring to my mind the problem I mentioned above.
What is the purpose of fiction?
Better, what could the purpose of fiction be?
I don't think too many writers would argue with me that fiction has been bound by certain financial obligations for some time. The big five publishing companies, for the last few decades at least, have been focused primarily on the bottom line and making shareholders happy. As far back as the 1970s (probably earlier), genre fiction has been referred to as "transient" fiction. And it is not hard to see why. Books are chosen for value based on the sales models of previous successful novels and are pumped out as quickly as possible. Then a large percent of these novels are thrown into the bowels of the remaindered bin just as quickly and never heard of again.
Of course, we can't expect every novel produced to make it to the best-seller list. But you can't fault me for thinking there has to be something more.
The printed word is a pretty marvellous invention. The press marked another transition period that forever shifted the cultural paradigm of the west. Humans were suddenly able to share and store knowledge at never-before-imagined rates, and it's not hard to see the parallels between that time and our own "internet age."
So where does this leave books? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that digital books were prophesied to knock the printed book off its perch and drive it into obsolescence, but it didn't, did it? In fact, ebooks have had a hard time cracking that market, sitting still at only about 25% of book sales.
And I think perhaps the most significant difference between the Gutenberg press and the digital book or Internet is that the Gutenberg was a vehicle for rebellion. Those who felt their voices weren't being heard and wanted to revolt against those in power chose the press as their means to change that. However, that is sort of what the printed book still is, in a way. Seen mainly in the "Indie" houses popping up all over the place. Small and Micro-publishers demand space for fiction deemed "unmarketable" or "untouchable" in some form by the mainstream. Those in power (being the big publishing houses) would love for the industry to head in an all-digital format direction. Why? Because their profit margins are so much larger on those formats.
Yet printed books still dominate. Even in the Indie circles where you would think digital would make it more accessible.
I think many readers like to have something they can hold. Something that is there. Something that feels intimate.
Because what is a novel if not an author reaching out to someone and a reader reaching back. Reading and writing might be two things that happen in solitude, but they are very interpersonal exchanges.
I also think that the steady popularity of the hardcopy book is another sign that readers want more from their books. Digital books make sense in a transient fiction world. And not surprisingly, the kinds of readers looking for those quickly forgotten books are the same ones who prefer digital over paperback or hardcover. There are always exceptions, I am sure, but this is true in my experience.
MEANING IS THE FUTURE
All this to say, I believe soon it will not be in an author's best interest to purely write for entertainment. I don't think it will be in the author's best interest to write another genre piece or something the world has seen many times before.
There are two schools of thought on this. The first one is that when times get tough, people want a distraction. They want entertainment for entertainment's sake to keep them from thinking of their dismal lives and their even more dismal futures. The second school of thought is that people in times of crisis want to think and that they, in fact, need to think. Think about life, and find meaning in it.
Both are probably true. Some want to face their reality and improve it, and some want to drink it away—be distracted from it by any means possible.
It's not a coincidence that some of our best classical sci-fi has come about in times of economic and social insecurity, whether it be War, Famine, Plague, or mass meaninglessness. And I think that the time is now for authors to seriously start thinking about which of those they would like to provide because for a long time, we have been focused on entertainment first and writing something meaningful (even personally) only as an afterthought.
Maybe you want to entertain the masses, and that's fine, but you should also not be surprised when your books are forgotten as quickly as they are written and released. Maybe you'll make a lot of cash. Cool. But it'll be a rare few who do.
If you write something with meaning, it'll be around forever. It will still mean something to you even if it's not read. It'll still be something you can hold up high as a great achievement of your personal growth.
The former goal can, and maybe is destined, to turn into…well…what it has. Going back to the example of science fiction, many newer SF titles show us a world that is only there for its own sake. Showing us a future that is neat and interesting on the surface but quickly falls apart on further inspection. One of the best examples of this isn't a book but rather a film (which has proving vulnerable to the same processes).
It is the worst piece of crap I have ever watched. Precisely because it had absolutely nothing to say. It was a series of some interesting things happening and some really absurd things happening. Entertainment value (maybe for some), but for me, it had none, but also because I fix plot holes for a living and Prometheus was riddled with them.
Sidenote: Many people really loved this movie and have tried to change me mind about it. I won't. it sucks. Don't try.
And if it was a commentary on something or a warning, I do not know what of.
Perhaps this post is making me sound really pretentious or elitist, and you know, I'll take that. But if we are going to keep books alive in an upcoming age, then they're going to need a purpose, and I would be really sad if that purpose was mere entertainment. Because honestly, that is a competition books can't win, and they will quickly become obsolete in an ocean of television, YouTube, and social media.
And then, like in Farhenheit 451, they will genuinely be dead for real.
Books need meaning. They need to say something about society and the now. Our era's great sci-fi writers have known this and put it into practice.