There was a story in Wired the other day that caught my eye. Now, I don’t normally read Wired, but it was a story about ”why sci-if is the most important genre,” so of course I had to have a go at reading it.
I’m not going to rehash that story here, instead I figured I would touch a bit more thoroughly on that question I get so often from friends and acquaintances: “why sci-fi?”
One thing to keep is mind is that that question, whether intentionally or not, comes loaded with all kinds of hints of disdain and criticism. It also comes with a need — an imperative, almost — to defend the genre, and the decision to write within it.
Because I want to.
Alright, there is more to it than that…
One of my all-time favorite writing quotes comes from sci-fi writer John Scalzi — “They say write what you know. I write what no one knows.” Writing what no one knows, writing what you can imagine, writing where you think the paths of dream and thought and time will lead…well…that’s just plain fun.
It is also, by the way, challenging. It’s challenging to think and explore. It’s challenging to dwell on — and write about — the tension between what will be and what could be.
One thing to keep in mind is that I, as a sci-fi writer, try not to make stuff up out of whole cloth. Okay…I try to not to make everything up out of whole cloth. Rather, I like to take tends and developments and problems I see today, and play them out in my mind to see where they will lead. That those all seem to lead to places dark and depressing isn’t because I want them to … nosirree … they lead there because humanity could (and very likely will) fuck up a pillow fight in a whorehouse.*
*Okay, so maybe I’m just a tad cynical…
I once said, in an old IWSG post, that sci-fi isn’t a petri dish, it’s a still. It’s not for looking at plots & characters in isolation, it’s for taking everything you think and know and believe, mashing it all together, and seeing what you can brew out of it…
In those terms, sci-fi is a tool rather than a defining characteristic. It lets the writer take current or historic trends and problems and play with them. It lets the writer shine a light on the world of today through the lens of the world of tomorrow. Walt Disney got that one wrong, by the way — the world of tomorrow isn’t a place of innocence and fresh starts, the world of tomorrow is the place where the bill comes due for all of the fuck-ups of today. Our children and grandchildren will pay that bill, just as we are paying the one from our parents and grandparents.
Ahem. I think I broke the off-switch on my cynicism-gland…
Sci-fi also lets you explore and play with themes more than any other genre. As a story about two abused, exploited street kids, Somewhere Peaceful could’ve been set in any modern port city. BUT…by setting it on a space station, a few centuries in the future, I gave myself the ability to, err, compress a world of problems (our world of problems) into one small society. I also gave myself the ability to play with languages and cultures and social dynamics in ways I never would have been able to had I set the story in modern New York, or Boston, or Marseilles…
Plus…aliens. Wait…I mean ALIENS!
And lasers…and spaceships…and drugs, rape, robbery and all those pesky deadly sins that ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The fantasy story I’m working up, by the way, is a different ball of wax. Oh, the deadly sins are still there, but the thematic issues I have in the back of my mind are more internal and personal than societal.
Plus, swords…and horseys…and MAGIC!
Never mind — I think all the caffeine is starting to get to me…
Shit, maybe next time I should try to explore a genre I don’t write in — how ‘bout “why romance?”
That question gets the same answer as many other questions in my life: why not?