What Do We Want From Science Fiction?

This month over at the Classic Science Fiction book club we’re reading and discussing Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany, and some of us are enjoying the story and others are finding it lacking.  We all take it for granted that people have different tastes, but do you ever wonder why?  One of the themes of Empire Star is about asking questions, and one of our members, Andreas, found this article by Theodore Sturgeon called “Ask the Next Question.”  Some of us even wondered if Delany had gotten the idea dealing with questions from reading Theodore Sturgeon.  In fact, we found many elements of Empire Star that had been used in other science fiction books – but more on that later.


Discussing Empire Star got me thinking:  What do we want from science fiction?  Did some of the book club members enjoy Empire Star because it contains certain elements they seek out in science fiction?  And the reason other people disliked the story is because it lacks those elements they normally seek?  Jo Walton really loves Empire Star or so she says in her review at Tor.com.

I didn’t just like the book a lot, the way a sane grown-up might like a book, I fell head over heels obsessively in love with it. I made myself a t-shirt of it. I read it several hundred times. I was a one-Jo Empire Star fangirl. I had a sign on my bedroom door saying “Entry for J-O Type Persons Only” which is a quote from it.

Evidently Empire Star rubbed Jo Walton in just the right way if she’s read it hundreds of times.  Really?  I haven’t read it that many times, but I have read it four times since 1968.  I keep coming back to Empire Star.  Why?

I think most of us generally think we read books because we want to be caught up in a good story and characters – and beyond that we assume all books are different.  But what if there are specific fictional flavors we crave like our favorite ice creams?

My all-time favorite books are the twelve YA novels Robert A. Heinlein wrote for Charles Scribner’s Sons in the 1940s and 1950s, and while I was reading Empire Star for the fourth time I noticed many elements in the story that reminded me of Heinlein.  Did Delany include them in the his novel because they were elements he liked and thought they belonged in any novel he wrote too?  Empire Star came out in 1966, so he wrote it when he was 23-24, and still quite young.  Delany and Heinlein don’t seem like they have much in common as people or writers, but there are some common elements in their stories that attract me, and that maybe they do share some things common.

Circular Plots

Heinlein wrote two classic SF stories with circular plots, “—All You Zombies—“ and   “By His Bootstraps.”  In each story one character turns out to be several in the stories.  In Empire Star three characters turn out to be many.  In fact all three stories might be considered Mobius strips.  I love circular plot stories, and repeating loop stories, like Replay and Groundhog Day.  This is definitely a science fiction element that will always hook me.

Alien Pets

Heinlein’s young adult novels sometimes had alien creatures that appeared to be pets but were really something else, like Willis in Red Planet, Lummox in The Star Beast, and Chipsie the spider-puppy in Starman JonesEmpire Star gives us a devil-kitten D’ik, which eventually grows very large like Lummox.  Remember “The Trouble with Tribbles” from Star Trek?  Almost an exact copy of flat cats in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones.  If puppies and kittens are cute, so are alien animal babies.  I guess I’m sucker for alien pets.  And that makes me think about how much fictional mileage J. K. Rowling gets our of her magical pets.

Running Away to the Stars

Now there’s one huge theme that appeals to a lot of science fiction readers, and that’s about a kid who gets to run away to the stars.  Isn’t that the core of science fiction?  My all-time favorite novel is Have Space Suit-Will TravelEmpire Star follows the classic template as Starman Jones about a farm boy who heads out to explore the galaxy.  What that’s you say, didn’t George Lucas invent that motif for Star Wars?  Sorry, but it’s been around a long long time in a galaxy far away – but it’s probably why Star Wars is so successful and so much better than the other five films.  (I hate referring to it as A New Hope.)

Galactic Empires

I’ve written about this before but galactic empires are probably the most loved of all science fiction elements.  Read, “Are Galactic Empires the New Middle Earth” I wrote last June.  I don’t think I’ve really scratched the surface of that theme yet – there’s something deep there, that really needs to be explored.  Empire Star is about a galactic empire that uses slaves, and Comet Jo is going to free them, but after a long epic struggle that will take years.  However, Empire Star is a slight wisp of a novel, really a short novella, and if Delany wrote it today it would be 800 pages, and probably the first in a long George R. R. Martin like series.

Intelligent Machines

Stories about intelligent computers like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Gerrold’s When HARLIE Was One, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers and the current Wake, Watch and Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer really push my science fiction pleasure button.  So is it any wondered I loved Empire Star with Lump, a computer Comet Jo meets living on the Moon?  And I can’t help but believe Delany was inspired by Mike, a computer living on the Moon in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Other Elements

Delany doesn’t stop with just these five classic science fiction elements.  The whole book seems inspired by the weird humor of Robert Sheckley.  But I also hear from other readers that they see elements in Empire Star that remind them of Theodore Sturgeon – such as the theme about asking questions.

I wrote in “My Kind of Story” that I knew there were certain kinds of stories that appealed to me, but when I wrote that I thought I was dealing with narrative style and writing techniques.  But now I’m thinking that like some people with very specific sexual desires, I might actually crave very specific kinds of science fiction stories, or more precisely, stories with specific elements.  Which makes me wonder why I don’t seek to write stories with those elements?  Did Heinlein and Delany uses the elements discussed above because they believed they would sell more books?  Or because the were pleasuring themselves?

I need to contemplate if I have a limited number of fictional buttons I liked pushed, or are there endless possibilities. I’m really enjoying Once Upon a Time, the new TV series on ABC, and one of the things that excited me most about the story is that it’s told out of sequence, that the narrative double backs over itself, somewhat like a circular plot.  And like PKD, it’s about a town that doesn’t know the real reality of things.  If I kept looking I’d probably find several other story elementals that are my kind of groovy.

Now back to Sturgeon’s idea about asking questions. I’ve only gone one layer deep by asking what do we want from science fiction. If the answer is we love stories with certain themes or ideas then I should go to the next question: Why do I like those ideas? The answers would be too long to put into a blog post, but if you think about it, the question is important. For example, why is running away to go into space so appealing? During my adolescence that was a huge button to push with me. I had alcoholic parents that dragged me and my sister all over the country, so the real answer there is I wanted to escape from my own life. And as I got older and learned what it meant to be a real astronaut and what the right stuff was, I realized I would hate living in space – at least under present conditions.

The point is to keep asking question. Go deeper. Because if I did, I’d learn a whole lot about myself, and maybe stuff I didn’t even want to know. Why do I love the idea of intelligent machines? Is it because I don’t like emotions? Where’s that going? See what I mean?

Well, this blog is over – I’ll have to write more about this in the future.

JWH – 12/8/11

19 thoughts on “What Do We Want From Science Fiction?”

  1. Interesting breakdown of science fiction themes… (despite finding the term intelligent machines a bit of an oxymoron). Are these the most popular? Or just your personal preferences? The reason I ask is because the novel I’m currently writing doesn’t have ANY of these themes… yes it’s science fiction, but maybe not as we know it.

    1. No, these were just the themes I liked in Empire Star. If you read the book you might see other themes you loved, the ones you might put in your book. Or this story might not appeal to you at all.

      I realized that after I went to bed last night that this essay wasn’t very clear about several things, and you point out two of them.

      Rosie, since you are writing a book then can answer the question: Why do you put certain ideas or themes in your story? Is it because you already found them in your reading and loved them, or because you think they are cool ideas at the moment and think readers might like them, or for other reasons?

      1. Last October (2010), we were given an exercise on course to write a description about a place. Of course I decided to write about the weirdest place I could think of in the Solar System, which happened to be Miranda, the 5th largest moon of the planet, Uranus. If you’ve ever seen the pictures of its moonscape, you’ll understand why I thought it was weird.
        The description was awful as a piece of writing, but I found researching the topic fascinating. The moonscape also reminded me of another oddball topic, which has been written about in science fiction. When I looked into that I found the later writing to be disappointing imagination-wise. But also equally, I could understand why. It is a difficult topic to describe. So it was only natural that I had my main protagonist learn about the topic as the novel went along.
        This one fact that she had to learn meant either she hadn’t learned about it when all her peers did or she had something unusual about her. I opted for the latter and worked out exactly what. But there was an implication in all this… she had to suffering from a kind of loneliness. So you can see, I was starting to build her character.
        In the meantime, I realised that not that much was known about what was under the surface of Miranda. I literally had to invent a whole sublunar world. Further research showed up some possibilities that could explain why the moonscape was so unusual. And the rest of the novel just tumbled, bump by bump, into place.
        Overall, I suspect when I write science fiction, I like to concentrate on an unusual fact that leads the story one way or another. They are not necessarily the flavour of the month. Just oddball.

  2. Your quote from Jo Walton is such a perfect example of why I, and so many other readers, have fallen madly for the woman since the release of Among Others. Though it may not be as rare as it seems, it does seem very rare to find SF authors in the public eye who remain as enthusiastic about science fiction as they were in their youth and Walton demonstrates that fantastic ability, one I feel a kinship with, of being able to still enjoy things from her youth while having a wide and varied critical taste.

    What I ultimately want from science fiction stories is very well captured by your post. Yes, I want interesting characters and a good story, but those characters can be admittedly thin if they are tropes that I like: the loveable rogue, the spunky heroine, etc. Throw in a little romance with the spaceships and other planets and I feel as if I am in my own circular plot, with my pre-teen me sitting right next to me reveling in stories that appeal to him and to my adult self. It is for that very reason that I can pick up various Stainless Steel Rat novels or Niven’s A World Out of Time every few years and I get swept away again. It is the reason Scalzi’s Old Man’s War novels touched such a cord. It is the reason I’ve fallen for many of the Heinlein novels you have mentioned as I’ve discovered them the last few years.

    While I don’t mind being challenged in my reading, that is not what I look for. Not by a long shot. I want to be captivated. I want to be taken on an adventure. I don’t want that adventure derailed by confusing or “thought-provoking” science/technology. If the author is really talented they can work that element into the story and I will remain captivated. A recent example is that I felt Greg Bear did that with Hull Zero Three. I also don’t need plausibility, or at least not to the point that the majority of science fiction fans do who are active on the internet. I don’t want to read a story about a group of people who travel to Mars tying a bunch of balloons to a chair and floating away, but I also don’t care if space travel, in its warp drive fashion or generation ship fashion, can’t happen. I don’t mind reading about that in a nonfiction article, but its reality doesn’t matter to me. That is a fantasy, flying off into space, and I want to live it in my sf reading.

    George Lucas was very open about the fact that he not only was influenced by Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces but was also influenced by pulp fiction, older science fiction, and the fighter plane stories he read/watched in his youth. And because of that he tapped into a nostalgia and a vein of storytelling, I should actually say myth, that has been around since stories began. The story of the unlikely hero rising from nothing to succeed is not only universal but it taps into our most base desires and hopes and dreams to be something, to succeed, to be a hero in our own lives. It is little wonder that Star Wars continues to have such a strong influence. In both trilogies it married the technology of the time to showcase the kind of space-faring world many of us dreamed of as kids and still dream of today with a universal set of story tropes.

    I think sometimes authors seem to try so hard to write something unique and to get away from well-worn tropes that they forget that there is an appealing story structure in those tales, and a tapping into a shared mythology that makes those stories successful. I certainly think it is well within a talented author to merge fascinating scientific/technological concepts with these proven story hooks. I just wish more would do just that.

    So there you go Jim, once again eliciting a book from me with one of your posts. Ha!

    1. I’m always glad to get one of your long replies Carl because they add so much to my posts. And from reading your blog I can see how the elements you mention above come back time and again. We need to invent a Myers-Briggs personality type indicator for science fiction readers. I can see how you, me and the other folks at the book club all have different tastes, but sometimes some of us overlap, like we share the same personality type. I’m thinking I need to write a blog about the periodic chart of science fictional elements and spunky heroines and lovable rogues belong on it.

      1. That would be a fun chart and personality indicator. I too enjoy how we in the club can be wildly different at times and very similar at others. And its nice that we seem to have a group of people who can each find something to be excited about, even when those things are different from one’s own triggers.

        This was a great post, very easy to get wrapped up in. One thing I’ve loved about the club is that it isn’t full of people who all have the same likes, and even more it if full of people who still love science fiction. I visit some sites where the bloggers seem to be very bitter about most SF even though they keep reading it and claim to be a fan. That far too critical, no sense of wonder reviewing of science fiction does nothing for me except make me feel sorry for whatever circumstances turned them into that kind of reader.

        1. At least when it comes to science fiction books, I think science fiction is a kind of touchstone for understanding reality. It’s not science, and it’s not religion, but it has elements of each. Science fiction gives us far out ideas that we wish were true, or just want to believe in like the faithful have their beliefs about heaven and spiritual realms.

          The meme that humans could extend their range of habitation beyond Earth, both interplanetary and interstellar, is a very powerful concept. Humans leaving Earth may never happen, but it is very important to examine why we do want to leave.

          I think these inner desires are what draws us to science fiction, and why the people at the book club have a good time remembering growing up reading science fiction. On the surface we think it’s classic science fiction that bonds us, but maybe it’s certain memes, ideas, concepts, or whatever that we all love, and that we don’t all love the same ones.

          1. I agree, and I’m certain there are just elements in stories in general and not just in science fiction that draw us to certain books. For me and I suspect for others where science fiction comes into play is that we were the kind of people growing up who couldn’t help but gaze at the moon and stars in wonder, heads filled with “what’s out there?” And I don’t think it is any mystery that we feel this way, humans are curious and love to explore. The same curiosity bug that causes us to want to explore other people’s homes, or what might be just around the corner in a new town, or what is down this path in the woods is the bug that causes people in actuality or vicariously through books and documentaries to explore seldom-trod jungles or to dive the ocean looking for lost treasure, or to want to jet off into space to see what the galaxy next door looks like. The only difference is that the means exist to do just about any exploring we might want to here on Earth, but they don’t exist for us to go to the stars. But that doesn’t stop us from desperately wishing we could.

      2. Ooh this is going to be difficult. I know from bitter experience how much hard work has to go into these types of things in order to get a clearly defined and comprehensive list. That clear definition requires the entities in such a group to be as independent as practicable, which in essence means reducing the overlap in the definitions of the entities to the minimum possible.

        It was much easier in the past, when there were fewer science fiction themes. But now the gaps in between have been fairly well filled. There is, if I may put it this way, a sort of better continuity between the tent poles of science fiction.

        Good luck with this… we could certainly do with something like this, and any progress would I’m sure benefit the science fiction community.

        PS Please remember that the historical breakdown might not now be the right breakdown.

        1. That’s a good point Rosie, that the appealing elements of science fiction change over time.

          The periodic table breaks down into 18 groups in the standard arrangement with 4 to 7 elements in each group, so it might be possible to create a table of science fiction themes that could be arranged sort of like the periodic chart. A harder analogy to arrange would be to model the themes after the Myers-Briggs personality assessment system which has 16 types, but it might be more fun. All of it would be way more work than I would ever do. But still, wouldn’t it be fun to make up a questionnaire that asked questions like

          1. If you left Earth it would be as
          a) spaceship crew
          b) colonist to a new world
          c) space Marine
          d) scientific explorer

          And then determine a science fiction personality type and then try to match up books that would appeal to your type.

      3. I hate to say this… but when I looked at your suggested question, my reaction was I wanted none of them. My answer would be fly as data at the speed of light, as Greg Egan proposes in Schild’s Ladder.

        This is a good example of a rather serious problem with devising a Myers-Briggs look-alike for science fiction people. They’ll think up something different or want something new. However, this may be overcome by putting the option of: “Other.” This in itself would help identify the type of science fiction person… just a thought.

        1. You’re absolute right Rosie, and I have that exact problem when I take those tests – I sometimes don’t like any of the choices.

          My little example was off the cuff and you show the narrowness of my choices. To really develop a proper questionnaire I’d need to really push all the possible choices in SF. And your answer reflects a much more modern solution than my old minds thinks about – you must be young Rosie.

          Your reply also teaches me that for every question I’d need an answer that someone might want, and I don’t know if that’s possible, but I could do much better. I guess I need you to help me make up the questions.

      4. Hello Jim,

        I have given your comments some thought… the answer is not as simple as it looks. There are basically three groups of people involved – the readers, the writers and business peoples in between (agents, editors, publishers, shops, sales websites).

        Each of these groups relies on the others to exist. The interactions between them are complex and depend on amongst other things their past relationships (no I’m not going into the detail of why there are so few acclaimed female hard science fiction writers). But let’s leave these relationships aside for the moment and concentrate on the writers (as I’m a wannabe writer).

        One of the things writers have to do if they are to be successful is to identify new ideas or themes, or new ways of writing about old themes and ideas. This newness is a pull.

        One of the inevitable pushes is the technology updates. 40 years ago nobody would have dreamt that computers would have impinged on our lives as much as they do, while leaving other technologies lagging in developmental terms. So old stories need to be rewritten to take into account the change in background / historical material.

        However, writers tend to write about something that is new, but familiar enough to the readers so that they can get their books published and have them sell well. So the push for newness is constrained by perceptions.

        So where does all this leave building a theme map for writers and a look-alike Myers-Briggs?

        The writers section will have to take into account recent technology developments e.g. the likely discovery of the Higgs-Boson. So there has to be an underlying techno-map where the writers can expand their themes into. It also has to a historical themes (e.g. time travel, genetic mutations, invisibility, inter-planetary wars – refer to H G Wells).

        The question then becomes of how does one put the new techno-map into the old themes map?

        It is at this stage of the discussion that I realise that we are looking at developing what the systems engineers call an enterprise architecture- multi-layered and with cross-over links between the layers. It’s a heck of an ask. Wouldn’t it be better to start with a small area of the map and test out ideas as to how build such a map?

        Just a few thoughts, said she tiptoeing away…

  3. Jim,
    I’ve never read any of Delany’s novel-length works. I know some of them can be a bit heady. Do you think Empire Star is one of his more accessible works?

    1. I would say Empire Star and “The Star Pit” are Delany’s most accessible works – but then they are my favorites. Actually, “The Star Pit” is my absolute favorite. Delany wrote Babel 17 to be published with Empire Star because Empire Star is a novel mentioned inside the story of Babel 17. But I would have paired Empire Star with “The Star Pit” because they have many overlapping themes.

    1. Karen, your guest post tells us why you like science fiction in general, but it didn’t tell me which specific ideas makes you love various SF books, and I would find that intriguing after reading about your book Twin-Bred. The idea of being a host mother for a alien child that shares a womb with a human fetus has got to be an absolute unique idea. I’m trying to imagine what SF books you read that would inspire that idea. By any chance are you a fan of Eleanor Arnason? I went to Amazon and sent the sample chapter of Twin-Bred to my Kindle. I’ll have to give your book a try.

      1. I haven’t read anything by Eleanor Arnason, but now I’m intrigued! 🙂

        Some ideas I most like to find in science fiction:
        — the difficulty of understanding what is different, and the sort of misunderstandings — from comic to tragic — that can ensue;
        — virtual reality (holodecks and the like);
        — alternative social and familial arrangements.

        Twin-Bred came from viewing almost everything through a science-fiction lens. In October of 2010, while I was trying to decide what to write about in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November, I read an article about recent video imaging of twins in the womb, and the remarkable interactions and synchronized movements the researchers had found. The same or another article discussed the trauma often suffered by “womb twin survivors,” who had lost a twin in utero or shortly after birth. For someone with my interests, it wasn’t such a large leap to speculating about how the bond between twins might serve to bridge the gap between human and alien.

        If you read Twin-Bred, I’d love to hear what you think of it!

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