The Flavors of Science Fiction

Science fiction is not a good term for pointing to the things I like about science fiction books.  I know too many people who claim to love science fiction, but we don’t share the same favorite movies and books.  Why is that?  Well, because the term science fiction is not a very good term for pointing at a specific type of stories.  It’s a collective term for a whole spectrum of fantastic tales.  I’m now thinking we need a new way of describing the stories we love that go beyond genre labels.

I’m not even sure the standard genres labels, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, westerns, historical, thriller, etc. are all that useful for readers.  They’re a rough categorization for book publishers and bookstores, but not very precise for reading moods.  I think readers like particular flavors featured in fiction, rather than their genre classification.

Take witty romantic comedies.  Does it really matter where the witty romance takes place, in the old west, in Regency England, in outer space, as part of a murder mystery in 1939 New York City, if that’s the kind of story you’re in the mood to read?  If you’re in the mood to shoot a lot of bad guys, does it matter if it’s Al Qaeda terrorists you blow away, or aliens from Betelgeuse or Nazis in WWII?

I believe readers who love Military SF would probably enjoy just as much, high-tech, squad level combat stories set in other times and places.  Combat stories with band of brothers camaraderie is the flavor readers crave.  Or a grunt working up the ranks is another flavor people love.  Honor Harrington stories are appealing in the same way many people love stories about Horatio Hornblower or Aubrey-Maturin stories.  I think they reflect a flavor of fiction rather than a genre.  Although some readers might find they love stories about very tall women, and thus the connection to other sea stories wouldn’t matter.

Growing up I loved “sense of wonder” stories.  I thought the label meant specific kinds of science fiction, but I don’t now.  Now I know there are several buttons to push to turn on my sense of wonder.   When I was a kid and read books like After Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, it pushed my sense of wonder button in a big way.  When the humans were exploring the ancient city of Bronson Beta, that pegged my sense of wonder meter.  Any science fiction book that has explorers walking around in long dead civilizations pushes my sense of wonder button.  But when I read regular fiction and nonfiction books about explorers poking around in long dead human civilizations of Earth, it pushes the same button.


Another type of story that sets off my sense of wonder button are those that remember humans after they became extinct, like the connecting pieces to City by Clifford Simak, or the later chapters of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.  But watching documentaries about life after people sets off the same flavor.  Theoretically I should be able to seek out all the stories, whether science fiction, or nonfiction, and find the flavor I desire to experience.  The same powerful sense of wonder flavor came in the 1920 poem “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  The World Without Us is evoked by a very specific idea.  It shows up every now and then in science fiction, but elsewhere too.


Another flavor I realized I loved as a kid that I completely associated with Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels, is the young adult science fiction novel.  I found the same flavor in many Winston Science Fiction novels and books by Andre Norton.  But over the years I realized that any story about a teen without parents struggling to make it in a new environment does the trick.  Part of the enticing flavor is the kid must be on their own, or their parents must be mostly tuned out.  National Velvet by Enid Bagnold works because Velvet Brown is learning to do something behind her parent’s back, and something girls, especially young girls in the 1920s, didn’t do, which was jockey a horse in a national race.

What I point to when I use the term science fiction, are those books which extrapolate on current trends to speculate about possible futures.  Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Stand on Zanzibar, and The Windup Girl are examples of what I mean.  But there are many kinds of science fiction that I read that don’t fit that flavor.  Space opera is one.  PKD type stories are another.  In fact, Philip K. Dick wrote a flavor of story I really crave that’s not science fiction at all, and those where his stories about the 1950s.  I really love Confessions of a Crap Artist, and would read more like it if I could find them.


I often meet people who love Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga series.  That’s the flavor they think of when they crave science fiction, but most science fiction stories are not like her books about Miles and Cordelia.  Her books are a mixture of romance, military, thriller and mystery set in an aristocratic galactic empire.  Her books have so many other flavors that I don’t think of them as science fiction at all, at least by my definition.  But that’s my point.  Fans of Bujold seek a certain flavor or flavors in their fiction that can’t be described by the generic term science fiction.  I find her books very pleasant, but none of their flavors actually make me think of science fiction.

To me, when a group of people all claim to love science fiction, I no longer think they love the same thing, even though they are all using the same phrase, science fiction.  In reality, they could all hate each other’s favorite books and movies.  We have to accept the term science fiction because it’s so widely used, but I think impossible to universally define.  Now when I talk to friends about books, or read reviews, I’m going to see if I can find out the flavors of the stories, because I know I love certain flavors of fiction and crave them.

JWH – 11/15/13

9 thoughts on “The Flavors of Science Fiction”

  1. I too think it is merely a blanket term, although I certainly embrace it and don’t mind using it as an overall label for they myriad “types” (or I like your idea of “button-pushers”) of space/technology related science fiction that I enjoy. I think it is interesting, quite fascinating really, that there are all these subgenres of science fiction that are being defined and redefined and reworked all the time. I consider it one way, maybe not the best way, to at least attempt to classify those things which push people’s literary buttons as it at least gives us a foundation upon which to build conversation about what gives us that special thrill regarding science fiction (in this case).

    You do point out an unfortunate side of things which is the “hate” attitude that sometimes comes along with this. I do feel like this is more of a personality issue with people than it has to do with all of us trying to exist under the banner of science fiction, but at any rate it is unfortunate. I think there is a way to discuss what we like and don’t like that doesn’t denigrate those who feel differently than we do. I think it happens on the Classic Science Fiction Book Club site from time to time and those conversations are always interesting. I don’t care so much that we like or dislike the same things as much as we can have a civilized, while still passionate, conversation about it. That make us grow and look at things differently.

    What I don’t enjoy is the “this sucks and here is why…and oh by the way if you like this you suck too” attitude that seems to be so prevalent online. I’m not entirely sure it IS prevalent, but those voices can be so loud and vitriolic that they drown out voices of reason. Its sort of the ‘train wreck’ scenario in that those kinds of posts often draw the most attention to them (speaking of psychologically disturbing…wink).

    Your thoughts here are fascinating in that you point out something that I hadn’t really considered although in some ways it should be obvious and the place I think you do it best (for me) is in regards to the Heinlein juveniles and how really any story with similar protagonists and situations push your buttons…they do mine as well. I find myself often describing contemporary stories like this as “Heinlein-esque”.

    I’m all for keeping labels what they are, but your post makes me think that what you are really advocating is a different, better, level of communication. At one time, in theory (for I wasn’t either alive or old enough to know better), if you told someone that you loved “science fiction” there would probably have been an instant bond because the term did roughly describe the same kind of literature. Now, as you point out, that could not be farther from the truth. Which in a way excites me. Rather than having a term, or terms, that makes us have that instant connection (where we assume we are talking about the same thing), now we actually have to have a conversation. Which to me is exciting! Who doesn’t like to talk about the stories they are passionate about? And frankly if another person is passionate, even about something I don’t think I like, it makes for engaging conversation.

    Well, there you go Jim. Once again you’ve inspired me to blather on.

    1. Yeah, I want to get beyond the “this book sucks” comments too, or even “this book is fantastic.” Strong personal reactions aren’t that useful. I believe that if we love a book it’s because we resonate with what the author is saying, and if we don’t, it’s because we’re not tuned into what they are writing about.

      Books can be badly written, but usually that’s not why someone hates a book. Usually readers hate a book because they can’t get into, they are bored with the story, or don’t like the characters, and those factors are not absolute, but relative to the reader. But my flavor theory of fiction, explains why we like a book. I might start reading a book and love it because the author is exploring robotic minds in a way I consider brilliant and another reader might find boring. Do our reactions really judge the absolute literary merit of the book’s writing?

      I think in many cases when someone says a book is bad, it’s because its bad for them. And if it’s good, it’s because the book pushes the right buttons for that person. Few reviewers are capable of judging a book by its absolute literary merits.

      I too love to talk about books with people who passionately loved them, because it tells me so much about the book and the person.

      You know how people often say, “This book changed my life” – well, I always interpret that as their life was changing and the book reflected the changes. Sometimes we can read the book and understand what our friends went through. But often we can’t. Often we need the experience to understand the book. All too often when people hate a book its because they have nothing in their experiences to resonate with what the writer was writing about.

      Carl, I’m glad you blathered on. It means I’m inspiring. But then your reply inspired me.

      1. I agree with you. There are certainly times when it is easy to point out where writing is “bad”. Generally that involves sentence structure issues or big gaps in storytelling or what have you and frankly I don’t think many of us actually read those books…meaning if that crops up with enough frequency we move on to something else.

        I generally assume that if I am not connecting with a story that it is simply me and not a result of the author failing to accomplish what he or she set out to do.

        That is frankly why I prefer to write a “review” that involves my personal “experience” with a book rather than a blow by blow account or what does or does not work. Not that I completely avoid that, but I figure if I can describe what buttons a book pushed and why it is more valuable to those who read it as they can then judge whether or not the book sounds like it will push their buttons or not. And if not, that is perfectly okay.

        I don’t even mind negative reviews providing the person reviewing doesn’t attempt to put something on the author that wasn’t the author’s intent an then rail against them for it.

        Your post today also really helps me pinpoint another reason why it is rare that I pick up a book and don’t like it…it could be easy to push this off as magical thinking and consider it good luck, but the reality is that a lifetime of reading means that I am more intuitively aware of the things that give me that sense of wonder and can at least subconsciously hone in on those key words in a book’s description, or someone’s review, or the book cover image that will give me a “feel” of whether or not I will like the book.

        More often than not nowadays my “liking” of a book…more accurately whether or not I keep reading it…depends in large part not on the type of book it is as much as whether or not the author is including ideas/plot devices that I don’t like. For example I hate getting into a book only to find a female character being sexually assaulted, or picking up a fantasy or science fiction book rife with profanity. I’m not a prude, I certainly think swearing has its place in some books (military sf?) but by and large an overuse of profanity throws me out of a book, and sexual assault almost always seems to serve a titillation factor over truly serving the story. Those are two of the things that often turn me off to a book. An example of the former is a fantasy book by Alan Campbell where one of the main characters used the word “fuck”, I kid you not, in nearly every sentence of dialogue. This was supposed to take place on some other fantasy world and all I could do was think that this particular character felt like they were from contemporary America. Again, not opposed to the words in general (I use them myself) but often it feels like lazy writing to me.

        I certainly think books can be a part of the change in your life, but I tend to agree with you in that there is often already something at work in there and the book hits on that just right. I love that words can do that, fiction and nonfiction.

  2. The fact that Science Fiction has such diversity means it is a “healthy” genre ….. when I was a kid , oh God here we go, I was worried SF was dying out. I was embarrassed to say I read SF as my main source of entertainment….. But now it is everywhere incorporated into all other genre and TV. Jim

    1. I’m fortunate in that I grew up when Star Wars hit (I was 8 in 1977) and so have never had the experience of being embarrassed about reading science fiction. Not that people then didn’t denigrate it, as they sometimes do now, but Star Wars on at least some level made science fiction both cool and something the masses could relate to, even if for many that then defined everything they knew about science fiction.

      1. Carl, when I replied to Connell, I said “we” because right after I left Mississippi, I move back to Miami, and met Connell in March of 1967. Our first conversation was over science fiction. I asked him who his favorite SF author was, assuming it would be Heinlein, and then we’d argue over who number two was. Instead, Connell said his favorite writer was Arthur C. Clarke. We’ve been arguing about science fiction ever since. But meeting Connell was like Jo Walton meeting her fellow SF fans in her book Among Others.

    2. We grew up reading SF before Star Trek and Star Wars, when the average person thought you were some kind of nut for reading that sci-fi stuff. I remember giving a talk at my school’s science club, in Charleston, MS, 1966, about suspended animation. I had just read The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, and I wanted to get some liquid nitrogen and experiment with freezing frogs. Most of the boys in the class where big hulking guys wearing bib overalls, and were in the science club because they were 4-H members. They thought I was the weirdest person they’d ever seen.

      1. I can certainly see that. I imagine things might have been somewhat similar growing up in a small Nebraska town, but I was pretty involved in all kinds of things and just happened to also love science fiction. I was never that much into “science” though (interested, but never passionate) and so I probably, through no planning of my own, avoided some of that stuff. I was a short kid who was funny and so most of the time people didn’t much care what I was into (in regards to picking on me) as everyone thought I was a likeable enough person and just left me be.

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