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