Why I Like Science Fiction

4 comments January 25th, 2008at 10:26pm Posted by Eli

I kinda thought I had written this post already, but now Clive Thompson has gone and beaten me to it:

If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best – and perhaps only – place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.

From where I sit, traditional “literary fiction” has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting – well – bored.

Why? I think it’s because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I’d read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, “OK. Cool. I see how today’s world works.” I also started to feel like I’d been reading the same book over and over again.


…[Science fiction] authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds – so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?

This is exactly why I love sci-fi and have so much trouble reading regular fi – I’m fascinated by the universes that the writers create. The what-ifs, the concepts, the richness and complexity and otherness of it.

I’ve read stories where people can create specialized one-day duplicates of themselves whose memories they can download before the duplicates expire (Kiln People); where everyone’s brain is backed up to a hard drive and can be re-inserted into a new “sleeve” if they die (Altered Carbon); where entropy works in reverse so that everything improves with use (The Practice Effect); where intelligent spaceships pose frozen passengers in historical dioramas (Excession); where aliens spell out messages with human pimples (oops, that was the Weekly World News). And I’ve already gone on at length about Queen Of Angels.

A finely-crafted universe is a compelling character unto itself.

Entry Filed under: Books,Science,Technology


  • 1. dirk gently  |  January 26th, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    well then, i’m sure you’ve read lem’s cyberiad – on of the best, imho.

    but have you read phillip dick’s “counter-clock world?”

  • 2. Eli  |  January 26th, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Actually, yes – but so long ago that I don’t really remember much.

    Counter-Clock World I have not even heard of, although I have read a fair amount of PKD.

  • 3. Cujo359  |  January 26th, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I’m just finishing Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, which is about a 14th Century German village that meets aliens. His depiction of the problems the two groups have of communicating with each other is worth the read all by itself. The central character is a priest who is an intellectual who has studied Galen, William of Occam, and many other scientists and philosophers of the day. It’s also pretty clear that Flynn did a great deal of research into Medieval history and language.

    Short version – it’s another example of what Eli’s writing about here.

  • 4. Eli  |  January 26th, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    Excellent; I shall have to check that out.

    Have you read any of Harry Turtledove’s alternate histories? He has one series where aliens with a very static culture invade Earth right in the middle of WW2. Problem is, they scouted Earth using 800-year-old images, and because their own culture (and that of the two other species they conquered) was so static, they assumed we were still in the Middle Ages.

    Their technological superiority was offset by their lack of numbers and materiel, and their lack of strategic or tactical cunning, and the now-united nations of Earth fought them to a standstill.

    It’s fascinating stuff, but his prose is pretty awful, especially his dialogue.

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