Genre fiction is more popular than ever. I also think it’s more respected than ever. But there’s still a snobbery against it, particularly from the realms of literary fiction, which has always placed itself on a pedestal. Literary fiction claims this high ground on the basis that it’s somehow more worthy, more reflective of real life and real struggles and the innate beauty and tragedy in the world around us. This world. Here. Right now. And while there is, of course, purpose and meaning in literary fiction, there is equal purpose and meaning in genre fiction. Fiction tells us about ourselves. It enables us to experience places and scenarios and emotive struggles that we’ve never directly experienced. It also allows us to identify and find catharsis in the places, scenarios, and struggles that we have experienced in some way.
But I’ve heard it said that genre fiction is somehow less worthy because it also seeks to entertain. That it’s nothing but escapism, in no way reflecting real life. First of all, since when does something’s entertainment value detract from its constructive purpose? Sesame Street is hugely entertaining, for kids and adults alike. It’s also highly educational and constructive entertainment. Secondly, all fiction is escapism to some degree. And escapist fiction can often reflect real life as soundly as any other type. Sometimes we need allegory to relate back to the issues in our lives. Sometimes we just need to step back and look at something from a new angle in order to appreciate it fully. Seeing the wood for the trees, and all that. If we never step back from our present reality, how can we really look at it?
Science fiction inspires me above all the genres. I adore well-constructed fantasy and occasionally flirt with imaginative horror stories (usually peeking through my fingers with all the lights on. I hate being scared. But I love the IDEAS). I’m easily hooked by a good crime story. But science fiction sparks something else. It sets me off on a road of ‘what ifs’. It awes me with its scope. It throws all kinds of fascinating ideas and premises at me and demands I mull them over and decide which ones can be moulded into stories.
Sci-fi movies consistently break box office records. Sci-fi novels have devoted followings. Classic sci-fi authors remain some of our most loved and revered of them all: Isaac Asimov, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke. So what is it about science fiction? Why does it resonate with us so deeply?
Without a doubt, there’s lots of cool stuff in sci-fi. Spaceships. Laser weapons. Androids. Sentient computers. Technology that can bypass death, or disease, or famine. Faster-than-light travel. Time machines. Ancient alien civilisations that were born, expanded, and wiped out before life even began on Earth. But, fabulous though such concepts are, I think there’s more to science fiction’s enduring appeal than that.
Humans have always been fascinated by the future. In older times, the future was foretold through prophetic dreams, fortune tellers, and omens. There aren’t many of us who consult Nostradamus these days, but there’s still an innate desire to explore the possibilities to come. Science fiction lets us do that. We can postulate scenarios based on our current state of affairs and predict where we might be in one hundred years’ time. We can foretell apocalypses, dystopias, or grand futures based on technological advancement. We can explore all of these paradigms using characters we relate to, and get a glimpse of what might be. What might become of us. Sometimes they’re cautionary tales; sometimes they’re mere adventures. Sometimes they’re a little of both. Most often, though, they’re ways for us to explore what might be possible, or what might lie on humanity’s horizon. We know the stories are fiction. But we’re tantalised by the notion that their ideas might not always be fictitious. That at some point, these things could really happen. We both thrill and terrify ourselves with that notion.
Like no other genre, science fiction shows us who we are, and more importantly, who we could be. Where we might go, what we might discover, and what may ultimately become of us.