Science Fiction – More to the Story than You Might Expect

Artwork by Priyansha Kamdar.

by Daniel Brown.

When you hear the words “science fiction,” it is incredibly likely that you will end up thinking of something like Star Wars or, since this is a literary article, possibly a book by Asimov. Sci-Fi is commonly put into the same category as young adult and teen fiction, and Sci-Fi novels are very rarely put on the same level or considered comparable to “proper fiction”; therefore, it’s not taken seriously in neither the public eye nor the world of literature. However, science fiction is a whole lot more than just a different form of fantasy and should definitely be given the fair share of credit it deserves. There is a fairly solid misconception that Sci-Fi is almost an exclusively childish genre, which has impeded the growth and outreach of modern authors. I think a cause of this misunderstanding is the idea that Sci-Fi is just another strain of fantasy, and therefore is based heavily on imagination and is unrealistic, both traits that are considered more childish.

However, some recent fantasy novels, like Game of Thrones, have done a brilliant job of breaking down the idea that fantasy is more childish, and can be so much more than just free roam of imagination. Taking Game of Thrones as an example, it used the fantasy world of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms to explore politics and the various sociodemographic circumstances that play out throughout the story; this is why, by engaging with an audience that do not generally like fantasy, the series managed to reach a much wider audience than a typical fantasy series.

It can be argued that the exception to what I have said so far is classic science fiction. From authors of the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, or H. G. Wells, their works are held at a much higher regard than those of more modern authors. But even the classics are confined to the “classic sci-fi” sub-genre. They are not compared to other pieces of classic fiction, but instead are more commonly used as refence when discussing modern science fiction work. This is not a bad thing by any means, however, literary discussions about classic fiction and the investigations carried out into them can easily include some science fiction. For example, The World Set Free written by H. G. Wells in 1913 (published in 1914) is about an uncontrollably destructive weapon that the world had never seen before. It was heavily influenced by the scientific landscape at the time, in particular Einstein’s work on special relativity, which showed that energy and matter are intrinsically connected through the equation E=mc­2. The story is particularly interesting because, at the time it was written, it was not believed that the energy stored within atoms could be attained and controlled. So, it was written off as completely far-fetched and unrealistic. But in hindsight, it is clear the fictional weapon fabricated by Wells was akin to the atomic bomb, which would eventually be created in real life about 30 years after the book was published. There are countless similar examples of a science fiction book essentially predicting the future, seemingly out of a random fantastical thought. But this, in many cases, is not true. The very best science fiction stories are those that use real science and technology to influence the world they create, and even more so the history of innovation – as cliché as it is, “if you want to know the future, look at the past” (Albert Einstein).

Another key factor in what makes science fiction an incredible genre is, much like how Game of Thrones used a fantastical world to explore politics, the exploration of the human psyche in a novel circumstance (i.e. making contact with an alien civilisation; the impending end of the world; or colonising Mars), and how our society might use relatively available technology to solve the problems presented by the situations. While this might seem simple, from my experience few have managed to pull this off in a realistic believable manner.

To name a few of my absolute favourite science fiction stories, I’d like to start with the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card (the first book in the series was horrifically turned into a film, please don’t watch it…). This story is set in a world where Earth was attacked by an alien civilisation that attempted to invade the planet, but humans win the war and are set to retaliate. Ender’s Game initially comes off as a young adult novel, because the main character, Ender, and many of the main characters are teenagers, but after reading the book, it’s clear to see that it isn’t just another generic “us versus them”, but in fact delves into the complexities of the Cold War and moralities of war, and particularly censorship and the manipulation of information.

Another would be The Three Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu, arguably the best modern Chinese science fiction author and possibly one of the best full stop, as a physics student I was surprised at how accurate and in depth but also how accessible the science was presented in the book (if there’s any science fiction series I would recommend, it’s this). The story revolves around what might happen if we make contact with an alien civilisation; the first book is about what happens if the initial contact is kept secret, and some people are radicalised and covertly start to prepare for their impending arrival, 400 years in the future.

Finally, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, this is a lot more light hearted and comedic compared to the other two stories, and considerably more eccentric, but through the use of comedy it manages to play with the idea of how a normal British man might react after finding out the Earth is going to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and that his closest friend is actually an alien. So much happens in this series of books, most of which is completely absurd, but it is through the ridiculousness that the human existence on Earth is explored.

To conclude, science fiction is a fantastic genre. One which can investigate human existence, play with one’s imagination in incredible ways, and even predict the future. While there is a lot of sub-par, generic and childish Sci-Fi, there are countless examples that will leave you speechless.