If I didn’t love science fiction and fantasy (SFF), I wouldn’t be writing my own right now. If you’re reading right now, I bet you love it too. What is it that sets these genres apart from the rest of the books out there? Here’s what I’m thinking.
SFF offers an escape from everything going on in the real world. Sure, there are hundreds of fantasies that take place in the present day and real locations. But they’re separated enough that reading them lets you fall into a different version of the world. It’s easy to get lost when you’re reading SFF. It’s why I can read one late into the night, ignoring the time and how many hours before I’m supposed to get up for work. Whoops.
SFF shows us worlds where heroes do big, incredible, amazing things. They run away from bad guys who don’t just threaten the main characters; they threaten the very world the author has created. And they often do it without being the biggest, strongest kid in the schoolyard. Like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, they save the world by caring about their friends and family and wanting to do what’s best. Which reminds me…
3. Morals, Ethics, and Being a Good Person
I love the heroes our SFF depict, not just because of their heroism, but because they are driven but a moral code that makes their actions inevitable. Treena, from Numbers Game, doesn’t initially set off on a mission to save the world. She just wants the “number” she’s rightfully earned to be restored. But through her experiences she realizes that there’s much more than needs to be done to fix the broken numbers system that shapes her community. She knows that her risks and sacrifices could save her neighbors, and she takes those risks bravely again and again.
How often do you read a SFF book and think, wow! How did the author come up with this? I wrote in a recent post about the Abhorsen series by Garth Nix. The world presents a view of magic that is completely original. As you read, you learn more and more about how the world works. The world itself shapes Sabriel’s mission. It funnels her into a path towards saving her father that pits her against the dead, living beings of incredible power, and nonmagical people who don’t understand what’s at stake. It’s easy to get sucked in to a story with such a clearly drawn world.
5. Good versus Evil
In real life, the people we know live in a gray area between Good and Evil (though we might not always see it that way). It can be comforting to immerse yourself in a world where people are good and people are bad. Of course, there are characters like Sirius Black who explain to our heroes that not everyone is all good or all bad. But SFF lets us imagine what the world would be like when it’s good vs bad, light vs dark. Think Star Wars – the jedi choose which side to join, and while the members of the Dark Side believe in their mission, it’s undeniably Bad. While the other jedi are undeniable Good. There’s something cozy about letting yourself drop into the simple ethics at stake here. There’s little need to wonder which side is right and which side is wrong. It’s a straightforward place to visit in a world that’s so much more complex.
6. Imagining the Future and Strange New Technology
Remember in Back to the Future where they showed us what 2015 would look like? You know, how they accurately predicted flying cars and hover skateboards? Science fiction writers get to imagine the craziest future technologies they can, and present them as real life. Who wouldn’t want a Universal Translator (the babble fish) from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Personally, I think I would be a real klutz with a lightsaber, and I’d be remiss if I said I wanted anyone I know to own one, but the bright lights and that swooshy sound they make when they’re waved around is pretty appealing. Check out this link for a list of other cool future technological advances our science fiction writers have created.
7. What if?
When I was doing my initial planning for my book, Clone Crisis, I started by asking a simple question. What if the world was populated entirely by clones? SFF authors ask us these What If questions all the time. What if vampires and witches didn’t just exist, but a secret war is waging between them right under our noses? What if the fate of the world rested on a child who doesn’t realize he’s a wizard? SFF authors draw us in with a What If question and explain their own answers. These questions let us wonder what we would do in the world of that What If. How would I handle finding out I’m a wizard at the age of 11? How would I manage if I was suddenly faced with the reality that aliens exist, and my best friend is from outer space?
8. The Entire World in His or Her Hands
I love contemporary fiction. And classical fiction. But the stakes for these books are usually low. Finding a way to get along with your family. Trying to temper your own sarcasm to get along with colleagues and keep your job. But the stakes in SFF are often much bigger – we’re talking Saving the World. My life, personally, usually fits in the former category. But when I read SFF, I get to see how people (or magical beings, or aliens, or whatever other fictional creatures writers can come up with) handle Big Big Stakes under Lots and Lots of Stress. Frodo Baggins isn’t just a guy on a road trip with his friends. He’s tasked with destroying a ring that threatens the safety of his entire world. I mean, he’s also a guy on a road trip with his friends. But most of my road trips don’t involve magical creatures bent on my destruction. At least none of my road trips so far.
9. Power, More Power, and Corruption
Related to this idea of Good vs Evil is the common SFF trope of how people manage power and corruption. One of my favorite dystopian tropes is the corrupt government bent on controlling its people. Contemporary fiction features people in positions of power manipulating those around them, but never with these kinds of stakes. President Snow doesn’t just lead Panem. He eviscerates the common people until he is able to surround his people with wealth and luxury and leave the rest of the people to suffer and starve. Cersei Lannister manipulates and crushes her enemies to consolidate her power and hold onto control of the Iron Throne as long as she can. The power and corruption seen in so many SFF books paints a picture of Truly Bad Guys, and makes it all the more exciting when the good guys win.
10. Tackling Social Issues But In a Sort of Roundabout Way
Not the most succinct way to say it, but it’s true. Many dystopian novels present a society with social castes citizens are born into that are inherently unfair. They don’t talk about power, bias, and privilege outright, but the authors are certainly making a point. Look at most episodes of Black Mirror for a message about the way technology hurts social interactions and creates dire implications in small ways (ruining marriages) and big ways (forcing people to watch advertisements and punishing them when they so much as close their eyes). Science fiction stories can be read as fun, engaging stories, or you can learn a lot more about how the author sees the world. They can serve as warnings about what can happen if we take the social issues we have now and multiply them tenfold.
What about you? Why do you read science fiction and fantasy? What reasons here resonate most with you, and what am I missing?