Updated on April 4, 2017
My road to science fiction
I’ve had a bit of an epiphany in the last few months: I LOVE science fiction.
This may not seem like a massive revelation, but I feel like I have definitely, if not hidden my love of science fiction* over the years, at least trivialised it. For example, it wouldn’t have been out of character for me to say, “Obviously monster movies are crap, but I like them anyway,” or “Every now and again I like to read silly space stuff.” I was even planning on writing a blog post about how much I like ‘literary sci-fi’, before I asked myself why I felt the need to stick the word ‘literary’ in there.
The truth is, as a long-time literature student and book nerd, I’ve been immersed in the stigmas around genre fiction for many years. My studies have always been focused on ‘serious’ and ‘highbrow’ writing, and so I’ve tended to avoid ‘genre fiction’ (i.e. anything that would be shelved in its own separate area in Waterstones). But recently I’ve started fully embracing my feelings for science fiction. I really like this genre. It’s the sci-fi books that I’m most excited to pick up off my shelves. And, when I really think about it, sci-fi has always been there throughout my life, even if I’ve had to justify reading it by describing it as something else.
* I’m going to use the term ‘science fiction’ in this blog post, but in many cases I mean ‘science fiction and fantasy’.
I think, for the most part, we all start off reading genre fiction. Fantasy features strongly in children’s literature, and sci-fi makes appearances in the forms of rockets and monsters and dinosaurs. Before I learned the categories that are so commonly applied to fiction, I read freely, and among that reading was what I would now call ‘genre fiction’. However, as I got slightly older, I began to develop true book snobbery, so that I insisted on reading Dickensian classics and leatherbound editions of Sir Walter Scott when my peers were reading Harry Potter – not because I particularly liked the classics more, but because they seemed ‘better’ and reading them made me different. (Believe me, I understand now how insufferable that makes me sound.) Still, some science fiction and fantasy did bleed through, and works that particularly stick with me from my pre-teen and teenage years are The Elfstones of Shannara, His Dark Materials and Brave New World.
I can’t ignore films, either. Although as a small child I was absolutely terrified of ET (and still am a little…), I fell in love with Jurassic Park, Independence Day, War of the Worlds and I, Robot. In fact, I was far more willing to embrace sci-fi on the screen than on paper, because I somehow believed that it was OK to watch ‘silly’ things, but that reading should really be a more serious pursuit.
By the time I got to university, I was quite familiar with the categories of fiction, as well as the underlying divide between ‘proper’ literary fiction and not-so-proper genre fiction. Still, my desire for the weird and wonderful didn’t go away – instead I channelled it into a more ‘acceptable’ form: magical realism. It was perfect for me. Magical realism incorporates fantastical elements into otherwise realistic literature; in its very general form it mixes the best bits of science fiction and fantasy with highfalutin literary style. At university I began to discover writers like Haruki Murakami and Gabriel García Márquez (both of whom I still love), and when I came across more overtly sci-fi works by other authors (e.g. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go), I referred to them as ‘magical realist’ and felt satisfied that I was reading something that I enjoyed and that was ‘acceptable’ for a literature student to be reading.
On-screen sci-fi didn’t go away either. At university I watched for the first time (and LOVED) Alien, Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes and Firefly.
Now I consider myself an actual, full-blown adult. OK, I might not feel that way a lot of the time, but when you’re financially independent and buy things like irons and fridges and rolling pins, you have to admit you’ve at least reached a basic level of adulthood. But despite having grown up and changed quite a lot in the years since university, its taken me a long time to shake off the boundaries and stigmas that I have been exposed to throughout my literary education. It turns out magical realism was my gateway drug to full-blown sci-fi, and in the last few years I have read things that younger me would have approved of, as well as stuff that probably would have made her turn up her nose. For example, I have absolutely loved Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge, José Saramago’s Blindness, Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods and Michel Faber’s The Fahrenheit Twins. But I have also adored Hugh Howey’s Silo series, Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent, George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Asimov’s Foundation series, as well as At the Mouth of the River of Bees (Kij Johnson), The Book of Strange New Things (Faber) and The Martian (Andy Weir). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I no longer like magical realism or literary fiction – in fact, they still make up the bulk of what I read – I’m just more willing to also embrace straight-up sci-fi without feeling needlessly guilty about it.
As for movies, the new versions of Godzilla and King Kong filled me with joy, and also made me want go back and watch the originals.
So now that I have finally accepted that I love sci-fi, I’ve been able to start honing my tastes within the genre – and now I really know what I like. I like short stories. I like character-driven narratives with very subtle world-building (don’t spend paragraphs explaining what sort of robots live in this world; just throw in the word ‘androids’ or ‘synthetics’ and let me work it out). I like stories set in space or on alien planets, and for that matter, I like aliens. I love stories that start off with a spaceship full of people flying out into deep space, hundreds of years from the nearest planet. And I really love a good ‘what if?’. What if a normal person could suddenly live forever? What if everything is the same but people’s souls exist as inanimate objects outside their bodies? What if you woke up from hypersleep, alone?
In 2016 and 2017 I’ve read Isaac Asimov’s Gold, Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, and I’ve found out just how deeply I can enjoy a book. I’ve watched Passengers, Arrival and Life and loved them all. Now I’m trying out a few magazines (Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Lightspeed) so that I can keep up to date with the very latest in sci-fi writing, and I’ve even been inspired to write my own. It’s great, I’m buzzing with ideas.
Part of my purpose with this post was to clarify my thoughts about genre, and to trace my own biased and ‘snobby’ views about it. But I also want to say how important it is that you find what you like. Bestseller lists and book charts and even blogs like this one give you ratings and assessments based on all sorts of things, but above all they’re based on other people’s opinions. You might feel you ought to like awards-shortlisted books or trendy graphic novels or feminist calls-to-arms (and you might; I certainly do), but if you’re reading all this while dreaming about space or elves or witches, stop denying yourself. Read what you love. It’s only you that you have to please.
Have you had any reading revelations? Is there a particular genre that makes your heart pound? Let me know with a comment down below!