I’ve been reading sf/f since I was a wee lad. Now, my daughter, not having read it much at all, views it as being complicated, and when I asked her why it seems that way to her, it’s because she’s not familiar with it, whereas I’m so used to it that it’s not complicated to me. And that’s saying something, because I can say without bias that my kid is smarter than I am.
But, see, here’s the thing: I was talking with a friend of mine about this a week or so ago, too. We grew up reading most of the same books and have a lot of the same tastes when it comes to sf (though he doesn’t care for fantasy at all). We are both big fans of Robert Heinlein, and we cut our teeth on Isaac Asimov and those like him.
Let me back up and explain something here to those who aren’t very familiar with the sf genre. There are different terms for science fiction that, to insiders, indicate what kind of science fiction is being talked about. For the hard core sf reader, suggesting that he (and most of them tend to be men, as I understand it at least) is reading sci fi is an insult. The term “sci fi” refers to cheap Hollywood movies that depend more on special effects than on quality story. These individuals frown on Star Wars and most cinematic forms of science fiction, viewing it as not being “real” science fiction. Likewise, the vast majority of them will not touch a fantasy novel, and it doesn’t matter how much LOTR might mean to another reader. Fantasy should not be on the same shelf as science fiction, maybe not in the same store. There’s a definite elitist attitude there (which I don’t share).
For these people, what qualifies as real sf can be almost opaque to the rest of us. It needs to be full of scientific concepts and the story should come second to that. There are some sf authors who, let’s face it, aren’t very good storytellers. Pair them up with someone who is and you can get a pretty good story. Leave them on their own and they can be very dry to read. One example that, for me, at least, falls somewhere in between is Robert L. Forward. Mr. Forward is an astrophysicist, and I’ve read two of his books: Starquake and Dragon’s Egg. I won’t go into details about them, just suffice it to say that both novels include math concepts that I simply had to skip over. The only saving grace was that Mr. Forward is a good writer. And though some may view this as sacrilege, I have a hard time reading a Larry Niven novel when he writes them by himself. Pair him up with someone else (like Jerry Pournelle), and he’s good, because he comes up with excellent sf concepts. He just needs someone to remind him that he’s writing for human beings, not computers.
Now let’s skip back in time a bit, to what is called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, when the Grand Masters were writing. We’re talking about Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Frederick Pohl, Poul Anderson and so many others. These men were grounded in science, but their stories put story first. The science was another plot device, not the reason the story existed. Many of them had themes to their writing, known as future histories. Usually short stories, they would move through time, usually starting at or just before space travel and going from there, cataloging a timeline of humanity’s future. If you’d like a good capsule version of this, try to find Birthright: The Book of Man by Mike Resnick (I linked it because his books are hard to find, for the most part). Another good future history is Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow, though it’s a little thicker. Both are high quality sf, with the latter being more along the lines of hard sf (there being more science involved). Heinlein was able to pull off hard sf in a way that non-scientists could handle, though. And he was a hell of a good writer (if you read only one book by him, or one sf novel at all, make it Stranger in a Strange Land).
People who read “real” sf also tend to sneer at those like me who read/write space opera. Space opera differs from hard sf in that the science fiction is a backdrop for the story. In space opera, the story tends to be about power struggles, like in Star Wars. In other words, the story and the action are the important elements of space opera. Now, in some cases, some of the plot elements revolve around items that just wouldn’t work in any other setting. For instance, in the one I’m working on right now, the plot centers around the first crew to test a ship with a faster than light (ftl) drive disappears. Now it’s four hundred or so years later and they’ve made their way back—but they aren’t exactly human anymore. In Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy (talk about Bloated Epic, this one’s huge but well worth the read), the plot device that drives it is an alien race that evolved into pure spirit form opens a rift between our galaxy and a limbo full of such luminaries as Al Capone and Christian Fletcher. They’ve been deprived of all sensation since they died and now they’re possessing people so they can experience life again. It brings on a crisis for the entire human race, and we learn from the one alien race we’ve encountered so far that every race that ever existed has had to go through this time of trials, but they can’t help us because each race also finds its own unique solution to getting through it. And some of the evidence isn’t all that encouraging, because one race apparently committed racial suicide—blew up their entire planet. Seems a little radical, but what can you do?
On the other hand, there are examples, such as the Robert L. Forward books mentioned above, that are pure hard sf, and others that are even harder to read (as I said, at least Mr. Forward can tell a good story). And that’s fine for the people who like that kind of thing. I struggle with it myself, partly through lack of a science degree of some type and partly because I believe the first duty of a story is to entertain, and hard science doesn’t entertain me. But, I guess people being people, fans of hard sf just gotta look down on the rest of us.
But read any good Heinlein or Asimov story and I guarantee you’ll be in for a story first, even if the science in it is hyper-accurate. These gentlemen understood that, in order to tell a good story, you didn’t resort to a textbook of some kind that happened to have fictional characters in it. And they were able to throw in details that made the stories feel authentic, as if you were reading about real people in real settings.
Any genre needs to evolve and change or it will die. I’m sure there are those who wouldn’t consider paranormal romance to be “proper” romance—and they’re likely missing out on some good stories. Sf now includes such things as alternate histories (I understand Harry Turtledove excels at this) and steampunk, along with cyberpunk (think Neuromancer by William Gibson. He also wrote Johnny Mnemonic, and I’m sure the story is better than the movie) and many others. To people who don’t read these stories, some of then can seem a bit silly. But I’d like to point out some others that we wouldn’t even consider science fiction now, but were when they came out, such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When that one came out, making such a voyage on a submarine was pure speculation—but our submariners do it for months at a time now, and on nuclear powered subs, at that. And even when John F. Kennedy vowed to have men on the Moon by the end of the Sixties there were people who considered that to be a pipe dream. And there are still those who are convinced our Moon trips were filmed in Hollywood.
The future histories the Grand Masters wrote didn’t necessarily come true as they wrote them—for instance, Heinlein posited that space travel would be achieved by commercial interests, not by government—but the basic concepts have in some ways. So I’m not knocking hard science in that regard. I’m just saying that maybe we need to remember that the idea behind sf is to tell a story. And we’ve been doing that since the days when we squatted around a fire and wondered what those bright specks up in the sky were.