Aug 23 2010 12:26pm

Why Science Fiction?

I’m a compulsive reader with pretty Catholic tastes, and I write about everything from shamelessly cheesy Young Adult romance to shamelessly highbrow literary fiction for my blog. But I recently decided to dedicate a week to talking about speculative fiction exclusively, and the enthusiastic reception affirmed the special place science fiction in particular has always held in my heart.

Why science fiction? Here’s a story for you: I grew up in a very small and unpleasant town, with parents whom I adore, don’t get me wrong, but whose politics are very different from mine (i.e. they watch Fox News religiously, I have an FBI file from getting arrested at anti-globalization protests). As a very young person, I was solidly on my way to a content middle-class life of fluorescent-lit day jobs, picket fences, and voting Republican (my mom recently unearthed a fan letter I wrote to Ronald Reagan at a tender age). Somewhere between then and now, however, I took a hard left on the road less traveled. What happened, you may well ask? I wonder that myself sometimes, and the best I can come up with is: science fiction. No, seriously. Bear with me.

Science fiction: it does not have the greatest history. For every Lieutenant Uhura, there are a whole truckload of Kirks, and even Uhura had to wear that stupid uniform. But as long as science fiction has been written, the ladies and the queers and the people of color have been hijacking that business for their own excellent ends, and the results are what I might describe as transcendent. You take White Man, Captain of the Universe; I’ll take Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree Jr., Samuel Delany, Mary Shelley, and the legions of people they have influenced and inspired.

I started reading that stuff young, and it did its percolating somewhere in there under the surface, so that when finally I got out of dodge and met people doing the righteous work of the revolution, everything just sort of clicked. When you grow up reading about planets without gender it doesn’t seem very odd that a person in your real life might feel the gender they live is not the same as the sex they were born with. When you spend your formative years obsessed with a story about transgender mutant prostitutes inhabiting post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., it’s not really a stretch to envision an anarchist, self-governing utopian future. When you read Samuel R. Delany as a kid, once you put your brain back in the ear it came out of it’s no big deal when someone sits you down and says: Look, kid, pull your head out of your ass and recognize the privilege your white skin affords you.

People bring up “common sense” a lot in the real world, usually when they are trying to tell you there’s something wrong with you: it’s “common sense” that illegal means illegal, it’s “common sense” that marriage is between a man and a woman, it’s “common sense” that biology is destiny and women are feeble (this last usually illustrated with an allegedly scientific anecdote about the behaviors of cavemen). It’s “common sense” that racism ended with the election of Obama/the civil rights movement/some other arbitrary point in history where a random person of color did something radical without getting shot by a police officer. Well, fuck common sense. Common sense is a none-too-subtle stand-in for “shut up and suck it up.”

Speculative fiction offers us human beings something different: not “common sense” but a sense we have in common that the world is larger and more filled with possibility than we might be able to imagine, a sense that enlarging the opportunities of other people’s lives does not have to mean making our own lives smaller. In fact, quite the opposite. If we’re writing the stories, there’s room on that spaceship for all of us. There are not many days, anymore, that I feel particularly hopeful about the future. But as silly as it may sound, speculative fiction is a reminder that our vision is bigger than our histories, that some other kind of tomorrow is still an option. We are the species that invented genocide; but we are also the species that brought into being the written word. As Ursula K. LeGuin writes, “It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.”

I was lucky enough to be able to interview some truly fantastic women as part of my own little science-fiction blog party; those interviews will appear here as well in the coming week. I’m truly delighted to be blogging for Tor about a genre that means so much to me.

Tomorrow: An interview with author Elizabeth Hand.

The Rejectionist is an anonymous assistant to a New York City literary agent. She blogs at

1. M.E.Staton
An excellent post and a little bit scary that I posted something along the same lines on my own blog today. You know what they say, Great Minds Think that is common sense, but now always ;)
2. Tina Hunter
Absolutely wonderful post. I can feel your passion and I share it with you. Science Fiction gives writers a licence to push our limits and boundaries as a species as far as possible. I look forward to the rest of your posts.
David Dyer-Bennet
3. dd-b
Leigh Brackett deserves a name-check in that list I think (though if you're specifically listing ones that influenced you, and she didn't, then never mind!).

I agree, there have been bits of SF solidly ahead of society on the major social issues, and I'm sure it's helped a lot of people grow up less bigoted. (Unfortunately rather too much SF is NOT particularly ahead of society; luckily most of it just accepts, rather than actively supporting, the old positions.)
4. Allan Krummenacker
Wonderful post. Found you on Twitter through Tordotcom. Loved what you had to say and I thoroughly agree with it. Sci-Fi opens the mind to numerous possibilities and opens one up to question what is "common sense" and who set the standards for it. I really appreciated seeing someone step up and point out how sci-fi really makes you think about things in a different way.

I'd like to post a link to your blog from my own. I hope that will be all right.

Keep up the great work.
James Enge
5. JamesEnge
Isn't it small-c catholic here? (Not to quibble.) (Okay, to quibble.)

I liked the post: thinking about stuff can change you, and the best sf does promote that. Looking forward to the interviews.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
@5. The answer is "yes"; I had the same comment. But post was good despite the minor grammatical faux pas. Rob
7. WillDes
I love science fiction and have been reading it from a wee lad, but I would have to dispute the theory that reading it will make you lean left.

Since we are using anecdotal evidence, and without going into detail, I am on the right side of the political spectrum.

And if you'll allow me a small quibble, I view common sense as a way of thinking and not as ideological statements as you have here. Now, where you end up may or may not end up in the same place, but to say a statement is a way of thinking strikes me as oversimplification.
Scientist, Father
8. Silvertip
I have for a long time regarded Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" to be the best argument for political radicalism that I know.

9. Daley12
WillDes - you're right about common sense not having to be a certain slant of thinking. Still, she's right in that one should aim for a clarity beyond the assumptions of whatever society you find yourself in.

As Einstein put it, "Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen."
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
I highly doubt that scifi made you go to the left. It was more like a confluence of influences and a rejection of the parental mode. Some teachers you admired, universities tend to be much more left thinking. You are from the northeast which is traditionally more liberal so lots of influences there.

Theres easily as much conservative writing in scifi and fantasy as there is liberal. Maybe with a pretty good edge to the libertarian philosophies. But libertarian and liberal are not the same.
11. KiwiThea
I agree with the idea that science fiction makes you think about things from a unique perspective and so I can agree with the comments regarding science fiction as an influence for taking a left turn. Even if science fiction is written conservatively it can still offer more than just that. The great thing about all books is that they mean something different to everyone who reads them.
Don Ritchey
12. dritch
Having grown up Southern in rural Texas, I can comment about the corrosive influence of SF on conservative roots. I always regarded SF as a window onto other universes, ones that may not have followed the same tired path as ours. I saw both bright possibilities and terrible dooms that came out of those alternate realities. Most of all, I saw possibilities that did not have to follow the same rut that I was in.

Too much of conservative thought (in particular, religeous conservative thought) never looks up in wonder of what could happen if we just looked at the possibilities. There is much fear in the conservative landscape about what those possibilities might be, so it is head-down and plod on, never to look up.

I looked around a long time ago and, while I am not always confident in the paths we follow, I want to believe that we can do better, both for ourselves and for the rest of the inhabitants of Lifeboat Earth.

We don't have to settle.
13. CliveL
SF is a good opportunity to think different about the ordinary. But its best when its focus bring out truths we all can relate too; total, and outright rejection of convention does not make good SF or you truly liberal.
14. esotericchick
Thank you for writing about the liberating effects of sci-fi. Those authors did more to change my political views than any class in college.
Your story is my story.
(I even once wrote a conservative fan letter to George Will.) :-)

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment