From Fantasy to Sci-Fi It was Orson Scott Card and Douglas Adams who first whisked me off to the stars. I was twelve or thirteen when I discovered Ender’s Game and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Both of these books blew my mind for different reasons. What they had in common was the ability to construct fantastical worlds that were both incredible and somehow believable. I stumbled onto the genre because of a quirky habit bookstores have of shelving dragons and spaceships side by side. I was a fantasy geek long before I discovered light sabers. I read all the Dungeons and Dragons and Forgotten Realms stories. I loved Tolkien. And while browsing the aisles for something I had not yet read, I ended up sampling a science fiction story. I was immediately hooked.
The switch from fantasy to science fiction by no means lessens my love of the former, but the change came at a formidable time in my life. I was raised in a very religious household. The answer to every major question was set in stone. There was no need to question my surroundings or sort out the world using logic. The scientific method at this time was completely foreign to me.
I discovered the power of science through novels like Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and his Foundation saga. I latched onto Carl Sagan first through Contact, which led to my discovery of his non-fiction works like Cosmos. What I discovered was something more magical than the sorcery in my beloved fantasy novels or regular fiction. I was introduced to the concept that the looming future could be as mysterious and wondrous as the hidden past. I also learned a lot about human nature.
Dystopias - warnings to mankind The strongest power science fiction possesses it its ability to foretell a world different than our own, but a world built on logic. We can see how the dystopias in 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Hunger Games might arise through our faults and missteps. These works serve as warnings even as they entertain us. They instruct us to be mindful of the decisions we make, because those choices will determine what sort of world we leave behind for the next generation.
Along with an appreciation for the fate of mankind, science fiction provided me with my first glimpse of deep time. The idea that the universe was billions of years old and would go on for billions of more years was difficult to wrap my mind around. It still is. But somehow, the thought of centuries and centuries passing was as startling and beautiful as peering through a telescope and seeing the countless stars. Rather than make me feel small, these discoveries gave me an appreciation for how lucky I was to exist, how rare and special a gift each life is, and not to waste it on frivolous things.
What can we learn from Science Fiction? Above all, science fiction taught me to be ethical. One of the powers of peering into the future is to imagine how we might be living in the past, today. There are so many habits that were once common that we now view as barbaric. Slavery seemed normal to people for thousands of years. We now know it is an abomination. Women used to have far fewer rights and less control of their own destinies. We are beginning to bridge that gap.
Seeing this made me question what areas of our ethics that we practice today will look strange to people many years from now. I remember when I was a kid and Star Trek featured an interracial romance. What was shocking has now become much more accepted. Themes of tolerance filled stories of first contact with alien races. Warnings of our failures to communicate with one another also abounded. Growing up in the middle of the Cold War made stories of mutual annihilation extremely tense and topical.
One of the ways science fiction expanded my ethics was to present aliens as the more compassionate of the species. Humans weren’t always the good guys. This inversion of the simplistic cowboys and Indians of my youth taught me to observe both sides of every issue. I learned to stop assuming that the side I stood on would always be the correct side. For a boy growing up in the American South, this was a powerful lesson indeed.
What really counts For all the utility and instruction science fiction is capable of, one thing I noticed with my favorite works in the genre was that it always came back to character. It was the people in the stories that I fell in love with. It was their struggles that I keenly felt. I return to my favorite works over and over again like visiting old friends.
When I sat down to write my first novel, there was no doubting it would take place in the future. But it would have to be a story built on sound reasoning and full of real people. They would need to overcome their prejudices, grow as human beings, serve as both reminders and warnings. These are the things I love about the wonderful genre of science fiction. Especially when they all come together in such a way as to attract converts from the browsing crowd. When someone tells me that they don’t normally read this genre but that Wool is one of their favorite stories, it reminds me of my youth, of giving something new a try, and being changed forever.