Why Sci-fi Should Be Given a Try

A conversation with myself:

“I read Octavia E. Butler’s riveting Kindred and Andy Weir’s compelling The Martian this month. I should write a blog post about science fiction!”

“But you haven’t read THAT much sci-fi. You’re no expert!”

“Well, if I define sci-fi loosely enough to also include speculative fiction, time-travel novels, apocalyptic books, and so on, I think I could pull together something credible.”

“Okay, but try to avoid discussing things like ghost stories, horror novels, dystopian classics, and fantasy fiction. Those aren’t quite sci-fi (I think), and are better as topics for their own blog posts.”

“Noted. And don’t forget that people who may have more sci-fi knowledge than I can add their thoughts in the comments area.”

“True — and people with even less sci-fi knowledge than you (if that’s possible 🙂 ) can comment, too. After all, most of us have at least watched Star Wars movies and/or various Star Trek offerings.”

“But I haven’t seen The Man With Two Brains.”

“So, how are you talking with yourself?”

Sci-fi is fascinating. Most of us are curious about what the future might bring, about what the past was like (in time-travel books that go backward), about space travel, about faraway worlds, etc. And of course sci-fi set in the future is often a way to metaphorically and exaggeratedly discuss how things (such as social conditions) are in the author’s present time.

The sci-fi genre has its roots in the 19th century (if it dates back further, please correct me in the comments area). Mary Shelley was definitely a pioneer, with her iconic Frankenstein (1818) and apocalyptic The Last Man (1826) — the latter set in the 2090s.

Edgar Allan Poe flirted with time travel in his 1844 story “A Tale of Ragged Mountains,” and Jules Verne began his legendary career in the 1860s. Robert Louis Stevenson put some sci-fi elements in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Edward Bellamy went utopian sci-fi with Looking Backward (1888), and Mark Twain plunged full-on into time travel with his pessimistic A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).

Then H.G. Wells closed the 19th century and opened the 20th with his incredible run of sci-fi classics The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901). Yes, the two lunar travelers in that last book went inside the moon.

A few decades later, various 20th-century masters arrived on the publishing scene. You know their names: Isaac Asimov (who I was privileged to meet in 1986), Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, the still-living Ursula K. Le Guin, etc. And you know their prominent works — such as the Foundation novels (Asimov), The Martian Chronicles (Bradbury), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Clarke), Stranger in a Strange Land (Heinlein), and The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin).

Past and present sci-fi notables also include Douglas Adams, Orson Scott Card, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Ann Leckie, Anne McCaffrey, Joanna Russ, and Connie Willis, among others.

Some of the above have also written in other genres, but achieved much of their fame from sci-fi work. Then there are authors who primarily focus(ed) on more “general” fiction, but delve(d) into the sci-fi realm on occasion. One current example is Margaret Atwood, whose self-described “speculative fiction” includes works such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. Also, Marge Piercy went partly sci-fi with Woman on the Edge of Time, as did Virginia Woolf with Orlando. Kurt Vonnegut is by no means a pure sci-fi writer, but there are certainly elements of that genre in his novels such as the time-travel-tinged Slaughterhouse-Five. The same can be said for Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

Some novels — such as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods — mix sci-fi and fantasy. Others — including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — contain apocalyptic scenarios with some sci-fi aspects.

The Martian? The Wall Street Journal called it “the purest example of real-science sci-fi for many years,” and the 2011 novel certainly has many classic sci-fi trappings: space travel, a disaster, smart/stranded protagonist, an epic fight for survival, plausible-sounding technology, etc.

Kindred (1979) is a fascinating/searing fictional work that looks at slavery and more through a sci-fi/time-travel lens as protagonist Dana (an African-American woman) is repeatedly pulled from 20th-century California to America’s pre-Civil War South.

What are your favorite sci-fi novels? What do you think of the genre?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.