My father likes to tell the story of the first time I ever saw a Star Wars movie. I was young enough that I myself don’t really remember the experience of being in the theater, but according to my parents, I needed to be helped into the seat. So I guess I was pretty small.
This wasn’t the original premier of Star Wars as that predated me by several years, but there happened to be a limited rerelease of A New Hope in theaters, or maybe there was just a special screening. I confess to not knowing the exact details, but whatever this event was, we picked up a tiny model of the Millennium Falcon there, and I had that hanging from the top bunk of my bed for years and years. While watching the movie, though, my eyes were glued to the screen, and Dad says I was on the edge of my seat the entire time.
It’s funny how even the things we don’t remember can have massive impacts on us.
Ever since that day at the movies, I’ve loved science fiction. For a while, there was no solid reason why, but I was always drawn to the idea of there being more to the night sky than just a bunch of cold, distant stars. Science fiction was a way to close the distance between our world and the millions of possibilities out there, and as we continue to improve our technology and learn how to see smaller, rockier planets in other solar systems, I find myself only getting more and more excited for the discoveries our astronomers are making.
But these days, one of the biggest draws of science fiction–for me–isn’t how outlandish its worlds can be, or how alien the inhabitants of those worlds are, or how much adventure can be found between star systems, though those are always alluring elements in my mind. No, what forms the foundation of my love for science fiction is the genre’s ability to analyze aspects of our own society while still letting its audience look on from a comfortable distance away. And I don’t mean by crafting thinly veiled criticisms of human civilization. I mean that the best writers in the genre can breathe life into a completely new world and all its inhabitants, and invite us to think about that world on a level that we might not even consciously consider.
Fiction’s primary goal is to entertain. Great fiction will do that while also engaging its audience on a deeper level. And science fiction has the capacity to do so in spectacular ways. What other genre will give you epic space battles alongside characters questioning their own humanity? Where else can you find speculation on the development of the human race, both in the distant future and in the past thanks to the time traveling subgenre? Fantasy can certainly lend itself to a lot of these elements, but I’ve always been of the opinion that while fantasy can sneak by with looser solutions to problems via magic, science fiction demands a sense of realism. There’s a line that scifi writers must tread between suspension of disbelief and full believability. Characters can visit far-off worlds, but writers within the genre need to establish and adhere to the rules of their universe. Fantasy and other genres need to do this too, but can more easily bend and break those rules and not shatter their universe in the process (though that’s not an absolute statement).
When done well, science fiction will give its audience an entertaining story, but will also ask them to look beyond the surface and think about how an individual work is reflecting the world of today. You can certainly have shallower scifi, and as much as I love Star Wars, I’ll be the first to say that there’s not much substance to it beyond the Hero’s Journey. You could argue that there’s an examination of what happens when absolute power corrupts absolutely, and my favorite interpretation of the Force views it more as an ocean than as a coin with a Light and Dark Side, with the Dark Side being the deepest parts that are capable of crushing those who dare to enter without understanding what it is they are diving into. But as far as the feature movies go, you may be a bit hard-pressed to find much beyond sword fights and exploding space stations. You’ll see the evolutions of characters, but not so much a deeper meaning. Not like you’d find in the Star Trek of old, at least, which lacked the budget that would have allowed for an easy-going plot.
My personal favorite science fiction presents an examination of what it is to be human, and of how something inhuman is not necessarily inhumane, no matter our biased perceptions of it. I like seeing characters struggle internally and externally alike, and these are the things that I strive to accomplish in my own writing.
Along with the occasional exploding spaceship and daring adventure to a new planet, of course.