Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why Science Fiction?

From my teens through my forties the vast majority of my reading was science fiction, occupying anywhere from 80% to 95% of my reading time. Somewhere during the 1980s my reading passed beyond the pleasure stage into the realm of obsession. I bought dozens of books and prozines that I considered required reading for any serious student of science fiction, and my pile of unread books grew accordingly. So I read three science fiction books per month minimum. Four prozines regularly. Best of the Year anthologies. I don't think it ever entered my head that what had begun as a pleasant hobby twenty years previous had become a chore. Did I still enjoy science fiction? Yes. Did I enjoy reading all the science fiction I did? Often not.

In the meantime, I began buying a fair amount of non-SF, particularly in the early 90s when my reading taste began expanding considerably. I bought everything from historical fiction to literature to various types of nonfiction. How much of it did I actually read? Well, not much.

Inevitably, my overdosing on f&sf led to burnout sometime around 1995. So I cut back on my reading of science fiction. No more required reading. I let all my prozine subscriptions expire. My reading of science fiction decreased considerably, soon reaching the point when I could not read science fiction at all. Whenever I picked up a science fiction book I immediately became bored. Other books were calling to me, many of which had been sitting patiently on my bookshelf for several years and whose patience had worn thin. It was beginning to look as if thirty years of science fiction reading had burnt me out entirely. I was on the verge of joining the ranks of many other devoted fans who loved the genre as youngsters, but who gradually drifted away as adults. I was just much slower maturing than other fans.

And yet, as one year passed into another, I found myself drifting back to science fiction again. Certainly nothing like my former obsession. Perhaps half my reading was science fiction, the other half either historical fiction or nonfiction. No prozines. But still SF was becoming important to me again, and the fact that I was reading it by choice and once again for pleasure made it seem almost as exciting as it had been thirty years ago.

So the question I asked myself was: why science fiction? The other genres I have begun reading contained aspects which also excite me. Historical fiction is especially fascinating, particularly when the story is so integrated with the milieu of the period itself that I come away feeling like I've been immersed in a different culture. Non-fiction can be equally exciting. Straight history is probably my favorite type of nonfiction, but I also enjoy studies of other cultures. Books such as Italian Days, in which second-generation Italian-American Barbara Grizzuti Harrison spent several months living in her ancestral homeland discovering her lost heritage. Since I happen to be a second-generation Italian-American who has never visited Italy, this book was a vicarious experience that really speaks to me.

Chinese culture is a particular favorite of mine. I've read numerous works of fiction, both classics (Journey to the South, Orphans of the Marsh, Story of the Stone) and contemporary (Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads), historical nonfiction (Wild Swans), and straight history book (The Good Man of Nanking, China: From the Long March to Tiananmen Square).

But still, with all these exciting books I’ve read, their pleasure cannot replace the enjoyment I get from science fiction. Hence, the mathematician in me assumes there must be some logical reason why one particular genre beckons me so strongly. So I analyzed the specific ingredients I look for in a work of fiction:

• The story must be character-driven. That is far more important to me than stories which are exclusively about the plot (such as a mystery or a thriller tend to be). That is true for science fiction as well, since I shy away from SF that is basically about science (hard-science stories) or most space operas. I am interested in human emotions, human concerns, human drives and failings.

• I prefer stories that are not set in the real world. I live in the real world twenty-four hours a day. Objectively, it has a lot of good points, such as a long lifespan, reasonably high health standards, and a general level of comfort far above that of most other cultures. But that's a rational opinion. Emotionally I love other cultures, the more exotic the better, whether they are fictional worlds set far away in time and space, or historical worlds far different from ours, or even contemporary cultures so far removed from 1995 America as to virtually be alien worlds themselves.

• I want fiction that is thought-provoking. Mindless plots that don't spark the thinking side of me at all ultimately bore me. There should be some food for thought in fiction, whether it makes me think about the characters themselves, or their society, or about some historical development far removed from routine daily life.

• I love sense of wonder, that *gosh wow* feeling that I get from settings or ideas or creations so unexpected and so far removed from my mundane world that they make me feel like a teenager again discovering science fiction for the first time.

Trying to find fiction that satisfies all four of the above criteria is not necessarily easy. Good fiction satisfies two of them. Great fiction satisfies three. An occasional masterpiece satisfies all four. For me at least, the best science fiction incorporates more of the four criteria than other types of fiction. Of course, I am knowledgeable enough in the genre not to be a victim of Sturgeon's Law. I keep up on favorite authors and book reviews sufficiently to eliminate most of the chaff before I ever buy a book. That's not true in other genres where I am much less knowledgeable. Thus I am much more likely to be satisfied with a science fiction novel that I pick up at random than I am with a work from some other genre.

But I doubt if my preference for science fiction is merely a matter of convenience. Quite frequently I find other fiction that satisfies three criteria to my satisfaction, yet still I keep returning to SF. Nor is my love of science fiction mere escapism from a real world I disliked forty years ago. I rather like the real world I inhabit at this moment more than at any time in the past, and hope I can remain part of it for another three decades at least.

I guess the bottom line is that science fiction is a part of me. With all its warts and weaknesses, it's still my favorite reading genre. It has given me forty years of enjoyment so far, so it must have something going for it. I can only assume that my reading will continue to be dominated by science fiction for many years to come, and that is just fine with me.


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