Judging Science Fiction

Due to my recent graduation, I have had time to do read several books that I have been putting off, and it got me thinking about the plot elements that a good fiction novel must have. In general, I would list them in this order: adventure, social commentary, and sex.

By "adventure," I mean the excitement that drives the story, whether it is a mystery story, a western, or a sci-fi novel. By "social commentary" I mean the way the author chooses to present reality, whether he chooses to create a new one or recreate past or present history. Because art is necessarily a selective representation of reality, the world the author shapes is always a reflection of his views of human nature. Furthermore, I think that good writers consciously make an effort to present a particular view of man’s existence. Think of existentialist writers like Dostoyevsky and Camus versus individualists like Heinlein, L. Neil Smith, and Ayn Rand. (Who else would you add?) This is the "social commentary" element, and while all novels have it, I think that science fiction offers some of the best opportunities to pass judgment on the status quo and propose improvements.

While the average sci-fi reader may like mind controlling/eating aliens and sexy androids, the main virtue of science fiction lies in its power as social commentary — and the relation of technology to man is just one of the issues it can consider. Great science fiction should explore philosophical issues explicitly by putting characters in situations where they must discuss and make tough choices with outcomes that reflect the author’s particular worldview. Examples of such writing (which is not to say that I agree with their particular philosophies) can be found in the writing sci-fi masters such as Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clark. Perhaps this is why I have never liked fantasy – it can certainly be a form of social commentary, but it presents a world that operates by very different rules than our own — limiting the scope of its conclusions.

Most recently, I just finished reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein – a book that expertly balances all three elements and presents a philosophy similar to my own. (Not recommended for children — but a book that proposes to re-create reality can hardly leave out the sexual aspects of human nature.) Here is an interesting question about another book that masters the three elements – is Atlas Shrugged science fiction? As this review points out, according to Rand, "science fiction is valid only if the scientific aspect is integral and necessary to tell the story." Clearly, the motor is both a fictional invention and integral to the story, but does that make the book science fiction?

What do you think?

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