There has been an increasing effort lately to move speculative fiction – whether fantasy or science fiction – into the mainstream previously dominated by literary fiction (or fiction with a ‘realistic’ and contemporary setting). This has been helped in no small part by the success of J. K. Rowling and the flux of children’s fantasy rip-offs which have helped to popularise the speculative fiction genre-group. Michael Chabon’s latest literary offering The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was a popular science fiction work even going so far as to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Lost, Fringe and Heroes are all bringing speculative fiction to a wider TV audience (while the infinitely better Battlestar Galactica sits in the relative obscurity of cult TV-dom). The biggest performer at the box office this summer was The Dark Knight, a superhero movie. Halo 3 is one of the bestselling video games of all time. All pointing towards a gradual acceptance of more speculative fiction by the public rather than normal literary fiction.
So what makes good science fiction?
Firstly the scientific or futuristic element must be intrinsic to the plot. Science fiction fans herald Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation as two of the greatest examples of the genre and yet both are stories that could as easily be told within a contemporary or even historical setting. Dune is basically the story of a man who fulfils his destiny utilising religious belief: a thoroughly mystical affair that could be told in feudal Europe. Foundation is the story of the fall of an Empire and attempts to establish a new one, again utilising religious belief: could just as easily be told at the end of the Roman Empire or within contemporary United States. For these novels the spaceships, technology, and generic capital-city-planets are scene decoration, nothing more: sugaring the pill to make it easier to swallow. Whereas in Battlestar Galactica for example the space setting is intrinsic to the plot: the point is that they wander lonely through the emptiness of dark space where there is no other civilisations.
Thirdly, and almost antithetical to the first desideratum, science fiction must be relevant. Although the science fictional elements must play a part, the work should have a deep and abiding message for us today, not exactly a moral – certainly nothing as ham-handed as C. S. Lewis. But the work should make the reader think and should have some kind of philosophical message such as are present in Philip K. Dick’s writing or even Jorge Luis Borges (by and large a speculative fiction writer). General science fiction themes include ethics and morality, the nature of war, metaphysical thought experiments, or destiny.
Fourth, good characters: ones that do not have to be contemporary. It’s patronising and annoying to assume a work needs a ‘lead-in’ character for a wider audience. Write characters befitting of the setting. See R. Scott Bakker and George R. R. Martin.
Fifth, the work needs to be unique. It may be difficult to find a unique science fictional element, especially since George Lucas plundered all the tropes to create the Star Wars films. However it does make a work much more readable and exciting, whether the uniqueness lies in the setting, the technology, the characters, the belief systems, the writing style/presentation, or the underlying message.
Finally, good speculative fiction is escapist. There’s no denying the thrill of diving into another world and, let’s be honest, what sane person doesn’t want to escape the real world at the moment?