I came late to science fiction. I’ve always loved fantasy and have read it since childhood. But science fiction scared me. I’m not technically minded. I inherited my dad’s genes when it comes to anything mechanical. I remember my mother coming up to me once, absolutely terrified. She said, “Quick. Go into the garage and distract your father. He’s got the hood up on the car and I’m afraid he’ll touch something and break the engine.” My dad was known to cut himself when he changed a light bulb. You get the picture. I was afraid that if I tried science fiction, I wouldn’t understand it. So, not wanting to feel stupid, I never bothered reading it. That all changed with Star Wars. Thank you George Lucas for opening my eyes. Since I’m a visual person, it took a movie to do it. When I saw Star Wars I realized science fiction wasn’t just tech. It was adventure, and love, and sacrifice, and feelings. It was characters striving against the odds. It was life and death and everything that makes a good story. I was hooked.
I dipped my toe into the genre and quickly discovered there are a number of subcategories. There is hard science fiction which has more emphasis on technology and science; soft science fiction which puts the emphasis on characters and less on science; and social science fiction which focuses more on societal changes. Within those broad categories there are further breakdowns like dystopian, steampunk, military, time travel, alternate history, space opera, and superheroes—to name a few.
I’m more drawn to stories that focus on characters, less on the science. I’m also an optimistic person so I can only take dystopian in small doses. But I’m open to trying all of the subcategories at least once. I was surprised to discover that I like a lot of the military science fiction by David Weber. His Honor Harrington series is quite good, though he keeps killing off the characters I like. I also enjoy his series that starts with “Off Armageddon Reef.”
Eric Flint is another interesting writer. I never thought I’d get emotionally involved with rat characters, but his Rats Bats, & Vats, co-authored with Dave Freer, taught me otherwise. It’s like an old WWII story with rats, bats, and a human making up the squad. There’s also a good dose of humor mixed in.
Connie Willis’ books are either very funny or very dark. I gravitate towards the humorous ones. One of my all time favorites is Bellwether. She does Boulder so well in that book. It’s a kick. I also loved To Say Nothing of the Dog. Truly a masterpiece in plotting.
Another great storyteller is Lois McMasters Bujold. Her Miles Vorkosigan series is wonderful. When I first heard that the main character is a dwarf I wondered how she could pull it off. This was science fiction, after all, not fantasy. But Miles’ character actually needs the disadvantage of a lack of height, otherwise his outsize personality would be unbearable. She also created a world for him where human mutation is abhorrent, so even though Miles’ dwarfism is the result of an assassination attempt while he was still in utero, others view him with disgust and fear. Miles thinks he can use his personality to overcome any situation. This works pretty well for a number of books but ultimately he finds himself in a situation where his powers of persuasion don’t work. The emotional intensity of the story comes from him having to accept that fact and what that knowledge does to change him. Another amazing feature of the series is the way Bujold handles Miles’ maturity. He starts off around 17 and he’s now in his thirties. And while Miles remains essentially Miles, he still grows up. That takes a deft hand.
The last author I’d like to talk about is John Scalzi. I just finished Redshirts. Anyone who is a Star Trek fan will know where the titles comes from. If you’re not a fan, then the title refers to the xtras in the show who wore red shirts on the away missions. They usually got killed. The main character in this book is a redshirt on the starship Intrepid. He comes to realize that he is at the mercy of the narrative and that his likelihood of surviving an away mission is pretty slim. It’s a funny situation and the plan he and the other characters come up with to save themselves is really clever. This book was laugh-out-loud funny in parts. Yet it also twisted my thinking around so much that I’m still puzzling over it. That’s one of the things I love about science fiction. It messes with your concept of reality in truly mind-boggling ways. This book does it beautifully. And while parts of it were some of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read, other parts brought me to tears. All of the insider jokes about writing and the genre were great. But beyond that were the questions concerning reality, values, and love that keep turning over in my mind. It’s a book that will stay with me for a long time.
Ultimately, that’s what I love about science fiction. The stories stay with me because they touch on the big questions. By putting together characters and cultures that seem incompatible, it makes me think about my own life, my own values—what I believe in. It stretches my mind, and I hope, my compassion.