Maybe you’ve always thought science fiction was for weird sweaty nerds, but now that we’re deep into another lockdown, you’ve become sci-curious and you’re interested in dipping your toe into the gas nebula of science fiction. So, welcome: we weird sweaty nerds are happy to have you.
Science fiction isn’t all spaceships and space battles (though there is a lot of that), and when it’s good, it’s a proper escape from the real world. But what makes it special is its subject matter. Because while fantasy is all about getting horny for dragons and jousting, science fiction uses space and technology metaphorically – great science fiction isn’t just about spaceships, it uses spaceships to tell a story about our time.
Whether it’s gender politics, racism, environmental collapse or capitalism, science fiction is full of fables that tell us about humanity right now, and where it’s going.
Great science fiction isn’t just about spaceships, it uses spaceships to tell a story about our time
There are loads of subgenres. Hard science fiction uses actual science to tell its stories, like Poul Anderson’s ‘Tau Zero’, about a ship that can’t stop accelerating or Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Rendezvous with Rama’. Space opera is more about big, grand tales, like Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ (a simile for the oil industry) or Isaac Asimov’s pivotal ‘Foundation’ series. Then you’ve got dystopian classics like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’, and military science fiction like Joe Haldeman’s ‘Forever War’, which is one of the greatest screw-yous to conflict ever written.
And all this before you’ve even touched on the gender-critical works of Ursula K Le Guin (start with ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’), the afrofuturism of Nnedi Okorafor, Samuel Delany or Octavia E Butler (the ‘Dawn’ trilogy is staggeringly good), or the speculative fiction of writers like Margaret Atwood.
My personal faves are the ultra-left-wing anarchist society created by Iain M Banks in his ‘Culture’ series (especially ‘Excession’) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s vision of what colonising another planet would actually be like in his ‘Mars’ trilogy.
But there is so much to explore in science fiction, so many worlds and ideas, and almost all of it is relevant to our world today. Strap in, beam yourself up and throw away your deodorant, you’re a weird sweaty nerd now.