Reach for the Stars! Or in Defence of Science Fiction Literature

“I rejoice in accepting it for, and sharing it with, all the writers who’ve been excluded from literature for so long—my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction, writers of the imagination, who for fifty years have watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

These were a few of the words spoken by long-time science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

It was a throwaway opening to an acceptance speech that was ultimately about the battle of art and literature against consumerism and capitalism. It was an admirable, moving speech. But what truly struck me was this opening line.

I saw it as a rallying cry, a summons to battle against those who would deny the importance of science fiction as literature. Because the sad truth is, those people are numerous. Science fiction is often discounted as literature, and the awards and prestige are passed on to the realists again and again. If a work of science fiction is found in a university course on general literature, then it is indeed the proverbial diamond in a haystack.

I grew up in a household that takes science fiction seriously. My father has dressed as Decard from Blade Runner for Halloween, and I believe one of my mother’s first prerogatives as a parent was to make sure I loved Back to the Future before I could spell. To my family, knowledge of Star Trek was up there with knowledge of how to wear pants. As soon as I learned to read, I was fed hundreds of brilliant science fiction novels from Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Frank Herbert’s Dune to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

So when I reached university, and applied for as many English courses as I could, I found myself bemused by the apparent lack of science fiction on my syllabus, until eventually, I came to the realization that there are people who discredit science fiction as a form of high literature.

But I am here to proclaim that, yes, science fiction is literature! If science fiction is well written, if it is a good story, then it is literature. But more than any other form of literature, science fiction is about imagination, and the sharing of broader ideas about the world we live in, the world we could have lived in, and the world we could live in tomorrow.

Science fiction can be deployed as a metaphor for today’s society, as a way to protest, or to critique the world we live in. This is common, and we can see it used in popular books like The Hunger Games by Suzanna Collins.

But novels that have taken a more direct interest in using science fiction as a protest on different societies go back famously throughout the last century. George Orwell’s 1984 is a protest against fascism, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a warning against the dangers of censorship. And nearly the entire works of Kurt Vonnegut, including his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse 5, use science fiction to speak about his experience of the firebombing of Dresden from World War II. These are all science fiction classics.

But not all science fiction is so grim! Science fiction is about ideas! Science fiction is about imagination and pondering the future of humanity. Jules Vern wrote about Americans traveling to the moon in a rocket in the book From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, and 104 years later they did just that. Isaac Asimov imagined the place of robots in the future of our society in his novel I, Robot, and years later, the three laws of robotics that he put forward in his stories are commonly thought of as the actual laws of robotics!

Science fiction is the home of futurism, the art of predicting what comes next, sometimes with almost frightening accuracy. Arthur C. Clark’s ideas ranged from predicting the internet to global satellite systems and the cell phone!

As literature  and as a medium, science fiction has had possibly more impact on modern society and pop culture than any other form of storytelling. H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine brought about the advent of stories and dreams about time travel. There are hundreds of works reminding us that the unexplored universe is out there, and that aliens are most likely actually floating around. And Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is responsible for me shouting, “So long and thanks for all the fish”, every other time I leave the room.

Science fiction is as much a part of our world today as air. If you ever imagined what tomorrow might look like, or looked up at the stars and reached out and wondered about whether we might one day get there, then you have in your own way contributed to science fiction, the literature of imagining what humanity might be capable of, for better or worse.

Science fiction is an important part of literature, and of society as a whole, and I will keep on repeating myself until I see it taught along with the rest of the classics.

-contributed by Ben Ghan



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