What kind of science fiction do you enjoy?

Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky coverI wrote a few months ago about how my protagonist doesn’t fit most of the stereotypes for science fiction heroines. Now it appears that the entire novel may prove to be a horse of a different color amongst all the other (thousands of) science fiction titles being published these days. Recently when I did some quick & dirty internet research to see what kind of science fiction is selling that I might actually want to read, I found that the answer is “not much.”

So what kind of science fiction do I enjoy? I’m not so sure any more. I do know, however, what kind I have enjoyed in the past.

Sprockets, Alexander KeyWhen I was a little kid, I very much enjoyed the science fiction oeuvre of Louis Slobodkin. Nobody could have been happier than I was when The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree landed in my lap; of course, I myself was even happier when it returned. I don’t recall now if I discovered the spaceship before or after I fell in love with Sprockets, A Little Robot (Alexander Key, author of many great books for kids). I loved, loved, loved Sprockets. I wanted to be Sprockets. Then I could ride in a spaceship to meet Marvin the Martian, nemesis of Bugs Bunny – I felt sure I could win him away from the Dark Side.

So, for me, science fiction meant, first of all, space (“outer space,” as we used to call it). Sometime while still pretty young, I fell in love with two very different science fiction writers (this was before science fiction relied heavily on “science” – it was rocket ships and aliens, all the way). These two were Robert Heinlein and Zenna Henderson. As I said, very different.

Spunky youngsters in spacesuits
Spunky youngsters in spacesuits. Perfect!

Heinlein, for me, combined two of my pet fantasies: outer space/space ships and spunky young people (SYP). I was not a spunky young person, but I desperately longed to be one. Heinlein’s SYP always seemed to be having great adventures, getting into tight scrapes on the far side of the galaxy and figuring their way out – sometimes they even saved entire crews of space ships, or even entire worlds. (That has been another of my perennial fantasies: saving the world.) I loved books like Space Cadet and Have Space Suit, Will Travel, but I soon moved on to things like Starship Troopers, Farnham’s Freehold, and Tunnel in the Sky (I read that one at least half a dozen times). Heinlein started to lose me when he hit about age 50, which seems to be the age when men who are going to get weird and creepy go ahead and do so. That was about the time he began to indulge himself in what were, apparently, his own private fantasies – nudism, incest, polyamory, that sort of thing. You know, the Stranger in a Strange Land–Lazarus Long period. After that, he lost me entirely.

The People, No Different FleshZenna Henderson was the other side of the coin – her stories of “the People” had me entirely transfixed. You wouldn’t even have known they were science fiction if you didn’t pick up on the clues that “the People” were a race of aliens, survivors of a crash on Earth, where they were trying to blend in – not always so easy to do, since they had abilities that mid-twentieth century Earthlings would have called either magical or psychic. But the People just wanted to get along and fit in – something that I longed for, too. I didn’t have their interesting background, though. I was very, very sad when I realized that I had read all of the stories Zenna Henderson had published and, since she was deceased, there would be no more.

alasbabylon1Another branch of science fiction that interested me when I was a kid (from the age of about 12 or so) was apocalyptic novels. Not “apocalyptic” in the Biblical sense but in the Cold War sense. My entire youth was spent under the radioactive cloud of the Cold War and the imminent possibility of total global destruction. I was fascinated with stories that imagined what it would be like “after The Bomb,” particularly those that explored how the remnants of humanity would regroup and reinvent civilization. Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon was probably my all-time favorite in this genre, although I later discovered Nevil Shute’s melancholy On the Beach, and loved it in a different way. (I never read Walter Miller’s Canticle for Liebowitz until about the time the Cold War was officially over.)

[I’m deliberately leaving out of this list, by the way, one of my all-time favorite writers, Ray Bradbury. This is because Bradbury cannot be shoved into a science fiction pigeonhole, or any other kind. But I love his work in whatever genre people try to stick it – his books are like prose poems, too fine to be compared with most of the other works I’m listing here. Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, all wonderful, defying classification.]

This Perfect Day, Ira LevinClosely associated (in my mind, anyway) were dystopian novels, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I first read when I was thirteen. Another one in this genre which I remember well (although it was not nearly as literarily respectable) was Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day: A NovelRobert Silverberg’s The World Inside depressed me so badly that I didn’t read another thing he wrote for a long time. Ironically, I think, in some ways, that book influenced the “future history” that provides the backstory for the novel I’m currently working on, Cast Into the Deep Sea of Stars.

I’ll add just two more kinds of science fiction to this list of kinds I’ve enjoyed: time travel and parables. My all-time favorite time travel stories are Poul Anderson’s tales of the Time Patrol, although Jack Finney’s Time and Again made a huge impression on me when it first came out. By parables, I mean stories that, on the face of it, are science fiction but, in reality, they are thinly-disguised parables that examine some quirk of human nature. Cifford D. Simak wrote a lot of this sort of stuff. C. S. Lewis’s wonderful space trilogy also falls under this rubric.

Time and Again, Jack FinneyNow, if you look back over this list of science fiction that I loved in my childhood and youth (which is far from covering all the kinds of vaguely “science fiction” stuff I’ve read and loved), you may notice what is glaringly absent. Anything with a lot of hard-core science (sorry, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov). Anything with lots of non-humanoid aliens. Anything heavily militaristic (wars in space). In other words, most of the stuff that makes up the general genre of science fiction these days.

Yes, there is plenty of dystopian scifi these days, but little of it interests me, mostly because the great bulk of it is merely dark, and often heavily ideological, lacking in real or constructive imagination. Yes, there are quite a few post-apocalyptic novels, but they are hardly to be distinguished from the dystopian ones – except the ones that are merely zombie stories in disguise. The “sciencey” science fiction is so sciencey that you need at least a master’s degree in quantum physics to wade through it. Bleh.

All of this is to say, I guess, that I’m working on a story that is the sort of thing I would like to read myself – not super sciencey, not super dark, no space battles, not even any space aliens. I’m calling it “character-driven futuristic adventure.” Maybe contemporary readers will think it’s a throw-back to the ‘50s or ‘60s or maybe (if they’re young enough) they think it’s something fresh and different. We’ll see.

I’m about halfway through the first round of revision (filling in plot holes, beefing up subplots, deepening characterization) and hope to send it out to some beta readers in a few weeks. If you’re reading this, why not leave a comment saying what kind of science fiction you enjoy, and why?

This originally appeared on my science fiction blog, Sancta Futura.

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