Reading for Fun: Idea Fiction

Over on Futurismic awhile back, Paul Raven was soliciting thoughts related to science fiction as a literature of ideas vs. SF as escapism. The post got me to thinking about why I got into reading science fiction in the first place, and also about why I read so many other things as well these days.

I came to SF as an adult. I’d always read a little of it, but I started seeking out SF in lieu of other kinds of stories at a time when most of the literary fiction seemed to be about dysfunctional families and the angst of junior editors at New York publishing firms. The SF I read made me think about the effect of change on human beings, what gender really means, how language works, what an entirely different civilization might be like.

As I’ve said here before, my idea of SF was skewed by the writers I came to early on: Le Guin, Delany, Cherryh, Tiptree, Russ. I was never all that interested in the gee-whiz neato-gizmos-of-the-future brand of SF. While I am fascinated by scientific discoveries, in fiction I want more than technological awe. I can get my fix of that from reading about science and speculating what certain developments might mean. Fiction should put ideas and truth in a context, should give us some idea what changes mean to a society or a person. And I want to care about the characters, to understand them, to empathize with them, to worry when they make the wrong decision.

I didn’t move away from literary fiction because I objected to angst; I just wanted angst about something besides having an affair with a married man or getting divorced or being trapped in suburbia.

But literary fiction isn’t as narrow as it was for awhile, and while there’s still plenty of dysfunctional family angst, there are works that are chock full of ideas along with great characters and beautiful writing. Some of these writers stray into SF and fantasy — some following the rules genre writers have laid out, some breaking them. I suspect that’s because speculative fiction gives you more scope for telling the truth.

Margaret Atwood is the most obvious example of literary writers who actually write science fiction. At least, I certainly hope The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction, though recent news on the political front about various efforts to control women’s reproductive rights make me worry that she’s just being prescient.

Michael Chabon won the Nebula for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and has even committed steampunk. Jonathan Lethem managed to combine both SF and mystery in Gun With Occasional Music and get it published as literary fiction, making me very jealous: I’d love to do that. And I have to think of Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi as fantasy.

Then there are stories that don’t have SF elements, but are still about ideas. Barbara Kingsolver is a great example. I don’t know of anyone else who can write so well about current political ideas without ending up writing a polemic.

Maybe we need to baptize an entirely new genre: Idea fiction. Or maybe it’s time to stop drawing all these damn lines around fiction and excluding each other for stupid reasons. We need stories, all kinds of stories, for all kinds of reasons. Me, I want a lot of ideas in my stories — and not just ones related to science and technology, but also ones related to greater human understanding — because what makes me happiest is having a new idea to play around with.

I don’t object to escapist reading: Everybody needs to relax. But having learned so much from science fiction over the years, I want it to continue to lead in the idea realm, complemented by other genres.

Given the crises we face in the world today, I don’t think there can be such a thing as too many ideas. And while I read nonfiction books that analyze problems — usually complete with lists of things we Ought To Do — I really prefer getting my ideas combined with imagination; that is, through fiction. That gives me a head start on imagining my own solutions.

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ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.

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Reading for Fun: Idea Fiction — 4 Comments

  1. When I was a teen I read a lot of science fiction. In fact, in those days, it was easy enough to read pretty much everything published, because this was well before the explosion of the seventies.

    There’s a lot to be said for the newness of ideas! But the problem with loving a genre so much is that in reading a lot of it over decades means the ideas are seldom new, and tend to fall into patterns. I discovered I read less SF, especially if the characters were cardboard, scarcely there except in service to the idea.

    I noticed that my students, who had not read the vast body of work that I had, rejected idea sf in favor of character, especially if the ideas were grim, the tone dystopic and bleak. I realized the cultural ‘feel’ had changed: the atmosphere of belief in progress that I’d grown up with had turned fearful, braced for disaster, distrustful of authority in the more thoughtful readers. They read for escapism.

    Of course there is sf and f for all tastes, now. But the very proliferation of both makes me wonder if people are reading for ideas, for escapism, and for ideas within escapism.

  2. The really great interstitional novel is The Brief Wondrous Life of Dr. Wao by Junot Díaz.

    At this point most males at least, of the last 2 – 3 generations, have been brought up swimming in geek culture: Star Wars since infancy, other movies, television, particularly children’s programming, comix, vid and computer games, and even venerable D&D. There are 40 + guys who are re-playing D&D these days — and blogging about it, of course.

    At the moment, if the U.S. has any culture of its own that isn’t from immigrants, forced or otherwise, it probably is geek culture.

    Love, c.

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  4. Yes, Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction. SF doesn’t try to predict the future, it just asks what if… and takes an idea forward. It’s a dystopia, though, and the world in that book should be a warning, not a political road map.