When science fiction is well written, we unfairly call it something else

For this hundredth column of Bookwise, and in light of the Mangalyaan launch, I decided to boldly go where I have never gone before. No subject can be a final frontier for the lifelong reader, but science fiction is a genre I’ve explored only inadvertently or at long intervals.

Many serious readers crinkle their noses at sci fi, and yet when such a book is well written, we rather unfairly call it something else. When I read Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives,or Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, I considered them social comment, satire, romance, or “just literature”. On the other hand, if a book I expected to be sci fi doesn’t have enough science or engineering, it feels limp, like William Jablonsky’s The Clockwork Man, which tells me nothing about the gears and cogs that animate its creaking hero.

Some fans of the genre distinguish soft sci fi from hard, with soft sci fi investigating the broader implications of social engineering and emerging technology, or our relationships with alien societies, and hard sci fi focussing more strictly on the engineering of time travel and the spaceships zooming through the void or the biology of the Martians sucking out our goopy innards.

Readable science fiction begins with a possibility and fashions a vision that startles the reader. In Einstein’s Dreams, my first new discovery, Alan Lightman crystallises various theories of time as vignettes, with recognisable people who live in a Swiss town. Lightman does not develop characters or plots, he just talks us through what we would experience if time were discontinuous, moving backward, slower for some people, or slower in some places. Where time stands still, for example, “one sees lovers kissing in the shadows of buildings, in a frozen embrace that will never let go. The loved one will never take his arms from where they are now, will never give back the bracelet of memories, will never journey far from his lover, will never place himself in danger in self-sacrifice, will never fail to show his love, will never become jealous, will never fall in love with someone else, will never lose the passion of this instant in time.”

It is called a novel and it has “Einstein” in the title, but Lightman’s work feels a bit mystic for the genre. Ought there to be so much love and kissing in science fiction? Or is the serious reader just too fussy?

I have relished at least two works that were unequivocally sci fi. One was Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall, set on a planet that receives light from six suns, so that night falls once every 2,000 years, the people go mad with fear, and civilization breaks down. The other was Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos: Archives, five volumes of dense storytelling that cast a spell on me long ago. I’d like to go back to those works one day, but now it’s high time I went boldly on to discover new worlds.