One of the most wonderful things about blogging is how slow it is. By which I mean, when I see a tweet and have a raw, unformed idea about it, I generally start tweeting my reply in under twenty seconds. If I’m on my A-game that day, I then delete it. If not, my dumb, poorly-thought-out response gets to stay on the internet forever, or until I get embarrassed by it, whichever comes first.
But if I blog about something, I generally take a couple of days thinking over the idea while I wait for a big enough block of time to even start. And then I have to sit at my computer to actually type the thing. And in that process, I’ve winnowed down my ideas to more of what I want to say. Better still, people have to read my whole ideas and take time to formulate their response, and as a result almost all of the responses I get are thoughtful and good!
I read a stupid take on Twitter last week, as one does, and now that “whether or not Dune is funny” is a topic that has been beaten to death, I want to talk more generally about the main point of the thread. The thread (I won’t link it, because I don’t even remember who said it) argued that of course Dune is not funny, because Dune isn’t supposed to be funny. Real science fiction is weird and inaccessible. And you people (non-nerds, Star Trek fans, Star Wars fans, Marvel fans, etc.) bullied us real SF fans for liking it. Now that it’s been prettied up the fake fans are here to claim it for their own, and then to try to change it into something fun, and accessible, and popular.
First I laughed that Star Trek was written off as something vapid and mainstream because it’s “all laser guns and no ideas.” Excuse me? You mean that show where Kirk and Picard struck heroic poses and made long monologues about human rights and the duties of man? You mean the one that unironically titled an episode “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” and we all had to think about what we would do to stop an unstoppable foe? Where even the despised “new and sparkly” version is full of the debate about the rights of artificial life? That Star Trek?
Then I started thinking about the types of science fiction, who likes them, and who is prejudiced against them for one reason or another. My first thought was hard vs. soft science fiction. Hard science fiction has two possible definitions, “SF where science is a big part of the plot,” and “SF where most of the events could actually happen.” These aren’t at all the same, but I used both to make this chart. Then I defined “good” as “stuff I, personally, like” because let’s get real, everyone else does.
As you can see, I think that the goodness of a novel isn’t at all determined by its tech, how realistic it is or how much of it there is. Is it plausible you could genetically engineer dragons that speak English, telepathically, from birth and actually breathe fire? No. Is it fun as heck? Of course! Likewise I picked up Red Mars after hearing it was just like Mars actually is, and it was terrible. It’s mainly just our hero driving around the Martian frontier, arguing with people. I forced myself to finish it but enjoyed, like, five pages of it.
But then I thought, this really doesn’t speak to the original argument. Nobody really ever claimed Dune was hard science fiction. It has a drug that allows you to see the future. Most of the plot has nothing to do with science, but with witches and cultists and stuff. And nobody said Star Trek didn’t have enough science in it. They said it was too exciting and fun.
So I made new axes: first, does it deal with big ideas? Is it a philosophically interesting book? And second, is it accessible? That is, does it have an interesting plot, relatable characters, maybe some banter? Is it easy to understand? Does it draw you in? I figured that was more useful than “good,” because clearly the thread author did not like books that were too easy to get into.
As you can see, Star Wars is not that heavy on ideas. It never delves into the issues of whether it’s good for the Jedi to reject all attachments, why the Republic is good, why the Emperor is bad, and so on. It’s a pretty straightforward adventure story. And it’s fun, it gets people into it right away. Conversely The Three-Body Problem is trying to deal with the question of why both aliens and humans would hate their species and root for the other team . . . but whatever answer we are supposed to get out of it, I’m still not sure. I couldn’t connect with the characters, the virtual-reality game was weird and confusing, and way too much ink was spilled on long descriptions of how the tech worked.
Anathem goes way off to the side here because it’s basically a Platonic dialogue disguised as a science fiction novel. There are tons of interesting ideas, but it’s also 800 pages long with enough plot for maybe 200. Most of the characters aren’t developed. I could not in good conscience recommend it to anyone, except perhaps as assigned reading in a philosophy class.
But it’s not like these are the only two options. Plenty of science fiction deals with big ideas in an intriguing, engaging way. Star Trek does. The Expanse does. I could also name Ancillary Justice, Embassytown, or The City in the Middle of Night.
I’ll allow that it’s hard to pack both ideas and action into the same book. And if you also want lovely descriptions, characters you love, and big feelings, there are only a handful of authors alive or dead who can do it all. But the stuff does exist, and it’s my favorite whenever I encounter it. I’ll happily settle for a big-ideas book that’s a little less action-packed (The Left Hand of Darkness comes to mind) or an action book that’s focused more on the characters than ideas (like The Martian) but of course I like it best when a book has it all.
And that’s what gets me about this kind of complaint. They don’t want science fiction books that have it all. They especially don’t want their favorites to get a high-budget, intriguing upgrade that interests more fans. They only want it if it’s difficult and obscure.
Not hard to guess why. Imagine you find this hole-in-the-wall diner. The decor is terrible and the floor is always dirty and there is no sign out front. But the food is amazing, and so you keep coming back to this almost-empty restaurant that belongs to just you and a few other cognoscenti.
One day you show up after a while away and it’s been done up all nice. The floor is clean. There’s a sign out front. The place was featured in a magazine so it’s packed. You get a table, but it’s just not the same. It’s not just yours anymore.
Guess what, old-style fans. The genre has improved. You can’t write 600 pages of your speculations about the future anymore. You have to have a plot arc, good characters, and so on. The good news is, it’s won so many fans that we can now have gorgeous, high-budget films of your favorite books.
The bad news is, you are not a weird, too-brainy nerd for liking it anymore. You’re just a regular person who likes Dune, like 90% of Twitter did. You’re going to have to find something else to be your personality.
But the fans who like science fiction now that it’s higher quality than it used to be? Who like ideas and engaging plot and characters?
They are also real fans and you don’t get to kick them out of the club.