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The One Thing Great Science Fiction Writers Have in Common

Updated: Jul 29

This post is a bit of a rant on my part, getting out some thoughts I've had rolling around my head for a while.

Science fiction has been an integral part of our culture. A defining aspect of it, really. You may think I am giving sci-fi too much credit, but I'm sticking by my statement. Nothing marks the value systems of the current era quite like speculative fiction has and does.



Pick up an acclaimed science fiction book of any decade, and there you will find all the time's principal cultural, societal, and technological issues wrapped up neatly for you in a glued binding.

Even more, some of these books seem to transcend the era they were written in.

I recently reread Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 and was surprised to see just how relevant it is to our society in the last few years. Describing cancel-culture to a T and the thinking behind what would bring people to ban a book, a tv show, or even a person.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Though, I think the reason sci-fi has been (or could be) so profoundly "on-the-nose" is not because SF writers have some innate and uncanny ability to see into the future. But because they are able to see something right now as it is. Objectively as it is, and what it could become if left untethered.

The logical conclusion

Neil Gaiman, in the introduction of Fahrenheit 451, states:

"What speculative fiction is really good at is not the future but the present—taking an aspect of it that troubles or is dangerous, and extending and extrapolating that aspect into something that allows the people of that time to see what they are doing from a different angle and from a different place. It's cautionary."

Ray Bradbury didn't receive a revelation given to him by the gods in a dream one night. But he saw something about society (in the 1950s, remember) with the rise of television and entering the era of media for entertainment value.

He saw an intellectually suppressed society that put a good time over a meaningful experience and took what he saw to its logical conclusion. He just so happened to nail it.

His book rings so true in our time because we failed to listen to the warning that he was giving us. It was the logical conclusion, after all…

I've been thinking a lot lately about the purpose of fiction. Perhaps I'm going through some kind of pre-mid-life crisis, or maybe it's just a consequence of leaving my ear on the wall for too long, paying too much attention to current events and the state of our societies.

But I'm comfortable enough with my opinions on the matter to say this next thing out loud.

We are in the midst of a global transition period. This is not just a transition of power shifting from one group to another, which the modern world has seen numerous times before. But this transition is something more profound. It's the kind that marks a shift in the paradigms that hold our societies together, and this kind of shift comes at a much steeper cost and shakes the foundations of civilization quite a bit more.

This is the same kind of shift seen at the end of the Classical period, at the beginning of the Enlightenment and so on. I'm not saying this is some sort of doom and gloomy way. In fact, I find this all rather exciting.

But it does bring to my mind the problem I mentioned above.

What is the purpose of fiction?

Better, what could the purpose of fiction be?

I don't think too many writers would argue with me that fiction has been bound by certain financial obligations for some time. The big five publishing companies, for the last few decades at least, have been focused primarily on the bottom line and making shareholders happy.

As far back as the 1970s (probably earlier), genre fiction has been referred to as "transient" fiction. And it is not hard to see why. Books are chosen for value based on the sales models of previous successful novels and are pumped out as quickly as possible. Then a large percent of these novels are thrown into the bowels of the remaindered bin just as quickly and never heard of again.

Of course, we can't expect every novel produced to make it to the best-seller list. But you can't fault me for thinking there has to be something more.

The printed word is a pretty marvelous invention. The press marked another transition period that forever shifted the cultural paradigm of the west. Humans were suddenly able to share and store knowledge at never-before-imagined rates, and it's not hard to see the parallels between that time and our own "internet age."