Is there any purpose to writing, or any other art form, if nothing is illuminated? Can we be entertained and enlightened at the same time? Is it actually more entertaining to experience a story that allows us to look at things in a new way, from a different perspective? When do we want comfort food and when do we want to go on an adventure that will take us places we’ve never been?
I love science fiction that turns my head inside out. The Martian Chronicles, A Stranger in a Strange Land, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nova, Slaughter House 5, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Neuromancer, the list goes on. If a story is simply an expression of confirmation bias I get bored. “Mean people are mean.” “It’s nice to be nice!” Yawn.
A good story is one that provokes a conversation. A good science fiction story takes what you think you know and turns it on it’s head, let’s you look at it from from a place you didn’t know existed. It takes you home the short way by going the long way round. Sci-fi has unique tools, unique questions to examine us as we are now by looking at us as we might be or as we might have been. Scientific method applied to fiction: take the human race and change one thing. Then see what happens. A controlled experiment. What would a world without war look like? Or a world with nothing but war? The horrors of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World offer dark mirrors, the possibilities of galactic civilizations in Herbert’s Dune or Azimov’s Foundation Trilogy offer brighter mirrors but they’re mirrors just the same. The best sci-fi simply lets us know that we’re not alone, that we’re surrounded by human beings who are just as flawed and tragic and hilarious and triumphant as we are.
If it doesn’t do that it’s just cops ‘n’ robbers, cowboys ‘n’ Indians, things going zap and pow and boom, or to put it another way: comfort food. Sometimes there’s nothing better than comfort food. But sometimes it’s good to suit up, strap in and go for a real trip.