Director’s Corner: The Pleasures of Science Fiction

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

The Pleasures of Science Fiction

When you are writing within a genre, it’s important to understand that genre–its definition and boundaries, the varied works within it, and the pleasures it provides to readers. Reading a wide range of works within the genre is key, but you can also gain major insights by reading genre analyses: essays and books that study and describe the genre. “On Fairy-Stories” is J. R. R. Tolkien’s analysis of the genre of fairy-stories, or more generally, fantasy. If you haven’t read “On Fairy-Stories,” I highly recommend it. It is required reading for all Odyssey students. Tolkien explores the origins of fantasy, searches for a definition of the genre, and describes the unique pleasures that fantasy stories provide.

I was asked by the New Hampshire Humanities Council to give a lecture on the history of science fiction. While putting it together, I realized I was writing my own, much humbler, version of Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories,” for science fiction. I decided to include a discussion of the particular pleasures science fiction provides, as Tolkien does for fantasy. I was surprised to realize that the books I’d read on SF hadn’t spent much time discussing the pleasures of SF, beyond the usual mention of awe and wonder. While awe and wonder are certainly among the pleasures provided by SF, I believe there are many others.

Like Tolkien, I will start by claiming that SF provides the same pleasures that “regular” fiction provides. In addition, I believe SF provides several pleasures that Tolkien associates with fantasy: recovery and escape. “Recovery” is a term coined by Tolkien. He defines it as the “regaining of a clear view.” When we read the story, we go into that other world and spend time there. When we close the book and return to our world, we see it anew, as if we have never seen it before. We “recover” the truth of our world. If you’ve read 1984, you know that when you close the book at the end and return to the real world, you see our world a bit differently than you did before.

Escape, of course, refers to our escape from our everyday world, as we become absorbed in the world of the novel. We can forget our problems, quit worrying about paying the bills and instead worry about surviving an attack by transforming robots. While all fiction provides this to some extent, fantasy and SF provide escape at a more profound level.

SF also shares a pleasure with the mystery genre, which I call cognitive engagement: the pleasure of trying to solve the puzzle–to figure out what’s going on, what made the world this way, whether it is scientifically plausible. This intellectual engagement provides pleasure in itself, and as we figure things out, we feel more satisfaction. If you’ve watched The Matrix and tried to figure out, along with Neo, what the Matrix is, you’ve experienced this pleasure.

SF also shares a pleasure with horror, which I call exposure. Exposure is a treatment used by therapists on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Therapists gradually expose patients to the source of their fear, while keeping them in a calm, relaxed state. SF exposes us to many of our fears, such as nuclear fallout, cloning, and overpopulation, helping us to emotionally process our fears, to become habituated to them, to feel more able to cope in our brave new world.

Finally, SF provides the pleasure that may best characterize the genre: the pleasure of gaining new insights into the human condition. If you agree with Brian Aldiss’s definition of the genre, then SF is the product of a series of writers, reacting to new discoveries and what they reveal about us, trying to understand mankind and his place in the universe. This search for understanding provides insights of a unique nature and power when conveyed through the metaphor of a science-fictional world. At least, they do when the story is written well. If you’ve read H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, you’ve gained insight into man’s nature to develop a cultural divide between the Haves and the Have-Nots–an unfair, uncompassionate tendency. This insight could be conveyed in a non-genre story, but chances are it would have much less power, because we would experience the story through our own prejudices and preconceived notions. Traveling far into the future allows us to step out of our prejudices and our narrow perspective. We are vulnerable and open, and may realize for the first time the wrongness of the class divide. Also, this aspect of human nature can be purified and intensified in the science-fictional world, giving it more power. Wells does this by creating the Eloi and Morlocks, species that have evolved out of this divide and lost what is best in man. They show us the horrifying consequences of this class divide.

Many writers assume that if their story entertains them, it will also entertain readers. While this is sometimes true, often readers are left unsatisfied. Are you providing your readers with some or all of these pleasures? Considering your work from this perspective can provide some new insights and ideas. I hope it helps!

If you’d like to hear some other ideas from my lecture on the history of science fiction, you can find them in this interview from the New Hampshire Public Radio program Front Porch. We discussed the roles played by Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. You can listen here:

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