As a genre, science fiction and its relatives (from horror, to fantasy, to dystopias) are by in large dismissed by the literary community. To me, to dismiss sci-fi and fantasy is to dismiss George Orwell (1984), Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale), Mary Shelly (Frankenstein), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and Beowulf, to name a few. Recently, Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Michael Chabon wrote of his frustrations early in his writing career when his sci-fi flavored stories were dismissed and ridiculed. On the surface, the literary community makes some good points. The otherworldly impossibilities are often times nothing more than imaginative self-indulgences that have little to do with actual “literature,” or are simply the esoteric speculations on technological or sociological possibilities. Also, many sci-fi stories are typically plot driven, and literary fiction is very much character driven. But does that which drives the story make it less of a story? That’s up to you to decide. However, the genre itself is full of examples of stories that transcend the printed page, and whose influence is felt by everyone living today.
The first and most obvious reason sci-fi should be taken seriously is the impact it has had on technology. Many of our technologies have their roots in science fiction. These stories have inspired researchers and scientists to develop things like cell phones, vending machines, robots, and mp3 files to name a few. Even the once fairy-tale-like idea of parallel universes began as a method for storytelling and is now being seriously studied by theoretical physicists. These ideas help to shape our understanding of reality, and they began as sci-fi stories.
The second reason it should be taken seriously is the quality of the writers who have participated in genre. Some of the most well known and notable, such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, and Frank Herbert have written what would amount to literary science fiction. Their books and stories have been a massive inspiration to countless numbers of people. They have asked us to look at our world differently, from Asimov seeing the potential for what robots can do for us, to Philip K. Dick’s questioning of reality.
These themes, these ideas, though they are a look into possible futures, have their origins in mythology, and yet they often enough don’t get the credit they deserve. That’s not to say that any old story that alludes to mythology should be seen as noteworthy, it’s just that the mythological themes help to give their speculations some credibility and grounding.
Besides the obvious authors of the genre, there are plenty of sci-fi and fantasy authors who are usually excluded from the list. These authors are taken seriously in the literary world, yet the literary world all too often cringes when their work is labeled “sci-fi” or “fantasy.” This list includes literary favorites George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Earnest Hemingway, and Flannery O’ Conner, who you normally wouldn’t think of as sci-fi (or fantasy) at all. But look at Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. A man is born old and grows young—sounds impossible, perhaps we should dismiss it as too trite? Hemingway dove into the world of paranormal fantasy at the end of his short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro when the main character, Harry, experiences something that can be described as a life after death experience. I do understand and can debate the possible reasons the authors made these unusual choices, but at the heart of it, we have story elements that fall into the realm of sci-fi and fantasy.
Science fiction and fantasy is the playground of the surrealist. They take life and put a unique, often thought provoking, spin on it. We can imagine things that seem impossible now, but may not always be. We can discover who we are through the analysis of the strange worlds that mirror our own. We can unleash our imagination, which of course aids us in critical thought, and can inspire ideas not yet dreamed.