Appreciating Sci-Fi Fiction

Last month, a friend became aware that I am a huge fan of science fiction movies and television series, but that I rarely read sci-fi novels. She offered to share with me a DVD course “How Great Science Fiction Works,” part of the Great Courses series. I’m only halfway through the course, but I already feel that my eyes have been opened to a genre that I’ve previously pretty much ignored.

Though I have read some sci-fi, I’ve often found it too action-oriented and weak in character development. But what I am realizing by watching this course is that sci-fi is also a fiction of ideas, often inspired by real world events. Often this genre will project into the future, basing plot, technological devices, and science on ideas that might only just be forming in the present day. For example, last year I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is set in a dystopian California of the future, devastated by an ecological crisis. This book was published in 1993. One cannot read a newspaper today without being aware of the effects of climate change. Butler imagines a world where environmental change leads to people fighting over the scarcest resource: water.

Over and over again, the Great Courses DVD gives examples of fiction that was ahead of its time. This has prodded me to pick up some science fiction and check it out, give it another chance. I just finished Butler’s Kindred, which is impressive (though I think it’s a stretch to call it sci-fi when the method of time travel is never explained). Next, I’m considering taking on Dune by Frank Herbert. Maybe. If not Dune, certainly I’ll try one of the other sci-fi classics recommended in this course.

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