Monday, July 06, 2009

Science Fiction versus Historical Fiction

I don't much like science fiction ... although the new Star Trek movie was really very good. I don't much like stories with fairies or vampires or pixies either. I like historical fiction. For school, I enjoy reading aloud good stories set in different time periods -- what some call learning through literature. But some of these children do not enjoy historical fiction as much as I do. They want to read Wheel of Time and fairy tales and other stuff that I don't care diddly about.

But there really is quite a bit of science in science fiction. I wonder if there's as much educational benefit scientifically in those books as there is in the educational benefit of historical fiction. There probably is.

But I'd still rather read a story set in ancient Rome or the Canadian old west than a story set on a space ship bopping from one galaxy to the next through wormholes.


  1. I know that sci-fi made me more curious about the real science behind the stories.
    That's why I emptied out the theoretical physics section of the library so often even though I didn't get all (I mean most) of the math.

  2. Well—it depends on the story. If you read Arthur C. Clarke, you're basically only reading things that are possible, and based on well-understood scientific principles, and will probably be explained.

    If you're reading Orson Scott Card or the sci-fi of Ursula K. Le Guin, then the future-tech is believable enough but mostly window-dressing for the psychology of the characters; stories about, or stories which at least try to be about, the human condition, and what happens when it is subjected to extraordinary situations.

    If you're watching/reading Star Wars, well, that's not even properly science fiction. That's what's called space opera. Big bad guys, big good guys, swords and magic, and the technology in no way makes any sense.

    Star Trek is similar in that they've done SO MUCH that they've never been able to latch onto something long enough to be realistic. But Star Trek is odd for two reasons: first, it's more like a collection of science fiction short stories than anything else, and second, it's an example of plot-based, rather than character-based, fiction. (although the recent movie was a notable exception, being character-based, and altogether far more in the style of other works than of the original Star Trek series-es)

    And, then you've got Ray Bradbury, who is so far from scientific accuracy that he defines his space stories as "fantasy" rather than "sci-fi" (though "speculative fiction" is the most popular term). Theodore Sturgeon is often like this, though he often writes from more technical perspectives, too, which lead to some outrageous anachronisms, considering his age; he has stories about interstellar space ships whose computers are run with punch-cards.

    And you've got a few stories that basically everyone should read: Ender's Game, Flowers for Algernon, at least one book from Lewis' space trilogy, and certainly something by Bradbury; I'd recommend The Martian Chronicles (Fahrenheit 451 is of course an important novel, but not particularly sci-fi).

  3. Y'know, Nat, when you mention the sci-fi that is "mostly window-dressing for the psychology of the characters," that makes me realize that, hmmm, maybe there are other valuable Education Benefits (TM) to some books that aren't what I would've noticed on the surface. Maybe that's why I prefer the historical fiction -- because I prefer history to science. And maybe it's why I should not fret so much about whether the kids like the books I like.

    And Rachel, yeah, I remember when you caught me that one time at WPA conference, at the tail end of my lecture to about 200 people, telling them what good science you and Philip had explored because of Star Trek. Shoot, you weren't supposed to know I'd said that.

  4. There are so many science fiction novels that are very good without being over-stuffed with fantasy characters such as pixies, unicorns, and wizards. Some of the best science fiction is more about the characters than the science. These stories make you wonder what you would do in their situation. Read some of the novels by Clark, Wells, or Heinlein. Keep in mind that having the moniker of "science fiction" makes a lot of people look down on the genre. Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.