Is Sci-fi missing something?

A friend linked me this article about the squeamish hesitance of writers to call their books sci-fi, and the reputation sci-fi has for being cheap or base entertainment.

Some of this rings true for me, too, even as a (ex?) sci-fi fan and writer myself. Their example of Faber is accurate. I remember when I first read Faber’s books being blown away by how real and vivid the characters seemed, because I was so used to most sci-fi where the characters are just incidental and the focus is all on the idea, the world, the science, the action, the alien, etc.

Faber was, I think, the gateway for me into the literary world because after reading his books I found all the sci fi books I read afterward to be lacking something. I still enjoy some sci-fi, like the ‘Three Body Problem’ series by Cixin Liu, which just so overwhelm you with a constant barrage of mind-blowing ideas that you don’t have time to notice there isn’t really much to the characters, and I suppose that’s the final goal of a lot of sci-fi, to wow you with ideas and concepts. But I think for me, sci-fi in general is just not interesting enough anymore.

It’s possible I’m just interested in different things now. Most of the ‘new’ ideas aren’t new to me anymore, so if those ideas are all a story has going for it, it’s gunna be a bore to me.

I’m not sure what that mystical ‘it’ is that’s missing from sci fi for me, but it’s something that most sci-fi books don’t have, and Faber’s books do have. Octavia Butler is another  who uses her ideas to ask human questions, but having read a LOT of sci-fi, it seems pretty accurate to call her and Faber exceptions (Stanislaw Lem also, though I’ve only read Solaris). In my experience, in most sci-fi stories the human questions or human interactions are something that happens on the side, momentarily, before the characters rush off to discover and/or destroy whatever is next.

The idea that so called Real Literature is about more than people running around shooting each other (or flying around punching each other, or zooming around lasering each other…etc) is maybe an unstated one, but an ingrained one. Real Literature, we think, is about the internal, not the external. And sci-fi, almost by definition, is about the external. It’s about the science, the technology, the undiscovered–these are all physical things external to us.

There also seems to be some expectation of Sci-Fi to be big. It has to be huge, sweeping, galaxy-wide, epic, of universal proportions–which leaves little room for us to know about or care about a single individual’s internal workings.

But can these things be combined? The big external and the personal internal? It seems so. Faber has done it, but the majority don’t do it. It’s no surprise to me that some authors don’t want to be associated with all the negative aspects of the sci-fi genre just because their characters happen to be in the future, or on another planet.

So all the above is to say I completely understand the hesitation in being labeled sci-fi. If an author has written a book that really focuses on characters, and that book just happens to be on an alien world, they don’t want people to see ‘sci-fi’ and immediately think the book is about the alien world. But is it true that sci-fi is still never about the characters? or do I need to read more, newer, sci-fi? Are there other examples like Faber or Butler out there that I haven’t heard of? Do I need to scour the reviews of sci-fi novels and look for those with a bunch of one-star ratings that say ‘boring, nothing happened,’ like I do to pick my literary reads? 

Maybe so. I’d appreciate any suggestions of sci-fi that you think deserves to be called Real Literature.


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