By Kathleen Bradean
Such a lovely topic, but where to begin?
"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop." The King of Hearts to the White Rabbit
Solid advice indeed.
In grade school, our assigned reading included short stories of travel to the moon or mars, none of which interested me too much. I loved Disney's version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea though so I borrowed every Jules Vernes novel I could from the library. It never occurred to me that they were science fiction though because most of what he'd written about was, by then, technological fact. The book that made me realize I was a science fiction fan was Frank Herbert's Dune. Asimov's Caves of Steel sealed the deal.
I could make long lists of science fiction books that keep me enthralled: David Brin's Kiln People. Gordon Dahlquist's Glass Books of the Dream Eaters. Liz Williams The Poison Master. Ursula Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness. Richard K Morgan's Altered Carbon. The manga series Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. Dragon Riders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Everything by Lois McMaster Bujold and Octavia Butler. But lists don't explain why these stories creep into my brain and wrap themselves comfortably around my imagination. They don't explain why I'm so sad to leave those worlds when I've read the last page of the story.
A solid world-builder makes such a difference. I have to feel as if I could peek around the façade where the action is taking place and see everyday people living everyday lives in a complete, full-functioning world. It has to seem as if there are other stories waiting to be told. After all, there isn't just one story about earth! If I sense an unsustainable economy or rules of magic that defy physics or anything that can't continue to work in the long run, the story will disappoint me.
What matters the most though, as with any genre, are the characters. Even if it's an alien species, there has to be a sense of humanity. I want to feel that the heroine or hero has bad days, family pressures, obligations that s/he'd rather not have to deal with, enjoys friendships, loves, cries, and even on occasion enjoys beauty in silent awe. It's wonderful when the villains show some of that too. Dual-natured characters are like complete worlds instead of decorative facades.
While I get why, given the current state of the world economy, dystopian futures are all the rage right now, I like a sense of hope. I'd like to think that trying to change things for the better isn't an entirely futile effort. A scientist once said that the reason people like Star Trek is that it depicts the universe as full of interesting places to see and people to meet, while in reality, it's vast nothingness. Yes, I get the reality, but there's nothing wrong with hoping that out there somewhere there's something to reach for. Science Fiction promises that there is.