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The problem with sci-fi

A sci-fi fan knows better than anyone why the genre is so beloved, but that doesn’t mean it is the pinnacle of perfection. And, of course, those who do not like science in their fiction have plenty to complain about.

Probably everybody knows at least one person who says science fiction is not "real literature" in an attempt to belittle the genre. That’s not the kind of criticism I’m going to address today. Let the pretentious people be pretentious.

Science fiction and Fantasy have an overlapping fanbase. Many fantasy readers eventually pick up a sci-fi book or two to experiment with the sibling genre. And there is usually a cultural shock when switching genres, and, with it, lots of objections. Here, we believe a foreign perspective offers an excellent opportunity to assess our dearest values and think deeply about the genre's faults and also what makes it great.

For me, what makes science fiction exceptional is the final message, especially the ones that linger after I finish reading the story. It is incredible to keep thinking about it, peeling all of the layers, and realizing that the story is not about aliens, robots, or space exploration but about human nature. (It always is!)

However, there’s plenty to criticize about the genre, and here are a few complaints I’ve heard fantasy readers say about science fiction that makes sense.

Characters are bland, and I prefer them over plot

I’ve asked in my last newsletter which was science fiction’s biggest fault, and the answer was unanimous: the characters are too generic and lackluster. The stories are usually about the plot, and most fantasy readers are there for the characters.

Yes, I get it. Although science fiction is known for its deep discussions about human nature, its human characters are usually not the main focus. It happens because, if the author narrows in one particular character, the story becomes about them instead of the whole of humankind.

So it is not a surprise that the most memorable sci-fi characters are not human. Think of Frankenstein’s monster, Hal 9000, Murderbot, and all the Portias in Children of Time.

On this note…

It does not always need to be a commentary on society or the human condition, you know

It is not always, but the most famous high-concept stories usually are all about societal and human nature. And I don’t see this changing anytime soon. I think most of the hardcore fans of the genre are in it for the philosophical discussions and thought experiments involving people’s reactions to extreme situations.

On the other hand, the commentary can still be done without strangling other elements of the story, such as character portrayals. A story could be a deep exploration of one person and their reaction to science and technology. It could be about characters AND about humanity as a whole.

I may be wrong, but I’m noticing a trend in this direction this past few years. Authors like Becky Chamber and Matt Haig are becoming popular with the new generation of sci-fi readers. Could we be experiencing a paradigm change in the genre?

The science sometimes gets too complicated and flies over my head

And it doesn’t even need to be hard sci-fi for this to happen. Soft sci-fi, or a scientific system that invokes too many paradoxes, like time travel, can also get complicated.

But I have to return the criticism for this point. I mean, there are a lot of popular books with intricate magic systems that people love to dissect and learn about. And they can be so much more counter-intuitive than science!

So I think the problem with sci-fi is the usual blockage to anything related to science and technology. It is one common issue in science education. Science is often taught in such a complicated way that some people feel they can never understand it. And so they avoid it.

But then, if we’re reading for pleasure and change the word science for magic, the spell is broken. We can see that people understand how the aerodynamics of a dragon works, but not how a spaceship would travel through space.

The writing is agonizingly dry

I guess the great Isaac Asimov is the epitome of dry writing in science fiction, and he was aware of it.

It is true. Compared to other genres, science fiction tends to sacrifice flowery prose to make the narrative simple and easy to follow. Maybe it is a way to make the science stuff more accessible. As mentioned before, this is a common criticism about the genre.

Of course, this is a gross generalization, most applicable to the classics. But there’s always Ursula K. Le Guin to use as a counter-example.

Nevertheless, I believe we can see improvement in this department. Do you agree?

There are no dragons

It’s true. There aren’t many dragons in science fiction. There are dinosaurs and aliens. Even giant demons, but not many dragons. And it could afford to have more.

That’s it for today, folks!

Have you heard any of these criticisms before? Do you have another one to add to my list? Let me know in the comments.

See you next post,



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You ger her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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