Talking Shop: Are You Predicting the Automobile or the Traffic Jam?

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If there’s any guilty pleasure that I indulge, it’s a great sci-fi story.

While works such as those that belong to Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and Heinein’s Stranger in a Strange Land may be classified as “high literature,” the vast majority of sci-fi is considered genre fiction–often eschewed by academia as being of a lower-tier than literary fiction.

Maybe it’s because of the pulpy background. after all, most speculative fiction (whether sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or noir) comes from pulp magazines that could be purchased for a dime. Maybe it’s because they were originally marketed toward children alongside comics and superhero stories. Or maybe it’s just plain, intellectual snobbery.

In any event, despite its tendency to explore deep themes of philosophy (a la Ubik by Philip K. Dick or The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin,) politics (i.e. 1984 by George Orwell and the Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin,) and religion (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, “Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis) this genre is often eschewed by more literary-minded readers.

But it shouldn’t be. 

Because if there’s one thing that well-written sci-fi does well, it’s to take a deep look into the softer sciences–those of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Ushered in by “New Wave” sci-fi authors, the genre’s themes deepened. The style became more subtle. The prose improved. Rather than asking questions pertaining to hard sci-fi–“What might first contact with an alien civilization look like?” or “What sort of technology could get us out of our solar system?”–this New Wave asked the deeper questions. It asked questions more likely relegated to theology, philosophy, and sociology textbooks, such as “Would an advance in technology fundamentally change human nature?” and “What exactly constitutes ‘human nature’ and can it be recreated through artificial intelligence?” and “Is ‘the Singularity’ an actual possibility?” and “What social conventions, folkways, and mores do humans exhibit as a species?”

Perhaps the main thrust of intellectual science fiction was best summarized by Frederick Pohl, who stated “A good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

What about your own writing? Is it superficial, or does it ask the hard questions? Does it predict the automobile, or the traffic jam?

It’s the latter that I prefer to write, and it’s the latter I prefer to read. 

As a reminder, I’m currently on the lookout for short stories of the speculative fiction variety done well. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Flash Fiction; you name it. If you think your story might fit the bill, check out the submission guidelines and send it my way.