Science fiction. The very name of the genre seems like a contradiction: science is cold, hard facts while fiction is—well, made up. Yet science fiction pulls the two together, seemingly against all odds.
Yet there’s actually not much pulling together to do: science fiction is a result of the human imagination when stirred up by the discoveries of science. Science fiction comes from science, and sometimes science comes from science fiction, or seem to. Far from contradicting each other, they, embodying human discovery and imagination, walk side by side into the future.
But science fiction isn’t all about science—or aliens, robots, alternate dimensions, spaceships, or any other speculative hallmark of the genre. Good science fiction, like all good literature, holds up a mirror to humanity to give us a better look at ourselves.
Fueled by a desire to better understand sci-fi, I’ve interviewed five of its authors. In my five questions, I firstly wanted to bring out the authors’ own experience and take on science fiction. And secondly, I wanted to look at the science fiction genre: where it is going, how it is viewed, and what it is in essence. Their answers are thought-provoking and, as I hope they will for you, they have made me want to read all the more.
But first, let’s meet them.
1. Jon McGoran
McGoran is an acclaimed author of the ecological thrillers Drift, Deadout, and Dust Up, as well as a forensic thriller series Body Trace, Blood Poison, and Freezer Burn. Beyond writing, he cohosts The Liars Club Oddcast, where he talks about writing, interviews authors, and more.
2. Mary Amato
Amato is an author who loves to try new things when it comes to writing. She has recently only delved into science fiction in her novel Star Striker: Game On! Before then, she wrote her four-part children’s series The Riot Brothers.
Besides writing, she is a performing singer-songwriter and the co-founder of a puppet company, the Firefly Shadow Theater.
3. Matt Betts
It’s true that writing speculative fiction and poetry seems normal enough, but Betts brings to both of them his very unique flair. One can see his love of sci-fi and speculative fiction in his books Indelible Ink, The Shadow Beneath the Waves, and Red Gear 9. His shorter works have appeared in various anthologies, and he has a speculative poetry collection called See No Evil, Say No Evil.
In addition to writing, Betts hosts a podcast called Something from Nothing where he discussed the creative process with other creators.
4. Dianne K. Salerni
Salerni is a children’s and young adult author who has had a life-long love of science fiction. She has written the acclaimed Eighth Day series as well as Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts. She has most recently written another piece of science fiction, Jadie in Five Dimensions, where she distills complex topics such as alternate dimensions in a book for younger ages.
5. Barna Donovan
Donovan has written two sci-fi novels, Confirmation: Investigations of the Unexplained, and The Cedar Valley Covenant. But beyond writing, he is a university professor in New Jersey where he also teaches a course on science fiction in which, as you can see in his answers below, he has thought carefully about the genre.
1. What initially prompted you to write science fiction?
The way to grow is to stretch new muscles; and when you stretch new muscles, you are bound to feel uncomfortable. … The chance to create new worlds in a new solar system felt like the ultimate challenge. – Mary Amato
Jon: I was a big science fiction reader from a very early age, and I started writing as a kid, maybe eight or nine, I think, so it made perfect sense that what I would write would be science fiction. It helped that one of my neighbors who took an interest in my writing and read my stories and gave me feedback was also big into science fiction.
Mary: The way to grow is to stretch new muscles; and when you stretch new muscles, you are bound to feel uncomfortable. That’s a good thing. Game On is my first work of science fiction, and the chance to create new worlds in a new solar system felt like the ultimate challenge. Working in this new hybrid world of science fiction and fantasy, which is the world of Game On, is exhilarating and difficult—a way for me to grow. As the wife of a science writer and the mother of two sons who love sports, I’ve been surrounded by enthusiasm for space, for sports, and for adventure for years. As an author, my primary interest is in character, in psychology. I thought it would be fascinating for my readers to travel with 13-year-old Albert Kinney not only as he deals with ordinary middle school life but also as he is recruited to blast way outside his comfort zone and play in an interplanetary soccer tournament for life-and-death stakes. Here on Earth, we’ve been learning that cooperation is crucial to survival. And so I also wanted to explore a planet where the relationship to sports was not about individualism or competition, but rather about the opportunity to cooperate and connect.
Matt: I initially started in sci-fi because I really enjoyed science fiction movies and television so much. I grew up when Star Wars first came out in theaters and shows like ‘Battlestar Galactica’ were on television, and they really sparked my imagination. I was thrilled with space ships, lasers and robots. The thought of traveling the galaxy in a faster than light vehicle, while fighting the evil overlords was pretty appealing. I read a lot of science fiction comics, and eventually graduated to some of the great novels. It all had a hand in making me want to write, and it just seemed natural to do so. My dad has always been a big reader, and some of the first novels he bought for me were science fiction. And those really introduced me to some of the bigger concepts of what the genre can do.
Dianne: I’ve been writing science fiction since I started reading it: the day I impulsively grabbed the novelization for Star Wars (yes, the 1977 original) off a rack in a grocery store. I don’t know what drew me to the book because at that time (age 12) I exclusively read gothic mysteries and ghost stories. Devouring the written version of Star Wars—before ever seeing the movie—kicked off my newest reading and writing obsession. Soon after, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, which delivered two new hardback books to my mailbox every month unless I mailed them a form to decline that month’s selections. My entire allowance went straight to that book club, which brought the works of C.J. Cherryh, Roger Zelazny, Douglas Adams, Harry Harrison, and Isaac Asimov into my world. The more I read, the more I wrote.
Barna: I always loved the fact that science fiction not only lets a writer be extremely creative, but it demands that they be more creative than genres set in the “real world.” … A sci-fi writer needs to work harder than authors of other genres. A sci-fi writer needs to create complex alternate worlds, be they on other planets, in other dimensions, in the distant future, or in alternate histories of the Earth where rules work very differently than the real world the readers are living in. So, I always really respected the skill and attention to detail such work requires of writers.
I was also always drawn to science fiction stories not set in a future world or in some alien landscape, but our very own world where the norm, where the everyday routine gets disrupted by the intrusion of some out of the ordinary piece of technology, some form of unexplained “other” that the story’s characters need to grapple to understand. … In my novels, Confirmation: Investigations of the Unexplained, and The Cedar Valley Covenant, I focus on the reaction to the unknown much more than I do on the explanations of the science and technology that’s eventually revealed to be behind the unexplained disruptive forces. In Confirmation, twenty-ton granite globes appear around the world and don’t do anything. … But what propels the story is the way people around the world graft their own philosophical, ideological, or spiritual belief systems onto these globes and the way people are ready to do battle with anyone who disagrees with their world view. And then last year we had those news stories of the metal monoliths popping up all over the world and I was absolutely blown away by the way those objects mirrored the appearance of the globes in the book I had written in 2018.
2. From where do you get your inspiration for writing sci-fi?
Sometimes I’ll read a current news item and wonder how a certain invention or advancement will impact the future, and other times a specific image will just set off a chain of ‘What if’s’ in my head… There are tons of things that can get a story rolling. – Matt Betts
Jon: I am one of those writers who has a lot of ideas, more than I can write. (My poor wife has to listen to them.) Mostly my ideas come from current events, news about politics, society, science and tech. This is a crazy and fascinating time, with a lot of bizarre realities, and my brain is always thinking about where they might lead.
Mary: For the science inspiration, I turn to my husband, who is always reading, writing, and breathing science. Through his work, I’m continually introduced to many discoveries and ideas and questions. When I’m creating an alien character or trying to decide what the topography of a planet might look like, we often talk through various scenarios. When I wanted to create geysers that would erupt on the soccer field and off which soccer balls could be bounced, my husband introduced me to the concept of rheological fluids, fluids that can become solid under certain circumstances. For character and world-building, much inspiration comes from looking at the plant, animal, and fungal world here on Earth and then imagining what some of those characteristics might look or act like if on another planet. I love the NOVA PBS series. The websites of both NASA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have an array of resources. And for the latest in jaw-dropping discoveries related to robotics, materials science, and more, the podcast called Voices from Darpa from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is a fabulous audio resource (full disclosure: my husband is the host!).
Matt: It really depends on the situation and story, really. Sometimes I’ll read a current news item and wonder how a certain invention or advancement will impact the future, and other times a specific image will just set off a chain of ‘What if’s’ in my head and make me think about what would happen if something had never been invented or if a particular event had never happened. Occasionally, a picture will just inspire an idea for a character. There are tons of things that can get a story rolling.
Dianne: Inspiration for writing any type of speculative fiction usually starts with me asking: What if? For example, what if there was a secret day hidden between Wednesday and Thursday? (The Eighth Day) What if ghosts were real and scientifically diagnosed into three categories? (Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts) For my upcoming sci-fi novel, Jadie in Five Dimensions, I asked: What if our three-dimensional universe was contained within a four-dimensional universe that included two directions perpendicular to all of ours and imperceptible to humans? Furthermore, what if that universe was populated by gigantic beings who could reach into our world and do whatever they wanted? I’ve been playing with this idea for a long time, inspired by Edwin A. Abbott’s 1884 work, Flatland, and Sphereland, written by Dionys Burger in 1957. YA author William Sleator also tackled the fourth dimension in his 1986 novel The Boy Who Reversed Himself, and so did Rudy Rucker in his 2002 adult work Spaceland. My spin on this geometric approach to multi-verse theory adds a smattering of theoretical physics, a dabble of industrial espionage, a sprinkling of conspiracy, and a handful of huge monsters with way too many teeth.
Barna: From the world all around. I’m fascinated by speculations about the edges of what we understand about science. I’m always drawn to discussions of the possibilities of alternate dimensions, for example, and such parallel dimensions figure into both my books… When physicists say that alternate dimensions are a theoretical possibility, my sci-fi-writer’s imagination goes to work. If an alternate universe is a theoretical possibility, then it definitely belongs in a science fiction story. … Since good science fiction has also often functioned as a symbolic representation of the problems, concerns, and hopes of the period in history that created it, just the state of the world, the Zeitgeist, gives me a lot of ideas for my stories. The Zeitgeist right now revolves around so much social polarization and bitter intolerance of others’ points of view. … It is a reality of our lives that writers should deal with, especially in a genre like science fiction. By the same token, many people’s insistence on living in their own self-constructed realities when they get sucked into conspiracy cultures have found their way into my two books.
3. Do you use science fiction to comment on current society?
Themes and social commentary … are always there, simmering beneath the plot. Every time we write about what might be, we skim the surface of what’s already happening. – Dianne K. Salerni
Jon: I do, absolutely, and I think at this point in human development (or regression…), science fiction is the perfect genre for social commentary. In so many ways, science fiction is current events.
Mary: I believe that all genres of fiction have the potential to comment on social trends and the current zeitgeist. I often find that the books that move me most defy categories of genre—like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Is it primarily speculative fiction? Science fiction? Dystopian fiction? Literary fiction?
Matt: I honestly don’t think I set out to comment on society or the current condition in my work, although it sometimes just seeps in. If I find a plot point in my writing that mirrors something in the real world, I’ll certainly explore it and weigh whether it helps the story and needs to be explored further, or if it’s distracting and needs to be removed. I don’t shy away from exploring it if it makes sense to the story, but I’m always a little wary of being ham-fisted and wedging in some sort of commentary that doesn’t belong. Science fiction has always been a terrific vehicle for commentary, as any author has so much at their disposal to twist and change a lesson using alien races, unusual science, or whatever in order to suit the particular message they want to get across. Some really profound and inspiring ideas have come from sci-fi novels.
Dianne: I always set out to tell a good story first. Themes and social commentary are a secondary considerations. But they’re always there, simmering beneath the plot. Every time we write about what might be, we skim the surface of what’s already happening. In Jadie in Five Dimensions, the protagonist feels small and helpless when she realizes that hidden entities, with ethics and morals alien to her own, have been manipulating her life for their own secret purposes. While writing this, I channeled my own frustration about foreign actors using social media to spread misinformation and hatred in my country or elected officials telling constituents not to worry about the oncoming pandemic while buying and selling stocks to enrich themselves. I could go on and on. Science fiction sometimes anticipates future societal issues, but it just as often shines a spotlight on what’s happening right now.
Barna: The genre is perfect for this. The genre was made for this. So much of science fiction is really social science fiction, or allegories about the world we live in. … Masters of science fiction like Orwell and Bradbury used their futuristic stories to comment on their own worlds and to warn about the destructive paths society was heading down on. In my own work I use the tropes of science fiction to craft commentary about our world of senseless and destructive social divisions. In Confirmation: Investigations of the Unexplained, the story looks at why people are incapable of abandoning their dogmas and preconceived notions of how the world works even when reality hits them in the face. In The Cedar Valley Covenant, an interdimensional manifestation in a small Southern Illinois college town shines the light on the way people demonize others. Before people are able to kill, they must come to see those who disagree with them as being something less than human. The story, thus, dramatizes this process of dehumanization, the “us vs. them,” “you’re either with me or against me” state of mind poisoning modern American society.
4. Do you think science fiction is an underappreciated genre?
Science fiction films can gain smash hit success … but there is also a lingering stigma that stories about alien worlds, strange creatures, and spaceships are not truly serious art. – Barna Donovan
Jon: I do, in a way. Absolutely. Every time I read some book by some literary giant that is about AI or robots or aliens or tech run amok, and they assert, “Yes, but it’s not science fiction,” I find it kind of infuriating, because they are wrong: It is. (And oftentimes the books are great, by the way, and great science fiction, too.) Maybe they don’t like what they see as stereotypical sci-fi, but there’s so much brilliant sci-fi out there.
Mary: Books have a way of simply standing on their own, regardless of what genre label they receive. Labels can be helpful in figuring out where to shelve books, but even that can become problematic for hybrids. I believe that each book is appreciated by the readers who are moved by that book’s story and that genre doesn’t move a reader, story does. As a reader, I try to keep an open mind.
Matt: I do think it’s underappreciated, and maybe misunderstood. People generally still think of it as just robots and spaceships (as I did when I was first reading it), when it can apply to so many concepts. When you look back at sci-fi’s history, it predicted many of the things we use today such as computers, satellites, cellular communications, driverless cars, space travel, the internet, and more. The genre has been the inspiration for scientists, doctors and astronauts to pursue their dreams and bring these fictions to life. I don’t think non-genre readers understand that importance, or the role science fiction plays in dreaming and exploring the things to come.
Dianne: I think movies like The Martian and televisions series like The Expanse have made science fiction more accessible to the general public—as viewers. Sci-fi seems to be an up-and-coming genre on the screen. (Consider Manifest, Upload, Orphan Black, Black Mirror, Doctor Who.) But is this trend creating more science fiction readers? I’m not sure, but I hope these movies and TV shows will provide a gateway to reading in the genre. For example, maybe some of the people who watch the Netflix adaptation of The One by John Marrs, in which a genetic test matches you with your guaranteed, one-and-only love, will be intrigued enough to seek out the book and its companion novels, The Passengers (self-driving cars) and The Minders (organic information storage). We need people reading these books, set in the very near future, so that we can intelligently debate the cost and consequences of such “advancements.”
Barna: Often it is. A glaring example is when science fiction is adapted into film. It is rare that such films get awards for their efforts. … Occasionally science fiction literature like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale can transcend its genre in both literature and its adaptation as a TV series and be showered with critical accolades. But that’s really an exception that proves the rule. Now science fiction films can also gain smash hit success, as we’ve seen in such multibillion-dollar franchises like the Star Trek and Star Wars series, but there is also a lingering stigma that stories about alien worlds, strange creatures, and spaceships are not truly serious art. Perhaps the root of this can be traced back to the origins of sci-fi entertainment in America in pulp magazines. … Many pulp stories favored simple plot and action over character development. Garish pulp cover-art depicted stories of two-fisted tough guy protagonists saving leggy damsels in distress from slimy, tentacled alien monsters. Science fiction for many is still little more than simple-minded kid stuff.
The flip side of the image of science fiction as something simplistic is its image as being too cold and cerebral. Among those who take note of the complex world-building of science fiction, its layered examination of science and technology, its ruminations on the future of society as it intersects with technological development, there is the temptation to label the genres as “geeky.” From this perspective, science fiction remains dense and unapproachable. So, those who love and appreciate the genre will often find themselves proselytizing about the value of the genre, trying to convince their friends that science fiction is really much, much more than stories about ray guns and aliens for little kids.
5. Can you see science fiction becoming more popular?
Sci-Fi is the best genre for exploring and discussing so many of the biggest challenges we face today, and even more so, the challenges we will face tomorrow. – Jon McGoran
Jon: I don’t know. If I could predict things like that, my life would be a lot different. But I sure hope it does. I think Sci-Fi is the best genre for exploring and discussing so many of the biggest challenges we face today, and even more so, the challenges we will face tomorrow.
Mary: No question in my mind that there will be an ever-growing hunger for science-fiction themes, settings, and stories. Look at the interest and attention right now around the idea of space tourism. Add that to the rapidly expanding research about exoplanets—planets outside our solar system—which we’re discovering at a dizzying rate. Authors and readers will naturally gaze up and out to find new truths and new ways of understanding the meaning of life.
Matt: I don’t see it becoming less popular. I mean, in the 1800s and the early 1900s, science fiction speculated on so many things that took a very long time to come to fruition, and some that haven’t happened. Today, it’s hard to keep up. With scientific innovations and new discoveries, things can happen before we even dream that they’re possible. Space travel, body modifications, robotics; these things are all part of our every day. So where do we go from here? How do we use this new level of science and tech? I think this is all fertile ground for years to come for authors writing science fiction. Sci-fi is tricky, I think. It sneaks in where we least expect it, sometimes. You can have a good science fiction story that may not seem like sci-fi on the surface at all and as new discoveries slowly become more commonplace, so does the opportunity to extrapolate them into science fiction.
Dianne: I don’t see how it can do anything except grow in popularity. Science fiction explores where we have not yet gone, but where we (think we) hope to be. Genetic testing for love. Self-driving cars. Maybe we can learn to do these things. But should we? We need science fiction to prepare us for what’s ahead and also to shine that spotlight I mentioned on what’s happening now. In a world where trillionaires launch themselves into space for fun and giggles, their thrill-ride funded by the labor of employees who don’t have health benefits or paid sick leave, we need science fiction more than ever. (And on that note, please read The Warehouse by Rob Hart.)
Barna: I definitely see science fiction becoming more popular in the near future since we’re living in a world that’s more and more like science fiction. We see sci-fi concerns in the world around us. At one time it was only on the pages of sci-fi novels or on movie screens where scientists warned about artificial intelligence taking over the world or warned that contact with an alien civilization could lead to the Earth’s destruction. Today Elon Musk has repeatedly warned about the threat the world could face from ever more advanced artificial intelligence programs and autonomous robots. The late physicist Steven Hawking had also warned about the threat of artificial intelligence and advised against trying to contact extraterrestrials. So, issues like social media technology and its threats to privacy, cyber warfare, genetic engineering, a renewed interest in space travel and space colonization, and our technological world’s impact on the environment, that make headlines in the news every day have long been dealt with by science fiction. When even the U.S. government has admitted that UFOs are flying around in our skies but no one knows what are, science fiction should be recognized as perhaps the most important genre in literature, on film, or on television.
Our future is unknown to us, though we know that in so many ways science fiction is the future. Whether we write it or read it, we are taking part in forward-looking human imagination: not what will the future look like, but what could it look like?
As far as what humanity will be like, we’ll have to wait and see. But if we want to see what humanity could be like, all we have to do is read some science fiction.
Would you enjoy more science fiction discussions and recommendations? Check out some of my other articles!