More than Science Fiction

What do you think of when somebody says science fiction? Do you instantly think of ships in space, space battles, far away planets and all that jazz? I once had the privilege to attend a hand-selected workshop with an award-winning author from Kansas who has written numerous short stories and non-fiction work.  The author requested a longer submission, approximately 10,000 words, give or take a little if there would be an unnatural ending point. I combed through what I had written and corrected obvious mistakes and submitted the work. A total of three other students were selected in this process, all of whom I remain good friends and in touch with.

After two weeks, the author from Kansas arrived on campus and we had our one on one sit downs. My first friend, an older non-traditional student, ended up taking over two hours in her meeting, and would have been longer had the Department Chair who organized this and selected us not intervened. I was up next and went in and immediately was red with fury but bit my tongue. The guest of honor admitted he did not like science fiction and wasn’t really drawn into a first-person narrative. When submitting the work, I described it as a coming of age, political thriller set in a science fiction environment. I tried to steer the conversation towards thoughts on character development, the story so far and didn’t get much except he didn’t trust the narration of the characters (which is one of the points of first person narration).

I politely endured the hour-long one-on-one because I thought I would gain insight but instead mostly heard him talk down science fiction and say it needed to be more grounded. There is one positive from this awful experience, I changed the prologue’s narration from one character, Philip, to his mother.

Science fiction lets writers explore contemporary issues in a different setting. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactic is more than about the last vestiges of humanity of trying to find Earth, it was a critique of the post-9/11 world and insurgencies where the supposed enemy looks and acts like us. Star Trek the Original Series is more than exploring new worlds and civilizations, it is about bringing together humanity (a mixed cast and other ground-breaking norms for the time).

If the award-winning author took time to read my submission without prejudging it, he would have seen the prologue and first three chapters are about family strife. Philip’s father is away at Mars and in command of bringing an end to a rebellion / insurgency movement (based upon my coming of age of Iraq). Nathan’s father, a Senator is running for President. Tristan, Philip’s best friend, has recently lost his father in a boating accident, which has also scared Nathan and Philip.

The science fiction environment allows for a more open story, one which is unconstrained by traditional environments. Imagine trying to write a story about the effects of not combating climate change in set in the 1970s. Very few people know about climate change in this environment. Or a more current, every day topic, writing about a corrupt, criminal chief executive in the current environment of the second decade of the 21st century.

Why does science fiction explore the past in a futuristic setting? I believe it because there will always be timeless issues which need to be explored and discussed – dysfunctional families, the rise and fall of politicians, independence movements, terrorist organizations, insurgencies, the desire to explore new worlds and star systems, espionage and grappling with right and wrong.

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