Science Fiction is scary because it asks readers to cast their minds forward into the unknown, rather than, say, backward into fantastical versions of human history. But good science fiction isn’t actually about the aliens and the robots. It’s about universal problems we all have intimate knowledge of—love and hate as transcendent emotions; grief and prejudice and family; politics and the sharp, clear, adrenaline-fueled frenzy of immediate peril.
In fact, Science Fiction often reveals truths about these universal concepts more surgically and successfully than the most poignant historical fantasy. This reveal often involves some of the best mysteries ever written. How authors like Usula K. Leguin, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and Cixin Liu manage to do it is a secret known only to them.
But I want to debunk the idea that they exist behind a wall of impenetrable planets and chilly machines.
Frank Herbert: Dune, Whipping Star, and The Dosadi Experiment
Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming feature film Dune
How does a people change to adapt to its environment? What if there was a desert planet on which water was the most precious resource? What kind of religions and politics and values would dominate it?
This is just a piece of the premise of Dune, Frank Herbert’s masterwork and my favorite Science Fiction novel ever. The novel takes place in an alien future, is populated by alien, brutal cultures, and involves a mysterious melange spice that affords its users the ability to see into the future.
But that’s now what Dune is about. Dune is about colonization. It is about subverting our society’s ideas about messiahs, chosen ones, and charismatic leaders. It is about how we choose what to believe in. About humanity’s undeniably intimate relationship to the environment around us. All still stunningly contemporary ideas.
The best way I can explain Herbert’s Whipping Star is this: it argues that raw emotion governs even the most bureaucratic, cold functions of society. Herbert manages to make the premise of the book feel depraved in a way that rattled me deeply.
A being called a Caleban, powerful beyond imagining but unable to effectively communicate with human beings, is literally being whipped to death. Jorje X. McKie, the protagonist of both Whipping Star and The Dosadi Expierament, has the affect of the brilliant detective in all our favorite cozy detective stories, and his job is to stop the whipping or watch nearly every sentient being in the universe die. High stakes, yes, but don’t let that fool you. The Caleban is being whipped by another person from a place of sadistic hatred we all know in some way and which makes me shudder. The compassion McKie and the reader develops for this being (I shan’t spoil what a Caleban really is) is deep and moving. Despite its far-future trappings, this novel is almost all mystery and emotion.
I highly recommend Whipping Star to anyone nervous about picking up the longer tombs of Science Fiction’s best.
The Dosadi Experiment picks up where Whipping Star left off, also centering on our dear, clever McKie. It’s more mystery than Whipping Star, but also more technical, more Herbertian. It has about ten different questions to ask of humanity, including but not limited to mingling consciousness, immortality, human experiments and consent, the practice of law, and more. But centered by the comforting anchor of McKie, I did not lose my place or become frustrated once.
Another note on this universe: chairdogs! I won’t say more—you’ve got to read it to understand.
Isaac Asimov and his Robots
Will Smith as Del Spooner in Alex Proyas’ film i, robot.
What is even the First Law compared with the holy ties of mother love?
Isaac Asimov in his short story First Law
Asimov is best known for his three laws of robotics. One could easily call him obsessed with questions about robots and AI.
But robots are an amazing place to explore sentience in general: what makes us human? Can we create something like…us? How do we make emotion—and where does emotion come from? Why is it valuable?
I’d recommend any of Asimov’s short stories before I recommend one of his books, which are admittedly dense with theory and worldbuilding. Not to return to my personal beef with Lord of the Rings, but Foundation and other Asimov classics read in a similar dry tone while maintaining a stunning creatively richness.
Like Herbert’s Dune, the Foundation series takes on ideas about prescience, groupthink, and mob mentality. It takes very real ideas in history—ideas later proven in modern sociology—and takes them to a huge, galactic scale. Very fun.
The Three Laws of Robotics
ONE: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
TWO: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
THREE: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Ursula K. Leguin’s Mind-Bending Genius
The Left Hand of Darkness was one of the first science fiction novels I ever read, and I didn’t get it. There were hardly any robots or aliens! Instead, the reader is dumped unceremoniously on a frigid planet where you can never get warm—a perpetual Antarctica populated by completely androgynous people. Not men, not women, just human: this idea of androgyny (or ambisexuality) is the idea that Leguin explores—in 1969! But it’s not really so concept-heavy as all that: really it’s just another poignant story about love and survival, and people from different cultures forming a common, deeply human bond. I cried.
The Lathe of Heaven (avail. kindle unlimited) is one of those strange novels written so long ago that its future is our past—Portland, 2003. Accurately, climate change (among other changes) ravages the Northwest, but LeGuin’s prescience is beside the point. The novel is about dreams—one of humanity’s biggest fascinations through the ages. If you want your brain bent a little bit—and the edges of reality blurred for the time you’re reading this—I highly recommend.
To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.
Chuang Tzu Book XXIII, paragraph 7. Mis-quoted, according to Leguin.
(Leguin also wrote fantasy, if you want to warm to her writing in that way! Wizard of Earthsea is a universally beloved tale of sorcerers, dragons, and more.)
The Modern Inheritors
Hyperion (1990) by Dan Simmons
My second-favorite science fiction novel ever, this novel is the perfect mystery.
On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it. In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope—and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.
The Fifth Season (2015) by N.K. Jemisin
One of my favorite authors ever. This novel combines science fiction and fantasy to create one of the most expertly crafted, most original novels I’ve ever read.
This is the way the world ends. Again.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
The Three-Body Problem (2014) by Liu Cixin
I’ve read Liu’s standalone novel Ball Lightning and was blown away, and I’m sure The Three-Body Problem is no different. Even in translation, Liu has a literary style that meshes in a beautiful, fresh way with his classic science fiction vistas.
Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
What is your opinion about Science Fiction? Do you dabble? Have you stayed away from it? If you have: why? I’d very much love to hear from you!
5 thoughts on “Science Fiction Is Not About the Aliens”
I do think all fiction should be about some of those universal “problems” you identify. I’m a great fan of Asimov and don’t find him at all dry. However, I do share your view about the “love story” in The Left Hand of Darkness, undoubtedly one of the top ten sci-fi novels of all time. Maybe even the top five!
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Curious what your top five are! I feel Dune and Left Hand of Darkness are definitely up there. I’ll admit that I actually really love reading Asimov—I only worry that he perhaps isn’t the best choice for first-time sci-fi readers.
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No, I meant only one of the top five/ten. My actual favourites are The Left Hand of Darkness, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Martian [I moved that in only relatively recently], The Gods Themselves, Foundation Series [to mention only two Asimovs], The Time Machine …. I could go on, but won’t.
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Dune is indeed a class of its own. It was one of the first, alongside Blade Runner, THX 1138 and Planet Of The Apes, to make me fully appreciate how science-fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be about aliens.
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