The Handmaid's Tale, The Time-Traveler's Wife: Why Real Book Lovers Read Science Fiction

7 years ago

In this post, I’m going to argue that if you’re a serious book lover, you should be reading sci-fi. I’m going to identify some compelling reasons why you should be reading the genre. Finally, at the end of this article, I’ve got some tips on how to read sci-fi if you’re not very familiar with the genre at all.

Let Me Throw Some Titles at You.

Familiar, comfy titles that are literary bestsellers from the past 20 or so years:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • The Road
  • Never Let Me Go
  • Oryx and Crake
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife

These are ALL works of science fiction.

Yep. That’s right. Somehow, those sneaky little aliens, robots and mad scientists all crawled under your radar and made you read a sci-fi novel without you even knowing it. Some of the book on the list above were even short-listed for the Booker Prize. Many of them are now classics of contemporary literature.

But Margaret Atwood Writes Real, Proper Literature

I hear you say. Here’s what Atwood has to say about her writing:

“Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” she explains.

Margaret Atwood argues here that what she writes is "speculative fiction." I disagree.  She writes dystopic science fiction, but markets it to the masses. Why? Because of the inane and incorrect stereotypes about sci-fi that persist even now. If it’s got someone as well known and well respected as Margaret Atwood cringing over associations with tight lycra suits, little green men and bad B-grade movies, then is it any wonder the genre attracts only six percent of the U.S. reading public?

An example of clever marketing:

Remember Liane Hearn’s Across the Nightingale Floor? Remember its bland, abstract cover? All of this was a clever marketing ploy to ensure that a work of fantasy fiction didn’t turn the masses away from what was essentially, an amazing literary read.

Because, as you know, fantasy fiction is all about dragons, swords and ... ahh ... wizards.

Excuse me whilst I run away and wet myself laughing in the corner. This book sold millions. And it’s fantasy. Boy, were we all wrong.

Why You Should – No- MUST Read Science Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the most life-changing, thought-provoking books I have ever read. It’s set in a time roughly about the present (not in some far distant future). There are no spaceships. No aliens. No mad scientists. There are religious fundamentalists gone wrong, though. In one fell swoop, they remove the rights of all women in the U.S. to read, hold jobs, hold a driver’s license –- to hold any kind of identity separate from that of their husband.

What made The Handmaid’s Tale such a gripping book (I called in sick at my job at the time so I could finish the book in a day!) was that it was so real. So utterly believable, because the setting was all so mundane and so very possible.

And it is this ... this engagement with reality, with ideas, and the clever cross-over into other genres (in Atwood’s case, it’s contemporary literature) that is why you absolutely must read science fiction.

Think of the incredible cultural legacy of Orwell’s 1984. Think of "newspeak" as Orwell presented it in the book, and how it parallels something that we are so utterly familiar with: the emptiness of "management" speak.  We all know what Big Brother means. It’s part of the language. And it came straight from the ideas presented in a science fiction novel.

The very best science fiction reflects reality. It reflects every corner, nook and cranny of the human condition, which is why authors mine it as a fertile source for seeding other genres.

Do not be fooled by simplistic stereotypes about sci-fi. You’re smarter than that. Science fiction is not about aliens, mad scientists or lame predictions about what will happen in the future (although those things feature in some sci-fi titles). Science fiction is so much more than cliché. And it really has something to say to everyone.

How To Read Science Fiction: A Geek-Free Guide

The secret to reading and loving science fiction is to be selective. Choose a book that crosses over into your favorite genre.

If you’re a reader of literature or contemporary popular novels, below are some suggestions that you may find useful, because I know you’re going to try sci-fi and fall in love with it.

  • Do not look for metaphors. In science fiction, most times, when a dog appears, it is a dog. Not a metaphor for the oppression on non-White Anglo Saxon Protestants. It’s just a dog. Or a robot. Or a woman in a burqa who’s had her human rights taken away by religious nutters.
  • Science fiction engages your brain. You have to keep track of a few facts. Usually they’re things that are woven into a character’s observations or the plot. I’m not saying it’s rocket science. You just need to remember a few things when you’re reading.
  • Gadgets just work. I don’t know how the time machine in Jules Verne’s book worked. It just did, and made a really good story. It’s the same as questioning the entire Harry Potter universe. The magic just exists. Don’t fight it: gadgets, time travel and stuff just works.
  • Parallel worlds. Most people can accept that Harry Potter happens in a parallel England. It’s like the real England, but not exactly the same. Science fiction is full of these parallel worlds. You may not know where to find Platform 9 ¾ in a science fiction novel. Chances are you’ve already passed through it as soon as you’ve opened the book.
  • Choose covers that are not embarrassingly bad so you don’t feel ashamed to be seen reading them. For some reason, many sci-fi covers are just woeful (although is anything as woeful as romance novel covers with rippling abs and busty bosoms?). To overcome this, choose works like Atwood’s Oryx & Crake or classics like 1984 or Fahrenheit 541.

What have been your experiences reading sci-fi? Why do you think more people DON’T read sci-fi? Do you have a sci-fi book you’d think nonreaders of the genre would enjoy? I’d really appreciate your comments and feedback on this post.

If you liked this article, you can find many more at Amanda's blog Desert Book There you'll find articles on writing killer book reviews, growing your book blog, book reviews and book culture.

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