Does Science Fiction Get in the Way of Itself?

Let’s create a mathematical symbol, a new one, we’ll call it capacity-for-focus or ü. A reader has a certain threshold for ü, and a novel requires a certain amount of ü too.

In science fiction, there is usually a large part of ü focused on novel technologies. In literary fiction, there are no new technologies to focus on, so ü is all spent elsewhere.

A reader—and a writer—has a threshold for ü. If there is too much, and the novel’s ü value crosses the reader’s ü-threshold, then the reader will come away confused and unable to follow the narrative.

What does this mean? It means that science fiction must sacrifice something to be able to tell stories which involve novel-technology or novel usages of technology. The trade you are making as a science fiction author is an interesting one. Do we lose character? Or perhaps the ü value of literary novels never comes close to the reader’s ü-threshold? and there is plenty of unclaimed space, say, for other areas of focus.

I don’t know how useful it is to subdivide novels into genres—especially at the literary theory / analysis level. It seems genre was invented by marketeers to better sell books and is certainly something I often use to help find books I want to read. Cli-fi—climate fiction—for example is my current obsession. But nonetheless there is a big division in the literary world between literary fiction and everything else (genre fiction). My fear being that genre novels aren’t getting the attention they rightly deserve.

But hey-ho, keep on reading, widely too. And always try and push that ü value as far as it’ll go.

Written on August 16, 2020