If you read this blog regularly, you know that I’ve recently decided to take up the challenge to write “speculative fiction” from a Catholic point of view. I’ll talk about the writing side of things over on the Sancta Futura blog, but here I’d like to talk about reading science fiction, and why it’s not a total waste of time, as many people seem to believe.

space ship under the apple tree, slobodkin

I’ve been reading things that fall under the general rubric of “speculative fiction” (the term I prefer to “science fiction”) since I was a little kid reading things like Sprockets: A Little Robot
by Alexander Key (better known for Escape from Witch Mountain) and The Space Ship Under the Apple Tree by Louis Slobodkin. Later, in high school, I was hooked on the early novels of Robert Heinlein, and all sorts of post-apocalyptic novels such as Alas, Babylon
and On the Beach, as well as the much more optimistic I lost interest is science fiction (strictly speaking) about the same time that I got interested in time-travel stories, such as those of Poul Anderson, and alternate history, such as Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (which combines time-travel and alternate history) and S. M. Stirling’s novels of The Change, which combine alternate history, science fiction, and Arthurian legend. All of these are included in the term “speculative fiction.”

heinlein, farmer in the skyWhat is speculative fiction? Well, it is fiction that allows the writer to speculate, “what if …?” What if the Southern States had won the American Civil War (alternate history)? What if a spaceship landed in your backyard? What if you could go back in time and prevent your own parents from ever marrying (time travel)? What if all the men in the world disappeared at once, leaving only women? What if certain laws of physics quit working, so that there was no more electricity and internal combustion engines no longer worked? What if, a thousand years from now, people can pick the kind of government they want to have, just by picking which planet they live on? What if apes suddenly evolved beyond humans and became their masters? What if you were the only person in the world whose parents had not opted to enhance you genetically to be super smart and strong? What if things continue the way they are going for the next hundred years: what will the world be like?

The thing that has always fascinated me about this kind of fiction is that it allows you to take contemporary, or perennial, problems and displace them — in time, space, or cultural circumstance — in order to dislodge them from their cultural context and allow them to be seen more objectively. It’s rather like creating a computer model of a hurricane or an epidemic outbreak, allowing the problem and its implications to be studied without any risk to actual people. On the other hand, it can also be comforting to speculate that, whatever may change technologically, politically, climatically, people will still just be people: they’ll still fall in love, have babies, get bored with their jobs, want to get ahead — even if they are zipping around in George Jetson space cars, or have electronics wedded to their nervous systems, or travel across the galaxy.

miller, canticle for leibowitz

The novel that I’m planning to write is very much in this genre, covering a lot of “what ifs” that interest me, but which other writers haven’t already done to death. What if, hundreds of years from now, the human race is beginning to get bored with discovering and colonizing new planets? What if some of earth’s colonies have “dropped out” and lost contact with the rest of the human race? What if history has been forgotten? What if the Christian Church is openly tolerated but, in many places, is being covertly and brutally suppressed? What if the Church creates its own “alternate future” off the grid? What if a couple of young people travel to the far side of the galaxy to make a new life for themselves, only to discover that their “new life” has been carefully and secretly planned and prepared for them for generations? What if a handful of cultural dropouts become the key to the survival of the Church and the salvation of human culture?

They say that writers should write not what they know but what they would like to read themselves. I guess that’s what I’m doing. I just hope I will be able to find others who would like to read it, too. What about you?