I have a degree in astrophysics and operate telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. I have collected science fiction memorabilia ever since Kenner announced its “Early Bird” Star Wars action figure set in 1977. I collect comic books and eagerly await each new season of Doctor Who. In many ways, I bear more than a passing resemblance to Dr. Sheldon Cooper and his friends from The Big Bang Theory.
That said, I’ve been married for twenty-four years. I have two beautiful daughters. I love to cook and go on hikes. I travel whenever the opportunity permits. I own a house and deal with all the responsibilities of keeping it up. Yeah, I may be a geek, but in many ways, I’m also a pretty ordinary middle-aged guy. It’s that ordinary guy who is going to do his best to tell you why science fiction appeals to him.
I’ve already mentioned the year 1977. That was a pretty magical year for me. It was the year Star Wars came out. We all remember how the movie only appealed to nerds and geeks. Only tech-savvy people went to see it and it went on to relative obscurity.
Oh, that’s not what you remember? Well neither do I!
What I do remember was finally reading a novel written for adults. It was the novelization of Star Wars and I read it because Star Wars was cool and I couldn’t get enough of it. I loved how the novel gave insights into the characters’ thoughts and presented details that weren’t in the movie. It gave me a hunger for more science fiction books. At that time, the other big name in science fiction was Star Trek and I noticed the writing credits in big bold letters at the opening of every episode. There were names like Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad, Jerome Bixby and Theodore Sturgeon. I found out many of these people had books at my local library. I began to read them and a whole new world opened up for me.
What I soon learned was that although it was called “science fiction” and much of it was set in the future, surprisingly little sci-fi actually dealt directly with science. Most of the stories talked about what would happen to people if certain things in the world did or didn’t change. It was a way to imagine what people would be like under different conditions. Sometimes those stories were scary when the author imaged a future where evil dominated the land. Sometimes those stories were fun when they imagined whole new pioneering adventures among the stars. Sometimes the stories were titillating if they imagined a whole new sexual morality. What can I say? I was a preteen boy and this was the disco era, baby!
Sure, there were some pretty geeky books out there, too, which featured stories that would tell you how to build a starship or give you mind-numbing detail about how the orbit of a planet affected the plot. Admittedly those stories appealed to the Sheldon Cooper in me, but the other stories are the ones I still remember because they appealed to the ordinary guy. Growing up in Southern California during the cold war, those books imagined a future where the air was cleaner, people appreciated each other because of their differences, and Russia and the United States didn’t have missiles aimed at each other. And, you know what? Most of that optimism has borne out over the years.
Okay, I don’t have a flying car. That disappoints me . . . greatly. But you know what? Given the way people drive, that’s perhaps not such a bad thing.
Here’s another interesting fact. It’s not the scientist in me that writes science fiction. Every time the scientist tried to write a book, he failed. What inspired me to write my first successful science fiction book was a novel by Robert A. Heinlein called Time Enough for Love. In it, settlers move across an alien planet in a wagon train to start a new life. I realized that was the story my mom used to tell about her grandmother moving from Illinois to Texas at the end of the nineteenth century. Being a scientist might allow me to imagine how characters could get to a planet, but the real drama came from the human stories all around me. I could pull from the stories of my grandparents and my daily life. I could draw from history and imagine different futures. It’s once I made that leap and realized that science happens mostly off the page that I could sit down and write a story that people cared about reading. That first novel was The Pirates of Sufiro. (Which you can get for free right here). It was inspired by stories of New Mexico homesteaders, farmers and miners battling for territory, and dangers presented by unstoppable forces such as the weather.
The best science fiction, like the best literature, is about our hopes and our fears. It looks at the past and imagines where we might be going. The best science fiction is about people like you and me. Give it a try. I’m guessing you’ll find a book you love.