This is a guest post from Casey Stepaniuk. Casey is a bisexual writer who holds an MA in English. She’s also currently studying for an MLIS in Vancouver, BC. You can find more writing about (queer, Canadian) books on her blog Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian. When not reading or writing–which, let’s be honest, isn’t that much of the day–she’s probably running, drinking tea, or doing yoga. Follow her on Twitter @canlesbrarian.
I didn’t read my first science fiction book until I was halfway through a Master’s degree in English literature. I know, I know: shame on me. I had dabbled a bit in fantasy in high school, although to be honest I only read the first few books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series because my crush recommended them. But science fiction was a total mystery until I was 24 and my Master’s thesis supervisor recommended Samuel Delany’s avant-garde, gender-bending 1976 novel Trouble on Triton. I have to say, Samuel Delany is without a doubt a genius, and I wasn’t far into Trouble on Triton when I started thinking that either he was too smart for me, or I just didn’t like science fiction.
As it turns out, it was neither. But I wasn’t used to reading sci fi, and there was something about it that I still wasn’t getting. Then, I realized that I actually already had the skills to read science fiction, but I just didn’t know it yet. And those skills came from the unlikeliest of places: all of those hours reading required so-called classic literature for English class and that historical fiction inspired by the periods of English literature that I loved.
I know what you’re thinking—what on earth does sci fi have in common with classic literature or historical fiction? What does a book like Pride and Prejudice or Tipping the Velvet have to do with Octavia Butler or Y: The Last Man? I mean, besides the fact that all of them are awesome. Well here’s the thing: you can totally use the same techniques to read these books, despite how different they are.
When you read something set in the contemporary world—the world as you know it in the present and the recent past—you don’t have to do any work to figure out how the universe of the novel works. You already know all the rules. Like, for example, you know that if someone breaks up with the main character via text message that someone is clearly a douchebag. What science fiction, historical fiction, and classic lit all have in common is that you don’t know what the rules are. You’re like an alien who might think dumping someone via text is a totally legitimate, non-cowardly way to end a relationship.
Whether you’re conscious of it or not, when you’re reading books written in or set in the distant or not-quite-so-distant past, you’re constantly picking up evidence about how the world of the book works so that what the characters are doing makes sense. Charlotte Brontë doesn’t tell you that being a governess is one of the only respectable jobs available to a woman like Jane Eyre or that it was pretty impossible to get divorced in England in the 1840s, but you figure that out while reading because you’re a smart person, right? That kind of detective work is exactly what you have to do in science fiction when the author introduces you to a new universe.
In fact, it’s easier to figure out the parameters of the world in a science fiction book because any decent SF author has riddled the book with clues to help you orient yourself to the norms of the universe they’ve created. That’s why in science fiction (and fantasy to a lesser extent) you often have an outsider or anthropologist character to help describe the world to someone who isn’t a part of it. Whereas Jane Austen had no idea 21st century people would be reading her books and not have a clue why the Bennett daughters couldn’t just inherit their family estate, sci fi authors know that the world of their book is new and alien to you, and they’ve written it with that in mind!
So if you’ve thought of yourself as a the kind of person who just “doesn’t like science fiction” but you love Charles Dickens or novels set in the medieval period, you might want to try thinking of science fiction as just another “period” piece set in a time you’ve never experienced yourself. But instead of travelling to the past, you’re flying into the future.