Why Science Fiction is the literature of change

Science Fiction is often called a “literature of ideas”. Maybe it is better understood as a literature of change.

Listen to the Guardian books podcast: Science Fiction now and tomorrow.

Today’s Guardian books podcast, which I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in alongside Lauren Beukes, Alaistar Reynolds, Jeff Noon and Michael Moorcock, asks if 2012 is the year Science Fiction enters the ‘mainstream’. Beukes upcoming novel the Shining Girls, recently purchased by HarperCollins, is one of a number of SF novels to win a major advance from a mainstream publisher this year. Terry Pratchett‘s Snuff became the fastest selling adult hardback novel since records began, SF imprint Gollancz have signed three six figure deals this year alone, and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones has reinvigorated epic fantasy. Following on from the British Libraries major SF retrospective, it seems SF is poised to dominate the popular consciousness of 2012.

Untitled Project: SCIENCE FICTIONS
Image by untitledprojects via Flickr

Our discussion for the podcast touched on a range of reasons why SF is growing so quickly in popularity. One argument is, of course, monetary. In hard economic times SF might represent a safe bet for publishers. But then the work of writers like Beukes is far from safe or traditional. Perhaps SF itself has changed, with writers like Beukes and China Mieville among many others producing work which defies the cliches and stereotypes that repel so many from reading the genre. And surely social media plays a part, where a tremendously loyal and tech-savvy fandom are able to shout far louder for the books they love than the relatively luddite world of literary fiction.

But I would argue there is something more of the zeitgeist to SF’s new found energy. Perhaps more than any other literary genre, SF responded to a 20th Century that was driven by wave upon wave of technological change. For millions of readers SF became a trusted guide to a world being transformed by scientific discoveries so fundamental that the world of 2001 would have made little or no sense to the people of 1901. The physical changes have been vast, but psychological impact has also been vast, and there the literature of SF: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, have all emerged as ways of exploring the psychology of our changing century.

I have no doubt that the changes ahead of us in the 21st century will make the 20th seem positively pedestrian. And from the ever growing popularity of SF, I believe many other people feel the same. SF is no longer an emerging literary genre. It is established and here to stay, although its appearance may, in deed will, change radically. And more and more people recognise that, while it has its roots in the pulp and the popular, SF provides one of the best ways of examining the rapidly changing world around us. Because, once one strips surface appearance of SF, the rockets and rayguns and swords and sorcery that define Sci-Fi in the popular imagination, once the furniture of genre is carted off, the literary heart of SF is the metaphor.

The faster the world changes, the less familiar it feels, and the weirder it becomes, the more impossible the task of directly describing our experience of it. Instead, as generations of artists have done to explain the inexplicable, we reach for metaphors. In the 20th Century the metaphors of SF are perhaps the most powerful of all. Invaders from Mars as metaphor Britain’s Imperial invasion of the world. A metaphorical glass bead game that prefigured the computer. Big Brother and ‘one ring to rule them all’ as metaphor for totalitarianism and the march of the industrial world. The ghostly metaphor of ‘cyberspace’ that introduced us to the internet before we even knew we needed one. These metaphors, and hundreds more crafted in SF, have shaped how we perceive the changing world of last century. And now writers like Lauren Beukes, with her ‘animaled’ humans, are shaping the metaphors that will guide us through the century of change ahead.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

20 thoughts on “Why Science Fiction is the literature of change

  1. I think you risk something of a generalisation here. Whilst many of the metaphors of SF can provide valuable tools for understanding the changing world, it is not necessarily the case that all examples of literature which use them do. Besides which, it is not just in the literature of SF, but in the ‘relatively luddite world of literary fiction’ wherein social, psychological and technological change have been reflected. In the words of Virginia Woolf, ‘in or around December 1910′, something changed in the world – with Einstein, powered air flight, and particularly after the First War, in which so many words were lost, the literary – and the wider cultural – imagination of the early 20th century was fired. In the architecture of Cubism, the work of the surrealists, in modernist novels and poetry (yes, poetry), formal innovation has done as much, if not more, to reflect changing psychology than perhaps metaphor, with its’ ultimately rather literal roots, will ever be able to do.

    Don’t get me wrong – I like ray guns as much as the next person – but the same argument could be made about the Western, Crime Fiction or Romance, and any other “genres”, if they occupied the same cultural space as SF. It isn’t the genre, but how you use its’ strategies, which matters.


    1. That’s a good response Jenny. Thank you. But I think you are omitting some key issues in your assessment of Modernist literature relative to SF. First, the two are heavily interrelated. There are well documented dialogues and influences between modernist and SF writers, precisely because much of their work shares many of the same concerns. Secondly, modernism’s influence is limited because it has never been a well understood nor popular movement. It has tremendous value, but communicates it to very few people. SF takes many of the same concerns and influences a far broader range of people, which, in terms of our understanding of the immense cultural change we are experiencing, gives SF arguably far greater value. And thirdly, and this is really the cause of modernisms limited acceptance, its artists have always tended to demonise change and demand that their audience does the same, when culturally we have a profound need to embrace change. Again, an area where SF succeeds in far greater proportion.

      That’s not to reject modernism, simply a utilitarian argument that as a guide to change, its of limited use and far from accurate.


    2. On the point of other genres as a ‘literature of change’wellyou’re welcome to make that argument, but I think you will struggle.


      1. I agree that Science Fiction looks forward at change and asks lots of really interesting questions about how we deal with it. In addition, if we accept also that it’s a literature of metaphor then that change is as much about now as any other time. I reject the notion that SF is deliberately anything to do with futurism (unless the author is clear that’s his purpose). I know that’s a point you weren’t directly making but I feel that many people equate this idea of change with the “future”.

        Speculative fiction – if we accept it as the overarching genre – deals generally with unease. All spec fic asks similar questions: Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? What effect is that going to have on us? So in that sense Horror, Fantasy, do have a bearing on this notion of change. Perhaps they deal with it differently, certainly the answers they provide tend to be different*, but I do feel they have something to say.

        I must say I enjoyed the podcast. It’s great to hear Jeff is making a comeback – I can’t wait to read his book. Keep up the good work.

        *If Fantasy is the conservative then I would say that SF is progressive… but does that mean that horror is liberal democrat?**
        ** Yes, this is pretty tongue-in-cheek.


      2. I think there is scope for a follow up post on how SF, Fantasy and Horror as discreet genres work with metaphor. I think that Horror is the most reactionary. It takes the various aspects of the supernatural, numinous and spiritual and casts them all as ‘monstrous’. I’m very interested in Horror where the monster is befriendedinstead of defeating the numinous, we embrace it.

        And we should all read M John Harrison as much as we can:) New book in 2013woot!


      3. All spec fic asks similar questions: Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? What effect is that going to have on us?

        Pretty much all fictional forms are able to deal with those questions. It is only the deepest examples of puzzle fiction (stuff like Arthur C. Clarke or Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories) that tend towards not doing so, and even that’s an issue for interpretation on a case by case basis. Speculative fiction isn’t unique, it’s just that its conventions are sexier and easier to deal with than coal face realism.


      4. You keep falling in to the same rhetorical error here Will. No one is claiming that SF is the only literature capable of addressing these questions. We’re simply discussing what it IS capable of. You seem to have an objection to that however.


      5. On the point of other genres as a ‘literature of change’ well you’re welcome to make that argument, but I think you will struggle.

        — Damien G. Walter


        No one is claiming that SF is the only literature capable of addressing these questions.

        — Damien G. Walter

        I think that’s where my rhetorical error comes from. To address the struggle here I would suggest that you watch The Wild Bunch or any Western that is set in the late 19th or early 20th Century and involve the coming of the car, rail road and industrialization to the west.

        My general position is that genres, like all texts as they can be treated as such, posses no inherent deep meaning. Any meaning they have is inferred from them by the reader. Different readers, different meanings; with varying degrees of consistency. What I take from this blog post is that SF’s primary present function is as a literature of change instead of being the more traditional literature of ideas. To me this is a simply switching the concept of it being about ideas for that of it being about change without you addressing it in depth with specific examples. It’s brand identity, not intrinsic character.

        My objection is this: the argument that “the literary heart of SF is the metaphor” can be applied to many other forms of non-speculative fiction as it isn’t an exclusive trait. It’s a general characteristic of fiction and while SF is a fun way to explore change it isn’t The literature of change as your original post and a couple of your comments seem to suggest.

        Instead of talking about generalities that apply to wider categories of fiction than just science fiction I think it would be worth considering characteristics that make science fiction different from other genres. Maybe its use of temporal dislocation from the reader’s present to amplify a sense of the unfamiliar in the metaphors used. Other literatures that are set in the past or future generally rely on more familiar terms of reference.



    1. (I can’t seem to quote you directly Damien so I am just going to fire this here).

      “I think that Horror is the most reactionary. It takes the various aspects of the supernatural, numinous and spiritual and casts them all as ‘monstrous’”

      I actually think that fantasy is the most reactionary. It’s common tropes tend towards the staid, conservative, steady-state model of the universe and that’s something I’ve always found at odds with Magic. Especially if you consider what the concept of Magic really means.

      In Horror while the story tends to pivot on the Other it doesn’t follow that it’s always the Other that’s monstrous. Even if outwardly that may appear to be the case more often than not it seems to me to be “Us” that are in fact monstrous.

      Though I suppose it depends on what we are being reactionary to. I am not writing an essay at this time of night…

      BTW. On Harrison. I thought it was hilarious that, shortly after catching up here, I saw these blog posts. It felt like kismet – those posts ended up being entirely relevant – that’s all I’ll say.


  2. You seem to conflate genres that are completly separate to me. Fantasy/horror are all right, but to me do not have anything to do with speculative science fiction. and even within SF there are a number of divides. I grew up in the Heinlien era, not the Maraget Atwood era, and find her pretentious tracts the fatrthest thing from true SF. I also have a problem with most SF films, which base themselves on the old mantra “There are things man was not meant to know”. The classic mid 20th century SF viewpoint was of a sometimes problematic but generally workable future, and perhaps even a positive one. A lot of what passes for SF today instead has as its motto: “Everything is terrible and will only get worse.” Surrendering to that pessimism is the fastest way to assure its triumph


  3. Just to let you know that I really enjoyed your post in the Guardian. I’d felt and anticipated what you’ve brought out in the open more than thought about it, but you’re absolutely right and now I can’t wait to check out your “weird fiction”. Cheers from Berlin.



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