One of Wired magazine's brainiest writers, Clive Thompson, has a great essay in the latest issue about why science fiction novels have become more philosophically rich than literature. He points out that scifi often gets the short shrift in literary circles, partly because it's perceived as just so generic. And yet so-called realistic literature is just as generic. In fact, there is a kind of poverty to literary fiction that refuses to bend the rules of social (or material) reality — one can only describe the world in such books, not suggest ways to change it.
There are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I'd read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, "OK. Cool. I see how today's world works." I also started to feel like I'd been reading the same book over and over again.
Here's my overly reductive, incredibly nerdy way of thinking about the novel: Consider it a simulation, kind of like The Sims. If you run a realistic simulation enough times — writing tens of thousands of novels about contemporary life — eventually you're going to explore almost every outcome. So what do you do then?
You change the physics in the sim. Alter reality — and see what new results you get. Which is precisely what sci-fi does. Its authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?
Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender's Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.
I wonder if reality fatigue is going to affect television-watchers, too. With the writers' strike forcing studios to roll out so many awful new reality TV shows, maybe there will be a much greater hunger for speculative and scifi series.