An Ode to Flatland
Given the difficulties in really defining Science Fiction as a literary genre at all, it’s even harder to really say what Science Fiction should be. Let’s put aside the question if any genre should be anything other than a useful label for certain groups of stories. Let’s ask what makes good Science Fiction more than just a good story. Certainly some amount of “science” has to be part of the story but the focus is more on how people deal with that science. What makes a story great is, in addition to masterful literary craft, a message about ourselves. Science Fiction often presents a great means to explore the human condition. So is that what makes good Science Fiction good Science fiction? Meaningful, powerful statements about being human make for great fiction, but what makes good Science Fiction is the ability to tie such statements to the science of the story.
A fantastic example of this is the well-known but less-read Flatland. For those not familiar with the story, Flatland is the story of A Square who lives in a completely two-dimensional world and spends a good deal of time explaining how his flat world differs, both physically and politically, from our own. It’s not so different in that latter respect and I hope to convey why this makes it good Science Fiction. A good half of the book is spent explaining why the physical nature of the flat world imposes a unique and divine social order for all flatlanders. There’s a very clear social message in the story which is built entirely upon the science aspects of the story itself. This message isn't forced into the story but is built naturally out of the elements of fictional world itself.
Science Fiction could well be described as the genre that asks “what if?” An author that sets out to push a social message and then tries to build a world around that message probably isn't a very good storyteller. The real thought experiment is to set the stage in one’s imagination and then see how it evolves on its own. That’s not to say the author can’t a priori have a goal in mind, but for the reader the experience must be one of seeing a story unfold naturally. Almost any work of fiction will require a few contrived events that we as readers learn to accept as part of the larger storytelling experience. But bad Science Fiction is the kind of story built out of a whole series of contrived events instead of the science in the story.
So let us return to Flatland. The story is rather critical of both sex and class relations. Women in flatland are often confined to their homes or required to make a “peace cry” while in public to announce their presence. (You’ll have to read Flatland to find out the justification for this.) The lower classes, all lowly irregular Triangles, are kept in their position by manipulation of the higher classes (many-sided regular Polygons). The ruling Polygons allow slow ascension of class over generations to provide hope to the lower classes for their children but resort to overt violent suppression when the discovery of Color threatens their social order. Yes, color is a dangerous social tool in flatland.
Flatland has a lot to say about the current social structure that separates the classes and oppresses women. But what’s great about it is that while the parallels to our world are obvious it is all entirely consistent within the fictional world. The reader is left to make up her own mind about the meaning of the story. A “what if?” question is answered in one of many plausible ways and the value judgement is suggested but not imposed. Had Flatland pushed a more specific value judgement it would likely have been forgotten over the years as no longer applicable.
What I’ve deliberately not mentioned yet is that the novel was written in 1884. That’s not a typo, that’s Eighteen Eighty Four, and the literary comment is on Victorian society. And yet the story is still relevant for more than the fact that geometry hasn't changed in the last 150 years. The reader can still relate to the issues raised in the story because they arise out of the story itself instead of the political goals of its author. And that’s why it’s good Science Fiction. Whatever social or political commentary comes out of the story comes out of the world of the story itself.
Looking at Flatland there’s indeed a long history of dealing with social issues in Science Fiction. (Dealing with gender equality in 1884? I hope it doesn't surprise you.) Science Fiction is probably the best equipped literary genre to tackle social issues faced today. But this doesn't mean good Science Fiction must have good social messages. It can, but the message is only good if it naturally arises out of the story. Judging a work of Science Fiction by its social message is completely backwards. Even a great social message (whatever that may be) is bad Science Fiction and generally bad literature if forced into the story.
Good Science Fiction answers a “what if” question with the guiding hand of its author. A good social message that grows naturally out of this story can help make the setting that much more rich, the characters that much more realistic, and the themes that much more intriguing. But a good social message imposed on a story contrived to push the author’s social views is bad Science Fiction. It comes down to the “science” part of Science Fiction. Good science starts with evidence and reaches conclusions. Good Science Fiction starts with imaginary evidence and reaches imaginary conclusions. Bad science and bad Science Fiction alike start with the conclusion and try to support it with flimsy (and often imaginary) evidence. The author has complete control over their created world and the social message, if any, they wish to convey. If that world doesn't naturally grow to show the message it’s probably a boring world and a weak social message.