Not too long ago, a good friend of mine asked me a question. She wanted to know why I preferred to write science fiction. It was a valid question, but it caught me off guard.
You see, I hadn’t realized that I was writing science fiction at all.
When I set out to finally commit to writing a manuscript for a novel, I knew what genre I wanted to write. Of course it had to be dystopian. Dystopia incorporates all the things I love in a good story–heroism, defiance against a repressive status quo, drama, suspense, and a fierce exploration of the darker side of human society. Plus, it’s all the rage right now. So that’s an added bonus.
When others asked me about my novel, I was quick to describe it as dystopian. But if I’m being honest with myself (which is something that I tend to avoid), I felt a bit unsettled with this label, especially as the plot and the setting developed further. Still, I never would have categorized it as science fiction. The thought didn’t even cross my mind.
As with most things, there is a reason for this, one that I wasn’t aware of until my friend asked me this very good question.
I started reflecting on what I believed science fiction to be. Growing up, I devoured science fiction movies, books, and TV shows. I was obsessed with all things futuristic, set in space, and involving alien beings. I realize now, however, the problem I got sucked into during my youth: believing that science fiction only encompasses such things.
I know now that science fiction, when done right, is a fascinating exploration of any conflict or scenario that can be traced back to actual science. It doesn’t have to involve aliens or robots. It doesn’t always take place in the future. Spaceships are not necessary, and neither is time travel. It is, in fact, so much simpler than I once believed. Science fiction is just that–a fictional story based in scientific fact.
So why are such images rooted so deeply into my way of thinking? I don’t believe I’m the only one who struggles with this bias. Even more confusing is the fact that science fiction novels are often lumped within the “fantasy” section of bookstores. Not that a story can’t be both–in fact, I would love to see these two categories converge more. But I admittedly get a little upset when a novel that is actually more like fantasy is considered science fiction.
For all of these reasons, I’ve been hesitant to label my novel with the often misleading descriptive “science fiction.” But the more I think about it, the more willing I am to change my attitude about this. I am, after all, a scientist myself. I’m earning a doctorate degree in public health, and the things that I am learning and experiencing in this field created the very blueprints for the setting of my story. My hunger for getting others interested in science is something that I am increasingly unable to ignore. And in the process, I’m realizing that I do, in fact, want to write science fiction. I want to help take back the true meaning of the genre, the one founded upon by the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. I want to base my stories as much as possible in actual scientific fact. I want readers to come away with the haunting yet scintillating notion that the worlds we dream of are not as distant from our reality as we might choose to believe.
I still love dystopia. And you probably could classify my novel by using that label. But I’ve decided I want to choose a different one.
I’d like to call it science fiction.
Note: I’m thrilled to see a growing number of young adult fiction authors who are striving to emphasize scientific fact in their works. My hero in this endeavor is Lydia Kang, physician and author of Control. I absolutely loved Control, and I highly recommend it for anyone who hungers for more of that blurry line between science fiction and reality. Lydia Kang also created a blog that aims to help writers imbue their works with more medical accuracy. I am so grateful for the efforts of talented authors such as she for inspiring the rest of us who hope to someday be that cool.
*Also, special thanks to Dharshi Devendran for always asking me the right kind of questions.