I have been thinking lately about what makes a great science fiction or fantasy novel great. What elements do I look for in a book or series?
I’ve distilled it down to three main elements and I strive to include them in my own writing as well. Those elements are lush world building, mythic storytelling and the ability to challenge our assumptions.
Lush World Building
I love novels that transport you into the world the writer is creating. I don’t want to read a story, I want to become enmeshed in it. I want to escape this world and live in that one, at least for an hour or two.
I think this is something that sets science fiction and fantasy apart from other genres. A romance novel needs strong believable characters. We need a great storyline. If we have those, we can forgive a flat poorly developed setting. We can all envision real world settings well enough to give literary writers a pass if their characters meet at a generic coffee shop.
In science fiction and fantasy the world itself is as important as the characters and story. We need to create that world. That can include physical descriptions, an understanding of the physical and cultural rules and a feel for the setting. A science fiction or fantasy novel with a flat setting is like a B movie with poor special effects. We just don’t buy into it. And that makes us not buy the story either.
An editor once told me that the greatest stories are about those times when the character realizes something that changes them forever. If the main characters are not left forever changed by the story, your reader won’t be either.
To put it another way, stories need to be a mythic journey. Even if its only a story about a kid standing up to schoolyard bullies, he is the Hero. Even if the great revelation is simply that we don’t understand the whole world, our character is the Sage. We must see their growth, feel their revelations in our bones.
I read recently that the real power of literature is that it allows us to experience many lives in the space of one. With every story I ask myself, is this a life worth experiencing? Will I grow somehow by exploring this life? What about my readers?
What if has always been one of the most popular questions for science fiction or fantasy writers. The what ifs can be big or small. We can wonder what if werewolves were real, or if magic was real. What if aliens came to our planet. There are a million possible what ifs.
There is more to these sorts of questions than simple curiosity. Science fiction and fantasy allows us to challenge some very basic assumptions about our world. We can do this in a way that gets past the critical mind and lets us really explore the ideas.
Is it any surprise that the television series that has had more impact on society than any other was Star Trek. From the now ubiquitous automatic door to cell phones to tablet computers, our society has outstripped so much of Star Treks technology, as an entire generation took Star Treks “what if” and turned it into “why not?”
Star Treks’ what if went beyond technical innovations. The original series featured a racially diverse crew in a time period when desegregation was still controversial. It almost doesn’t register in modern American culture, but in 1966 we were still embroiled in the cold war, but a Russian set at the controls of the Starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian society has motivated generations.
On the surface of things, Gene Roddenberry has set the bar high. But if you scratch the surface of any great science fiction or fantasy novel you will find they too challenge your assumptions.
Underneath the swords and sorcery of Lord of the Rings it is the peace loving Hobbits that save the day and challenge our assumptions about power. Dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge our sense of right and wrong. Stranger in a Strange Land challenges our sense of what is possible. The Mists of Avalon challenges both the Arthurian legends and the role of women in history.
It’s gotten so that if I read a science fiction or fantasy novel and don’t come away thinking differently about our world, I feel cheated. I think about that when I write. Does this story challenge my readers assumptions? Will it broaden their world in some way? If the answer is no, I pass on those stories.
Those are three elements that I think set a great science fiction or fantasy read from a mediocre one. What about you? What do you value about the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments.