To read or not to read: Science fiction

Say “Sci-Fi” and the first things that pop into your head are huge spacecrafts, weirdly shaped aliens, intergalactic wars, or an apocalyptic vision of a dying earth – mainly because science fiction has established a position for itself in popular imagination via movie franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek and Back to the Future. But as a literary genre which explores – sometimes in a curiously prophetic manner – the consequences of future (even if imaginary) innovations, it is yet to acquire a large reader-base. Not easy when most readers do not consider sci-fi “proper” literature and are known to advice fans of the genre to start reading “real” books.

While science fiction has always had a dedicated community abroad, inIndiait seems to be witnessing a gradual growth only recently.

Keshav Krishnamurty, a student of St Joseph College of Arts and Science, whose reading includes a generous proportion of science fiction, likes the genre because it is somewhat more ‘believable’ than most magic or fantasy. “There’s something called the Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness. Some SF is so soft that it becomes fantasy, while hard SF is a lot like the world we live in,” he says. “My favourites are Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, and the Stanley Kubrick version of Arthur Clarke’s 2001 – the book wasn’t nearly as good as the movie. And some of Asimov’s old robot stories, collected in I, Robot.”

Geetanjali Chitnis, a Media Studies student, MCC, who dislikes SF, thinks it’s a very subjective genre that you either really hate or really love. “My dad loves science fiction, so there’s a lot of Asimov lying about the house. I think I tried reading one of his books. But I’m not big on other people’s vision of the future, you know? I believe we have to talk about now, the present,” she says.

Parinitha Shinde, a Mass Communications student ofSt. Joseph’sPost-GraduateCollege, seconds this opinion. “Sci-fi doesn’t interest me a lot. I see it as escapist and improbable. Most fiction has those two attributes, but I would prefer reading about things closer to mundane reality – human complexities and the intricacies of relationships rather than biological warfare or far off galaxies,” she emphasizes.

On the other hand, people who love reading Sci-Fi feel the genre is as good as any other, especially relevant in the modern context due to scientific progress and the ingress of technology into every arena of life. It might be considered the literature that defines what it is to be human, and the various possibilities for the future for an individual, in the 21st century.

Where genre wars and Lit-fic snobbery is concerned, Chandrika Siddhanta Chakaravarty, an avid Sci-Fi reader, feels there should not be any hard and fast rule about what constitutes “proper” literature. “Of course “literature” doesn’t – or shouldn’t – consist mainly of canonical texts. That view is changing now,” she says. But that’s not the reason why people don’t seem to be reading Sci-Fi, according to her. “I think lots of people simply don’t read books any more. And when they do, many seem to prefer something they can go through quickly and don’t need to think about much. Sci-fi takes a little more getting used to. I think most people would rather rack their brains over a film like Inception rather than over a book which takes much more time to finish.”

Despite these factors, Sci-Fi still seems to be thriving, albeit in small, but expanding, communities. Fans staunchly believe that Sci-Fi has a certain something which other genres don’t offer.

“There’s an appeal to technology being used in place of magic,” says Keshav Krishnamurty. “A whole lot of SF stories are set in the future, that means there’s space to think of what could be. Most of it may be wrong, but things like Star Trek’s “tricorders” have turned up in the form of the I-Phone.”

Asawari Ghatage, a final year Journalism student, MCC, agrees. Mixing up impossible technologies and conceptualized artificial intelligence has creates an entire genre of novels that have for long excited readers into wondering about the future of technology, she feels. “Science fiction novels open the readers up to a world of possibilities. They thrust you into futuristic and sometimes untapped aspects of science. They tend to couple the eccentric imagination with the hope for a better future,” she says, adding, “The thrill of reading about a distant future, or an improbable reality is incentive enough for anyone to pick up an Asimov or a Wells and plunge themselves into an entire world they didn’t know existed.”


This piece was written for the Mount Carmel College Journalism Department newsletter For Now. February 2011.