A Fine View of the Universe

I can’t imagine finding my place in the world if I didn’t read stories.

A few years ago, a new remake of an old TV show hit the airwaves and created quite a stir. The show was Battlestar Galactica, and its arrival in the form of a four-hour miniseries signaled a creative breakthrough for original television programming. Based on an old series that was more derivative than original, it amazed us all with riveting, gritty psycho-drama about a remnant of humanity fighting for its life against the Cylons, human-built robots that had turned against their creators.

The creative transformation was the first surprise. The second was the solid writing and acting. The third (for me) was a phone call, offering me the job of writing the official novelization of the miniseries. (It wasn’t quite a bolt out of the blue. I had written over a dozen science fiction novels, and my publisher had the contract with the studio.) I seized the offer for what looked like an interesting side project, and in the months that followed, I became an avid fan of the series. Although I didn’t write any of the TV episodes, the work I did was fun and challenging in its own way.

Aside from the high of working the literary angle of a hit TV series, what was fun for me about it? The same as for any other viewer: watching a far-flung fragment of humanity fighting for survival against an implacable foe while seeking their lost home planet. The premise in itself was not groundbreaking, but the storytelling wrapped around it was—the psychological twists and turns of characters who are as flawed as the rest of humanity. That’s an often underestimated element of science fiction. It’s not just about crazy futures; it’s about the striving of people trying to find their way in those crazy futures. Or maybe the futures are not so crazy, but just a little different from the one most of us think we know.

That’s the appeal that the best science fiction has always held for me. As a young reader, I was mainly in love with a sense of wonder about the future of humanity, about the planets and stars, about the adventures that awaited. I grew up wanting to become a space cadet like Tom Corbett, wanting to explore the universe like the heroes in the stories of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and many others. In hindsight, not all of those stories were terribly well-written—what do you expect for a penny a word?—but they fed a fire in my heart. When I looked up at the night sky, I shivered with visions of galactic empires.

Someone once asked me—he was a young lawyer, and I was a young writer—what practical benefit reading an SF novel could have for him. It was a genuine question. He wanted to give one of my stories a try, but only if he had some assurance that the time he spent reading would somehow benefit him in his work.

I remember feeling at a loss. How could I promise him a practical benefit for his law practice from reading a novel set in the future about life among the stars? I don’t remember how I finally answered, but even in my exasperation, my heart went out to him a little. Is your life so stressed, I wanted to ask, that you can’t take a little time to let your imagination soar?

Nowadays, I think I might say something like this to him:

“I like to think that you would enjoy the story for what it is—a tale of people, with human concerns, trying the best they can to make their way in a universe that dwarfs them, a universe that’s full of strangeness and perils and wonders. Will my story apply to the cares in your own life? Probably not; or maybe it will, just a little. But you might find yourself wanting to read more stories like it. And they’re all different. Different characters, problems, a myriad of times and places. Some of them might challenge you to think. Some of them might make you mad, or sad. Some might make you want to slug the author. Or shake her hand. Or share a hug.

“After a while, you might find that you’re looking at the world a little differently. Thinking outside the box a little more.”

Science fiction, for me, is a way of thinking about the world—or, really, the universe. It’s a way to explore what it means to be human in a world of infinite possibilities. It’s a ticket to the best ride in the best amusement park you can dream up.

Here are just a few of the things science fiction encourages me to do: Imagine human cultures of the future, or of a different past or present. See alien worlds, through alien eyes, without having to wait to buy a ticket on an actual starship. Explore the nature of the human soul. Explore all kinds of questions about the nature of reality. Wrestle with questions about God.

This last exploration doesn't usually happen through depictions of religion. Although the spiritual dimensions of reality are a common sci-fi theme, more often than not descriptions of actual religions are included in stories for purposes of cultural world-building. Though interesting, it's not really the same thing. Sometimes you have to peer between the lines of the narrative to glimpse the world views underlying the stories.

When I read (and write) science fiction, I get to do just that. And it’s fun.

Does that sound pretentious? I dunno, maybe. But I do know that I feel a little better equipped to journey into the uncertain future we all face because I have a science fictional way of looking at things. I’ve read about the future, and now I’m living it. I feel that I’m more adaptable to change, partly because of all those worlds of the future that I’ve walked in. I feel ready and eager to ask the great questions—to quote a character from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—about Life, the Universe and Everything!

But mostly what I get out of it is the chance to gaze into the infinite time and space of the night sky, and feel that I have a place there.

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