I know that everyone has their own views on what makes a good SF story and what doesn’t, and I’ve obviously got a few opinions of my own. As with most things, it’s obviously all a matter of personal preference. Indulging my own completely subjective views, here’s what I look for (or don’t) in an SF story, starting off on a very basic level, then moving onto specifics:
What do I look for in a good SF story? Well, I have a few basic requirements of any story, SF or not. First and foremost, and I’m speaking in the most general sense here, I want to be entertained (don’t we all?). It sounds so obvious, but is the Number One requirement (for me, anyway) when reading any novel or short story. I’m reading fiction, not studying for a science degree, so, first and foremost, I want a solid, entertaining STORY. I want a good ripping yarn, a real page turner, not a darned college paper. If I really want to read something like that, to be intellectually challenged, I’ll go dig up a science textbook or a good article or three in Scientific American or Astronomy magazine. For me, reading fiction is primarily for fun and relaxation.
That said, an intelligent story is a big plus, something with a few twists and turns, and a surprise ending. Or, at least, something that isn’t totally predictable or telegraphed. I can tolerate a few plot and logic inconsistencies (but not too many) for the sake of an entertaining story, but not something that insults my intelligence. On the flip side, sure, the story may be intelligent and “educate” as much as it wants, just as long as it tells a rivetting story, manages to keep me glued to the page and doesn’t lecture me.
I really, REALLY don’t like to be lectured when I’m reading fiction, or beaten around the head with the author’s religious or political obsessions. These things should be part of the fascinating background of the story, fleshing it out and making the “world” more realistic and entertaining. But they should never be in your face, the core of the story, constantly preaching at you, otherwise it’s no longer a story, but rather a political or religious pamphlet. If I come across this kind of thing, it gets binned very quickly after the first chapter. If I even make it that far – I usually give it the first chapter, but if it’s really dire…
I also prefer a decent “traditional” story, with a good plot, a beginning, a middle and an end. I’ve never been a fan of the more extreme styles of literary experimentation, such as those common during the New Wave period. Most of that stuff was unrecognizable to me as SF, or even as proper storytelling. I think those guys were taking way too many drugs! And I absolutely cannot abide authors trying to show how clever they are with the written word at the expense of good, clear storytelling.
From an SF perspective, I need a story that has plenty of that good old classic sensawunda. This is probably the most vital ingredient in any SF story, as far as I’m concerned. Even modern Hard SF (one of my favourite sub-genres of SF) has to have a strong element of sensawunda to keep me interested, or it simply becomes a dry science thesis. For me, sensawunda is an absolutely essential part of any SF story. If a story doesn’t have it, I’m just not interested.
I’m not referring to “escapism” here, that’s a completely different thing altogether (and I enjoy a bit of that as well). I’m talking about that inherent, great WOW! factor that no other literary genre but SF has. A story can be an ultra-realistic Hard SF story, and still have that WOW! factor, that sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF. If you’re an SF fan, you know what I mean. If you’re not (and if you’re not, why are you reading this?), then this is all completely unintelligible to you.
On a more specific level, when it comes to SF, I’m strictly “old guard”. I’m one of those readers who grew up in the era when SF was the kind of thing that was published in Analog, Asimov’s and Fantasy & Science Fiction, and not polluted by any of the modern mutated aberrations posing as SF. I became a hardcore fan reading anthologies edited by the likes of Groff Conklin, Healy & McComas, Terry Carr, August Derleth and Isaac Asimov. As far as I’m concerned, the “S” in SF means SCIENCE Fiction, and ONLY Science Fiction, not bloody SPECULATIVE or any of the other more recent labels that certain publishers and literary wannabe elements within SF have been attempting to foist upon us.
As a big fan of short fiction, I do make a point of reading the various YEAR’S BEST SF anthologies. But with the exception of New Space Opera (which I absolutely love) and some modern incarnations of Hard SF and Classic Space Opera, I read very little at all in the line of modern SF novels. If you exclude a handful of my favourite modern authors (Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Greg Bear, Linda Nagata, Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton and a few others), I’m pretty much strictly old school when it comes to SF novels. I can’t even recognize many of the more modern offshoot variants such as mystical realism, urban fantasy or slipstream as being any form of SF that I’m familiar with. I don’t like them and I don’t read them.
As someone fascinated by the ideas and concepts in science, I prefer plot-driven SF, of the old classic “nuts ‘n’ bolts” variety, although it’s a big bonus if there are also decent characters in the story. I do NOT like one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs in place of real characters. I prefer realistic characters that I can empathize with, be they the “good guys” who I can root for, or “bad guys” that I can boo and hiss at, or (even better) more complex characters of every shade of grey in between the black and white ends of the spectrum. But no matter how interesting and complex the characters are, they should NEVER displace the main SF themes as the primary focus of the story, as far as I’m concerned.
When the story becomes primarily about the characters, squeezing out the SF elements from centre stage, it becomes soap opera, not SF. I strongly believe that real SF is supposed to be “Big Picture” fiction, dealing with huge issues relating to humanity, life, the universe and everything. It’s that “sense of unlimited imagination and infinite boundaries unique to SF” that I was referring to earlier.
That’s why I’m not fond of a lot of the fiction at the extreme soft end of the traditional SF spectrum. Many of these “Soft SF” stories actually contain very little (if any) SF or science at all. There is absolutely nothing in them that can remotely be described as science fiction. They are basically mainstream literary fiction posing as SF. The author chucks in a few casual SF terms like “nanotechnology” or “genetic engineering”, or maybe a hint that the story is set sometime in the future. But aside from this, They focus almost totally on the emotions and interactions of a few characters, and contain very little real science or anything else that makes up what I consider to be important elements of an SF story.
This inward-looking, “Small Picture” fiction deals with the internalized personal conflicts of individuals, and other issues that are very small in the overall scheme of things, a strong characteristic of mainstream literary fiction, but not science fiction. It is the absolute opposite of what true, “Big Picture” SF is all about. I refer to this kind of fiction rather derogatorily as “touchy-feely” SF. Lots of people out there might enjoy that kind of thing (and good for them – whatever floats yer boat), but I don’t like it. I don’t even consider this kind of fiction to be real SF at all.
Maybe I’m narrow-minded, or just a nostalgic old fogie, but give me my alien invasions, space adventures and time travel stories any day. I want my old school classic SF, and all the traditional elements, clichés and the oodles of sensawunda that come with it. Call me a dinosaur, a Luddite or whatever, I don’t give a damn. But I know what I like in my SF, and anyone who doesn’t like it – then TOUGH!
These happen to be my own opinions, and I’m sticking to them!