Science fiction is a world worked in and lived in by necessity, not by choice. If we as readers are seeking a world so dark and revealing when we could be visiting Rivendell instead, we’re seeking it because we need it. Why? The answer depends on the person. Some of us are in a perpetual state of near-frantic scientific curiosity that demands more satisfaction than our own research can give us. Some of us are struggling with mental illness, and the world of science fiction is a reassuring reminder that every world has its horrors. Some of us need to hear that we are not the only ones who would turn tail and run in the face of almost-certain death and unimaginable horrors. No matter why we seek it, there are always certain passages that speak the thoughts we can’t put into words, and in so doing give us a peace we can hardly explain. Here are a few; they’re just a sample of the many inspiring words from speculative authors, scientists, and visionaries.
"Any planet is 'Earth' to those that live on it." (Isaac Asimov, Pebble in the Sky)
I first read Pebble in the Sky when I was eleven years old and had wandered upstairs to the grownup section of my library (having completely exhausted the children’s section). Was it a little too old for me? Probably (I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of weird sex thing that happens in that book, though the details escape me.) But it was the first real science fiction book that I had ever read, and it completely changed my world. I had been a huge Star Wars fan forever, but finding Asimov made me realize that there was a whole galaxy of incredible science fiction out there, and that I had barely begun to scratch the surface. This quote really brings our finite understanding of the universe to the forefront. I think it’s what inspires so many works of science fiction - it’s the exotic other, the fascination with wondering what we look like from another’s perspective. While we may not always love what we see, knowing our own faults helps us to changed them while we still have a little time left.
"We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in awhile. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?" (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
This. All of this. It’s what keeps me reading the news as fast as I can even when I want to turn my head. It’s why I keep looking at the pictures of the Syrian children running from the bombs in Aleppo. Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most beautiful, tragic, life-filled works of science fiction because it’s constantly relevant. There is always someone, somewhere, who needs to read it and hear its message and internalize the danger of not caring about our collective art. In fact, every time that I hear about a great work of literature being banned in a public school, protested by an angry, shouting mob of enraged parents, I wonder at the luck I had to be raised in a home where every wall was lined with bookshelves and the truth wasn’t locked up on a shelf, never to be spoken of at dinnertime. While constant outrage is hardly healthy, Ray Bradbury is absolutely right in thinking that disturbance and disruption of our mundane thoughts are essential.
“Science fiction is something that could happen - but usually you wouldn't want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn't happen - though often you only wish that it could." (Arthur C. Clarke)
When I read this, I can just hear Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in my head, saying “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened!” Not all fantasy worlds are a place we would like to visit, and goodness knows I spent most of my childhood wishing I were an X-wing pilot in the Rebel Alliance. But I think there’s a lot of truth to what Arthur C. Clarke is getting at here. There are worlds that we create because we want to escape to them, to imagine ourselves a knight or a lady, an elf or a mistress of dragons. The circumstances may be dire, but they tend to reveal our elevated selves, not the basest and vilest aspects of our nature. The worlds of science fiction tend to show our Hyde, not our Jekyll; they place human beings alone, or among enemies, struggling to find their place in a world of artificial intelligence, struggling for survival very far away from home. It’s wise, perhaps, to have both: one world in which we can feel soothed, another in which we can explore the terrible creatures that are knit, without exception, into our very souls.
"It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane." (Philip K. Dick, VALIS)
Philip K. Dick frequently explored themes of sanity and insanity in his science fiction novels, and VALIS is no exception. Of course, this is a frequent theme in science fiction, prompting the reader to ask herself the question, “Am I insane, or am I the only one who is sane?” In a world where individuals who have mental health problems are still stigmatized and silenced, these kinds of messages are essential. The possibilities explored in a science fiction novel of other realities that not everyone can see may be strangely comforting to a person in poor mental health; no matter how horrid or startling an imagined world may be, it can pale in comparison to the hopeless thoughts that plague someone with depression, the panic of a person with anxiety, or the disturbing voices and visions experienced by an individual with schizophrenia. Seeing that we do not alone have a terrible world that blossoms frightfully quickly inside our minds is reassuring. Is there anything worse than being truly alone? We never have to be when we're immersed in science fiction, together with the others of our kind, frightened but fighting, and failing, when we do, with a certain unmistakable grace.