What constitutes ‘good sci-fi’?

In a brief exchange on social media recently, I made a comment that the Expanse series is good fun but not good sci-fi. That prompted the not unreasonable question: what constitutes good sci-fi?

It’s not an easy question to answer. At least, not for me as, although I read a good deal of science fiction and make a thing of collecting UK first editions, I can make no claim of skill as a literary critic.

It was Tessel Bogaard who first put me on to the Expanse series of novels, written by two authors who, collectively, brand themselves as James S A Corey. The series has space ships, alien artifacts that have been waiting for aeons and reactivate to create threat and opportunity for humanity. Wormhole gateways, an evil empire, a plucky crew led by a Captain Kirk figure and all the rest of it. So why do I consider it fun but not good sci-fi? Precisely because it is a collection of old ideas put together in a sequence with few surprises. Sure, it’s done well – again – it’s fun to read – but it’s very formulaic. Just what’s needed for a TV series.

In contrast the other day, I began to read another novel that has similar ingredients. Space ships, a multi-world human society and an alien artifact that has been waiting for aeons and that reactivates on discovery… The writing style was pedestrian. By page 2 the heroine was recounting how she and her man had met and how hard it was going to be to be apart on their next long assignment. I can’t recall how but she’s also discovered a new element. Not a new mineral, a new compound, or a new species, a new element. So, this writer clearly doesn’t know his science. And sci-fi readers generally do. By page 100 I really couldn’t wade through any more loss of her new fiancé, them both agreeing to give up their peripatetic careers to settle down together, the military take over - and the alien phage.

I admit, that writer had the disadvantage that I’d just finished the excellent Goldilocks by Laura Lam so anything else was likely going to be second best. Set in a full-blown climate catastrophe somewhere between Trump’s America and Atwood’s Gilead, women are excluded from any kind of advancement. Against that background, an all-female crew steal Earth’s only spaceship – steal a spaceship – and we learn about who they are, how they got there, the motives and the schemes of the woman who is their leader. The science is generally correct, scientific liberties are plausible, the characters have depth, the writing is excellent, the plot works well – and women don’t have to put up with any more crap from men. Laura Lam’s collaboration with Elizabeth May, Seven Devils, is terrific too – I’m very much looking forward to the second half of that one.

For literary mastery of the genre, I’d turn to the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson whose Mars Trilogy is surely the best Mars colonisation story yet written. Politics, science, human nature, terraforming, space elevators, and a depth to the series that makes it entirely plausible. And if you like the idea of “let’s change one thing and see what happens”, turn to Adam Roberts. For example, in By Light Alone, let’s see what happens if we give everyone photosynthetic hair. All they’d need is sunlight and water, right? Or maybe we punish criminals by replacing their heads with a computer? Or we give animals the ability to talk? Or we create a world where no one ever needs to go out because everything happens online in virtual reality while the physical world is monitored by blanket surveillance. That could never happen, right? Even more prescient for our times, perhaps, is Eve Smith’s The Waiting Rooms. In order to preserve the efficacy of the remaining few that work at all, antibiotics are not given to anyone over 70 years old. What would be the effect of that? Who wants to live to 99? Someone who's 98.

So, for me, pre-requisites for good sci-fi are scientific plausibility, depth of character, backgrounds and plot. I’m happy to forgive a cliché or two (although Laura Lam and Elizabeth May’s tractor beam in Seven Devils pushed that to the limit), after all – original stories are very rare. Which is why Claire North is so astounding.