| 1077 words

As an avid reader, it's hard to answer the common question that I often get. "What kind of books do you like to read?", or "what's your favorite genre?". I know some people who seem to have pretty clearcut favorite genres; people who almost exclusive read fantasy or sci-fi or "booktok" fiction. It's nice to know exactly what you like, and how to find what you're looking for.

I imagine that this must make things easier for them. There are incredibly long and dense epics written specifically for those who seriously love the genre and want to read as much of it as they possibly can. That's awesome for them, and I'm glad they have essentially as much content as they could wish for, but unfortunately it's not as simple for me.

I find that each genre, not just of books but of any media, kind of has a central guiding principle. Sometimes it's obvious - romance books stand or fall on the quality of their central romantic arc and the chemistry between their leads. Epic fantasy is about great journeys and standing for goodness when it's most difficult. Sci-fi, or science fiction, though, is one of the best. Sci-fi is where you go for big ideas.

It's kind of hard genre to wrap your head around, because what exactly is a big idea? It's the kind of thing that's hard to advertise and discuss without actually experiencing the sci-fi for yourself. It's partially why so many of the biggest science fiction authors, who built the genre, were often criticized for one dimensional characters or a lack of development or even sexism and racism.

That fact that many of them recieved such negative attention and yet still became extremely famous authors is a testament to how strong those ideas were. That they inspired generations of big thinkers and scientists regardless of how good the actual stories were, because the ideas were strong enough to stand on their own. That's also why some of the best sci-fi comes in the form of short stories, since that's all that's needed to get an idea across without muddling about with extras like characters or plot.

The reason why I'm writing about this now is because I have recently been lucky enough to enjoy some especially good sci-fi, and I've been thinking about it since. It's the kind of thing that's hard to find because you can't just filter by books with great ideas. Sometimes, you just have to be a little bit lucky, or know somebody else who is. A great sci-fi story changes your perspective on things. It makes you see the world and the future slightly differently.

The one I've been thinking about from a collection of short stories I recently read, Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. He has a really compelling way of not just presenting his fantastic ideas and technologies as objects of interest on their own, but in using them to get at fundamental ideas about character and human nature. Of course maybe there is room for criticism in plotting or pacing or character writing, but what does any of that matter in light of brilliant ideas.

Here's one idea that I'll loosely borrow from one of its stories, hopefully without ruining any of the impact. How much do you care about other versions of yourself? Let's say clones, to keep it simple. How would life change if you had a clone of yourself? What if they were temporary? What if your interests diverged over time? How and why might that happen, what would that look like?

The great part about sci-fi isn't just introducing weird technologies or new ideas. I mean, it is cool that lots of the technology we end up inventing is predicted by science fiction authors but that's not the important bit. It doesn't matter if the dilemma posed by this hypothetical never comes to pass, and I mean clones? It probably never will. However, following the scenario through to its logical conclusion will might just help you learn something new about yourself.

One thing I encountered in a different story was the idea that people could make temporary clones of themselves, but they would know that they were both temporary and a copy. The clones would sometimes be unwilling to do anything very difficult, because their lives were on a short timer and so they didn't care. Or, other times, they'd go above and beyond to help their original because they knew they had less to lose. Some people couldn't use clones at all because they're so selfish and uncooperative that even a temporary copy would defect and try to take the place of the original.

See how this basic thought experiment can, in a roundabout way, reveal a lot about character. That's how all my favorite sci-fi works. As for me, personally, I think I would do great with a clone. I have a pretty tremendous amount of patience if I'm doing something that I know is worth it, and I'm more than happy to sacrifice for others.

I don't even think I'd institute some kind of 50/50 scheme for having to do the hard stuff like work. As far as I can tell, I'd be happy to do the hard stuff full time and fund my counterpart so he can adventure and invent to his heart's content. Part of the reason I feel so comfortable is that I know for 100% certainly is that he would feel the same about me, because of course he is me. Cooperation with no strings attached or having to watch your back is a real superpower, and my clone and I would be able to accomplish amazing things together.

Anyway I could fantasize about scenarios all day, and that's entirely thanks to the high quality sci-fi I've enjoyed. I think the mark of a high quality piece of media, the criteria I use when giving something a 5/5, is if it sticks with me and I know I'll keep going back to it. With good sci-fi, that is almost always the case.