Sensual SF

Science fiction is the literature of ideas; it’s a genre where the concept is king.

But that’s not all there is to SF.  It’s a major element – all my favourite SF books are rich in great concepts that challenge the imagination, and make the reader think.   But science fiction can also be sensual.  It can make your skin prickle.  It can make your pulse race.  It can make you feel.

One of the SF books which has always haunted me is Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus, which tells the story of a human being bio-engineered to live on Mars.  It’s a version of the Frankenstein story of course – the making of a monster.  But what chills me when I read it is not the concept, not the idea; it’s the being there.  We are Roger Torraway, the Man Plus; we feel as he feels, we see as he sees.

All fiction does this of course; but the joy of SF is that we get to see and feel some very weird things.

Imagine, for instance, being an alien.

Imagine being immortal.

Imagine being an explorer, in a region of space where no man (or woman) has boldly gone before.

Imagine being a cyborg, or a robot, or a colonist, or a space pirate, or a clone, or existing as an avatar or  a superhuman being….

The idea, the concept – that’s the core of it.  But the point of writing science fiction instead of science fact is that we can make the reader experience these strange new worlds.  And sometimes, make them feel with the aid of sensory organs which human beings don’t in fact possess.

I sometimes think that the way we SF writers stress the intellectual content of the genre does us all a disservice. Because the ideas we generate are all in the service of visceral, primal sensation.  We feel the cold wind of an alien planet on our cheeks; we suffocate in the hell-hole atmosphere of a gas giant.  We are lost in space, surrounded by marvels which scorch our retinas with their beauty…These are the moments that readers remember.  Moments when the writing stops being writing, and becomes as real as the ‘real world’ outside us.

Sensual is not the same as sexual – though scorching sex scenes in SF are certainly a way of making the reader feel and experience the action, rather than just idly observing.

And SF in the movies, of course, is predominantly about sensuality and sensation – usually a vicarious adrenalin rush experience as the hero is chased by robots/monsters/super-soldiers. George Lucas was the pioneer of this style of SF; he was a lover of fast cars, the guy who spent his days souping up his Fiat Bianchina in his garage.  And with Star Wars  he turned that love of speed into an action SF movie that set the bar for all action SF to come; the product of what Lucas calls the ‘visceral generation.’

Most SF movies since then rely upon and shamelessly exploit the kinetic thrill of running fast/driving fast/ being chased fast or flying fast to generate their adrenalin highs.    And isn’t the joy of The Matrix the fact we can, through a process of emotional identification with the protagonist, experience what it is like to fly and dodge bullets,  whilst looking cool in black?

Some SF movies are dumb – write your own list here – but it’s rare to see a modern blockbuster SF movie that isn’t sensually intoxicating.  And to be honest, for that reason I can watch even very bad SF movies – Babylon AD, there I said it! – and still enjoy myself.

But the opposite of dumb is not ‘cerebral’.  It’s possible for SF to be smart, and sensual.

The key is character.  If we believe in the characters in a story, we will feel what they feel.  We will see with their eyes, smell with their nostrils. and shudder at the touch of the evil alien who is touching them. 

This is why I think sensuality in fiction is all important, and a hallmark of the writer’s success in his or her craft.  Because it’s only when we really care, and really believe, that we are able to sensually experience all the extraordinary elements in the world of the story.

Just imagine…

And when you’ve imagined, feel…