It’s ironic that I write science fiction books as an adult considering I didn’t even read science fiction books as a child. Actually, I didn’t read any books at all, other than those assigned in school—which, aside from Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, were never science fiction. I loved sci-fi movies as a child and was captivated by space exploration and future technology, but I struggled with books about those same topics. It wasn’t until later in life, post-college, that I really started to enjoy reading (books in general and science fiction in particular).
I wish I had started reading books for pleasure as a child because now I have so much to catch up on (and not enough time). I wondered why I never got into science fiction books earlier since I’d always been fascinated by the genre. Part of the reason was my general distaste for reading. I always loved imaginative stories, but as a child I preferred getting that through television and playing with toys. I eventually outgrew my aversion to reading, but I think there’s something particular about science fiction that makes film a better foray into the genre than books—for children at least.
Science fiction, especially the futuristic kind of science fiction I love, includes all kinds of new worlds and technologies that have never been seen before—that don’t exist in our world (yet). It requires extra work for both the writer and reader to describe and envision what those places and things look like. It helps if you are knowledgeable about science and technology, which is one of the difficulties in reading science fiction as a child.
On the other hand, a film (through special effects) can show you exactly what those future worlds and technologies look like. For instance, a book may describe an artificial gravity spaceship and how it works, but no matter how well the description is written, the reader may not be able to visualize it correctly. But then, Stanley Kubrick builds it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and everyone can instantly see what it looks like. Then the viewer can use that knowledge gained from the film to help them visualize similar technology in science fiction books they may read later. In essence, science fiction movies can help you better understand science fiction books.
I think that’s why I loved science fiction movies as a child but didn’t enjoy science fiction books until I was an adult. I loved seeing mind-blowing futuristic technology and otherworldly places on film, but when books tried to do the same thing, it seemed bogged down in boring description that I struggled to comprehend. To describe a new science fictional concept, setting, or technology requires a lot of description, which will then detract from the story and characters. But without the description, you can’t understand the technology or setting. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 and a tough balance to maintain.
Today, as a more mature reader, I enjoy science fiction books, probably even more so than movies. At this point, I’ve seen pretty much every science fiction movie worth seeing (and many not worth seeing), plus many science and futurist documentaries. I’ve seen so many special effects that I’m rarely blown away by visuals anymore. I’m much more interested in the ideas. Now that I’m better versed in science, I’m able to understand and visualize the concepts and ideas behind future technology. I’m less interested in seeing new worlds and aliens and gadgets because I’ve seen it all before. What I want is something new: mind-blowing ideas based on the latest cutting edge science.
Science fiction books set in the future actually age better than movies. The future depicted in movies quickly becomes retro future, as things like buttons on dashboards, tapes, and graphics become obsolete by technological innovations. Certain “futuristic” technology such as the computers in a movie like Blade Runner becomes laughably archaic in the actual future (while we’re still waiting for flying cars). But in books—or good books—the writer can mention technology and what it does in vague enough detail to adapt to future inventions—or at least the author should be vague and sparse on details. Don’t get into specifics on the tech because the specifics will date it.
The good and bad thing about science fiction is it gets dated as science progresses, but because science is always progressing, there’s always new material to tell fresh original stories. The freshest of stories, based on the latest science, are usually found in the form of books. Film can’t keep up because of the time and money it takes to make a movie, especially futuristic science fiction movies that require higher budgets to produce the special effects. Creating new worlds and technology on screen costs a lot of money, but on the page it’s just words. When studios are investing so much money in a film, they want the largest audience possible, including children, to ensure a return on their investment, so they tend to dumb-down and simplify the science. In books, however, authors can get much more technical and sophisticated, catering toward niche audiences.
Which brings me back to my original point. The science fiction books that describe cutting-edge science concepts will be confusing for children and laypeople not educated on the latest science news and trends, but for those in the know, it will be more fulfilling. The ultimate balance to strike in science fiction is between entertainment and education: include cutting-edge accurate science so people can learn without getting too bogged-down in technical details that make it boring. That’s easier said than done, but the true masters of science fiction pull it off.