I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the kinds of stories I love the most, and why.
When it comes to novels, movies, television and even games, I gravitate almost exclusively towards science fiction. There are a couple of reasons I love the genre. I love it first because it is familiar. Because I was raised in a house where science fiction was enjoyed and encouraged. Our bookshelves were filled with titles from Asimov, Zelazny, Ellison, and others, alongside anthologies of Marvel and DC comics. We watched Star Trek and Buck Rogers and the X-Files and the Twilight Zone and Farscape. I went to every Star Wars original trilogy movie in the theater, even though the first time I was still in the womb. (I’ve been to every other one since in the theater, too, and have initiated my children in the ritual.) One of the first movies I remember being totally engrossed in was Disney’s The Black Hole, which is still, in my opinion, an absolute masterpiece of the genre.
I didn’t read all of my dad’s books. A lot of them were weird 60s SciFi, and I wasn’t into that. (Philip K. Dick has been effectively sanitized and re-imagined for modern audiences, but he could be really freaking strange.) But even if I wanted something different, I’d go to the library and raid their SciFi shelves, taking home whatever I could find. I grew up with a head full of spaceships and robots and aliens and the promise of a thousand possible futures. I played video games like Star Control (the second installment of which is arguably the best game ever made) and The Omnicron Conspiracy and StarCraft and DOOM and Privateer and Freelancer (and later Mass Effect and Fallout and anything that let me explore the vast reaches of space and its many mysteries, peoples, and treasures.)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered, what if…
And really, I think that the larger reason why science fiction has endured for me as a lifelong passion is that it embodies the one thing that makes stories utterly compelling: the thrill, and often the fear, of the unknown. Not knowing what’s out there, how dangerous it is, how inevitable it is, is an utterly terrifying concept that is uniquely exciting.
It’s like standing outside in a particularly powerful storm and wondering just how much destructive power it will bring to bear.
It’s difficult to avoid certain tropes. The vastly superior alien race hell-bent on annihilation. The ancient threat returning from the depths of the galaxy, and the inevitable uplifting of mankind in a big hurry by a guardian, alien race, forced to reveal themselves. The mystery of a lost precursor race who left fascinating and dangerous technology behind before they mysteriously disappeared millions of years ago. (This last genre has been masterfully revisited in The Expanse series, by James S.A. Corey. One of my favorites.)
And so it’s very compelling when the genre is handled in a new and compelling way. In addition to The Expanse, Writer Jeremy Robinson has done some great work turning convention on its head in some of his recent novels. I’m thinking here particularly of The Others and especially Infinite. Dennis E. Taylor’s work on the “Bobiverse” series has opened a whole new way of looking at science fiction for me, and it’s both a comfortable world and a fascinating one. And then there’s Peter Clines, whose first two books in the Threshold series — 14 and The Fold — combined Lovecraftian horror and interdimensional weirdness in a way that was so much fun it’s almost criminal.
Television shows that have done this well recently include the now wildly popular Stranger Things, but also the less-known (but arguably better-written) Dark. I can’t think of any recent movies that have managed to capture the magic, but I’d point to films like Europa Report and Moon as decent-enough examples. The Cloverfield Paradox is in the ballpark, too, but I keep falling asleep before I finish watching it, so take that for what it is. (Maybe I’m just really tired.)
For their part, video games get a bad rap, and often for a good reason. But occasionally, when they’re story-driven and made with love, they are absolutely works of art, and can present an experience that is at times more immersive than any other format. It’d be a stretch to say I still consider myself much of a gamer, though I do make time on some evenings when I’m tired of writing or wrangling technical systems and everyone else has gone to sleep, usually to play something short, competitive, and mindless like Rocket League. But I recently discovered an incredibly impressive game. One I can’t get out of my mind. It’s the genre-defying Subnautica, which I would place, after Star Control: II, as the second-best game of all time, and one of the most compelling SciFi experiences I’ve had.
It’s absolutely engrossing in ways I never expected. I put off getting it because every time I ran across it, despite the “overwhelmingly positive” reviews, I thought it was just some kind of dumb diving simulator. I had no idea what it was really about. When I finally picked it up on sale for cheap enough I was willing to give it a chance, I was surprised to find myself instantly hooked.
The story begins in the middle of a serious crisis moment for the protagonist, and not much explanation is given. Your character, who remains nameless throughout, is on a ship that is, for some unexplained reason, crashing on an alien world (4645B), and you’re forced to escape in a damaged life pod to an alien world almost entirely covered by oceans.
It’s your job to survive, and to find a way off the planet, but as you soon discover, you aren’t the first sentient being to have set up shop on 4645B. That said, the last group of aliens who were there appear to have bugged out, and had no intention of letting anything else off the planet alive.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you. The world is beautiful and at times breathtaking, the creatures can only be described the same way, but what really makes the game is that sense of wonder you have as you have the freedom to explore a dark, dangerous, unforgiving environment at your own pace, without a linear plot, to unravel a mystery you can scarcely comprehend to solve a problem you’re not sure you even understand.
The ocean here on Earth is a scary enough place. Now imagine an ocean filled with monsters and ancient secrets in its murky depths that you barely have enough technology to survive.
It’s absolutely riveting. And the approach the designers took the gameplay — a no-combat, survival-based, thrill-of-the-unknown game — really worked. I found this mini-documentary about their work fascinating, because it looks at the pyschological motivations of why people find these experiences interesting – or not:
In my opinion, this approach worked so incredibly well, it has me excited, again, about figuring out how to tell stories in a way that is guaranteed to keep people up at night reading past bedtime. Because I want to have that experience, and offer it to others. What lurks in the darkness? What secrets are in store, waiting to be unlocked? What dangers are even now, making their way here?
Those kinds of questions, properly provoked in the heart of an audience, will keep them coming back for more.
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