Today I want to talk about themes in science fiction.
Themes, thematic statements, morals, messages. For simplification, I’d say these are essentially the same thing and use the umbrella term theme.
Conventional literary theory states that a theme of a book or movie is what it’s about. It’s the message, the moral, the observation on the human condition that tells us where we might be headed in the future. For example (and this is not specific to science fiction) True love conquers all. That’s possibly the most popular literary theme of them all. Just ask the Happily Every After segment of the romance genre.
When I started writing in the early naughties, I picked up a load of ‘how to write a novel’ books. And they always made theme out to be a big deal.
“Have you found your theme?”
“If you story doesn’t have a theme, you haven’t finished writing it.”
And so on…
For many years, I used to believe this.
I don’t now.
Occasional literary scholar and victory gardener, JR Handley, has something to teach us on this. Themes, he tells us, are included in stories to give English teachers something to talk about.
I refer to this sage wisdom as Handley’s Theory. (By the way, JR Handley’s blog is always well worth reading, which you can do so here. Better still, subscribe to his newsletter on the site, which he updates more regularly.)
Themes are also a way for an author to signal their tribe in a hyper-partisan world. In Anglo-American publishing, some of society’s tribes and some ideas are lauded, others are suppressed. If you want a book deal, make sure your book’s theme matches the prejudices of your potential agent and publisher.
That is a popular theme that will resonate with some tribes and jar with others. Personally, I’d say that theme is so ubiquitous in mainstream science fiction that I’d be more interested in a novel with a theme that suggests the opposite:
As a political statement, I’m not sure I’d agree with either, but the latter could be an intriguing theme to read. Or to write.
It won’t happen in mainstream Anglo-American publishing industry, though. Attempting to get a book with such a theme published would be career suicide.
However, I’ve just contradicted Handley’s Theory. I’m sure he’s right in many cases, but not for all.
And I’ll disagree with my friend again. One of my all-time favorite books is The Forever War. It has several powerful themes and one of those is the alienation of combat veterans from the civilians back home. It was written in 1974 by Joe Haldeman shortly after his return to America from the Vietnam War. The alienation in his book feels personal, and I’m sure it was.
Haldeman heightens the reading experience by linking the alienation to the extreme relativistic effects of travelling at near lightspeed to the combat zones and back. It’s brilliant work and inspired me to write one of my earliest short stories: The Meandering Mayhem of Thogron Throatbiter (which is available here).
Themes can be a powerful factor in a great book, but the author doesn’t need to write any themes for it to be great. And where the author does write themes, the reader may not consider them to be of great importance.
For example, in researching this topic, I came across a suggested theme for The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:
I can see how that could be a part of the book, but I read that novel, and I didn’t get a sense of that. For me it was about the protagonist coming across a girl in Paris and spending the entire book running away from bad guys. That was what made it a page turner for me.
Or The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. A suggested theme is that it’s about the way authoritarian regimes use spectacle to control populations. Again, I can see that fits, but for me it was about the hero playing a rigged game and winning anyway (Which felt personal; I’ve experienced a few RPG campaigns like that 😉). The only book in the series I picked up was the second one. I read the first third and it seemed to be entirely about a teenage girl who moons over two boys, not wanting to have to choose which one she liked most. That was the point I gave up and decided it wasn’t a book for me.
The Taylor Model: bones and blood
When I think of what makes a good story, I’ve developed an anatomical model.
The heart is the characters.
The lungs, muscles, and sinews are the plot, the action events drive the story forward. The skeleton? That would be the architecture.
The prose, the styling and the setting— for me that’s the vascular system, supplying blood and nutrients for the muscles to work on removing waste products before they get in the way of the story.
Okay, I’m not gonna go over every single body part – this is only simple analogy, after all – but the major organ I’ve left out so far is the brain. This is where the reader comes in.
One of the freaky things about being an author is that even though I am the one that writes the story, I’m not the one who creates it into existence. That would be the reader. My books have been read hundreds of thousands of times, and every single time was unique. The reading experience is a combination of the words I craft with the mind of one unique individual, of who they are and where they were at that moment in time. It’s an idea that awes me sometimes.
Actually, as I write this, I realize I’ve left off another major organ too important to ignore. Skin. I don’t know about you, but I think people are more attractive with skin on their bones rather than flayed. So let’s say a book’s skin is the cover art, the author name recognition, the product description, endorsements, the cover blurb, and everything else that makes you inclined to try the book before you actually start to read it.
Where does that leave theme?
Theme is connective tissue. It’s the glue that quietly binds the various parts of your body together so that your organs don’t sink down into your boots.
At least, with a light touch that is. It’s like the bass line of a song. It might not be at the front of the mix — people might not even notice it — but if you suddenly cut it out, you would certainly notice its absence. It connects the various parts of the story. A unifying force that means the story is more than a sequence of random scenes.
Doesn’t have to be something obvious or even notable for the reader to get the benefit of its effect.
In the same vein, you don’t need theme at all to achieve that connective tissue effect.
I think some beginning writers benefit from the ability of a theme to tie their stories together and give them purpose. With more experience, many authors find that they can lay down this connective tissue instinctively without needing the prop of a theme.
I used themes in my earlier novels. The first five, I would say. Then I moved on.
I’m about to finish my twenty-second. Although I haven’t written strongly themed books for a few years, I would like to do so. It just hasn’t been the right time to write those works.
So there you have it. Writers can use themes or not. And if they don’t care to, that doesn’t mean they won’t come back in a few years and enjoy using them to great effect. Some readers love a good theme; most don’t care.
And if anyone tells you a good book must have a theme, nod and smile politely, then walk briskly away because they’re talking nonsense.
Or they’re an English teacher. In which case they really can’t help themselves.
Themes in Tim C. Taylor fiction
On occasion I use themes myself in my writing. The most central one was the theme I had right from the very start for the Human Legion series. If you read the Legion Bulletin, you already know that I wanted to write a series in which plucky humans overthrew the evil alien empire that had remained strong for hundreds of thousands of years. But I didn’t want them to win due to a series of lucky coincidences, nor to rely on the successful alien empire being incompetent at every turn. Or for the empire to have a farfetched weakness. Such as ginger being a powerfully addictive drug, to give a not-at-all random example.
How could I make it believable? That was my connecting theme.
I took my inspiration from the real-life Czech Legion. They didn’t overthrow an empire. They didn’t want to – they wanted to go home and establish an independent homeland – but they did hint at how it could be done in real life. And that, of course, is why I named the series the Human Legion.
There were other themes too, though less obvious.
Right from the start, I always wanted an interstellar civilization that worked without faster-than-light travel.
How did economics work?
How do you feed people from incompatible ecologies?
And given this was military SF, how do you supply your frontline soldiers when your nearest supply base is 90 years away?
I spent weeks happily working out the details. It was a lot of work. To this day, I’m not sure whether a single reader appreciated any of it, but it did make me think hard about my worldbuilding.
With Chimera Company, you just have to flick the switch on the flight console and you’re in jump space. So much easier. And possibly more fun.
How to use theme well
It’s a shame we live in an intolerant literary age of cancel culture, hyper-partisan hatred, and a mainstream publishing industry openly hostile to mainstream ideas. Shame for me as a reader and as a writer. I’d prefer to see a wider range of themes explored.
I particularly like the idea Philip K Dick pulled off a few times in which he simultaneously threads contradictory themes through his books. When that works, it’s mind blowing.
In my own island nation, a popular literary theme at the moment is one of Brexit. Unfortunately, because the publishing industry is so overwhelmingly against the idea, we get science fictional metaphors for sorry little reactionary islands who talk themselves into a drab, pariah existence on the periphery of the world.
Yes, it’s Britain after Brexit as science fiction.
Personally, I’d be more interested in writing or reading a pair of Brexit novellas with contradictory themes. No, a triptych. Better still, a quartet. Bound in one volume with a cool cover featuring a background Union Jack divided into quarters. With demons jabbing pointy sticks and a Scottish trawler. A wicker man would be good too.
One of these novellas would depict a science fictional metaphorical Brexit to be the success its supporters hoped. Another in which it was a dismal failure, as all the mainstream publishing industry insists it will be. Then we could have one more in which, despite all the fuss, Brexit fundamentally changes nothing of importance. Finally, let’s add one in which Brexit changed everything, but in ways that absolutely no one foresaw.
That would be a great use of theme to do something interesting. I wouldn’t mind writing one of those novellas. Or all of them. In my teenage years, I could imagine such a book being published by the mainstream press, but I don’t think such a thing will be possible again in my lifetime.
If you’re from another country, swap out Brexit for one of your own blistering hot divisive topics. I hear there’s plenty to choose from in America right now.
For me going forward, I’d like to write some more heavily themed books. Controversial ones. I’d first need to reach a state where the backlist is selling so well that I don’t have to keep on the treadmill writing the next book to keep the bills paid.
I wouldn’t write about Brexit. I’m too fed up with that. Writing a story with a theme that I don’t personally believe in has always intrigued me. It’s a challenge. Both to my ability as a writer and to my empathy and willingness to listen to the Other.
I want to explore some dangerous ideas. I’d do it under a pen name, of course. Yes, a few more bestsellers, and I’ll do just that.
Over to Jim Butcher
I’ll leave this talk of theme with a quote from the author of my favorite book series so far this century, Jim Butcher on The Dresden Files.
He did an AMA on Reddit a few years ago and said the following on our topic:
Well said, Mr. Butcher, who not only sells books by the gazillion but clearly worships at the Handley School of literary philosophy. As we learned earlier, Handley’s Theory teaches us that whether authors deliberately write themes into books or not, English teachers, critics, and academics will always find them anyway.
And that is what I think about theme.