Science fiction has always held an ambiguous position in “literature”. Some hold the view that science fiction is simply an adolescent form of escape, a temporary respite from the real work of becoming an adult, that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12.

I think this attitude is what lies behind a comment I elicited from one of my college professors, back when I was young and – I admit – afraid of growing up. In a course on the 20th century American novel, where we’d read a dozen books about angst, alienation, coming of age, love, and violence, I asked why we had not read a science fiction novel. I remember the answer clearly, because the words hurt: “Science fiction is not a true literature, because it does not explore what it means to be human.”

Kurt Vonnegut said erotic literature and science fiction had a lot in common: they are both fantasies. In one, beautiful people want to have sex with you. In the other, super-intelligent aliens want to have a conversation. Both are a kind of imagined intimacy with the Other, and it’s true that some adolescent boys find the idea of interstellar war less terrifying than talking to a woman. Vonnegut went on to say that he didn’t mind his writing being put in the science fiction file drawer, but what bothered him most was that some critics, like my professor apparently, confused that file drawer with a urinal.

I didn’t know how to respond at the time, though I know now that the opinion is not shared by many literature professors, some of whom I count among my closest friends.

Those who love good storytelling can enjoy a well crafted space opera or time travel yarn as much as anything else, and some even teach courses and write critical articles and books on them.

Science fiction is now a recognised subfield of literary and cultural studies.

Yet, back in the day, science fiction was still viewed as pulp trash by scholars. I’d asked a question and gotten dissed in front of the class. This was a professor after all, who spoke with the voice of authority. And something I loved dearly had just been scorned as something unworthy of attention by serious people.

I nodded to my professor, as if I understood the point they were making, while in fact my mind was stunned into silence. The rest of the class waited patiently to return to discussing the role of ennui in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a book I had, in fact, enjoyed, like all the other books we’d read in that class. But now I know how to respond to my professor, even though it’s forty years too late: “Science fiction – at its best – is almost entirely about what it means to be human.”

Science fiction had helped to awaken my imagination at a critical time in life, and it was something I had discovered just in time. Growing up during the Vietnam War, as I aged out of adolescence as a working class kid in Baltimore, it looked like I was headed for the meat grinder. In the end, I missed it by a few very anxious years, but the thought that one is destined for carnage can narrow your vision, and make the world seem like a place built upon a foundation of bones and ashes.

But along with the Apollo visits to the Moon, which kindled my interest in science and astronomy, novels like Dune and The Dispossessed enlivened me to the notion that the universe is a very, very large place, and the distant stars were places we might one day visit.

That we might not only build new civilisations, but new centres of human meaning. Such ideas enlarged my sense of the scope of human potential. This was a healing balm, the idea that the current veil of tears shall one day pass, but the story will carry on.

Where fantasy tries to rekindle our sense that the world just might contain magic, science fiction more often directly interrogates how our penchant for invention might be the undoing of the species because, as our machines gain in power and subtlety, our designs reveal more fully who we are, and what we truly desire.

Even popular forms of science fiction, like the Star Trek franchise, explore the question of what it means to be human. For years, the television show was a target of snarky criticism by the sci-fi genre gatekeepers of the written form, who felt that the TV show wasn’t really, not really truly, in the purest sense, science fiction.

Instead it was a weekly instalment of Gene Roddenberry’s cycle of morality plays: There was the episode with the first bi-racial kiss during the decade of Civil Rights. There was the episode about Mutually Assured Destruction, when ICBMs and MAD were still new enough that we couldn’t ignore them. There was the episode where Captain Kirk split in two, and Good Kirk proved unable to take tough decisions because he was so fretful of the unintended harm that might ensue, while Evil Kirk was ruthless and entirely self-serving. And so on and so forth.

Looking much further back, there are dozens of science fiction stories that have stood the test of time, and some have entered into our collective poetics for modern life: HG Wells’ War of the Worlds, written in the waning years of the 19th century and the height of the Age of Empire, is really a novel about what it is like to be colonised, of being “in the way” of someone else’s plans for the world.

The Time Machine, Wells’ other masterpiece, is an imaginary vehicle for exploring the end state of a society that has separated into a worker class and a leisure class, a society where – in a fantastic literary move – Wells turns the social hierarchy on its head and, instead of the Edwardian rich metaphorically feeding on the poor, in The Time Machine the worker Morlocks literally feed on the effete Eloi.

And then there is the ur-story Frankenstein, which launched an entire genre. We have always rejected our creations as monsters. When the creation itself has the potential for agency, the terror flows from the possibility it might turn round and reject us.

Going back even further, Johannes Kepler, astrologer, astronomer, and mathematician, is sometimes credited with writing the first science fiction novel, Die Somnium (The Dream). Kepler led a tragic life in many ways, and Die Somnium was a project he returned to at various periods, working on it for over 40 years. It was published only after his death, and only then as a way for his family to raise money and thereby avoid poverty.

The book concerns an imaginary voyage to the Moon, and it afforded him a chance to explore in his mind’s eye how the Earth might appear to someone looking down from above the tumult of war, disease, grief, and death that life on Earth had seemed to Kepler.

Was Kepler too embarrassed to publish his fantasy while still alive? Or did he take comfort in the time he spent while writing it? Perhaps both.

Science fiction therefore, at its best, if the ideas it contains are engaged with an open mind and heart, is not a diversion away from things of importance to serious people, but a diversion toward those very things using the vehicle of storytelling. It serves as a kind of fodder for rumination, to stimulate the mind, and to kick us out of the everyday, habitual, ways of thinking that we all fall into. It is not unlike fantasy or other fantastic literature in that respect. But it is certainly true that this effort to provoke the reader can take over the narrative, and make it hard for other aspects of the work to shine through, those aspects usually used to assess the quality of a piece of literature, like subtle characterisations or well-drawn settings.

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has written about this problem, though he comes at it from the opposite direction. In The Great Derangement, he asks how it could be the case that one of the most serious problems that our civilisation faces – accelerating climate change – is almost entirely absent from “serious” literature. This is not a criticism of the literary community on Ghosh’s part, nor a charge that they aren’t paying attention. Instead Derangement is a long rumination upon why it’s so hard to pull off. He admits that he’s tried himself to bring climate anomalies into his literary novels, and found it doesn’t “work”. It doesn’t feel believable, this intrusion of the uncanny into an otherwise traditional form of narrative.

The proximity of catastrophe can narrow the mind in a time when we need new ideas, new stories that help us see a way through. But the uncanny nature of climate change, if it plays a role in driving the plot or character motivations, easily overtakes the usual forms of narrative, and can swamp the smaller parts of the story. For those who worry about pigeonholing stories in genres, unless you introduce magic or surrealist elements, the uncanny aspect of climate change turns the story into a kind of science fiction. Many readers don’t worry about labels. I know I don’t, but it can help you to find things in a bookstore, a library, or online. There is now a burgeoning sub-genre of science fiction devoted to climate change called “cli-fi”. There is really no problem tagging things so they can be found, unless you believe science fiction is, by definition, not “serious” literature.

Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is about a world where our machines have become almost indistinguishable from living things, where urban-dwelling humans live in a ruined environment and they yearn to reconnect with the living world. But the biosphere is completely impoverished, so they have to settle for ersatz replacements. One’s place in the social hierarchy is determined partly by the size of the robot you can afford. If you can only afford a robotic rat, you’re looked down upon by your neighbour who has a robotic sheep.

The boundary between living and non-living things is blurred here, to the extent that the androids (i.e. humanoid robots) don’t always know they are androids. The Ridley Scott movie adaptation, Blade Runner, is in many ways less subversive than Dick’s written story, which can have clunky prose. But even there, in the guise of a film noir gumshoe story morphed into a near-future techno-thriller, Blade Runner explores what it means to be human.

There was also the New Wave of the 1960s, and the later parade of punks, cyberpunk, steampunk and now solarpunk, all the slipstream posse, along with wonderful writers like the late Octavia Butler, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon), or the very much alive Samuel R Delany, William Gibson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow, Laurie Penny, Annalee Newitz, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, or Elizabeth Bear, writers who bring new voices and perspectives, and reinvent the old science fiction tropes in order to nudge readers to think about race, gender, neurotype, religion, and culture, along with all the various forms of oppression and slavery that are based upon an alienness in our hearts that is all too human.

All these writers were poking and prodding to get at the heart of the matter, pondering what separates us from our machines and one another, coming at it from all those different directions, pulling at the scar forming around the wound of modern life, that source of our alienation and itch for chaos. All pondering the question: What does it mean to be human?

So when the space opera and related techno-thriller genres resurged in popularity in the later years of the last century, and the first decades of this one, gathering new energy, as in Babylon 5, or the later Battlestar Galactica reboot, Moon, and the Expanse and Sense8 series, even those space opera and adventure genres now have to take a far more multifaceted approach to the story, refusing to take much for granted, because readers and viewers will no longer allow it.

Science fiction, it is often claimed, is a literature of ideas, the most philosophical of the various genres. I think there is some truth to this, and it is the crux of the issue. Because, even at its best, even when the prose is well crafted, and the story well told, science fiction tends to use stock characters in extraordinary situations. More traditional forms of literature tend to be character-driven, more interested in the interior lives of people and the nuance of experience. Those stories seek to find the humanity in the ordinary, a vital project, too. Hence those characters can’t be anything close to stock. They have to be distinctive, and individuated if they are to keep the interest of the reader.

There are only so many words we can cram on a page, only so many plot threads, allusions to setting or backstory, we can keep in our heads without the whole enterprise coming unglued. Successful science fiction writers, and their readers, when they choose to focus on idea-driven tales, usually also accept that the characters will not be as richly drawn as in a Virginia Woolf novel, where we are brought into the extraordinary magic that is an ordinary person’s thoughts, listening in, perhaps while they beat out a rug in the yard, or read a yellowed letter from an old lover. That, too, is what being human is all about: finding meaning in the everyday.

Perhaps that’s what my professor meant all those years ago. I’m sorry I’ll never get to ask.

This article first appeared on The Icarus Question.