One of my favorite aspects of speculative fiction is how creative you can be with it. You can write about dragons, city-size starships, mages that shoot lightning bolts, societies where humans and elves live side-by-side, what the afterlife is like, and all sorts of other things you could never get away with in normal fiction. It’s probably the main reason I write fantasy and sci-fi.
Among speculative fiction fans is the idea that the worlds we create must always be different from what we experience here on Earth. This is doubly so if you are writing about a non-human society, which can get you burned pretty badly in some circles if you make them too human-like.
I agree that originality and creativity are very important aspects of speculative fiction. I also agree that when authors write about a non-human society, they should be careful to make it different from human society (a society of cat-people would probably structure itself differently from most human societies, although there may be some similarities).
Yet I think the desire for the alien and the different can blind us to the simple fact that all speculative fiction is written by humans. That means that anything we write reflects us, our beliefs, and our culture to some extent, even if we try to make it as alien as possible. In other words, it is impossible for us to come up with something that is totally alien.
In fact, I’d argue that making our works more alien can actually do more harm than good. In order for fiction — any fiction, regardless of genre — to work, it has to engage the reader emotionally. And in order to engage the reader emotionally, the story has to relate to the reader in some way. A story set in a world the reader cannot relate to at all will simply fail, no matter how much world-building you put into it.
I believe the reason some speculative fiction fails is because the authors made it too alien. It is difficult, if not impossible, for most people to identify with or understand something that is too different from them. While there’s nothing wrong with challenging readers’ expectations, it will not work if the reader cannot be emotionally engaged by it.
Some of the most popular speculative fiction out there — Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings — is popular in part because it is relevant to our lives. Amidst the wizards, starships, and epic battles between good and evil, we see ideas and issues that we struggle with, both individually and collectively, which endears these works to us. We understand some of what the characters experience in those stories, even if they often go through fantastic adventures.
As speculative fiction writers, we should always make our worlds different from what our readers are used to. That’s partly what our readers expect, after all, and is part of the fun of the genre.
But we must also make them relatable in some way. If our readers cannot relate to our works even in small ways, then they will not want to read our stories. And if they don’t want to read our stories, then we have failed as writers and need to go back to the writing desk.