I am not going to argue for a return to the days of pulp fiction where the captains of spaceships, armed only with a cutlass, would rescue the princess from the tentacled slime monster. I shall try and show that "hard" SF (often even well written hard SF) is often no different from this in that it uses crude tricks to fool the unwary reader into mistaking window dressing for the important part of any parts of any fiction: that of plot and, above all, characterisation. What I enjoy most about SF is the ability to explore ideas without many of the constraints imposed by mainstream fiction.
The difference between pulp SF and "non-science" SF can be quite subtle, but it is usually easy to spot. One excellent example springs immediately to mind: the film Total Recall and the Philip K Dick story on which it is based We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Film Plot : Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man with big muscles. Special effects. Gratuitous violence. The end.
The short story is only twenty pages long and is set entirely in two small rooms in New York City. It is far more complex and alien.
It is an almost painful detailed examination of a man recovering suppressed memories, and the reactions of those involved in his "therapy". I don't think it can be a coincidence that Dick himself was in therapy at the time of writing the story. The essential difference between this story and one told in a "realistic" format is the lengths he is able to go to. He does not write about unearthing some childhood trauma, or a deep psychological flaw. This would probably have been too painful - both to write and to read. But by using a "fantastic" form of words he is able to express himself much more honestly. He also allows us to understand the pain of his experiences without the trauma of revelation. I should also point out that I thought that it was a really good story before I analysed it for its psychological insights.
The sort of characterisation I find most interesting is the sort found in the novel A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge. The aliens are really different. Alien. Take the Skrode Riders; Blue Stalk and Green Shell. They have no limbs and no short term memory. Their race has crossed the galaxy. The Powers; civilisations of one individual which evolve so fast that they cannot live for more than a few years. The Tines. A believable hive-mind. The important thing about these characters is they are not merely window dressing. The plot depends on their reactions. If they were human characters the plot could not and would not work. Also the reactions between the humans and the non-humans is genuinely interesting. The meeting of two completely different mind-sets, two different ways of thinking is really interesting, at least to me.
by Colin Wilkinson.