I love Nancy Kress' blog. Just saying. If you don't read it, start. It's good stuff.
She wrote the other day about her approach to developing SF stories and I wanted to explore her little hint in more depth here. First, a quote from the conclusion:
The larger point here is that, in my view, SF should be more than its "idea." I am not writing about a "galactic empire" or about aliens who "lord" anything over humans. It may be that my story fails on these other literary dimensions -- character, emotion, human insight, moral implication -- as well.
Of course she's correct. The best SF stories deal with a lot of literary dimensions, many conventional--emotions, character development, morality, and insight--and many less conventional--aliens, technology, and space. At the same time, I don't think it's quite fair to dismiss "the idea" (the science fictional aspects) as being sort of secondary. While I can appreciate that our main goals for writing science fiction isn't to deal with things like spaceships and alien worlds, the boundaries between the aspects of any given science fiction story that are "the literary core" and the literary features that are just background, are difficult to draw.
On the one hand the combination of a traditional literary core and "the extra stuff," is what makes SF so special. While space ships can be distracting, these and other aspects of a story create all sorts of situations that make the "core literary" material possible or interesting. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. Also, there are defiantly SF stories, I think, that are more about the ideas and "the world" rather than something about characters, or humanity, or traditional literary ideas. William Gibson's work always feels this way to me, for instance.
While I think I end up writing very character-based SF, and my tastes tend much closer to the literary parts of the genre, my interest in science fiction grows largely out of my love for the ideas of science fiction, both as a reader and as a writer. Not because I like reading about "cool stuff," though I do, but because I respect the way that the idea gives rise to the more standard literary features.
Maybe this is part of what defines SF for me, and why I don't often stray into fantasy. Also, to be clear, I don't think that Nancy Kress' statement is particularly in conflict with mine: I find her stories to excel at using conceptual material to generate powerful literary stories. For whatever that means.
Onward and Upward!