In 1982, the British science fiction writer J.G. Ballard wrote a story called “Report on an Unidentified Space Station.” The title is a straightforward description of the plot: A crew of explorers navigates, and reports back on, an alien space station. The station is unusual for two reasons: First, it resembles a large airport waiting lounge. Second, the more time is spent within the station, moving forward, the longer you seem to travel – first feet, then miles, then hundreds, then thousands of miles. By the end of the story, the explorers have become enthralled with the space station, speaking of it in hushed, worshipful tones.

This is my favorite science fiction story of all time.

“Report on a Unidentified Space Station” contains the two characteristics essential to science fiction. Those characteristics are more questions: “What if?” and “Why not?” The first question plays into my own biases as a fan, and writer, of science fiction (or “sf” as I prefer to think of it). Science fiction should include some element of speculation – it should ask “what if?” Sometimes these questions can be big, as in “What if aliens made contact with alien life using radio waves?” (Sagan’s Contact). They can be playful, as in “What if you could travel back in time and have your mother fall in love with you?” (Back to the Future). They can be slightly spooky – “What if Martians were able to replicate our childhood memories?” (Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven”). And they can be strange, as in “What if an alien space ship looked like a giant airport waiting lounge?” While asking “what if” is a hallmark of many genres, here, an attempt must be made to answer that question – to think through the implications of these questions, and what impact they might have on the protagonists. It’s the teasing out and creative speculation that is a hallmark of science fiction – and that creative speculation is essential to the second question.

“Why not?” When I read the Ballard story, I always think it’s a bit strange and unsettling that aliens would design a space station looking like an infinite lounge, I immediately always think “Well, why wouldn’t they? Why can’t they?” I could discuss how Ballard’s choice here evokes a particular time and aesthetic, or how this decision evokes the feeling someone gets when walking through an airport waiting lounge. Yet I think there’s a playfulness to it, a creativity, a speculation. That playfulness is crucial to science fiction. It evokes LeGuin discussing that writers and readers should “go into a dark bar and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.” Whether the sf is bleak or optimistic, whether it was written in 2018 or in the 19th century, I believe that it should be surprising, and creative in the questions it asks – and how it responds to them.

Ballard’s short story has both of these qualities – it speculates and it’s playful. Like all science fiction, it shows reader something they haven’t seen before. Perhaps it even shows them something they haven’t even imagined. That’s science fiction.