Many readers assume science fiction literature should mainly focus on illustrating new concepts. These concepts can take many forms: space travel, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, etc.; but they almost always fall under humanity’s reaction to technological and social change. The idea that each new SF book should (must?) break the mold, push the envelope, and focus on social commentary regarding technology and how it changes our lives. Those are valid assumptions, and they are part of the reason I love to read and write SF.
Then there is the notion that if a science fiction story doesn’t meet this criteria, then it’s pulp garbage. It’s not ‘literature’ (I loathe how that word gets tossed around to imply superior writing vs. what that person regards as inferior). Or the age-old complaint ‘it brings nothing new to the table’. Sure, we all want fresh ideas, or new take son old ideas and tropes, but none of that is necessary to make a compelling story.
These concepts, as much as I cherish them, are not why I write stories. Many have posited that the foundation of SF is that it is a thought experiment disguised as a story. The ‘what if’ scenario, given literary flesh by these narrative vehicles. That certainly feels true when one reads Golden Age SF, when ideas received far more of the author’s attention than their characters. I understand that’s a subjective statement, but read them for yourself.
A thought experiment, no matter how complex, still requires something extra when placed into a fictional narrative.
I read — and write — SF for the total package. I want that commentary on our future, as well as a good story. I want to be informed and entertained; the two are not mutually exclusive. I want something that relates to the reality I live in, told through the eyes of characters that I care about. I couldn’t care less about pushing any envelope, other than staying true to myself and what I want to say. If that’s the sole reason why you’re reading/writing SF, then you’re doing it wrong.
When I write a new novel, I must be invested in the characters and story first. The rest comes second, including the ‘thought experiment’. Look at Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Sure, its themes of immoral creation have stood the test of time — but that’s because she got us to empathize with Frankenstein’s creation. Without that empathy, without that characterization, the rest is meaningless.
That is how you ‘break the mold’: put your heart into your writing first. Ideas are great, but how those ideas affect us is more important.