What is Science Fiction, anyway?

A lot of people tell me they aren’t really interested in SF. They’re wrong. The problem is that SF means different things to different people. James Bond movies draw huge audiences, but I’d be willing to bet that if you hung around the concession stand and polled the people waiting in line to buy popcorn, nine out of ten would look puzzled if you suggested they were fans of SF.

Ahem. Dr. No: evil plot with atomic powered laser. You Only Live Twice: evil plot to abduct spacecraft. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: evil plot to deploy biological warfare through brainwashing. Diamonds Are Forever: evil plot to use orbiting laser weapons platform. The Man With the Golden Gun: evil plot to suppress solar energy. The Spy Who Loved Me: evil plot to provoke nuclear war and build future utopia. Moonraker: evil plot to wipe out humanity with nerve gas from space station. A View to a Kill: evil plot to destroy Silicon Valley and monopolize microchips. GoldenEye: evil plot to negate Electro-Magnetic Pulse defenses and subvert satellite weapons.

There is a huge disconnect, I think, between what is SF and what is marketed as SF. No-one has trouble identifying Jurassic Park as SF. DNA has science like rice has white. But Michael Crichton markets his books as best-sellers, avoiding the SF label and the geek shelves in bookstores. Margaret Atwood would rather be known as an author of literature than SF, although The Handmaid’s Tale is every bit as dystopian as The Hunger Games.

The strictest definition, espoused by people like Canadian SF icon Robert J. Sawyer, is that Science Fiction is fiction about science. It’s a simple and elegant definition, but it can be surprisingly exclusive. Rob argues that Star Wars is not about science. He considers it Fantasy, because the Force is essentially mystical. Yes, there is a veneer of scientific technobabble to justify it, but it’s lip service. By the same rigorous standard, he rules out most of Anne McCaffery’s work. Pern may have been a lost and regressed colony planet, but that wasn’t essential to the story. Which is not to say he didn’t like Anne, they were friends. By the way, Rob does his homework, and if you want to read something that showcases his take on SF, I was blown away by his melding of science and characters in Wake, Watch and Wonder, aka his WWW series.

I have an online critiquing partner who is vigilant in looking for supposed SF stories that could be retold without the science. This is useful, but if you take it to extremes, even Asimov’s I Robot could be redone as a fantasy about Golems, with three binding spells of Golemics providing the plot foundations.

What of Star Trek? TOS got off to a strong start, the first episode was about silicate life-forms. Later episodes about the shoot-out at the OK Corral, Nazi Germany and the Roman Empire pretty much fell off the wagon, in my view. For me, the entire franchise got obsessed with pitting Team Logic, founded by Spock, and joined by Data and Seven, against Team Passion, led by McCoy and handed off to Worf and Tom Paris. The Captains served as referees. Much of the science strayed far into make-believe territory, with random results attributed to “rifts in the Space-Time Continuum” and so on. None of this stopped me from watching and enjoying it, by the way, and I may be the only man alive who was more entertained by Seven’s dry wit than her skintight costume. Whether Star Trek’s science was good or bad, the series and the franchise had an enormous influence.

Does Science Fiction have to be about science? I’m not convinced. Many pioneering SF authors were more interested in futurism and exploring social trends. Overpopulation came up a lot: Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”, Ellison’s “Make Room, Make Room” (led to the movie Soylent Green), Nolan & Johnson’s Logan’s Run, Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Science was portrayed, and it played a part, but I hardly think these writings were about science. My high school considered offering Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as an SF addition to the curriculum. I wasn’t fooled for a minute. It wasn’t about science, it was about literature. Did Kurt Vonnegut write about science? If he did, I was too busy laughing to notice. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ditto. Should we deny that these are SF? Some perhaps, but not all.

Nowadays, the term Speculative Fiction is becoming more widespread. It solves the problem of differentiating Fantasy from Science Fiction by lumping them together. Conveniently, it shares the initials of SF, and saves us from writing SF&F or SFF. It also allows authors who dabble in both to keep all their books on one shelf in the bookstore.

A more useful and specific term is Space Opera. It’s a handy label for stories that involve spaceflight (usually faster than light, without explanation) and plots that feature planet-hopping and, dare I say it, rayguns. Unfortunately, Space Opera can have negative connotations. It usually implies a form of SF light, and I suspect that John Scalzi, author of the Old Man’s War series, would frown if it were applied to his work.

The label Hard SF is also tricky. Used precisely, it separates Ringworld from Gravity by applying a math test. Yet many casual afficionados might lump both those works into the Hard SF subgenre because science is central to both. All orbits are not equal, and you cannot actually cause a chain collision of satellites as if they were all on the same freeway.

Whoa, I’m coming up on a thousand words, and I’m going to wrap this up. I posed a question, and I don’t have a definitive answer. I won’t say of Science Fiction that “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it.” I may not be able to define it, but I’m also not always sure when I see it. People who don’t like Star Wars may say they dislike Science Fiction, and still enjoy one of those James Bond movies listed above. What they really mean is they don’t like Space Opera. Many books and movies that are marketed as Science Fiction seem more like Horror to me. Alien, for instance. Earlier, I mentioned Jurassic Park, which I think also fits the monster movie subgenre-it just has a trendier setup than Godzilla. I urge you to think about what Science Fiction means to you, and to be specific about what you like or don’t like. I suspect that in one form or another, there is Science Fiction for almost everyone.

3 thoughts on “What is Science Fiction, anyway?

  1. I recall Sawyer actually drawing the line between science fiction and fantasy this way: If there is a timeline that takes the world the story is set in, from the real world now, then it’s science fiction. In other words, if the world we live in right now is, unaltered, part of the story world’s history, it’s science fiction. Which places Star Wars outside of that in the realm of fantasy, but pretty much all of Anne Mcaffrey in the realm of science fiction – even the dragon riders, because they’re actually in the same world as just about everything else she’s written, if not everything.

    That said, the idea of “if you can tell the story without the science fiction element” making something not science fiction could definitely be frustrating, though it also points out that fantasy can be used to explore speculative fiction themes too. Sometimes it’s easier to do that with fantasy than science fiction because it can be distracting to spend half the story explaining how X could be, when you could explain it away with magic, and get on with exploring the socio-political ramifications of the way your world works. Which is why I like the term speculative fiction – it implies a story that’s going to make you think, without excluding fantasy.

    • I quite like this timeline distinction. It works in most cases for me. Rules out alternate history stuff, but perhaps that deserves to be a special case. Why are you reading my blog when you should be NaNoing?

      • I’m at work, but I’m getting a bit of outlining done. It’s been a crazy busy week, and I hadn’t got as far with outlining as I had hoped. I’m going to make a personal goal of 20k this year, and anything else is gravy. Usually I book time off work to do Nanowrimo, but this year I booked it off to do my commercial licence. When I do have the time booked off, I can do the 50k, my job is just a soul-sucking time sink.

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