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.

What I Read in 2014

I’ll be taking an online writing course next month, from Odyssey. On the pre-course questionnaire, which made me feel guilty about how much more writing I should be doing, I had to say how many books I read in a year. I didn’t know, so I guessed ten or fifteen books and about three hundred short stories. After I sent that form off, I started thinking about my answer. What did I read last year?

My focus was on Young Adult books, but I read as young as Middle Grade, up through the range of YA and into New Adult, and when I read adult books, I preferred those with young protagonists. As always, I leaned towards Science Fiction, with a smattering of Fantasy.

I did a fair bit of reading this year. Some stuff because it was recommended to me, some because I met the author and wanted to see what they had done. I chose some of my first books for 2014 at Cons, or because of them.

At the C4 Lit Fest, I met Julie Kagawa and bought autographed copies of the first two books of her Blood of Eden series for my wife, because Vampires. I had no real intention of reading them myself, but Julie’s take on vampires in dystopia is crazy and original, and her protagonist is a street kid who has to become what she hates the most. The final novel of the trilogy came out just as I was finishing the second, so I bought it (in hardcover!) for myself.

I also picked up a few other books from local authors at the C4 LIt Fest dealer room. I think that’s where I bought a couple of Ronald J. Hore‘s books: Housetrap and Dial M for Mudder. These are tongue in cheek detective noir stories set in a universe (or at least a solar system) populated by fantastic creatures and characters. Points for calling a spaceship The Rat Queen. Ronald’s more recent work is more serious fantasy, I think, but I haven’t read The Dark Lady yet. This is also where I got Sierra Dean‘s Something Secret This Way Comes, the first of her Secret McQueen series. It’s also vampires, but I enjoyed it for it’s sassy style and occasional puns, like, “Your Secret’s safe with me”. There was a strong teaser for the second book, but I just wasn’t looking to read a whole series of New Adult vampire-slayer stories.

I read Robert J. Sawyer‘s “WWW” series: Wake, Watch, and Wonder. I’ve read a handful of his other books, (and taken a workshop by him), and these have my favourite characters so far, so it was Wake that I got autographed at KeyCon. I told him that Caitlin really was “made of awesome”. Part of the appeal of this series for me was that it is as close as Rob comes to writing Young Adult, although it’s more of an adult book with a youthful protagonist.

Naturally, I headed into the dealer room at KeyCon to say hi to Samantha Beiko, who is my freelance editor. I had already read her The Lake and the Library as an e-book to size up her skills before hiring her. Her skills are fine; I don’t think she knew yet, but she was short-listed for an Aurora award for it. I should have bought a print copy and had her autograph it. It’s kind of a ghost story, but it’s the deft handling of her protagonist’s muddled teenage feelings and behavior that makes the book.

Sam was sharing a table with Clare C. Marshall, so I picked her Stars in Her Eyes, which is a cool story about a bright young student who gets into an exclusive university run by people with an agenda of their own. Alien people.

Round the corner from them I bought LT Getty‘s Tower of Obsidian. It’s got dragons, but in a very original way. Not were-dragons, exactly, but cursed shape-shifters. Some wonderful strong female characters, too.

This may have also been where I bought Brandon Sanderson‘s The Rithmatist. I was actively seeking some Middle-Grade books to see if my own work belongs on that shelf. The Rithmatist is a hoot, and I love how the protagonist is an utter underdog in a school full of magical prodigies.

Around this time, I also picked up Soman Chainani‘s The School for Good and Evil. This book takes the most subversive look at fairy tales I have ever seen; gender stereotyping comes under heavy fire. Applause, please.

Because I knew some of the authors, I took a look at this years Prix Aurora Award Nominees. In addition to the previously mentioned The Lake and the Library, I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues, a noir detective story set on Mars. He had fun writing it, you can tell. Enjoyed Amanda Sun‘s Ink, too. Paranormal Romance is usually wasted on me, but the view of Japan through the eyes of an exchange student is brimming with verisimilitude. It feels like you are there, and even like you are her. Out of Time is by D. G. Laderoute, who is from Thunder Bay, which makes him practically a neighbour. I liked his cleverly crafted story about a disaffected modern boy who slips into a past populated only by Native North Americans – and spirits.

I think it was this year that I read David Weber‘s A Beautiful Friendship and Fire Season, on my brother’s recommendation. Mr. Weber is best known for his Honor Harrington series, and this is his Young Adult series set in the same universe. Loved his eleven-year-old protagonist Stephanie Harrington, but not her use of handguns.

Sometime during the summer, my brother also recommended John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War, and the sequels: The Ghost Brigades, The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. Usually, Military SF just makes me shake my head. John Scalzi’s makes me shake my head and chuckle. Best thing about this series is the voice of John Perry. Mr. Scalzi sees some of the same potential for nanite medicine that I do, which startled me. Given the publication dates, he thought of it first.

Sherry Peter‘s Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf came out in August. An axe-throwing bearded protagonist that just happens to be female. Fantasy feminism, yay! I met Sherry through her huge behind the scenes role in KeyCon 30.

Once I decided to attend Can-Con in Ottawa in the fall, I wanted to read something by Jo Walton, the author Guest of Honour. I chose her Among Others, partly because of all the awards and acclaim, but also because it has her youngest protagonist. Once I read it, attending Jo’s workshop at the con became a priority.

I read Veronica Roth‘s Divergent and Insurgent. For me, the strength of these novels is in how Beatrice rebuilds herself into the daring Tris. I lost interest halfway through Allegiant because the focus seemed to be shifting away from that.

Speaking of sequels, my last book of the year was Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil #2: A World Without Princes. Wow. If the first one was about gender stereotyping, the second is about gender issues. This book will probably ruffle some feathers, but I hope it gets very widely read.

Scanning back through this post, I see that rather than the ten or fifteen novels I thought I might have read, I read twenty eight, give or take a couple. One or two might have been read in 2013, and I might have missed something.

On top of these novels, I read hundreds and hundreds of short stories, always with a special interest in opening lines. I read old anthologies from my local used  bookstore, plus Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Antipodean SF and much more.

While it’s good for a writer to read, I think I need to do more writing and perhaps less reading. With that in mind, I will be focusing on my Odyssey course in January and there will be no new posts on this blog until February. If you want something to read, check out some of the authors and titles listed above!