Defining Science Fiction

This is my 185th post for my WordPress blog and my 51st that will be filed in the science fiction category. I started out as a late middle-aged guy wanting to reinvent himself by pursuing a new hobby and ended up doing way too much naval gazing. I need to break out of that loop, wrap up what I’ve learned, and move forward. Because I have spent so much time on the subject of science fiction, I’ve decided the way to find closure is by being my own Freud and define the term “science fiction.”

Hundreds of people have tried to define the phrase science fiction. It’s as slippery a definition to pin down as pornography. Among the billions of people that ride planet Earth through space, there are probably several million that would describe themselves as science fiction fans. That implies that science fiction is an art form, like there are fans of jazz or impressionistic art. But if you were given two jazz songs to listen to, one by Benny Goodman, and one by Miles Davis, could you define jazz? To say that Galaxy Quest and Red Mars are both science fiction is true, but one is a parody of science fiction and the other is hard-core science fiction. It’s like looking at all the breeds of dogs and then coming up with a definition that describes them all but doesn’t include cats and other animals.

After pursuing hundreds of hours of meditation on the subject, I want to define science fiction as a belief system rather than an art form, and when we label something science fiction we’re doing the same thing as when people call something Christian music or a religious novel. Religion is an approach to defining reality. Science fiction is an approach to defining reality. So too are philosophy, science and journalism.

If you watch the Christmas classics The Bishop’s Wife, It’s A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, you are seeing a religious definition of reality put into fictional form. Viewers are asked to believe that angels exist as part of our reality, and that the spirit of Christmas is as fundamental as gravity.

For the viewers who choose to watch Star Wars or Star Trek movies instead, they see a much different reality defined. Both belief systems suggest aspects of our reality that science has never seen. And even though the word science is part of the phrase science fiction, and the implication is science fiction uses science as part of its belief system, science fiction is no more scientific than creationism or intelligent design philosophy.

Personally I have always wanted “real science” fiction to exist, and some writers try, but such works are rare and they are not the works that people point to when they use the phrase science fiction. It is possible to sidestep the philosophical issues and just lump religious fiction, science fiction and call it all fantasy fiction. I love movies about angels, but I don’t believe they exist. I also love movies about faster-than-light travel, time travel, and magic like in Harry Potter stories, but none of those things exist in reality either.

It’s easy to use the fantasy-for-fun escape clause, except that too many of our homo sapiens billions do believe in those fantasy concepts. That’s why I define science fiction as a belief system like religion.

What we need to define now is fiction. Is fiction no more than shared fantasies that have been made into an art form? Films and television shows have become the most popular art form of all time, with some stories embraced by millions of fans. Fiction becomes an escape from reality, and the different forms of fiction appeal to variations in belief systems. We admire what we believe, or want to believe.

I chose not to believe in a religious system when I was a child probably because I had already been imprinted with science fictional beliefs before religion had a chance to imprint on me. By age four or five, Topper, Invaders from Mars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Superman, Target Earth and a host of other science fictional and fantastic stories got to me before Bible stories could. Instead of believing in God, gods, angels, devils, and miracles, I took up beliefs in space ships, aliens, robots, time travel, invisibility, telepathy, and what not. Is it any wonder that the fundamentalist religions of the world want to protect their children from popular culture?

If I wanted to, I could write a book about how science fiction affected people in the same way a social scientist could write a book about how religion affected people. If I had the time, that might be a fun project. Part of the fun would be to show how various science fictional ideas were introduce into the culture through the evolution of science fiction. The roots of Star Wars could be taken back to E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edmund Hamilton. Tracking the seeds planted by John W. Campbell Jr. or Robert A. Heinlein would take years.

The difference between the belief systems religion and science fiction is we can track down who introduced a belief concept into reality with science fiction, but we have no idea who invented the concept of angels or gods, but rest assured, humans in the distant past thought them all up.

I now feel like I know where I got my science fictional beliefs and how. What do I do now? If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. I’ve gotten to this realization many times before in my life. It’s like a heroin addict finally seeing that injected bliss is false bliss – it doesn’t mean he’ll stop shooting up. Religious teachers often use the metaphor of sleep to describe the condition that exists before enlightenment. There is both religious Buddhism and atheistic Buddhism, and the same must be true for science fiction.

As long as readers can stay awake and remember the concept of “real science” fiction, ordinary science fiction falls into the black hole called opium for the masses. My constant struggle to define science fiction is merely my struggle to stay awake and fight my addiction to science fictional beliefs. The only way to save fiction from escapism is to define true art as that which exposes belief systems.

The trouble is most citizens of our reality prefer escapism to reality. Harry Potter books will always be more popular than the stories of James Joyce or Edith Wharton. This makes the role of the book critic to define a novel as being realistic or escapist, and if the work is fantasy, rate the quality of the opium. Harry Potter books would be primo smoke. A book like The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a fictionalized version of this essay. It uses fantasy to trick the reader into seeing reality, and then admits that most readers will want to go back to sleep.

I know I will go back to sleep now, and return to my science fiction beliefs to while away the hours while I wait for death. I should reject all fantasy fiction, but I know the power of my addiction, and if I reread this essay from time to time, I’ll even remind myself of where it comes from, and wake myself up for a moment or two. I know I will spend the afternoon watching WALL-E with my wife and friends, and this evening watch the twelfth and final episode of True Blood with another friend. Tomorrow night I’ll watch The Big Bang Theory and Heroes. If I could understand why I prefer entertaining fiction to seeking a deeper understanding of reality I would really find enlightenment.

JWH 11/23/8

7 thoughts on “Defining Science Fiction”

  1. Whoa,

    Yet another thought provoking essay on one of my favorite subjects. You are obviously an educated, thoughtful fellow with a lot of time on his hands. 🙂

    Let me ask you something however. Do you say that ftl travel is impossible because of Einstein, or because most ‘hard’ science fiction writer’s won’t touch the subject, or because you are a retired physicist and you know damn well it can’t be done?

    Or maybe it’s impossible because we can’t do it yet?

    I think that whatever one’s definition of science is, if you do science (or are even interested in ‘real’ science fiction) you should at least be curious to know the truth. Otherwise, you make the same mistake as the religious zelots who are afraid to go against ‘the book’.

    As at least a amatuer mathematician myself, I am aware of the early prohibition against the notion that the atom could be split, until Han and Strassman did it of course. OK they probably stole the idea from Lise Meitner, but that’s not the point.

    You said it yoursef: If you meet the Buddah on the road, kill him. Reject mere authority as loadstone of truth.

    Einstein invented space curvature to avoid admitting that gravity propagates instantaneously. In other words, with infinite speed (an anathema to Einstein). The only problem is that gravity does propagate instantaneously and space does not appear to curve, or at least it is ‘under’ demonstrated that it does.

    My point, well I’m not sure I have one. We may never travel the cosmos at warp 9, or even reach Alpha Centauri. The physics are probably prohibitably expensive from an economic stand point and certainly dependant on technology we haven’t aquired yet (or ever). But since we’re talking science fiction, to be honest I doubt ftl is off the table ‘theoretically’ speaking. Think what we could do if we learned to manipulate gravity like we currently manipulate electromagnetism. What could we not do then?

    Just remember, Albert was the kind of physicist that did ‘thought’ experiments- not real experiments. Just because the equivalency principle holds water in one’s imagination doesn’t mean it will hold up on the firing range. To mix metaphors a little.

    Please don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy your post.

  2. I am not a scientist nor a mathematician, so I have to accept what science does say on the subject of faster than light travel. I have read that there are some theoretical mathematics that suggest that there might be loopholes to Einstein’s equations, but I’ve never read about much actual support for them.

    However, look at it from rule of thumb experiments that we can do ourselves. Has any particle in nature or within a lab ever been seen to go faster than the speed of light? If FTL travel is possible, shouldn’t we see examples?

    If Einstein is wrong and FTL travel is possible, is it practical? I doubt we’ll even be able to engineer a device that could even go a significant fraction of the speed of light. It’s like the vast distances we have to conquer, they require equally vast amounts of energy to traverse.

    There are stars near the center of the Milky Way that speed along at 2,800 miles per second in their orbital velocities. But it takes being near a fantastically large black hole to help them go that fast. Going even a fraction of the speed of light takes astronomically large forms of energy.

    And if alien life forms were traveling between the stars at FTL speeds, using these vast amounts of energy, shouldn’t we be able to detect them?

    Now with dark energy and dark matter, is space really empty enough to handle faster than light vehicles?

    Even if reality took down the No FTL speed signs, I doubt we could achieve those speeds.

    If we’re going to write “real science” fiction then we need to figure out what the practical speed we can obtain and then figure out how to develop interstellar travel from there. Even that might not be practical.

    And even then, manned space travel and colonization of other worlds might not be possible. The more I read about astronomy and the results of NASA probes, the more I realize just how hard it will be for humans to live and work beyond LEO. Colonizing the Moon and Mars is such a daunting task that we may never try.

    “Real Science” fiction will explore these issues, but I see damn few SF writers even trying. There’s a psychological barrier to deal with. The more “real science” the fiction, the fewer the readers. Watch the documentaries and read the books about the astronauts who have been to the Moon or worked on the space station. They spend months, if not years, training to do a few tasks in space, that if they were on Earth, most people could do without training and in a matter of hours.

    Most of SF has put the level of Santa Claus speculation into imagining manned space exploration. There’s a vast difference between believing humans can live on Mars and actually doing it. That’s why I say science fiction is a belief system akin to religion.


  3. I’m not sure I understand what you are trying to do here. Do you mean that story telling is in some way preventing you or others from approaching reality? Because if that is the case, I don’t agree with you. I think stories can be a tool (that is: useful for living your real life) as much as it can be escapism.

    Also, when it comes to human motivation and the fuzzy things that are sense of identity and drive to accomplish things, I don’t think it’s so easy to find it through hard facts.

    But maybe I just miss your point.

  4. åka, what I’m saying is some storytelling has produced concepts that have gotten into the culture at large and people now believe in them.

    I agree with you completely about the value of storytelling in our culture. I consider the novel one of the most complex forms of communication around, if not the most complex. It would probably take telepathy to beat it. Novels average 10-20 hours, and some run as long as 40-60. That’s a very long message to give people.

    What I was trying to do is say that science fiction is a form of entertainment, and it’s also created concepts that our culture now accepts seperate from the art form.

    Children seem to learn the concept of robots and spacemen about as quick as they acquire the concepts of cars and motorcycles, or soldiers and doctors, or god and angels.

    What I’m saying is fiction produces imaginary beings that the population at large start believing in, like angels, aliens, intelligent machines, demons, ghosts, time travel, etc. Before there was fiction, there was storytelling, but it’s all the same thing.

    Fiction invents more than characters and plots, sometimes it invents concepts that take on a life of their own.


  5. I had a shocking conversation with a senior physics major when I was a freshman majoring in electrical engineering. I had just finished Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero and I was telling this senior I just didn’t get Einsteinian physics. He said, “You don’t try to understand it you just memorize the equations and when to use them.” I suspect that is what the majority of people with degrees in complex subjects do. They need to pass the tests to get their credentials and it is very difficult to design tests to determine if a student actually understands the subject.

    Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    But people can imagine things that are not correct and the universe can be weirder than we expect.

    In Tau Zero the expansion of the universe stops and the Big Crunch creates a new universe. But now the scientists are telling us that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing.

    We cannot all agree when a writer’s imagination has become too unreasonable to qualify as SF. But I think it is obvious that some authors either do not know or do not care enough about science to get it reasonably correct. Tau Zero is hard SF even if it is wrong. That is the wonder of real science catching up with SF.

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