Defining Science Fiction

I just started reading Fast Forward 2, an original anthology of science fiction edited by Lou Anders and I had to stop in the middle of the first story to write this.  Anders begins the book with two quotes about science fiction, this is the second:

Science fiction is the holy fool of literature. It can say what it likes and get away with an examination of truly radical and subversive ideas because no one takes it seriously. When it’s at its best, we’re generally in trouble. Science fiction flourished during the social and economic upheavals of the 1930s, during the Cold War, and during the Iron Age of the 1980s. It should be flourishing now, damn it, but too many people who used to hang out with it have wandered off into some kind of fluffy make-believe world or other. Real science fiction doesn’t make stuff up. It turns reality up to eleven. It takes stuff from contemporary weather—stuff no one else has bothered or dared to question—and uses it to make an end run on reality. It not only shows us what could happen if things carry on the way they are, but it pushes what’s going on to the extremes of absurdity. That’s not its job: that’s its nature. And what’s happened to science fiction lately, it isn’t natural. It’s pale and lank and kind of out of focus. It needs to straighten up and fly right. It needs to reconnect with the world’s weather, and get medieval on reality’s ass.Paul McAuley

Starting your collection with this quote is pretty much like Babe Ruth coming up to bat and pointing to where he’s about to hit a ball into orbit.  This makes me both excited and worried.  I want these stories to be great.  In his introduction, “The Age of Accelerating Returns” Anders goes on to classify four purposes for science fiction:

  • “It can be predictive, and it’s always fun to talk about that, but this is its least important aspect.”
  • “More important, it can be preventative, …”
  • “Third, SF’s importance lies also in its ability to actually inspire the future.”
  • “Finally, SF is the literature of the open mind — the literature that acknowledges change and encourages thinking outside the box — and that in itself is a good thing, even if the science on display is nonsense.”

But these four attributes could have described Hot, Flat and Crowded, the new non-fiction book by Thomas Friedman.  Science fiction is notoriously hard to define, but I feel great empathy for what Anders is trying to do.

To me science fiction are stories about the future, which ropes in Anders’ four purposes nicely:  predictive, preventative, inspirational and speculative, but does that list include all the aspects of great science fiction?  I think Anders left off one really important attribute:  inventiveness.  Think about the story “The Menace from Earth” by Robert A. Heinlein.  Heinlein imagines that if people colonize the Moon it will be possible to have human powered flight in the air tanks.  Now this sport might come to pass and it will fall under Anders’ third attribute of inspiring the future, but that’s not what I’m getting at.

Heinlein did some brainstorming and figured out with low gravity and the right air pressure people could fly by strapping on artificial wings.  Whether or not it ever comes true, this is very inventive.  There is little chance that time machines will ever be invented, but what a far out invention of the mind it was for H. G. Wells to conceived of time machines for fiction.

Science fiction is like a game with many different rules on how to play.  Sort of like Monopoly.  Some families have invented their own rules on how to use the board and pieces to play the game.  Personally, I think science fiction is at its best when writers limited themselves to working within the boundary of contemporary science, but that’s not everyone’s way to play the game of making up science fiction stories.  Rudy Rucker invents his ass off, but its not always scientific.  Of course, by my rules that’s easily solved, I just say he writes fantasy.  I also love fantasy stories.  By the way, I don’t see calling a story fantasy as a slight.

I just finished rereading Hyperion by Dan Simmons.  It’s not predictive, preventative, inspirational, speculative or inventive, not in the way we’ve been discussing those attributes, but it’s considered an epic science fiction novel.  Dan Simmons takes almost every known cliche science fictional idea and mixes those ingredients with a plot stolen from Chaucer and produces a wondrous story.  Is it science fiction or fantasy?  Does it matter?

By my rules, I would call Hyperion fantasy.  A fantastic, colorful, vivid, fantasy.  I don’t think most readers care to split hairs between the label of science fiction and fantasy.  If it contains rocketships, it’s science fiction, if it has magic, it’s fantasy.  The real defining attribute is great story telling.

But doesn’t that spoil the game in some way?  Without the challenge of playing within the rules, doesn’t that lessen the achievement?  Science in our society is already a slippery concept.  Shouldn’t science fiction be scientific to the best of our knowledge?  If science fiction stories are just supposed to be fun and nothing more, then it doesn’t matter.  If science fiction writers are saying something serious about the future, then shouldn’t it matter how we define science fiction?

I have a theory about this.  I think the public has never taken science fiction serious, so it doesn’t expect much from the genre, nor does it care how the form is defined.  So few writers try to say something real about the future that when one does, readers will judge that story by its own merits and not by the genre, such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  In other words, science fiction will get no respect in the world at large.  And that might be cool with many people, since most science fiction fans prefer their field to be wild and wooly, rather than academic and disciplined.

I now shall go off and read the stories in Anders’ collection and see if they lived up to their introduction.

JWH – 2/8/9

3 thoughts on “Defining Science Fiction”

  1. The Canadian critic Angus Taylor,said that science fiction is really fiction,the same as any other fiction.That means that the same rules must apply then that makes general literature good.I think as often as not,the terms fantasy or escapism,has come to apply to mean that this variety of fiction,suffers from bad prose styles and characterisation,rather than what it actually is.I think the same has been aimed at science fiction.

    I’ve said before,that fantasy[and science fiction]is,as you know,to be found in mainstream literature,but is generally accepted for the same reasons that those I mentioned above,aren’t.

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