The Two Faces of Science Fiction

Science fiction has always had two different faces that confounds efforts to define it in a distinct manner.  Science fiction first evolved as a literary branch of philosophical speculation which produced stories, often crudely told, about possible inventions, speculation about distant worlds and their inhabitants, and extrapolation about the future.  Speculative science fiction is pretty much based on “What if?”  Writers could imagine the impact of change, or wonder about unexplored areas of reality.  Eventually, some of this speculative science fiction produced concepts that became popular, generating global memes, and then other writers wrote adventure science fiction using these concepts as if they were religious icons.  Often adventure science fiction based on original speculative ideas have no new speculation on their own.  A spaceship is just a spaceship, and alien is just an alien.

Think of H. G. Wells two most famous stories, The Time Machine, and War of the Worlds.  In the late Victorian age they were both highly philosophical speculations.  Then Edgar Rice Burroughs comes along and turns Mars into a romantic adventure destination that had no relation to reality.  A modern comparison is to The War of the Worlds and the film Independence Day, which has little or no speculation.  It’s all adventurous fun.


Another good example is Star Trek and Star Wars.  All fiction needs some action, so Star Trek was given a wagon train to the stars framework, but many episodes were built around various kinds of speculation.  Star Wars on the other hand plays homage to the galactic empire of The Foundation series, while cherishing the fun of Saturday afternoon serials inspired by Planet Stories types of adventures.  As hard as I try, I can’t think of one bit of speculative science fiction in all of Star Wars.  That’s not a criticism, but a way of defining Star Wars as the ultimate example of adventure science fiction.


Think of how many episodes of ST:TNG where the plot was written around speculation about Data’s body, mind and abilities.  In Star Wars, C-3P0 is a very interesting character, with lots of personality traits, but there’s no speculation about his scientific origins – he’s just a colorful character in an adventure story.  Star Wars offers no lessons in artificial intelligence.  For the most part, Data is mainly used as a stock character for adventures too, but sometimes Star Trek did speculate.  In Isaac Asimov’s early robot stories he spent more time speculating, in his later ones, especially the novels, he spent more time using robots as characters having adventures.

Modern science fiction tends to be mostly adventure based.  When H. G. Wells started writing, few writers had explored many science fictional concepts, so Wells appeared to be a genius inventing science fictional idea after another.  Up until the 1960s, science fiction writers churned out speculative science fiction because there was plenty of undiscovered ideas to imagine.  Now that’s getting harder.  Since the 1960s, science has become an extremely popular entertainment genre, so most writers just take old SF memes, give them a new paint job, maybe even go all Baroque in styling, and create adventure science fiction.

We still get new speculative science fiction, in both books and movies.  My two favorite recent examples are The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and the film Gattaca.  Life on Earth is always evolving and changing, so there’s always new content to speculate about, plus science is always advancing, giving new ideas for extrapolation.

Science fiction has always suffered from a schizophrenic approach to reality though.  Why are post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories so popular with kids today?  They present horrible worlds where the characters have big adventures.  Isn’t that odd?  In the 19th and early 20th century, such novels were warnings about the future and fears about paths society might take.  Now such scenarios are escapist fun!  WTF!?  Science fiction is often like the comedy-tragedy masks, or the Janus god head.  No kid would daydream of living in the world of Nineteen Eight-Four, but I bet a lot of kids picture themselves inside the world of The Hunger Games.


Serious speculative science fiction tends to illustrate worlds that few would fantasize about living in.  Who would want to live inside The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.  But what about Dune by Frank Herbert or Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, or even Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card?  Yet, how many adventure books have been written that take worlds similar to the ones these books describe and make them into fun adventure stories?  Like the contrast between education and entertainment, some writers aim for edutainment, but most just give us escapism.

Heinlein was speculating about serious ideas, but most military SF since then have been theme park rides.

Here’s the dilemma for writers.  True speculative science fiction isn’t escapist fun, whereas adventure science fiction is.  So if you want to sell lots of books, and maybe get your story made into a blockbuster movie, you’ll aim for adventure science fiction – but if you want literary recognition, and the chance of creating a classic the survives, you’re better off writing speculative science fiction.  They teach Frankenstein, Brave New World, and Nineteen Eighty-Four in schools, but not adventure science fiction.  Which sold more movie tickets, Spiderman 2 or Transcendence?

When I go to the bookstore, or flip through Locus Magazine, or read about new books at SF Signal, I’m enticed by myriads of thrilling stories, ones that promise epic adventures, with colorful sexy characters, involved in addictive complicated plots, the kind of books that are escapist fun to the hilt.  And I’m not against reading these kinds of books.  But what I miss, are the speculative science fiction books.  They seem few and far between nowadays.  Is that because they don’t sell, or are a bummer to write, or what few people want to read?  To me, speculative science fiction is the real science fiction, and all the other stuff is fantasy fun.

I’m working on a new edition of The Classics of Science Fiction and I’ve always used a statistical method to create the list before.  But this time, I’m thinking about creating it as a history of speculative science fiction.  Yesterday I discovered  Radium Age Science Fiction at HiLo Books, and essays on Pre-Golden Age Science Fiction by Joshua Glenn at  Most of these books are now forgotten, but they were at the time, attempts to write serious speculative science fiction.  I wonder if I can create a Classics of Speculative Science Fiction in chronological order starting with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or even earlier books if I can discover ones that fit my concept, and then move towards the present showing an evolution of speculative science fiction?

Instead of creating another list of the most popular books of science fiction, I want to create one that showcases books that introduced the best science fictional ideas.  I think as kids, when we first discover science fiction, we’re hooked on the far out ideas, but later on, we become addicted to the escapism.  When we’re thinking about ideas, we’re exploring reality.  We want to know how reality works, and how we can adapt it to our own needs and desire.  Later on, we read science fiction to escape reality, because we’re disappointed with its limitations.

This provides two faces of our own psychology.  Now that I’m old, I wonder if I sold out sometime in the last fifty years.  That I sold my sense of wonder for a sense of illusion.

JWH – 5/6/14

14 thoughts on “The Two Faces of Science Fiction”

  1. Great essay!

    I agree that stuff like Star Wars is fun, but in a sense isn’t really Science Fiction.

    I like the idea of tracing the speculation in Science Fiction.

    For instance, I wonder if “All Flesh is Grass,” that we’re reading in or discussion group this month. is the first example of an invisible dome surrounding a town.

    1. I’m only 90 pages into All Flesh is Grass. I was poking around trying to find out if it was the first such story, and I don’t think it was. But I’ve yet to find a good essay about dome stories. Just snippets of discussion at forums.

  2. Great post. Always enjoy your work with the classics of SF. Must admit, I don’t always agree but I get lots more books to read! Your speculation here is a good one and written extremely clearly. I have to agree but There are still those works of true speculation out there. Some are too technical for me – like Greg Egan’s latest – but others have enough of a plot and characters to keep me interested. I think both kinds are flourishing, but as you say – the new areas of science are often so complicated that speculation becomes a chore for some. Rajneimi, Egan, Bacigalupi, Vinge, and a host of others continue to bring up speculative ideas. Anyway – really appreciate your love for SF amd it seems we began reading it about the same time.

  3. Thanks Bob. I was thinking about popular science books today, and how many of my friends don’t read about science, and I doubt if they could understand much science. Science has gone very far and to follow along takes a lot of read. And then I thought, the same is true of science fiction. Speculative science fiction has covered a lot of territory, and for the average person, it’s much too much to keep up with.

  4. Fascinating post and highly informative, I really enjoyed it. I’d like to know what you think of the “new” genre of “climate fiction” (the term was coined by Dan Bloom, a climate activist in 2008)? Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl is considered cli-fi, as is Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Here the speculative element is not so far off in time, it hinges on climate change. Though, in my opinion, climate change is but one of the (negative) trends that are unfolding under our eyes and can give us (by extrapolation) an idea of the future that awaits us all.

    What would be needed is a broader look at the future, taking into account not only global warming but the population explosion, industrialization, urbanization, the social divide between the haves and haves not (the One Percent vs. the 99 Percent) etc etc In short, to visualize a world on the brink of global collapse and imagine what a bunch of people like you and me would do (in fact, that’s what I’ve just done in the book I’m currently publishing – it’s a serialized novel in 4 parts, pats 1 and 2 are out).

    What would you call that kind of book? Futurology fiction? For the time being, climate fiction, as a category, seems to be the best contender (other names are collapse fiction, eco-disaster fiction or even climate change fiction – none are as good and short and catchy as cli-fi) But cli-fi does have some limitations – actually many people argue it’s not a sub-genre of sci-fi, it’s different from sci-fi, it’s “literary” (as if there were no such thing as literary sci-fi when we both know there is, and how, starting with Wells, as you say, and Orwell and Aldous Huxley etc.)

    So what cli-fi has going for it is its speculative content. Speculation, as you point out, is key and it is what makes for the best kind of SF. Would you consider including that kind of book in your upcoming anthology?

    1. I loved and greatly admire The Windup Girl. I’ve read it twice now. I’m very into Cli-Fi as some call it. Awhile back I wrote a post about how climate change is the defining issue of our times, and said it would be important to see how science fiction writers deal with it. Adventure science fiction ignores reality, but speculative science fiction depends on constantly evaluating possible futures based on current knowledge. Some science fiction writers need to take on the task of exploring what happens to humanity when we fuck up big time. There’s no nice way of saying it. We’ve always assumed that our big brains and inventions will solve every problem we will face, and that might not be true.

      I would like to think that once the problem becomes all too obvious, even for the most ardent climate change denier, we’ll all pull together. Unfortunately, the point of being all too obvious might be past the point of no return.

      Your comment inspires me to seek out and find more Cli-Fi books and write about them. Thanks.

  5. Excellent reading as always, Mr. Harris. I’m very, very new to science fiction, it’s something that I’ve read mainly in the form of H.G. Wells and Star Wars over the years, but I now find myself gravitating towards. Have you looked into any hard SF writers? Alastair Reynolds, Karl Schroeder, Stephen Baxter, Kim Stanley Robinson. Many of the stories I’ve read by these guys so far has been edutainment indeed, but I find most hard science fiction writers tend to create plausible science to bolster their tales of adventure and politicking. Another notable name I’ve come across as of recent is Ramez Naam.

    1. I have read Reynolds, Baxter and Robinson. The trouble is some hard science fiction writers use too much super-science for my tastes. I’m not sure galactic space empires will be practical. The distances and times it takes to travel between the stars will be too great for biological beings, but maybe not AI machines. Also, can creatures from one evolved biological ecosystem ever safely visit another one?

      1. I’m not convinced there would ever be space empires either; empires in general are political systems of the past, and if mankind were to make it to the stars, I have trouble seeing the political structure they would set up being an empire. Space empires are just romantics transferring their love of the pseudo-fuedal system to a space setting.

        The travelling times between planets would also be troublesome, but at the moment I think cryostasis has big promise in that area. But yes, I can see AIs being more viable in that are. Maybe even a combination of the two? From some of the stuff I’ve read coming out of China, I wouldn’t discount robotics eventually reaching that level.

        As for creatures from one biological system visiting and even inhabiting another, I think that’s possible. I mean, all humans really need to thrive are oxygen, water and food sources. Those are the Big Three; gravitational pressure, radiation and other natural forces would also play major parts, but if those three exist then there are high possibilities for biological ecosystems to not only be transplanted but also to thrive.

  6. It’s best to bring the two together if you can.Of course, it has been done.Much of science fiction has been satirical.The work of Robert Sheckley for instance immediately comes to mind.Stuff like he wrote, is blackly comic SF.You can’t get better than that I don’t think.

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