by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 5, 2017
I have a new essay up at Book Riot, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction?” It’s always fun to see other sites publish something I’ve written. And it’s an essay I’m proud of and want people to read. However, I’m not sure it’s the essay I intended to write. I don’t know if you have ever written an essay but if you have, do the thoughts you want to write ever come out the in the words you type?
Inspiration is often a vague idea, or maybe just a feeling. When you start writing about that momentary impulse other ideas start flowing out too. Ideas you haven’t thought of before, or planned. Quite often an essay will take off in a new direction, even a better direction. When I first started writing “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Science Fiction?” I planned to list and categorize all the main topics of science fiction. I felt there were a finite set of topics we label as science fiction. The essay covered that somewhat, but not in the way I planned. It veered off into another thought, that science fictional ideas are descended from myths, religion and fantasy stories. I ended up saying when we talk about science fiction we’re talking about ideas that we’ve been talking about ever since we shared Europe with the Neanderthals. Science fiction has redefined some of those ancient desires. The few that have any kind of scientific possibility we call science fiction, the rest we call fantasy, religion, or myths.
Since I hang out in book clubs and forums devoted to science fiction I talk and write about science fiction a lot. More often than not we end up talking about stories, storytelling, plots, characters, authors, publishing, reviewing, cover art, and all the things that go into the making of the genre of science fiction, but not the actual philosophy of science fiction. It usually comes down to whether or not the story entertained us, rather than did the story have an original speculative idea.
I actually believe science fiction is a very limited area of discourse. I believe science fiction is the act of speculating about specific unknown aspects of reality. I believe reading a story that makes us think about life on alien worlds is science fictional, but I believe that’s different from enjoying an adventure story that’s set on another world with aliens.
I often wonder if the stories we’ve inherited from myths and religions are the entertainment versions of once serious speculations about reality. That one-day science fiction from the 20th century will be like us reading about Greek mythology. Will they ask, “Did they believe these stories were true?”
When Robert A. Heinlein wrote stories about people living on the Moon in the 1950s he thought his stories were speculating about the possibility of colonizing the Moon. He wanted his stories to inspire a generation that would actually go into space and build the high frontier. Now we read those stories for entertainment or nostalgia.
I’ve always believed the science fiction magazine was where the cutting edge of science fictional ideas first appeared. But few people read those magazines anymore. I’m out of touch with most of the popular SF novels. Few of them seem to be serious science fiction speculation. People want a thrill ride, not philosophy.
I’m not sure all the serious speculative ideas of science fiction haven’t become part of our everyday culture. Forbes, a magazine devoted to business regularly covers astronomy, cosmology, theoretical physics, and space travel at its website. Artificial intelligence and robots are now part of the corporate bottom line. Miracles of biotechnology and engineering are on the news every day.
So what are we talking about when we talk about science fiction? I worry science fiction is a dying area of philosophy that’s being transformed into entertainment category. For Example, why is a sequel to Blade Runner coming out soon, and not an honest version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PKD was a weird-ass philosopher, not a writer of action hero adventure stories. In many ways, movie and television science fiction is stuck in the era of Planet Stories and never reached what was going on in Galaxy, F&SF and IF in the 1950s, much less what came out in the 1960s and 1970s.
I used the essay as a post of the Facebook group Space Opera Pulp and some of the people also said that movie science fiction wasn’t like what we used to read. So maybe I’m not alone in thinking science fiction is changing.
15 thoughts on “Writing About Science Fiction”
As you mentioned, most of what ‘traditional’ SF posited has now become ‘science-fact’ or close enough to it, and so, perhaps SF is undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s in the chrysalis stage, which is why most of what we see at the moment is the last of the old guard rehashed, and repurposed, and sequel-ed to within an inch of its life. I have no idea what sort of butterfly will emerge, but I have faith that it will be beautiful. 🙂
That’s a wonderful idea to think about Widdershins. We need to be on the lookout to spot those stories and promote them. I wonder if they will show up in science fiction magazines or in totally new publications?
Probably outside of established markets … self-publishing, that sort of thing. 🙂
Would you consider The Martian one such example? It was self-published, to begin with.
By the way, your original comment showed up on Flipboard by itself. I thought that was pretty cool.
Possibly. Although when you break it down, it follows the traditional SF plot. Boy hero uses superior knowledge to survive a hostile environment, albeit magnificently done. 🙂 I loved both the book and the film.
P.S. No idea what flipboard is. 🙂
Science fiction has many of the characteristics of adventure fiction. We are moral beings and view the world along with those we invent from a moral stand point. The same reasoning applies to the world’s of magic as in Lord of the Rings ; they are simply an extension of ordinary world’s to spice up the adventure. Men racing around in rocket ships is little different to armour and swords or the beating of native drums.
The hard task in literature is to paint lasting human character ; real people on the page struggling with life’s problems. It is not the false hero that will last down the years but the real patchwork of human faults that make up a human being.
I agree, Kersten. Very few books touch us in a way that lets them survive over the centuries. I wrote this essay about which books from the 19th century have survived and it’s not many. Very few are science fiction.
An excellent and a thoughtful analysis you have certainly covered most of the ground. The great science fiction writer H.G. Wells often speculates about mankind and his purpose against the backlight of eternity. Read the last paragraph of ‘The Time Machine ‘ It is more than science fiction it is literary magic. His very short story ‘ The Star ‘ shows extraordinary descriptive power. Wells nearly always finds the snag behind the very latest advances and views science as a liberator and an ensnaring force.
I’ve always admired Wells, and consider The Time Machine the standard of science fiction, not for the time machine, but for the speculation about the fate of man and the Earth.
I’ve been reading New Atlantis by Brian Stableford, a four volume work on the scientific romance, where H. G. Wells plays an important role. It’s going to take me forever to finish, but I love how Stableford shows how Wells created a whole branch of science fiction in the evolution of the genre.
I had not known about Brian Stapleford and looking him up led me on to consider prolific writers. It is perhaps especially relevant in our computer-age when we are swamped with information from every direction. The ultimate is surely Philip M Parker who has harnessed technology to write books and has published 1.2 million poems. A far cry from Anthony Trollope who had a reputation for being far too long-winded. Perhaps we could extend Beethovens 32 piano sonatas to 32,000 or even more!
I really enjoyed the essay, thanks for posting it. I liked what you said about myths….storytelling is what differentiated us from other members of the human family and allowed us to work together in large enough numbers to out compete them way back in the day. If this theory is correct we have been telling each other stories for 200,000 years….i think it’s a great idea that the myths and legends we know today are a bridge back to our very (very) early history.
It took me a long time to categorise my fledgling novel as ‘Science Fiction.’ Yes, it involved interstellar travel and alien planets, but I think the reason I decided on this genre is that it poses a totally alternative world to ours. Not necessarily a parallel universe – just the world if it went a different way.
As an aside, I find categorizing works of art very difficult. My book also has a strong romance element, and deep character building. Literary agents seem rather short sighted to me, and desperate to pigeonhole work into a marketable category. Where is the creativity in that? How can we hope to make something new?
Thanks for sharing 😊
Maybe the issue is alternate histories and wrong directions taken since the 1960s.
A turbine car almost won the Indy 500 in 1968. I remember hearing a radio announcer saying the turbines were banned because they were too fast. There is a movie, “The Lively Set”, about turbine cars. Jay Leno owns one.
So in addition to advancing technology we have the issue of who decides what to implement. So we get a future that is less then optimum. The technology is selected on the basis of someone thinking that is what maximizes profit.
This brings up the issue of education also. How is it that double-entry accounting is 700 years old but not mandatory in our schools. A high school teacher in Sweden and self-professed “Socialist” told me that he objected to mandatory accounting on the grounds that the Math would make Capitalism seem logical. Are these people that should be teachers? Now we have the problem of how to use technology in education.
What I find really interesting is that tablets now have the power to run the PLATO system that began development in the 60s. But when do you hear educators talking about it?
What kind of society would we get if the 10% brightest kids did not need our educational system once they learned to read. If AI software can win at GO and Jeopardy might it be trained to be better than 75% of professional educators. Would that lead to Utopia even if it screwed up the power structure?
The most useful SF may not be the most entertaining.
I remember back in the 1960s reading about the PLATO system and wishing I had access to it. I once started a science-fiction story where kids had a tablet that was an AI based on famous people who could be their mentor. We’re getting very close to having such a thing now.
Actually, the problem isn’t technology or methodology in education, because we have some fantastic schools, the problem is equality of schools. Some kids get a top-notch school, and others are sent to failure factories. We owe the future excellent schools for all.