What SF Means To Me

I grew up watching and reading Science Fiction.  Some of it was actually old by the time I had already been born, but it had a natural appeal to me when I was young.  The idea of getting in a starship and flying to another world appealed to me.

forbidden planetA lot of the movies I saw were very silly, and they didn’t always have the best special effects.  Not only were the posters for Forbidden Planet, done by a cartoonist, a cartoonist did the special effects as well.  As silly and fun as many were, they had a subversive effect on me and many others that is usually discounted.  Those movies started you on a path of wondering what we might someday be able to do.  It isn’t necessary for the movie to answer the question, all it has to do is raise it.

Aliens invading the Earth can quickly become an allegory for another sort of invasion, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers had all sorts of political relevance without mentioning politics at all.  Every time you talk about taking a trip to a new world, it follows that your going to talk about what might happen next, or what the consequences of a technology might be.  Even the silliest and most escapist of movies encourages the young to think about what could be.

Today, it seems to me that there is a strong desire to break away from the confines of the genre, as people who write work that originally would have been defined as Science Fiction want to call it something else, and sometimes I hear statements that reveal a strange kind of disrespect for Science Fiction.

Orson Scott Card described Science Fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy, which I thought was a way of disrespecting a genre which has been very good to him.  He characterized Science Fiction as being fantasy with laser guns.  I don’t agree with that, and I think it speaks more to his own limitations as a writer then it does the genre.

He certainly isn’t alone in that view though.  For instance, Margaret Atwood wrote a book called The Handmaid’s Tale, which to my mind is a great work of Science Fiction.  When her book was placed in that genre she objected, saying it was speculative fiction.

“For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering Science Fiction and all its hyphenated forms – Science Fiction. Fantasy, and so forth – and others choose the reverse.”

While it may sound silly to argue about these things, the genre that a book is placed in is a very serious thing for a writer, because it decides what bookshelf their work is placed on.  If the sort of people who would like their work never happen to come across it because they don’t check that shelf very often, that costs the author money and attention, and if that goes on for very long they may not be able to support themselves as a writer.  As more work is bought over the internet that may come to matter less, but I can understand why authors would be concerned.

My reason for wanting people to think about the meaning of the genre is different from that.  I think that defining a genre by the terms Atwood gave is trivial, as is Card’s, and they define it that way because like most people out there, they don’t understand what science really is.

Fantasy is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and that will always be true for me no matter how many more fantasy books are sold than Science Fiction.  The difference has nothing to do with laser guns or whether the story is set in the future, or the past.   The difference is simply that someone who writes Science Fiction wants his story to be logical, and connect with the real world in some way.  The tools are used in a way we understand, and have consequences that we can follow in our own society.

Science isn’t gadgets or ray guns, it’s whatever is derived from the scientific method, and the scientific method begins simply with a hypothesis; in other words, a theory.  The scientist then strives to find out whether the theory is true.  He tests it, looking for objectively gathered data, and backs it up by sending his results to his peers who can examine it with fresh eyes. He does these things in order to remove his own bias, and to try to see the world as it truly is, as opposed to what he wishes it were. It’s all about being objective.  And that entire process always begins with someone asking a question.

The problem with writing a novel about a star-ship making a journey to some far off planet is that we don’t know how to do it yet.  Whenever you write such a book, your more hardcore Science Fiction fans will nitpick little details and argue about what is scientifically possible.  Sometimes authors choose Fantasy over Science Fiction just to avoid that problem.  An author might dread an argument over physics, and instead write a book that skips the journey and uses an extradimensional portal made by a seemingly magical process.  Having done that, nobody will argue whether the ship could be built, or what the consequences of what the trip might be.  Fantasy usually ends up being about power struggles between different characters and very little else.

When a writer is willing to go the extra mile and write something that makes us question what is possible for us to do, or the consequences of our actions, we should respect that.

We live now in the richest and most escapist society the world will ever know.  The people who came before us could not dream of the inventions we possess, and never lived so well.  Our children will not be so able to escape, because more people live now on Earth than it can support indefinitely.  Even as major natural catastrophes occur one after the other, journalists will cover the damage extensively, but resist even mentioning climate change, as though the cause is somehow irrelevant.

All art is escapist to some extent, but some teaches us to ask questions.  Today, we read less, we watch more escapist films which seem to mean nothing at all, and we ask very few questions.

These days, most of the books sold are actually ebooks and don’t really sit on a shelf at all.  You can do a search based on the author’s name without leaving your chair, but twenty years ago the only way you’d locate a book is by physically walking to the right part of the store.  It’s just as well, because authors and readers alike aren’t quite certain what the names they place over the shelves really mean more.

I read books from all the shelves, so I’ve never placed that much importance in the name of a genre.  Still, I have always known what Science Fiction was to me.  It’s the literature of ideas, and of questions.  I hope that when I read more books in the coming year, I will see more of it.

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  1. Michael —

    I think you may have a point. I had to go to a bookstore after your remarks and find a copy of Ender's Game to fast scan.

    Considering the first two acts of the book, the character set up and the military games portions were both more fully developed than the last act. The last act does seem a little rushed, not as fully fleshed out, and the ends are stitched loosely.

    I've come to accept some looseness in stories as I'm convinced that I could hardly do better … despite dreaming that I someday will. Perhaps O. S. Card was meeting deadlines, or worried about getting to the end of the book and resolving the story. Nonetheless, your comments are an interesting observation.

  2. Well, everyone is certainly entitled to withdraw from any discussion when they want to, but I believe that further inquiry and nit-picking over the details of science, and science fiction, is not only fun, but can also serve a useful purpose.

    Perhaps the link to Lucian of Samosata was merely to establish the argument’s bona fides and not purposed to encourage further inquiry. Alas, here we are with the unintended consequences.

    After pushing through the article and a dozen samplings of the reference material, the smell of science fiction ‘boosterism’ became obvious, at least to me. While reading through several introductions and the original source, I concluded that the primary flaw in all this is the anachronistic perspective. Modern values claiming the past as it’s own.

    History is about time, place, and context. The context of science isn’t present much before the 1500s. The Catholic Church vigorously prevented people like Galileo from having public opinions about science and discouraged active inquiry as a threat to divine interpretations. There was no culture of science–no scientific methodology. Well, I don’t think you can have science fiction without the science.

    Many early works can claim a place in proto-science fiction, but science is an invention of the modern age. Embracing every marginal work available is an over indulgence. It smacks of the gourmand, not the gourmet. I relegate works before the 1500s to proto-science fiction because the genre-splitting wars have already made distinction a nebulous enterprise. Personally, I like works of distinction.

    This brings me back to Orson Scott Card and his thoughts on science fiction being fantasy with laser guns. His work on Ender’s Game was a seminal work of distinction. This doesn’t mean he’s right all the time. It just means he’s a great writer.

    I not only think there is a distinction between hard SF, soft SF, and fantasy, I think it’s good to declare what they are. It appears we have some spadework ahead of us before we’re in complete agreement on how to use those terms. Maybe were stuck with indefinable terms, but I still hope that our vigorous debate will eventually clarify the usage to our mutual satisfaction. We should certainly have fun while we do so.

    At the moment, the current litmus test is apparently what our fellow blogger, Ricky L. Brown, recently said in his post, “A Defining Moment In Science Fiction:” when it comes to science fiction, “ … I’ll know it when I see it.”

    1. Very true. I think it's good to talk about what the genre means to us, but as I said, we all read what we like.

      I enjoyed Enders Game a great deal, but I thought that it failed a bit in the third act so to speak. All through the book I was captured by the storyline and what was happening. When the book ended, my reaction was… that's it? It felt as though there was no conclusion. Several major characters had been introduced (the sociopathic brother and his sister) and I didn't feel like their story arc had concluded in a very satisfying way.

      It was a very interesting story though. Thank you for posting, it's nice to read other people's thoughts.

  3. Thanks for the initial link, Astrid. I followed several links to their sources.

    Here's a link to the original material: Lucian of Samosata – https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl2/wl211.htm

    After reading the original text and several source notes, I became rather unconvinced that it was SF.

    “Consequently, True History may properly be regarded as SF because Lucian often achieves that sense of "cognitive estrangement" which Darko Suvin has defined as the generic distinction of SF, that is, the depiction of an alternate world, radically unlike our own, but relatable to it in terms of significant knowledge.24”

    The Hobbit played out, in similar fashion, as an alternate world, but no one calls it SF.

    Most of the authors’ arguments seem too weak and circumspect for me to accept that it’s SF. A large part of the arguments, in fact, are gleaned from logic statements, a kinda Venn Diagram to assert that its nature is SF … when it is really discourse on Philosophy. Lucian’s work is primarily a parody of other arguments by other philosophers. None of these arguments are sufficient, by themselves, to convince me that Lucian’s work is really SF. On the contrary, I see it as discourse on the Philosophy of Mythology and the whole thing devolves into a religious debate.

    In fact, what we have here is a disagreement on semantics. That comment by Orson Scott Card seems a bit simplistic and ignores some of the time-honored defintions on SF genres. I can see how that might apply to Space Opera, but hard science fiction is hardly fantasy. However you say it, it's bound to step on toes. If SF has one trait (vice?) that separates it from fantasy it's the nit-picking over the details of the science or engineering.

    1. The Greeks didn't separate science and philosophy, or rather they called everything which we now call natural sciences, philosophy – so that argument against calling Lucian's story "science fiction" does not hold.

      Of course, if you want to define science fiction as that genre which only existed since Verne and Wells, you can find arguments against anything that came before, but that seems to me a circular argument, which I don't think there is much point pursuing further.

  4. … or Persia, or the Arab world. I wouldn't wonder if there are science fiction stories in the 1001 Nights. There most certainly are fantasy ones, as I don't suppose people at the time *actually* thought this was what happened in tthe real world.

  5. For the record, the first known science fiction story in European literature – an account of a journey to the moon, complete with scientific explanation (according to contemporary knowledge) how they got there – dates from 160 A.D. and was written by the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata – more info here: https://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/LucianSamosata.htm

    Not surprisingly, since the concept of scientific understanding of the world, as far as European culture is concerned, dates back to the ancient Greeks, somewhere around 600 or 500 A.D.

    I wonder if anyone has any notes on China and India.

  6. You make an interesting point about the relationship between science fiction and fantasy. One could argue that SciFi is actually the older of the two genres because, while there have always been folktales about fairies, giants and so forth, these were not fantasy in the sense of taking place in a fantasy world. Instead, they were things that were supposed to be happening in the real world, which was imagined to have such creatures in it. SciFi arguably dates from the 18th century, where it already had the elements that you identify in your post.

    1. There are clearly fantasy stories from well before the 18th century, and recognized as such. The marketing categories of SF and Fantasy have very little to do with content, and much more with what Delany called the "reading protocols" for understanding the works.

      The earliest clear SF story is probably Frankenstein, from 1818 (I wonder what 18th C. work you're thinking of, Geoffrey). Don Quixote (1618 or thereabouts) or Gulliver's Travels (1718) are much more fantasy than SF, and more allegory than either. They don't have the sense of attempting to deal with scientific understanding of the world, which really is a late-18th C. concept.

      1. There are examples of 18th century science fiction. Casanova's Isosameron, for instance, is about a race that lives in the interior of the planet along with flying horses, mechanical music, quasi-electrical telegraphy, a language, a religion and a philosophy. All the classic elements of Science Fiction are present, including explanations of the science behind the ideas.

      2. In his annotated edition, Isaac Asimov states that the third book of Gulliver's Travels (1726) represents "true science fiction [and] perhaps the earliest example we have of it."

        Asimov's criterion is that the third book (unlike the first two) attempts "an explanation of its working in line with the findings of contemporary science." Casanova's Isosameron was published in 1788.

        However, your point is well taken that *as a genre* science fiction didn't exist until the 19th century. I'd argue that Science Fiction didnt really exist as a genre until Verne and Wells.

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