An Introduction to The Modified Brotherton-Troughton-Davidson-Scale-of-Science-Fiction-ness.

The other day R.K. Troughton opened up a discussion on the line (if there is one) between fantasy and science fiction.

R.K., having an affinity for games, offered up a table, borrowing from technology scales that are familiar to those of us who have engaged with science fiction games. Various theories regarding the nature of that line were presented and then discussed in the comments section, at which point Mike Brotherton (a member of the Order of the Damon Knights Defenders of Science in Science Fiction – do NOT ask him what sign he is!) offered up a link to his previously conceived Hardness Scale for Science Fiction at which point I – a former game designer myself – began looking at everything from a game-design perspective.

In attempting to simplify the discussion and generate some parameters for future thought I offered up the idea that science fiction (the kind Damon Knight continually points to) must meet two important criteria or ‘tests’ that fantasy does not, one being the Campbellian dictate that SF illustrates the effects of science and technology and its influence and interaction with human beings and the other being the plausibility or rightness of the extrapolated science presented in a given work.  (For my purposes, unresolved scientific questions leave room for extrapolation.)

A work that meets both of those criteria is easily discernible as science fiction, while one that doesn’t could be a fantasy. A game theory matrix for this relationship would look something like this (typically a “yes” or “meets the condition” is represented as a ‘1’, while a “no” or a “doesn’t apply/doesn’t meet the condition” is represented as a 0):


*I’m not sure how a work could have plausibly extrapolated science and NOT show the effects and interactions it had on people, but the table suggests that such could exist.  Perhaps Abbott’s Flatland meets these criteria…?

There are of course other tests that good science fiction – SF loosely defined at the moment as those works that the majority of us would place into such a class – can be subjected to – but using such tests simply adds more columns to the matrix and more finely dices the pseudo-forms that might exist between science fiction and fantasy; a quick study of those tests will reveal that they are ALL exclusionary so far as fantasy is concerned (an SF work might get a 1, a fantasy work will always receive a 0). After all, we’re trying to determine what an SF work has that a fantasy work doesn’t (or vice versa).

Now before I go on and lest anyone get the wrong impression: stating that a work fails one or more tests for science fictionness is NOT the same thing as saying it is a bad work. An apple tests out to zero on all of the qualities that go into making an excellent orange. Failing the apple test, the orange remains a very good orange and need not be ashamed of its failure at all.  Unless of course the orange has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and thinks that it has been writing science fiction all along, which raises an entirely different question about the future capabilities of oranges that we don’t have time to get into here.

Also in the comments, Astrid Nielsch addressed a common accusation leveled against fantasy;  that because of the rigor required of science and the absence of (real) science from fantasy, fantasy works are ‘easier’ to write, lack logical consistency & etc.  Astrid rightly pointed out that the crafting of fantasy works (especially in these days of GRRM dominance) has become an exercise that is equally as complicated, logical and rigorous as the writing of Science Fiction, the works adhering to and restricting themselves to an internal logic that can be just as confining (within the work itself) as works of SF.  This is true but I have moved the goal posts on Astrid.  SF (again, works we agree are good SF, easily definable as such by the vast majority of its audience) still operates under a greater set of restrictions than fantasy, restrictions external to the logics presented in a story.  Science Fiction must take our present day scientific knowledge into account.  A work of fantasy need not.  This difference in no way diminishes one genre or the other.  It is also a difference that is encompassed in the plausibility question in the above matrix.

star smashersTo continue.  Mike Brotherton’s Scale of SF Hardness(TM) – reproduced here –

0. Futurama.
1. Star Wars.
2. Most Superhero Movies (e.g. Spider-Man)
3. Event Horizon.
4. Armageddon.
5. Star Trek.
6. Space Cowboys.
7. Aliens.
8. Avatar.
9. Contact.
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey

The scale restricts itself to science fiction, or things that one can at least argue are of a science fictional nature.  It also restricts itself to film and television forms of SF which makes it far more accessible to a much wider audience, which is beneficial at least in the creating of benchmarks.

I have a few disagreements with Mike on the works selected to illustrate his scale.  Beginning with 0, Furturama.  I don’t think it belongs so far down the totem pole because Futurama is comedy and where it relates to SF it often employs a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek approach.  I’d contend that one needs to be intimately familiar with science and technology (and their possible extrapolations) in order to so effectively make fun of them (the Smell-o-scope as an instrument of astronomical investigation springs immediately to mind) and equally familiar with the tropes and history of the genre (there is no such thing as an FTL drive.  Futurama’s in-joke in dealing with this problem is to totally ignore it – which is a very telling humorous comment on that trope).  I’d put Futurama at the top of the scale with a note to the effect that this show’s lack of scientific rigor and plausibility is a comedic turn on the presence of such in Hard SF.  Qualification through negation, if you will.

My subjective difference here reveals our initial problem in adopting Mike’s scale.  (Though it occurs to me that placing Futurama at ‘0’ AND having a tenth item on the scale might be Mike’s elegant way of pointing out what I took a paragraph to elaborate on.)  But it also reveals that not everyone is going to put the same films and television shows at the same level.  It is a starting point and looking at properties from the big and little screens offers us one major advantage (beyond accessibility) that the written form does not:  we can all observe the science, the tech and the human interactions with the same.  Observation is a hallmark of the scientific method.  We can use our observations to create a list of facts – facts that are testable and verifiable, another hallmark of conducting good scientific research.

(Shouldn’t Science Fiction be accessible to analysis by scientific method?  It would seem to be a natural.)

Literature also differs from the visual arts by introducing a greater degree of subjectivity to the experience we glean from it; my interpretation of a passage’s inherent factiness may differ wildly from your own, while in visual media we not only hear the words being said, we can actually witness the one specific manner in which the characters interact with the science and the technology.  (For example – the Pod Escape scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Reading about the incident does not provide any true time frames for how long Bowman spends in hard vacuum.  The film presentation of the story can actually be timed (24 seconds; according to NASA, a human can survive – and recover from – such exposure of approximately 30 seconds.)

What I propose therefore is that we first create a list of visually accessible science fiction properties, massaging Mike’s original list through the addition of other works and then, once we’ve got a nice scale with a few exemplars for each, we begin comparing various works of literature to that scale.  For example – Futurama finds itself in the 0 classification.  Do other SF comedic works – such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Spaceballs or even Hot Tub Time Machine – belong in the same category?  And would that category then be a match for the science fictionness of such literary works as The Technicolor Time Machine (Harrison), The High Crusade (Anderson), Piper’s Jay Score stories or Padget’s (Moore & Kuttner) Gallagher stories?

Of course this whole exercise does beg the question:  Should we even be trying to stuff science fiction into a box?

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  1. When I read the discussion taking place around R.K.'s article, I had an urge to chime in and make a case for humor deserving a higher rating on Mike’s list, but a busy schedule held me back. I then considered writing an out of cycle non-review blog on where humor fits in the taxonomy and how one could gauge the hardness of a particular humorous work. But every time I try to wrap my mind around the subject, my brain blows a fuse. Part of my problem is being something of a perfectionist. So rather than try to perfect a classification system, perhaps it might be better if I just throw out a few observations that might help in the discussion.

    – Steve makes an excellent point when he proposes “Qualification through negation”. Humor is often knowingly scientifically incorrect in order to make fun of the lack of scientific merit in what is being parodied or satirized. This requires an equal or greater level of scientific knowledge than the original. Generally speaking, I think parody should at least get as high a hardness rating as the thing it is spoofing (with exceptions).

    – Humor certainly complicates the plausibility test, because sometimes it is the bad science which makes it funny. And in those cases the reader only gets the joke if they know the actual science. So laughing at the joke is based upon everyone, reader and writer, knowing the science, but what is literally written down is wrong.

    – Some humor plays directly with the science, taking a look at absurd extrapolations of legitimate theory. Whereas a serious hard SF story might make a fine plot out of similar extrapolations, the humor is intended to be silly. This might lead some to drop the humor lower on the hardness scale (an error of equating Hard with Serious), but it is no less valid scientifically and deserves an equal hardness rating. A great example of such jokes is one from the Hitchhiker’s Guide during the description of a party in which "…all the molecules in the hostess's undergarments leap simultaneously one foot to the left, in accordance with the Theory of Indeterminacy." It may sound silly but it is practically straight out of a Feynman lecture.

    – Due to the variety of styles employed in humorous SF, and due to variation in quality, classification of literary works of humorous science fiction would have to be considered individually on a case-by-case basis.

    1. Well, that came off like a lot of useless late night blathering. But I don’t completely blame the lateness of the hour for the incoherence of the post. I think the problem lies more in not satisfactorily being able to come up with an adequately dynamic system. I guess that is part of what Steve is trying to achieve by adding more criteria. My impulse is to run for the cover of R. K.’s method of simply giving humor a ‘get out of jail free’ card and avoid the difficulty altogether, but that feels like cheating.

      The problem makes itself most evident when I try to attach a numerical hardness value to a specific humorous piece. The difficulty is that a single humorous book can be all over the map in terms of hard SF, so where to place it – at an average? Another problem is the urge to subjectively raise or lower a score due to favoritism, even though I am aware that hardness itself does not necessarily equate to a good story. This goes for how I view Mike’s list as well. For instance, I thought Avatar was crap, so I tend to see it as lacking in the scientific rigor necessary for an eight.

      This won’t help as a measure of science fictionness or hardness, but I do have my own scale for humorousness. I rate every humorous story on this scale and have maintained a database of said ratings since the early 90s. This is a scale I am much more comfortable with:

      Note on 0-2 ratings, I don’t usually put a rating on non-humorous stories, but I’ve included examples of what I might put there if I did (these are done from memory and prone to inaccuracy with regards to humorous content).

      0 – The Year of the Quiet Sun, Bloodchild (dead serious stories)

      1 – Dune, Non-Stop (stories where humorous observations are very rare)

      2 – Gateway, Barnacle Bill the Spacer (stories where humor makes an occasional appearance but is not a significant focus)

      3 – The Adventure of the Solitary Engineer, Doomsday Book (We start to see overlap here between humor stories that are not particularly funny – Solitary Engineer, and non-humor stories that manage to elicit some humorous response – Doomsday Book)

      4 – Pate de Foie Gras, Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot (Groaners & bad puns)

      5 – Bears Discover Fire, The Cool War (stories where the humor is mild – Bears, or stories where the humor only moderately succeeds – Cool War)

      6 – Venus and the Seven Sexes, This is the Way the World Ends (pretty much anything from 6 on up is solidly funny, but some more so than others, hence the higher rating)

      7 – Good Omens, Allamagoosa

      8 – Slapstick, This Other Eden

      9 – The Liberation of Earth, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

      10 – None (On the principle that there can always be something better and perfection cannot be achieved, I never give out 10s. Hypothetically, Monty Python’s Funniest Joke in the World, the one that is so funny that anyone exposed to it dies laughing, would rate a 10 if it actually existed.)

      1. perhaps removing humor as a separate category might help, in which case I'd argue for Futurama to be somewhere up near 2001 and would have to find something else to stick at 0. Arguments for doing so the same as previously – you have to know the science well to make fun of it well.

        BTW – whom do you think is engaging in incoherency? If its me (and that's fine if you think so) then I blame not only the lateness of the hour but also the lateness of the hours of the preceding three months….

        1. No, that was my post I was referring to. I guess it would have been clearer if I had called it a comment. Your post was fine, better than I could have managed given the number of variables.

        2. Incidentally, I am with you on the brilliance of Futurama. Just thinking about it makes me want to pop in a DVD and watch one of the classic episodes like “Roswell That Ends Well" or "The Late Philip J. Fry" Any science fiction fan who hasn’t seen these is deprived, kind of like never having read Dune.

  2. Interesting thoughts, Steve, and I might mess with my scale a bit, too. It could be quantified in various ways by distinguishing between various elements (e.g. mistakes, extrapolations of current science that might not be true, outright impossibilities, etc.). Something like Apollo 13 gets a 10, 2001 gets a 9, and so forth. It's fun to think about to the kind of person who finds this game fun!

    And yeah, Futurama at 0 is to kind of set it outside the scale proper. Comedy plays with things for humor's sake, not the rules of physics.

    It's hard to say if FTL is less hard than time travel, or vice versa, I think. Both are sort of plausible in some extreme interpretations of current physics, but may be impossible in practice in our universe. Is it "harder" to have artificial gravity by spinning a spacecraft but get the direction of the gravity wrong?

  3. Steve. I must noodle on this more. My first thought is that part of the subjectivity of any scale we may create is that we each have a different foundation.

    Star Trek for instance uses things called techno babble. The TV series had people specifically assigned to create techno babble.

    Now living daily amongst scientists and engineers, I've seen and heard lots of techno babble. Unfortunately even amongst them there are those that begin spouting techno babble but don't really know what they are talking about.

    In steps a manager or other non-technical person that hears the big words and doesn't understand them. Because the person was spouting them out they think, "She smart." When in fact the person has no idea what they are saying, but simply using buz words. I have witnessed people make entire careers from confusing the right people.

    All this being said my scientific knowledge while broad is but a thimble to the ocean of science. I confess to being bum-rushed by big words I don't understand in both the real world and in fiction. Sometimes I catch myself nodding like a bobble-head as if I know what they are talking about.

    I suspect some fiction may get marked a 1 in either category, simply from the angle of view. Some things I would mark as a 1, a physicist may mark as 0 and then mock me in their scientific way.

    Seems as if it is circling back to the sniff test.

    But how can I resist an opportunity to rigidly stuff something into a box and attempt to create order from chaos.


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