Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be?

Pioneer-10-and-11-plaqueWhat makes a story science fiction? Is it an otherworldly location, the science, the time in which it is set?

I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.

I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.

It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)

But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?

shaw

Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.

He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.

One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.

shawTake, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.

We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.

The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.

shawScience fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.

We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.

shawScience fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.

So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange   Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?

POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.

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  1. #1 by raulconde001 on October 19, 2014 - 7:39 pm

    Excellent description of how to write science fiction. I am learning from this post already.🙂

  2. #3 by danholloway on October 19, 2014 - 8:02 pm

    Very interesting. My first reaction was to get a bit huffy at the notion that science fiction was being reduced to a “high concept” at the expense of its nuance and subtlety. But yes, I can absolutely see it, the more I think of truly great science fiction stories. Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, for example, where memories can be implanted, or Minority Report, where murderers can be apprehended for future crimes. Yes, these *do* have massive, and very simply expressed, central ideas that function as characters. But they are more than that – these are ideas that are also metaphors about the human condition, and I think that is what I felt had been missed, and what elevates great science fiction.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 19, 2014 - 8:11 pm

      Dan, nice to see you here! And you’re absolutely right. The reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. You make a lovely point here – thanks.

    • #5 by acflory on October 19, 2014 - 8:19 pm

      “these are ideas that are also metaphors about the human condition” Yes! And perhaps one more thing – in pure science fiction, the science should be vaguely possible, even if not plausible.

      • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 19, 2014 - 8:43 pm

        Hi Andrea! Dan (annoyingly and brilliantly) picked on the very point I usually make about SF – and had forgotten about while I wrote this post. Thank heavens for smart friends.
        You raise an interesting point about possibility. I definitely agree that the science has to seem plausible, and for that to happen it will usually be traceable to principles we understand. But should it be possible as in within reach? Teleports aren’t, but they feature as a staple in much space-travel fiction and we accept it. Perhaps that’s because we think matter transfer should be invented for the sake of convenience.

        • #7 by acflory on October 20, 2014 - 2:59 am

          Possible but not probably. I’m no scientist but I suspect the germ of possibility underlying teleports is quantum entanglement…or something like that. Hence at least in theory, you could extrapolate that some day, someone will work out the tech to make teleports a reality.

          No idea what FTL travel is based on but there’s probably some tiny concept somewhere that kick started the concept.

          I’m okay with a fusion of sci-fi and fantasy so long as the so called explanations sound plausible-ish.🙂

        • #8 by danholloway on October 20, 2014 - 8:53 am

          I think my demands of the science tend to focus not on the possible or the plausible but on consistency – does the author create a world in which this could happen. So, I guess that *is* possibility, but possibility within the world of the novel rather than our own

          • #9 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:15 pm

            ‘Possible within the world of the novel’ – that’s what I’d say was important too, Dan. We authors control the horizontal, the vertical…

  3. #10 by L. N. Holmes on October 19, 2014 - 8:29 pm

    This post is great. I love this discussion and have struggled with these ideas as well.

    I think many “literary” authors who are dipping their toes into genre fiction struggle to grapple with the genre and try to morph it to their standards for a character-driven novel. I mean no disrespect to them, and I think this idea can be done correctly (like in Brave New World and or in 1Q84), but I’ve also seen it go horribly wrong.

    While definitely not the worst example, California by Edan Lepucki is one of those novels that takes an interesting concept like a dystopia and morphs it to focus solely on human relationships. To me, Lepucki wasted her setting. While I understood the point, I thought it would have been better off as literary fiction — period. The environmental disasters added little to the plot. The cabins and the compounds added minimal interest and suspense. It was honestly disappointing. Her writing was great at times, but her setting was downright unimpressive.

    I feel as if this translates into science fiction as well. There are many literary giants that are dabbling in these genres, but they have yet to impress me with their work. One of the staples of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, and dystopian is the interesting environment. I agree that it needs to act like a character. The Egdon Heath in Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native, is a good example of this (although it is literary fiction). A well-developed setting that shapes and acts upon your characters is absolutely necessary for these genres.

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 19, 2014 - 8:53 pm

      Hi Leeann – thanks! The question of the setting is interesting. Some readers like the setting to be one of the stars, like Bob Shaw encouraging us to make the idea as important as one of the characters. Other readers don’t mind if it’s more of a background, and they prefer the relationships and the human angle. Does that make it less firmly science fiction? I’m not sure.
      The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist is an example – a dystopia where childless people can ‘buy’ themselves a comfortable retirement if they volunteer to donate their organs. Not much of the society is shown; merely enough for us to understand what’s going on. The emphasis is more on the human story and the relationships. The ‘big idea’ is the society that has found a way to make these people pay this price for a secure old age – and without it, there isn’t another way to make that story. I think that fits with the science fiction definition, though it is more about characters falling in love and gaining awareness.
      I haven’t read California – thanks for the example!

      • #12 by L. N. Holmes on October 20, 2014 - 1:48 am

        Wow, great counter example! I will definitely check that out. Thanks for your thoughts! You make excellent points.🙂

  4. #14 by Grigory Ryzhakov on October 19, 2014 - 9:13 pm

    A spot on post, Roz. I get annoyed at people calling any kind of fiction, even the kind that has no science in it whatsoever, – science fiction. Most of it should be called speculative fiction. But I guess readers are now used to ‘science fiction’ as something set in space. And books about ‘science somehow affecting humanity on Earth’ are categorised as dystopias or technothrillers nowadays. Another issue I have with modern science fiction is that it tries hard to dazzle and entertain instead of doing what literature should be doing – reflect on our world, on its past, present and future, ask bold questions, suggest bold hypotheses and make us think where are we going

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 19, 2014 - 11:16 pm

      Hi Grisha! Good points about reflecting on our world and testing what we are. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. #16 by TraciLoudin on October 19, 2014 - 10:04 pm

    On one hand, I definitely agree that good science fiction SHOULD strive toward an idea that, as stated, “changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition” to the point where as “Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.” That’s certainly what I aim for, as a genre writer.

    But on the other hand, I look back at some of the earliest genre works, the ones that actually shaped the genre. Some of them were essentially just “Westerns in space,” or stories about exploring new worlds. They could just as well have been on the frontier of regular ol’ Earth itself, such as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars/Venus/Moon/Pellucidar series.

    So while I agree with Shaw that it’s something to strive for, I don’t think it’s a working definition for what actually is or is not science fiction. In general, I prefer looser, more inclusive genre borders than exclusive ones. But I agree that literary fiction authors who dip their toes in the genre have a tendency to get it wrong for the reasons mentioned. They add on genre elements that really have no purpose. For instance, the movie Another Earth drove me insane (my review here: http://www.traciloudin.com/2012/02/another-earth-movie-review.html) because there was no point for the other planet even being there… the story actually revolved around a romance between two people who had a tragic past together.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 19, 2014 - 11:15 pm

      Hi Traci! I certainly agree that a lot of genre fiction is westerns in space or romances in space.
      But I adored Another Earth. And I think it added something that maybe I didn’t enunciate enough in this post.
      For me, the irreplacable thing that Another Earth provided was metaphorical rather than literal. It was the chance to have another go. This was accomplished so cleverly and so slickly by the simple idea of a second Earth appearing in the heavens, with all it promised. Indeed, it echoed the deepest wish of the main character.
      Although no scenes took place there (and I do take the point you make in your review about the funny gravitational effects), it remained there as a ghost peering in through the window, challenging people. It particularly challenged the characters in the story.
      So I disagree that the presence of the other planet was pointless. I found it to be a very beautiful, resonant idea that suggested second chances – something that all of us might hope for, and especially the main character of the story.
      Perhaps this indicates that there are several tiers to science fiction. There are the literal developments suggested by the idea. And there are also the emotional conjurings. Sometimes a science fiction idea works because it taps into a fundamental need or curiosity. This is where literary authors could write science fiction well, if they appreciate what the genre can do. Thanks for bringing this up!

    • #18 by Dave Morris on October 19, 2014 - 11:15 pm

      Another Earth is fantasy, though, not SF, and given that it works fine.

      • #19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:17 pm

        You’re right, of course, husband. I was so caught up in defending the story because it won me, hook line and sinker.

  6. #20 by Michael W. Perry on October 19, 2014 - 10:44 pm

    I hope no space aliens ever find the sketch above—I believe it is from the Voyager spacecraft. They’ll think we have no offspring and spend all our time surfing naked.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 19, 2014 - 10:59 pm

      It is indeed from the Voyager spacecraft, Michael. It’s one of the wondrous things we have done. I haven’t yet had a comment from an extra-terrestrial but I live in hope.

  7. #22 by Peter E Schlosser on October 19, 2014 - 11:19 pm

    Concerning the ‘downfall’ of SF, the only point I might contribute would be to note that the wonder and mystery that made earlier SF fascinating is somewhat tempered by what humankind has accomplished since the advent of the genre, and what the average person can now envision on their own. They have been bombarded by various media with these concepts since the day of their birth.

    Not that there aren’t other great stories waiting to be told, but we have somewhat lost our innocence. When Campbell wrote “Who Goes There?” in the 30’s it was shocking and thought-provoking. Now the concept is B-movie material, almost a yawner. Mr. Shaw’s ‘otherness’ is old hat to the new generation.

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:21 pm

      ‘We have lost our innocence…’ We have, Peter, to an extent. I remember reading an Arthur C Clarke story set on a passenger shuttle going to the Moon. The stewardess had Velcro on her feet so that she could walk on the carpet in zero gravity. That would be a charmingly naive idea now.
      Of course science fiction evolves with the advance of science. But I like to think that ‘otherness’ will always be found, and curious minds will always search for it.

  8. #24 by Carla Monticelli (@ladyanakina) on October 19, 2014 - 11:26 pm

    I see your point Roz, but I really don’t agree, both as a character driven science fiction avid reader and writer.
    Actually “The Martian” is hard science fiction. It is both about human condition (survival) and (almost) plausible science. Both human and science elements are essential to the existence of the story, but science is definitely prominent.
    Personally, science related to Mars is why I enjoyed the book (I’m a Mars science addict), not the protagonist. I don’t think “The Martian” gives so much introspection inside the main character. I couldn’t really feel his emotions. At the end of the reading, I could say everything about what he did, but nothing about who he was.
    Anyway the science element makes it “literally” science fiction, a story of fiction where science has a prominent role. And the fact that the science narrated in this book is plausible (except some parts) includes it in the subgenre of hard science fiction (from soft and hard science fiction there’s more a gradient than a defined border).
    “The Martian” is about survival on Mars, a place where humans haven’t been yet, and there’s a lot of technology that doesn’t exist yet (=science fiction)–and in real life he would’ve never ever survived–but it’s mostly based on real science (=hard science fiction).
    Nowadays there are so many different kinds of science fiction, with contaminations from other genres, but it doesn’t mean they are not science fiction anymore. There’s a lot of science fiction based on a fictional idea, and more science fiction, or in general speculation fiction (SF), that gives more importance to the human element, i.e. character driven SF, but again it doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction; it’s just a different approach to a very wide genre.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:33 pm

      Hi Carla! Persuasive arguments. I certainly agree that we don’t get to know much about the astronaut, Mark Watney, or indeed many of the other characters. The story is not really concerned with that, beyond making Mark the most likable, personable of the crew.
      To me, The Martian is a survival thriller. The science element doesn’t seem to have invented anything substantially new, as most of it seems possible now, or not far off (mind you, I am not a Mars science junkie). To you it’s definitely science fiction. Let’s shake hands and agree to differ.

    • #26 by TraciLoudin on October 21, 2014 - 12:18 am

      Great points, Carla, though I prefer to think of them as cross-pollination, not contamination.😉

      “Nowadays there are so many different kinds of science fiction, with contaminations from other genres, but it doesn’t mean they are not science fiction anymore. There’s a lot of science fiction based on a fictional idea, and more science fiction, or in general speculation fiction (SF), that gives more importance to the human element, i.e. character driven SF, but again it doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction; it’s just a different approach to a very wide genre.”

    • #27 by Peter E Schlosser on October 27, 2014 - 10:08 am

      Carla, as a total aside, A. E. Van Vogt wrote a clever little short titled Enchanted Village (1950) concerning the first man landing on Mars and his attempts to survive. You may well enjoy it.

  9. #28 by tomburkhalter on October 19, 2014 - 11:40 pm

    “[Shaw] also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character.” That’s it in a nutshell.

    Maybe one of the problems with modern science fiction, though, is that reality has in many ways caught up with, even exceeded, the science fiction we grew up with. This didn’t start with the first Moon landing in 1969, nor even the Viking landers on Mars in the late seventies — but those are certainly emblematic.

    Science was a lot more accessible to the intelligent, reasonably educated layman thirty years ago than it is today as well — that makes writing science fiction a lot harder, and why, I think, so-called “hard” science fiction (with one or two glorious exceptions, like David Brin)(who is a physicist!) seems to be a dying genre, or at least one with fewer examples in print.

    Here’s a question for you: when we actually have faster-than-light travel and colonies in other solar system, will it still be possible to write science fiction? The point is that science fiction has also been called “speculative fiction” — what speculation will humans (and, perhaps, other life forms) indulge in at that time? Considering this question is valuable from our present perspective by hopefully generating insight into the nature of science fiction itself.

    Query: have you seen the TV series “Manhattan”? It concerns the lives of people living in Los Alamos while the US was developing the A-bomb in World War II. In what sense is that story science fiction, and in what sense is it historical fiction? Because the central idea, the creation of a new weapon by means of what was only a few years before purely theoretical science, could easily be seen as “science fiction” — just perhaps not speculative fiction.

    • #29 by Dario on October 20, 2014 - 4:29 pm

      Tom, Robert Reed, in his daring story ‘Oracles’ (Asimov’s, January 2002), examined a best-case SETI contact scenario. In the very near future, we intercept and decode a signal of immense power from an alien civilization that loves to brag of its achievements. Along with a myriad of technological marvels, the message gives the location and broadcast frequencies of thousands of other extraterrestrial civilizations, propelling us headlong into a future which—while realizing every SF fan’s wildest dreams—deals a body blow to the SF field itself. It was a good story.

    • #30 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:39 pm

      Hi Tom! When will it become impossible to write science fiction? Never, so long as the world contains people who like to bend ideas🙂
      And it’s very exciting to think of the things we will write and speculate about. A good place to start guessing is with the problems we want to solve. Further up I was talking about teleports – these and FTL travel appeared as SF tropes because we wanted to be able to do them. Cheating death is another solid desire that will probably fuel stories too. Keeping memories is another.
      I haven’t seen Manhattan but I will check it out. Dave and I are always looking for intelligent series to get our teeth into. As for what it should be called… is it alternate history, perhaps?

  10. #31 by blablablaandgabbler on October 20, 2014 - 12:51 am

    Reblogged this on Further Annotations and commented:
    Interesting insights on Science Fiction:

  11. #32 by Eliza Green on October 20, 2014 - 8:42 am

    For me, science fiction is all about creating a reality (not fantasy)world that doesn’t exist yet. That can be achieved through human interaction or technology, but preferably both. A story heavily immersed in technology is usually referred to as hard science fiction. I don’t read it and I’m a science fiction nut who also happens to write SF. My preference is softer sci fi and I get my fix through different means: television and films.
    I agree that a book like the Martian is at the lower end of what we regard as sci fi, but it is still sci fi as people haven’t travelled to Mars or lived there for any length of time. In 20 years, it may be classed as fiction. I also have no problem with books creating new worlds/planets, because I have done the same in my own fiction. But it’s nicer when there’s an attempt to create something out of the ordinary to make readers think.

    • #33 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:45 pm

      Hi Eliza! I prefer the human side of science fiction too. And I have no problem with new planets and worlds if they seem genuinely new. But new worlds that are thin disguises of our own countries, with nothing added, look a bit disappointing to me. As you say, it’s when we add something out of the ordinary that a new world becomes intriguing.

  12. #34 by Peter Snell on October 20, 2014 - 10:57 am

    So many genres, so many subdivisions. I don’t really care how anyone classifies a book, but as a bookseller I need to be able to group titles so that most people can find them.”Lord of the Rings” is not Science Fiction, but that is where people look for it. Just setting a tale in an alternate reality such as a novel political system doesn’t make it Science Fiction. Are modern dystopian post-apocalyptic YA titles Science Fiction”? Not necessarily. My challenge for you all is to provide a definitive list of essential elements to allow a title to be labelled Science Fiction. If we cannot find basic agreement on these essential elements then perhaps we need broader genres or categories or none at all (yeah right). I f a book was science fiction when first written then I submit that it is still science fiction years later, even if our technology etc has caught up with or surpassed the original tale.

    • #35 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:47 pm

      Hi Peter! Lord of the Rings in science fiction? Clearly a bookseller’s life is more complicated than I suspected.
      As to your point about categories, you’re probably opening a can of supercharged worms – especially if you mention the c-word around indie authors. We crave exact categories and could probably invent a whole galaxy of them.

  13. #36 by pashortt on October 20, 2014 - 12:30 pm

    I would say, though, that there’s a purpose to SFF like the book you describe, and it’s an important one: Issues

    SFF allows us to create a buffer between the reader and difficult topics. Look at District 9. It’s Sci-Fi, but it’s really about apartheid. The Sci-Fi dressings allow the audience to witness terrible things being done (aborting unlicensed children without parental knowledge or consent, for example) with enough of a safety from reality that we don’t turn away. We get to see the message in a format just accessible enough to understand the point.

    • #37 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:49 pm

      Hi Paul! Excellent point about issues, and the distancing effect of making the setting slightly ‘unreal’. I love District 9 BTW.

  14. #38 by susannahjbell on October 20, 2014 - 12:59 pm

    As a science fiction writer, I stopped reading science fiction years ago because I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t just another genre dressed up with flashy tech and weird make-up. I’ve also noticed a strong trend towards genetic manipulation, body morphing, super-bodies – in fact, everything to do with bodies and virtually nothing to do with minds or spiritual entities. What passes for sci-fi seems – to me – to be horror and horror that has become all-gore, all-disgustingness without any genuine chills or cleverness. Perhaps they are out there, but I can’t find them. In desperation, I have begun to write the novels that I’d like to read. I write about immortality but from a viewpoint that has not before now been considered, a viewpoint that is perhaps impenetrably weird. I was interested in this article to see if I was really a sci-fi writer – I don’t think I’d pass any test at all! For me, science fiction isn’t something that is going to happen in the future, it’s something that has already happened and we’re the laughable dregs. It strikes me that sci-fi as a genre has become unmanageable large, though on the upside, it means there is something for everyone. Except me.

    • #39 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:53 pm

      Hi Susannah! So you’re on a search for your category, and we in this discussion are confusing you all the more! If you write about immortality, can I recommend Robert Sheckley’s Immortality Inc? Perhaps he will prove a kindred spirit. No gore, disgustingness, body-modification porn. And plenty of cleverness.
      But if you’re forging your own path, good for you. That’s how we find our writerly identity.

  15. #40 by susannahjbell on October 20, 2014 - 12:59 pm

    Reblogged this on Writing from Alter Space and commented:
    Am I not a science fiction writer after all?

  16. #41 by scturnbull on October 20, 2014 - 4:13 pm

    There are things written to be deeply meaningful – an exploration of the human condition, or of social conditions – then there are things written just to entertain. There are clever writers and there are not so great writers.
    I agree that the best SF can be an exploration. The worst is terrible, clichéd and derivative.
    There are enough readers to enjoy all of it.
    You point to the Critical & Literary community – tbf, I don’t trust them to recognize what is a good read or not. Some of the books fetéd as genius are impenetrable, written in a manner which exposes the vast amounts of research the writer has done, but fails to connect the reader to any character.

    Also, people get far to hung up on genre. A book set in 15th century England & a book set on Titan are both the same, fiction. So, write what you enjoy, read what you enjoy. Challenge yourself to write and read new things. Ignore the critics & specialists, most of them are vested in a certain authors achievements, or so convinced of their own planet-like intelligence that they miss the blindingly obvious.

    • #42 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 7:57 pm

      A voice of reason. And yes, I agree with you about the critic community. Very much. Thanks for stopping by.

  17. #43 by Dario on October 20, 2014 - 4:22 pm

    Roz, in picking that Bob Shaw story, you chose one of the best possible examples of what core SF is–kudos. Trying to pin down what is and isn’t SF is notoriously hard; as Damon Knight (I think it was) said, SF is what I point to when I say it”.

    As a writer/editor/publisher (the Panverse novella antho series), and 50-year fan, I’d say that true SF should be foremost concern itself with the human condition, even if there’s not a human in sight in the story. That is it should explore, through a lens other than our everyday reality, what it means to be sentient. Generally, there should be a “what if” , which is where the mundane world gets twisted into something other, generating the SFnal setting.

    To say SF is about “otherness” to me is a can of worms and here’s why: those of us close to the American SF community have in the last decade seen a painful internecine struggle for the soul of the genre. The struggle is at heart one of race/gender/sexual politics and identity. Although these issues are real, valid, and very much part of true SF, and have been since the 60s, they’ve now gained a prominence that is turning a good deal of new SF into exactly what you critique, Roz–i.e., near-mainstream fiction; and worse, mainstream fiction with so overt an agenda that it swamps the any SFnal wonder aspects and often reads like an old-fashioned screed. Anyone who follows the major American SF print or online magazines (Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, et al), the traditional wellsprings of most new SF, will have noticed this. If that’s what you read SF for, fine; if, like me, you want story and wonder, not social proselytizing, then you might want to look elsewhere.

    The more formidable and lasting difficulty SF is facing today is that we’re living in an SFnal future, one that’s hitting so fast we can barely keep up. The points made above about keeping up with science are real, but there’s also an aspect that, when confronted by such an onslaught of the new, imagination often fails–authors become timid, get lazy.

    Finally, SF in the popular mind has been heavily redefined by Hollywood, with its relentless cascade of awful high-CGI, zero-content films designed to surf the hormones of adolescent males. The less said about Hollywood, the better.

    But there *is* good, new SF out there, just not a great deal of it. I’d strongly recommend anyone intersted in the genre buy a copy of Gardner Dozois’s annual “Year’s Best Science Fiction” to sample a large variety of the current best short fiction, then go and look for novels by those authors they like.

    A very interesting read in the context of defining SF is William Gibson’s NYT bestselling novel of around a decade ago, “Pattern Recognition”. A close read will reveal that there’s not one single thing in the novel that didn’t exist, wasn’t possible, in the present-day Earth setting in which the story takes place–and yet the novel is clearly, undoubtedly, screamingly SF. What makes it SF, then, if there’s no speculative element? The *tone*. The sense of the protagonist’s utter alienation. *That* otherness.

    • #44 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 8:03 pm

      Hi Dario! I guess I’m an old-fashioned girl – I want humanity and wonder. And you’ve made some very interesting recommendations here – especially that William Gibson.

  18. #45 by Matt Kelland on October 20, 2014 - 7:52 pm

    Would you say, then, that the majority of pulp SF isn’t science fiction? All those planet stories could be set on earth, with pistols instead of ray guns. Is there really a substantive difference between, say, Leigh Brackett’s Black Amazon of Mars, and Rider Haggard’s She, except that one’s set in Africa and one’s set on Mars.

    By contrast, why are Brave New World or We often considered sci-fi, while 1984 generally isn’t? They’re all future dystopias, all very similar, but treated differently.

    Is a story which relies on futuristic technology automatically sci-fi? Where would you put Kipling’s With The Night Mail or Verne’s 20,000 Leagues, or even Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress? What makes them different to Dick’s Minority Report?

    Are Superman and Iron Man science fiction? Is Batman?

    It’s a complex label, and, like art, the best definition is often “I know it when I see it.”

    • #46 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 20, 2014 - 8:11 pm

      Hi Matt! I don’t read a lot of pulp SF, but when I have it’s seemed to be cowboys and indians in space.

      Good question about 1984 and BNW. Alas I can’t remember much of BNW, having last read it when I was at school. I do remember 1984 very well as I reread it recently, and I can’t imagine that as SF at all. I wonder if that’s because the thing being bent is the social situation rather than the technological advances? Someone who has read both (and can remember them) will be better able to comment on this.

      Superman and Iron Man? I’d never thought of them being SF, but perhaps they could be. And Cyborg. As for Dan Brown, I’d put his book 20,000 leagues under the sea, in a lump of concrete.🙂 The Da Vinci Code was quite enough to put me off another of his.

  19. #47 by Dave Morris on October 20, 2014 - 10:50 pm

    Brian De Palma talked about resonance in a story by likening it to a spark between two charged rods. Make the two themes or elements too dissimilar and there’s no connection, just as if the rods were too far apart. But if the similarity is too clunkily obvious (as sounds like the case in the novel you mention) then the rods touch – and again, no spark. If I watch a story that seems to be set in a distant galaxy but is actually too blatantly a retread of the aftermath of 9/11, then no matter how well written it may be, eventually the sheer clumsiness of the metaphor will wear me out. (Or if not that then the boxing match episode; we call this, “Jumping the Starbuck.”)

    Naturally SF can and should deal with imperialism, slavery, prejudice, torture, whatever. I’m just asking writers to put in a little more work than just changing Adolf Hitler to Darth Hi’it-La’ar or whatever. Litfic authors are the worst offenders because they assume SF is all pulp space opera for teenagers in the first place, so they needn’t exert themselves when slumming it in the genre.

  20. #48 by Teddi Deppner on October 20, 2014 - 11:46 pm

    Fantastic article and discussion threads in the comments, Roz. Just wanted to chime in and say “Thanks” for writing it. You’ve given me a timely nudge during the shaping of my current WIP’s science elements.

  21. #50 by Henry__Hyde on October 24, 2014 - 3:46 pm

    Very late to the game here, Roz – I’ve been somewhat busy – but what a fabulous discussion!

    I’ve always thought of proper science fiction as requiring the science to be a replacement for the magic one might find in a fantasy novel. There has to be a sense of otherness, that humanity has potentially unleashed a demon that it must struggle to control.

    This is always, of course, a self-inflicted problem: our own curiosity as human beings has led us to a place, or to a discovery, or a condition of society which is inherently dangerous to us. It could be drawn on any of the sciences, whether physics (a new miracle power source or an outer space phenomenon), biology (hey, what’s that growing in the petri dish?), or chemistry (this new wonder-drug will do *what*?). Equally, it could draw on the ‘soft’ sciences like psychology (can we harness the power of the mind) or sociology (what happens if one group – or even a different species – gains complete ascendancy over another). But the bottom line is that we have opened Pandora’s box and the struggle is to close the damn box again or learn to live with the consequences.

    But within those perameters, I’m of the opinion that in order to have a good story, we have to be able to empathise with the primary characters and care whether they succeed or fail in this quest. If it’s just about the science, frankly, I couldn’t care less: I can watch episodes of Horizon or read technical journals for that.

    And hey, I loved Serenity/Firefly. Witty Wild West gang in space, gotta love that.

    • #51 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 24, 2014 - 11:10 pm

      Henry – welcome to our playground. That’s a good comparison – the science in sci-fi does usually perform some kind of magic on the world, good or bad. (There’ll usually be bad or it’s hardly worth writing about.)

      As for characters etc, I’m with you there, though I think there are certain varieties of hard science fiction that are more like hypothetical essays, with the science and speculation being the purpose of the whole thing. It’s certainly not what I’d read, but I think it exists. (By that I mean I’m sure I heard it being discussed on a radio show a while ago, but it sounded so sterile to me that I didn’t remember any of the works discussed. I think there was something about talking spaceships roving in the uncharted depths of the universe, but I can’t be sure.)

      I never really got into Firefly, although I adored Buffy. But I’d trade you a Farscape…

  22. #52 by rochelledeans on November 25, 2014 - 6:16 pm

    An excellent post! I think what I’m writing now is science fiction, although I don’t work hard on the believability behind it (it’s still a first draft, so I’m not too worried). In my story, a machine can tell you at birth the day that your body will give up and die. People still die from other things, and the antagonist invents a machine that is supposed to predict when someone will give in to psychoses and commit suicide, but he uses the machine in secret and pretends it’s the acceptable science that gave the death date. The main character is one of the first people he tries it on.

    It’s been loads of fun to write, and playing around with the what-if has been really interesting.

    • #53 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on November 28, 2014 - 6:09 pm

      Hi Rochelle
      that sounds like a good idea, thoroughly explored! I bet it’s fun. Good luck with it!

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