It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

What I’m Pointing To…


Science fiction was born in 1926, when Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories. The first attempt at defining science fiction occurred several days later. In more than eighty years, no one has satisfactorily defined the genre – the most often quoted “definition” is Damon Knight’s, science fiction “means what we point to when we say it”, from 1956. However, it often seems people chiefly define science fiction by its readers. So PD James, Maggie Gee, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy – for example – can all write novels that are not science fiction, despite featuring tropes common to the genre. Or so they would have you believe…

I’ve yet to see anyone claim Jed Mercurio’s Ascent as science fiction. And yet… It’s set in the past, true: the book ends in 1969. It is also chiefly a fictionalisation of real events. But the final third of the novel certainly never took place. Which arguably makes Ascent alternate history, which is often considered a sub-genre of science fiction – sf author Stephen Baxter did something similar with NASA and a trip to Mars in Voyage. But there’s more to Ascent‘s science-fictional credentials than just that.

Yefgenii Yeremin is orphaned during the Siege of Stalingrad. Each year, a boy from the orphanage to which he is sent is awarded a cadetship in the air force. Yeremin wins that cadetship – by partially blinding his chief rival. During the Korean War, he becomes Ace of Aces. Known as “Ivan the Terrible”, he kills more enemy pilots than anyone else – despite not “officially” being in Korea. Unfortunately, his masters back in Moscow are not happy with his final escapade, and he is assigned to an air base in Franz Josef Land (an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, north of Novaya Zemlya). Most Soviet pilots spend a year or two in Franz Josef Land, but Yeremin and his family spend nearly a decade there. Yeremin is then recruited for the Soviet space programme… and the last third of Ascent describes his one-man mission to beat the Americans to the Moon in 1969.

The technology that Mercurio describes for this fictional mission is real. There really was a LK Lunar landing module and a LOK Lunar orbital craft. The project, however, was abandoned following the death of Chief Designer Korolev and a series of catastrophic failures of the N1 booster. As is clear from the attention to detail (and the bilbiography at the end of the novel), Mercurio has not stinted on his research.

Reviews of the book in the national press made much of its heavy use of unglossed aeronautical jargon and the near-obsessive attention to detail. This, some critics decided, was a reflection of the protagonist’s own self-absorption and aloofness. Yeremin was so driven, they argued, that he was defined by his immersion in the technology he used and the ways in which he used it. The fact that Yeremin’s wife is referred to throughout as “the widow”, they saw as indicative of a protagonist who was so focused on his own ambitions that he could not relate to people – especially those closest to him. But Yeremin’s fellow pilots in Korea are all named, as are the cosmonauts he joins in Star City (Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, Vladimir Komarov). The only US pilots named during the Korean War dogfights, however, are those who later become astronauts – Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom, John Glenn, Wally Schirra

To my mind, Mercurio’s jargon-heavy prose, and lack of a glossary, has much in common with a science fiction narrative. To aeronautical and astronautical buffs, Mercurio’s prose is detailed and accurate… but not baffling. To a science fiction reader, a story which references androids, FTL, Dyson Spheres, AIs, etc., is not impenetrable. In fiction, settings are defined by what they contain – in mainstream fiction, those objects are shared with the real world. We all know what a television set is, a mobile phone (or cell phone), Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle, turnip, casserole, marmoset, etc… In science fiction, the objects within the setting are either unique to the story or to the genre. In the latter case, no glossing is usually necessary (and is, incidentally, where mainstream authors writing sf usually fall flat on their faces). In the former, the better writers allow meaning to come from context, and so avoid the dreaded info-dump. True, some sf novels do use glossaries – Frank Herbert’s Dune is perhaps the premier example. Mercurio does not gloss (the amount of jargon understood depends on the reader’s familiarity with the technology described), but he also makes terms comprehensible through context and through info-dumps.

Reviewers unfamiliar with the language of science fiction found the privileging of technology in Ascent worthy of comment. They interpreted this as an aspect of Mercurio’s characterisation of Yeremin. Narrow, or flat, characterisation is often perceived as a defining characteristic of science fiction. In a literature where the idea, often in the form of technology or science, is foregrounded, then characterisation is often going to appear subservient. Because Mercurio does this in Ascent, I started thinking about what it was that made the novel science fiction, and what it is that makes any sf novel science fiction…

Let’s say that science fiction can be distinguished by its settings, or by its readers. To many, if a story is set in the future or in outer space, then it is science fiction. But Apollo 13 is not considered to be sf. Any book labelled by the publisher as science fiction is sf. But not all sf books are marketed as sf – William Gibson’s Spook Country or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for instance. Any book written by an author who identifies themselves as a sf writer, or identifies themselves as a member of the community of sf writers and readers, is science fiction. Again, not all sf books are written by sf writers – Orwell’s 1984, or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. So neither of these characteristics are distinguishing or useful.

Science fiction, unlike fantasy, is a modernist form of literature because it takes as axiomatic that the human condition and/or the human environment can be controlled – from cybernetic implants to genetic engineering, from colonies on Mars to re-engineering whole galaxies. Even the “unknown” can be subjected to reasoning and control, although it may not produce answers. Science fiction differs from mainstream modernist literature in that the tools used for control of the human condition and/or environment are figments. They either do not exist, do not operate in the real world as described in the text, or rely on science and/or technology which does not exist. Or their use presupposes, or leads to, a condition or situation which cannot or does not currently exist – such as a landing on Mars, or the Germans winning World War II. Or, in the case of Ascent, the Soviets sending a cosmonaut to the Moon.

So science fiction is more than just an invented setting. It is more than just squids in space. It is the process by which the figments are used, and it is the intent of that process. Not the intent of the author – we can’t know that from the text alone. But if the figments are instrumental in the control of the human condition and/or environment, and that is the intent of the figments in the text, then the text must be science fiction.

It’s a theory, anyway…

After all that, I should probably point out that I did enjoy Ascent. I’ve been fascinated by the Space Race since I was a child – The Right Stuff is both a favourite book and a favourite film – and I’m enough of a geek to find the technology fascinating. However, I do think Mercurio missed one trick in his book. One of the Apollo missions allegedly reported strange lights on the Moon’s surface during one of their orbits. Perhaps Mercurio should have tied this in – so Yeremin’s landing becomes a UFO myth of the Apollo programme. It would have provided an amusing link to the real world.

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8 thoughts on “What I’m Pointing To…

  1. Just published new book about Hugo Gernsback. It’s an unatributed autobiography. Found a box with the ms when we shut down Gernsback Publications Inc. in 2003. For more details see the listing on Amazon at

  2. How can an autobiography be unattributed?

  3. A really fascinating meditation on what is literary science fiction. I think the literary prefix is very important, as with post modernism I think that science fiction drives in different directions, depending on the medium. You are dead right about how the science fiction categorisation is often ‘filed off’ by authors and publishers who don’t want their mainstream audiences spooked by what they see as negative connotations. Some of the best SF novels are closeted – while some of the worst SF is arguably not science fiction at all (Star Wars doesn’t feature any scientific speculation what-so-ever, just a big bag of conventions and clichés. P.D. James’s The Children of Men is a classic SF Novel, albeit of the 1970s social science type is usually advertised as a ‘Dystopian’ novel. Ascent sounds like a fascinating read, wasn’t there a best seller in the eighties that fictionalised the American moon landing, and in a shock twist, has the astronauts killed by an unforeseen solar storm?

  4. The book that Mark’s refering to is James A. Michener’s ‘Space’. It’s more or less a retelling of the American space programme from the Second World War up until the time the novel was written, with all the names changed. The major difference is the addition of an Apollo 18 mission that drops off a couple of comsats in lunar orbit and then lands on the far side. That’s the mission that gets hit with the solar storm. It’s got its moments, but on the whole it’s the usual Michener multigenerational cast-of-thousands potboiler.I’m not sure about ‘The Children of Men’ being a classic SF novel, though. If it is, then that’s because it is Aldiss’s ‘Greybeard’. :-)Jim Steel

  5. I vaguely recall reading Space many years ago. The fact that I remember little else about the book pretty much tells you what I thought of it…I have to agree with Jim about The Children of Men – the film was good, but the original PD James novel wasn’t (and it was published in 1992, not the 1970s).I know a lot of sf fans want to divorce Star Wars from the genre – claiming that, at best, the films are fantasy – but I disagree. For all their faults, they’re very much science fiction. And my “definition” encompasses them just as much as it does The Children of Men…

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