Science fiction was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for the future found in the electronics magazines of the 1920s. Electronics – engineering – was going to build a better future for everyone, and science fiction would show the way forward. But there was also the pulp tradition as well, and that quickly polluted the pure-strain “scientifiction”, adding escapism and implausibility to the didactic rationality of the new genre.
Ninety years later, it looks like pulp won the battle for the hearts and minds of science fiction readers. In other words, there is very little science in science fiction. But then a lot of people think the acronym formed from the genre’s name, sf, should really mean “speculative fiction”. Ugh.
It’s true that that much sf could be placed on a sliding scale – at one end it would read “scientific content” and at the other “literary merit”. But scientific content and literary merit are not mutually exclusive. You can have both in a fiction. The fact that those who have tended to one have been poor at the other, and vice versa, is an historical accident. It’s neither a law nor a defining characteristic of the genre.
But taking the science out of science fiction does invalidate it. Sf is not some big amorphous playground in which you get to leave your grubby fingerprints over all the cool toys. Just because a fiction appropriates the trappings of sf – the spaceships, the robots, the Singularity, etc – that doesn’t necessarily make it sf. There is an underlying philosophy to the genre, a consequence of its beginnings, and to ignore that and treat sf like just another branch of fantasy is to ignore the genre’s history and its character. Which is why claiming sf pooh-poohs categorisation and boundaries is to miss the point of what it is.
When an author of mainstream fiction writes a story set in, say, the 1950s, or Budapest, or featuring a cellist, they do the research. They ensure their fiction has verisimilitude, that their 1950s isn’t just 2012 with hats, or Budapest isn’t a middle-American city with funny accents. Why do sf authors refuse to do that same? True, their invented worlds may not obey the same rules as the real world, but even when it does they blithely wave their authorial hand and magic allows the story to progress. That’s not science fiction. Treating the world as if it were some magical woowoo sort of place is anathema to science fiction. And, more than that, it’s entirely pointless.
Science fiction certainly needs the science putting back in, but perhaps it also needs to think about being didactic again. Don’t hide the science, don’t pretend you’re really writing woowoo futuristic fantasy. If there’s science in there, take pride in it.
Show your reader, I did science.