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.
October 18, 2012 at 12:04 pm
# Science fiction was born in the white-hot enthusiasm
# for the future found in the electronics magazines of
# the 1920s.
No it wasn’t. Wells, Verne, Shelley, just off the top of my head. At best it can be claimed that the 1920’s was when it went to college and fell in with the wrong crowd.
I’m tentatively in agreement with you on much of the rest, but I do think that there’s a place for ‘fantastical’ science fiction. Time-travel, for instance, is likely impossible, but it’s a very useful narrative device for telling certain stories and making certain points. You’ve used similar ‘impossible’ technology yourself in Adrift, so I guess you’re not as hard line on this point as this post makes you sound.
I also think there’s a place for purely escapist ‘pulp’ fiction. ‘Serious’ fiction provides an important service for the comfortable classes, keeping them in touch with all the bad shit that’s going down in the world. But some people are living in ‘the human condition’ and would like a rest from it, and thus want to read some escapist fiction.
This shows that SF is able to do, and is duty bound to do, many, many different things. However, we as a community treat it as a one trick pony. Yes, it might be possible to create the ultimate work of SF that is literary, escapist, bechdel-test passing, socially relevant, scientifically accurate and would make a good movie script, (I put one of those in to block a move I expect you to make) but it’s a very, very tough call.
We should be encouraging people to write all types of SF, and one of those types should be ‘Hard SF’ and the rules you give here are good ones for that style. We need more hard SF, more SF that engages people of all ages with real science.
But we also need more of other types of SF, even those that shamelessly bend the rules of known physics. We need to be a house of many mansions, rather than a tin shack that everyone has to fight over to get a place under the roof.
October 18, 2012 at 12:12 pm
Wells, Verne et al were not seen as part of a distinct genre until they were reprinted in Amazing. So, while their works may prefigure sf and share some similarities with it, they’re weren’t actually sf until the genre was formed.
October 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm
Then what’s a ‘scientific romance’?
Also, the fact that something hasn’t been named, doesn’t mean it’s not going on. Indeed, if they’re retrospectively considered to be SF (which they are) then they were SF all along. The baby was born, we just hadn’t named it yet.
October 18, 2012 at 12:23 pm
The term “science fiction” was used first in 1851 (in Chapter 10 of William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject): “Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true.” http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~hbf/sfhist.html
You were saying something about doing the research? 😉
October 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm
I didn’t say the term was coined in 1926. Gernback first called the genre “scientifiction”, and the term “science fiction” was only adopted later. But Gernsback did create the genre.
October 19, 2012 at 10:32 am
No, Mary Shelley created the genre. It’s the person who does the thing, not the person who named it, who create the thing. And there are people previous to Gernsback using the term science fiction.
I think you’ve fallen for some yankee propaganda here.
October 19, 2012 at 11:17 am
Shelley wrote Gothic fiction. The fact that it was later claimed by sf does not make her the creator of the genre. Gernsback created the community of sf, the acknowledgement that stories had common characteristics he called “scientifiction”, that here was a mode of fiction different to Gothic or pulp or scientific romance. I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. Science fiction is a US invention.
October 22, 2012 at 11:44 am
# Shelley wrote Gothic fiction.
Shelley wrote science fiction. It’s entirely possible to be working in two genres at once, and any genre is birthed out of an existing tradition. Frankenstein and The Last Man are both works of scientific speculation, and therefore are science fiction. So it began with shelley.
# The fact that it was later claimed by sf does not make her
# the creator of the genre.
She wrote the first science fiction stories. That makes her the creator of the genre.
# Gernsback created the community of sf,
Perhaps then it can be claimed that he created SF fandom, but it cannot be claimed that he invented the genre, nor even named it as the name was in use before him.
# the acknowledgement that stories had common
# characteristics he called “scientifiction”, that here was
# a mode of fiction different to Gothic or pulp or
# scientific romance.
If I invent a new term for SF tomorrow, that does not make me the inventor of the genre, and he didn’t even do that. As noted previously the terms ‘Science fiction’ and ‘Scientific romance’ were already in use. The genre already existed. People already new it existed. I suspect fandom may already have existed.
I think you’re putting the cart before the horse.
# Science fiction is a US invention.
So, a martian invasion of earth isn’t science fiction? A journey in a time machine isn’t science fiction? Journeys in submarines, flights to the moon, experiments by mad scientists that go wrong and create monsters, none of these are science fiction?
Gernsback did not create science fiction. Creating a term, is not creating a genre. Creating a fandom is not creating a genre. Creating a distribution media (the SF magazine) is not creating a genre. The genre existed. You might say he popularized it, but he was working in an already existing tradition.
Science Fiction is a European invention, if any place on earth can be said to have invented it at all. Many of the traditional tropes were already in use before Gernsback appeared. He can perhaps be said to have created American science fiction, (though there were the Tom Swift novels that predated Amazing) as the pulp comic tradition has certain aspects not commonly seen in British SF. One of these qualities is the widespread appearance of an interplanetary or interstellar political structure like the ‘Federation’, and a rise of ‘wild frontier’/’colonization’ tropes (British SF seemed to visit places, but ironically given that we had the empire, the protag rarely stayed there).
October 19, 2012 at 12:44 pm
I totally agree, let’s take pride in science. It’s so depressing looking at shelves in book shops or at cinema trailers. We see teen horror, time travel, etc., all utter fantasy. Are today’s readers and watchers so separated from the wonders of what’s actually possible?
Science is the future. In the past superstition and religion gave us belief without evidence, and belief without evidence can result in all manner of folly – sexism, racism, opposition to stem-cell research or fertility treatment or contraception, war … Science doesn’t allow this stupidity and arrogance because it SHOULD always question itself, seek to falsify itself.
All that said, what I’d most like to see more of in my sci-fi is PASSION. For me science, a believable world and good writing are all prerequisites – very important and not always easy to find, but also a means to an end. What makes great fiction is passion, feeling, character on the page, and too much sci-fi is bad at this.