What is Science Fiction

A guest post by Graeme Rickard

I read with interest Stefan Vucak’s excellent articles in previous newsletters about writing Science Fiction. Some of the points he made resurrected in my mind the seemingly eternal debate about what Science Fiction is exactly. Stefan did cover this briefly, and at my peril I have decided to revisit this much discussed question to toss about some thoughts. Note: I will use the initials SF for brevity where possible, despite the objections some have, as they do with Sci-Fi.

Before proceeding I will declare myself. I have a Degree in Physics and have spent the last 40 years teaching (and continuing my involvement with, now that I’m retired) Science, Electronics and Computing Science. I write SF, but not exclusively, and have been avidly reading it for more than 50 years.

I divide SF into two categories: Science Fiction and Science Fantasy. Does this make me one of the Stefan’s purists? Perhaps, but I love reading in both categories. What is the difference? Essentially Science Fiction deals with known/established aspects of Science and its reasonable extrapolation.

Science Fantasy, however, is just that: the author allowing the imagination to soar beyond the restricting limits of current thinking into realms that seem impossible, sometimes even ridiculous, to those steeped in the philosophy of the Scientific Method. Hence, as Stefan has so ably explained, the need for the author to spin a plausible yarn so that we can easily suspend our disbelief. Both are valid. Both are worth reading and writing. My contention is that, having divided SF into two categories, a case can be made for dropping the word ‘Science’ in Science Fantasy. I know this is controversial and will attract some negative comment.

Much Science Fantasy is based on wishful thinking e.g. faster than light speed (aka hyperspace/warp speed, for how else can the writer overcome the huge distances in this large universe?), mental telepathy and telekinesis, the current obsession with wormholes. But much of it is good reading when well written (some of my all time favourites are ‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’ by Van Vogt, ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and Asimov’s Foundation series). One thing that does annoy me as a reader and a writer is the snide epithet ‘Space Operas’ some commentators/ literary types use to dismiss SF. And not all SF involves the ‘Final Frontier’, a concept that is itself restricting. Here I must say, and in danger of losing my life, that the several Star Trek series with Cpt. James Kirk, complete with the split infinitive subtitle, epitomises most of what I am saying about Science Fantasy (coupled with too many ‘Hey, this is just like Earth’ and ‘Will Kirk win the woman?’ episodes. Please don’t email me with your objections).

But, I hear you say, “What about all the predictions made by SF writers that have come true? The only limit to human achievement is our imagination. If it can be imagined, then it is possible.” Yes, many seemingly weird and way out ideas (at the time of publication) have eventually been vindicated. Yes, Arthur C. Clarke has a good record. But writers in the first half of the 20thC missed computers completely. This is not a criticism and goes to show that, indeed, truth can be stranger than fiction. One of the most overdone themes in SF is time travel. Many of the better efforts at least acknowledge the time paradox e.g. if I go back in time and kill my grandfather, will I be born and be able to go back in time and kill my grandfather? For those interested in the meaning of time, forget Hawking, read the books of Paul Davies (although they both, as do many theoretical physicists now, invoke ‘God’ as some type of metaphysical underpinning of their contemplations and could be accused themselves of ‘fantasizing’).

What about Stefan’s ‘hard’ SF, my ‘Science’ Fiction? The brief definition above is, I agree, over-simple. I suspect it is near impossible to keep any SF free of all fantasy. “And a good thing too,” I hear some of you say. But, and I repeat the point, it must be based on what is known and can reasonably be expected; it must not only contain ‘Science’, which Science Fantasy can and often does, but it must be underpinned by ‘Science’. Examples are the stories of John Wyndham, David Brin’s ‘Earth’, and my humble novel ‘The Refuge’ (pardon the free plug). This restriction does not prevent the author from stretching the reader’s imagination, provoking thought and producing a damned good read, e.g. Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, Orwell’s ‘1984’, Robinson’s Mars series.

Which brings me to Speculative Fiction, sometimes used to cover all SF. Would this be a better label? No, I don’t think so, for isn’t all fiction speculative in some way (even some non-fiction such as Autobiography is often disguised – and self-serving? – fiction, and History can be another form of faction – the victor tells the tale)? “What if…” is the generator of all fiction, not just SF.

So is there a way out? Can we eliminate arbitrary labels, which is what ‘genres’ are to a greater or lesser extent? Should we? Do genres make it easier for readers to find what they are seeking? How accurate are they in predicting what this or that book is about? e.g. Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ is considered by many as Literary Fiction – and just what does that mean? I will leave all this for another time, perhaps.

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