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Science Fiction

When I started writing this essay, I meant to justify the fact that most of what I read is science fiction by explaining that science fiction is a literature of ideas, and is therefore a very serious and worthwhile thing. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a huge lie—in that sense, most of what I read isn't science fiction at all. So, instead, I'd just like to make a few points about what is or isn't science fiction.

First of all, even though they're always lumped together in bookstores, fantasy is not science fiction. This lumping-together is a source of tremendous irritation to me, because whenever I think of fantasy, I think of all the pointless epic fantasies that have been written in imitation of Tolkien, and it galls me that anyone should equate those with perfectly good science fiction. (Or with perfectly good fantasy, for that matter.)

Even within the category of science fiction, though, there are distinctions that should be made. The most important one, I think, is the distinction between science fiction and “sci-fi”. This idea, along with many others, I got from the book Science Fiction in the Real World, a collection of columns Norman Spinrad wrote for Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Here's his explanation of what sci-fi is, from Science Fiction Versus Sci-Fi.

In his excellent textbook on surviving and flourishing as a commercial writer in the marketplace, forthrightly titled Writing to Sell, the literary agent Scott Meredith, himself a one-time SF fan and the literary representative of many of the writers in the genre for decades, sets forth the so-called plot skeleton, the formal template for viable commercial fiction.

A strong, or at least sympathetic, hero, with whom the reader can identify, is confronted with a problem he must solve or an unsympathetic villain he must overcome. As the story progresses, the attainment of this goal becomes more and more difficult through a series of plot complications, rising to a crisis at which point it seems he must fail. But through intelligence, courage, physical prowess, or some combination of the three, he turns the tables and triumphs at the climax of the tale, which should end soon thereafter in a coda or resolution that wraps things up.

This indeed is a reliable formula for successful commercial fiction. Crank it through cowboys and outlaws and you have a western; spies and counterspies, and you have an espionage thriller; cops and criminals, and you have a detective story; rocket ships, alien planets, a galactic overlord, an intrepid spaceman, and you have …


There are actually two different distinctions being made here: first, between works where the science or technology is an integral part of the story and works where it's just tacked on for atmosphere; second, between works that can be cranked out and works that contain genuine novelty. Since I've already written about novelty, I don't want to say much more about it here. As for science being an integral part of the story, well, that reminds me of Spinrad's explanation of what's known as hard science fiction, from The Hard Stuff.

Those unsympathetic to hard science fiction have at times opined that, far from being central to the genre's esthetic virtue, it may be defined at SF's characteristic literary flaw. Namely, that by placing the focus on scientific speculation and technological extrapolation, the hard science fiction esthetic produces a fiction short on characterization, human feeling, stylistic excellence, and thematic depth.

Indeed, some devotees of the form turn it inside out but are really saying very much the same thing when they declare that science fiction, being a “literature of ideas,” is exempt from general literary standards in regard to character development, style, and emotional depth.

Both the above distinctions are worthwhile, but I don't think they really capture everything there is to capture—more distinctions are needed, and I'm not sure yet what they are. (By the way, this is exactly the reason I haven't attempted to classify all the various works into categories.) Here's one example to explain why I'm not satisfied.

The thing I'm least satisfied with is the set of works that contain novelty, but that don't use science or technology as an integral part of the story. Lord of Light is the perfect example. Sure, it's set on another planet that has been reached by space travel, and it explores some of the ramifications of having a technology that can transfer minds between bodies, and so on, but all that is so inessential to what makes it a great work that I feel like I'm completely missing the point if I even classify it as science fiction. On the other hand, classifying it as regular fiction would also miss the point. What to do? My best guess at the moment is that it's romantic fiction, romantic not in the sense of romance novels but in the artistic sense, as corrected by Ayn Rand in What Is Romanticism?.

One can observe the misapprehended element of truth that gave rise to that early classification. What the Romanticists brought to art was the primacy of values, an element that had been missing in the stale, arid, third- and fourth-hand (and rate) repetitions of the Classicists' formula-copying. Values (and value-judgements) are the source of emotions; a great deal of emotional intensity was projected in the work of the Romanticists and in the reactions of their audiences, as well as a great deal of color, imagination, originality, excitement and all the other consequences of a value-oriented view of life. This emotional element was the most easily perceivable characteristic of the new movement and it was taken as its defining characteristic, without deeper inquiry.

This is worth further thought, but I will save it for later.


  See Also

  Examples of the Second Pattern
  Liking What You See
  Variation in Content
  What Would Memetics Look Like?

o March (2000)
@ May (2000)