This is the first of a series of writeups that will form an introduction to the literary genre of science fiction. This installment will define SF and a few of the terms commonly used to describe the genre. Part Two will discuss the evolution of the genre, highlighting key periods and movements. Part Three will focus on a select group of the very best writers and works within the field, and Part Four will be a list of books designed to form the backbone of a science fiction library, organized by themes and subgenres, and with short descriptions.
Science fiction in films, television and computer games will not be discussed here. These media, with a handful of exceptions, have very little in common with most written SF. Every aspect of the work is different, right down to the name of the genre: most SF fans who started with written science fiction use the abbreviation “SF”, following the custom of almost all SF writers, while people who came to the genre by way of visual media invariably call it “Sci-Fi”. Like Montagues and Capulets, these two tribes rarely meet, and when they do, the results are usually tragic.
A VIGNETTE WITH SOME ALIENS IN IT
The traveler emerged from the space-time anomaly dazed and confused, dropping 1.375 meters
and landing on her feet, standing on some sort of frigid cermet surface, over which a glowing blue mist seethed, shrouding his feet and obscuring the floor. All around hir, obscure, bulky statues reared out of the mist. Xenomorphs, dinosaur skeletons, a statue of Napoleon holding a blaster pistol, a woman with a glowing third eye in the center of her forehead. As the traveler's eyes adjusted to the faint blue light, it began to notice details of the architecture - myriad wooden shelves containing innumerable legions of luridly-covered paperbacks, reaching high up to vast vaulted arches that ran the course of a long hallway, at the end of which was a massive door that looked something like the door to a giant's bank vault. There, two tall, four-armed figures stood ominously, holding lightsabers.
"Damn. I must have landed in the science fiction section," the traveler exposited. S/he walked
cautiously towards the tall green men, noting the hideous tusks that jutted threateningly from
their lower lips.
"None may path who do not know the one trait that defineth science fiction," rumbled the guard on the left, its tusks disfiguring its otherwise flawless Galacspeak.
The traveler, accustomed to this sort of puzzle, thought for no more than a second. "Space travel, of course. And lasers."
The mist at their feet began to roil ominously. The traveler looked at the guards with dismay.
"What? That's not it? Um, okay... wait a minute. Oh! Futuristic settings! That's it, right?"
Blue sparks began to crackle over the shiny surface of the door. The mist writhed.
"Robots? Aliens? Give me a break, dude, I majored in philosophy."
The guards snickered, and the sparks on the door turned into more severe crackles of lightning.
The traveler stammered, "parallel universes! Grandfather paradoxes! Gender anomalies! The
search for identity! Please, please...."
The right-hand guard smiled with pity. "If only you knew how clothe you are. Too late, grathhopper." The sparks increased, and the mist began to send tingling tentacles up the traveler's black stretch boot cut jeans.
"This isn't fair! All I know is, it isn’t quite real and it isn’t quite fantasy, and I know it when I see it!"
The mist subsided and began to glow a suggestively luscious pink shade, while the sparks skittered across the
great door and dissipated. The door began to crank open, and the guards beamed at the traveler.
"You may path, Enlightened One."
The writer may have cheated here, but the protagonist did not, and the guards, despite being cutouts of primitive BEMs, were not
confused by a flash of hir pangendered cleavage. There really is no single trait that defines
science fiction. SF is probably the most polymorphic, well-camouflaged and mutation-prone chimaera of a genre in the whole world of literature. Any attempt to pin it down results in instant confusion, paradoxes and a host of "exceptions to the rule". The diffuse nature of the beast has resulted in endless controversy and heated discussion between fans, writers, filmmakers, critics and librarians.
Kurt Vonnegut, who has written stories about time travel, beings from distant planets and an
invention that destroys the world in a single day, hates to be thought of as an SF writer and makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the genre and its fans. Harlan Ellison, generally acknowledged as one of SF's greatest living writers, hardly ever writes about aliens, time travel, or any of the other tropes of the genre, and while he doesn't mind being called an SF writer, for him SF means "Speculative Fiction", not "Science Fiction". Anne McCaffrey writes about firebreathing, teleporting, telepathic dragons. Steven Baxter would rather die than write a dragon of any sort into his books. And Michael Crichton somehow manages to completely sidestep the whole controversy and put his resurrected dinosaurs and crashed alien spaceships in the mainstream fiction sections of the bookstores, making more money in the process than all the others put together. But all of these writers are recognizably writing SF. It's a mess.
SORT OF A DEFINITION
Obviously, I’m still going to try to define SF, at least in broad strokes. If I didn’t, this wouldn't be much of an introduction to the genre. So here we go.
SF is a literary genre of the possible, working in between the concrete, which we usually label “mainstream” or “realism”, and the impossible, which we call “fantasy”.
First and foremost, this genre is speculative. Science fiction is extrapolated from our own reality. It does not take place in reality as we know it. For a story to be called SF, there must be some meaningful difference between our world and the story’s world. That doesn’t mean the story has to take place on another planet or the far future, although these are the most obvious and popular options. The difference might be a single invention, as in “The Invisible Man”. It could be a change of historical events that resulted in a twenty-first century different from the one we know - as in Philip K. Dick’s book “The Man in the High Castle”, which examines the possible results of an Axis victory in World War II. It could be a simple matter of an expanded or changed perspective - Richard Adams’ “Watership Down” is arguably SF, although it is more often called a fantasy.
Whatever the difference is, it must result in a setting that is noticeably different from the reality we all know. It must have an impact on the story. The James Bond books, although they frequently feature revolutionary, potentially world-changing inventions, are not SF because these inventions do not actually change the world. If “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” had taken place after the successful deployment of Blofeld’s biological weapons, it might have been called science fiction. Conversely, if “Jurassic Park” had been about how a secret agent foiled Ingen’s attempts to resurrect dinosaurs from amber-preserved DNA samples, it would not have been SF, and Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton would both be a lot poorer.
Since SF is speculative, historical fiction cannot be called SF. Humanity’s history is known, and its results are fixed. Stories about Shakespeare’s England are not science fiction, no matter how strange they may seem to modern readers. A story about how a 21st-century time traveler convinced Shakespeare to write “Romeo and Juliet” would be SF. (It would also be a rather ugly cliche. Keep this in mind before you dash out to write that bestseller.)
Finally, SF is not fantasy, although the genres are closely connected. SF speculates about different realities; it does not invent them out of pure imagination. Earlier, I said “Watership Down” might be called science fiction. I stand by this, in defiance of every living librarian, because WD tells a speculative story about reasonably realistic rabbits, not bandersnatches. The rabbit protagonists may be more intelligent than we normally imagine them to be, but their culture and thoughts are based on Richard Adams’ research into actual rabbit behaviour. Although one of them has precognitive dreams, none of them fly or turn their enemies into frogs. The boundaries of reality are stretched somewhat by the story, but not broken.
DEGREES OF REALITY - HARD AND SOFT SCIENCE FICTION
The difference between SF and fantasy is where things start to get really complicated. I said before that SF speculates about plausible changes to our reality. Naturally, different writers have different ideas about what constitutes a plausible change. The range of opinions on this issue have divided SF into several radically different types of fiction.
At one end of the spectrum, we have “hard” SF, so called because it concentrates on extrapolations of the “hard” sciences - physics, mostly, but also chemistry and biology. Writers like Hal Clement and Steven Baxter prefer to explore the implications of the hard sciences on our universe, and they do not usually allow any tampering with the “laws of physics” in their stories. This results in a very realistic and science-oriented type of fiction, where major portions of the text are devoted to explanations of the science involved. Almost invariably, hard SF is set in the future, typically around 50-200 years in the future since a difference of less than 50 years gives us no room for technological extrapolation, and more than a few centuries would make the extrapolation too wildly speculative given the unpredictable advances in science. I must emphasize that this is not a hard and fast rule - a lot of hard SF takes place in a near future very similar to our own world.
At the other extreme, "soft" SF, particularly that of the New Wave, concentrates on the soft sciences - psychology, sociology and the like. I hope you’re noticing a theme by now. To writers of soft SF, the physics are a secondary issue. The main point of the story is always the human element. These writers - Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and J.G. Ballard are some of the most famous - don’t give a damn whether their FTL drive would actually work, and they don’t care to explain the inner workings of their time machines. What’s important to them is what happens to the heroes and society in general as a result of the time travel. Due to the unimportance of the physics involved, soft SF at its most extreme blends seamlessly into fantasy, and many soft SF writers make frequent forays into internationally recognized fantasy territory.
The majority of all SF lies somewhere between these two extremes, hoping to strike a balance between scientific extrapolation and the human element. The aliens and new technologies are supposed to make some sense when explained properly, but a certain amount of hand-waving is permitted, and readers are required to suspend their disbelief in certain ways. One of the most widespread bits of gobbledygook is the Faster-Than-Light drive, a necessary invention for tales that feature the galactic civilizations we all love. We know of no practical way to create a working, controllable drive mechanism that will - even in theory - allow us to move faster than light, but most stories of interstellar SF require such a device, so it has been deemed acceptable by most writers in the field. Currently, the favoured FTL drive is one that creates temporary wormholes, which are all well and good except for the horrifically large amounts of energy required - we're talking about mining black holes for energy here, and that itself is something we’d probably need a galactic civilization equipped with an FTL drive to accomplish.
THE PLOT THICKENS, MOVING TOWARDS A CLIFFHANGER
Compounding our taxonomic difficulties, SF has gone through several important evolutionary phases since Frankenstein brought it to life. The science has changed, of course, but more importantly, the motives and techniques of the writers have changed. Although at no time has the genre been completely homogenous, there are obvious phases and trends within the field. In the next writeup in this series, I will discuss the history of the genre, concentrating on a few of these major trends.