Putting SciFi in its place

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the genre of creative works known as science fiction and its place relative to the total body of creative work and I feel the need to weigh in with my opinion. The recent discussion about literary sci-fi only made this more interesting to me.


I have always believed that science fiction was a further classification of fantasy, with fantasy being a classification of fiction overall. For me then, the hierarchy would be:

Fiction -> Fantasy -> Science Fiction

Why do I draw this distinction? Because there are lots of works of fiction that aren’t really fantastic. A lot of mainstream TV is in this category, shows like NUMB3RS, The West Wing, and My Name is Earl. They try to be dramatic or comedic or tragic but heavily based on reality.

There are also lots of works of fantasy. These try to bend reality in some way by including an element that is clearly fantastic. Stories involving magic, or psychic powers or faster than light travel all show up here. I struggle with the right name here because the word fantasy means something to lots of people – things like elves and magic, for example. However the OED’s definition of fantasy doesn’t mention any of that, but merely the employment of the imagination.

Science Fiction to me is a further classification that often involves what is plausible as opposed to what is generally viewed as not. But of course, this isn’t always workable either – right now our science seems to suggest that faster than light travel is impossible, yet we allow it to seem plausible in what is viewed as classic science fiction. John commented on this in the past.

I believe that fantasy and science fiction are quite similar – not the least of which is that they are in the same section of your local bookseller. Now, I’m sure there are many of you that can’t stand to see all those seemingly endless books on elves, faries, and magic taking valuable shelf space away from your treasured science fiction books – but then these are the times we live in (I daresay that JK Rowling is as much to blame for this as anybody.) John has a comment about the seemingly arbitrary nature of some fantasy books making it difficult for him to suspend his disbelief (well, at least I think that’s what he is saying.) I agree with that – the Deus ex machina effect present in some fantasy seems too convenient. But otherwise they aren’t that far apart, I’m sure we see the similarities in popular works such as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. I’ll never forget a series of otherwise forgettable books by Jack Chalker called the Soul Rider series that started off as a fantasy series full of magic until it is revealed that it’s (spoiler alert) all the product of a vast computer system hidden in the planets core capable of reading thoughts and performing energy-to-matter conversion.

Star Wars: Fantasy or Sci Fi?
There are many that have stated they find Star Wars to really be a work of fantasy or just a rehashed western, and to a large extent I agree – the force is the same as magic, and other parts of the film are almost the same as the old west (X-wings are horses, shootouts, etc.) But it is the Death Star which I believe forces the movie into the realm of science fiction. This moon-sized, planet destroying space station is the one element making it uniquely science fiction, to me.

Ultimately I believe the fact that so much of science fiction writing seems possible is part of what draws us to it. I enjoy hard science fiction a lot because it seems that much more possible, but I can’t deny I enjoy plenty of softer science fiction as well. A lot of fantasy drops into the completely implausible and that makes it hard to suspend your disbelief.

But the best part of science fiction has to do with the ideas! It’s the dream of many of us to imagine man spreading throughout the starts, speeding nanobots through our bodies, tinkering with our genes and ultimately discovering life beyond Earth. The exploration of these concepts are what separates science fiction from fantasy. Certainly we enjoy the exciting plots of Jack Vance, the breadth of thinking from Arthur C. Clarke, the amazing prose of Gene Wolfe, and the strong characters of Dan Simmons. But it is the ideas they bring forward that makes this genre much more than just pulp fiction. The time machine of H.G. Wells, the robots of Isaac Asimov, the clones of David Brin or the genetically modified humans of Robert Heinlein – and many, many more – are the ideas that fuel our imagination. The help us think about what man can be and should be. They help us dream, and help us expand our understanding of ourselves.

The genre struggles for respect in many ways, partly because there is plenty of pulp, but largely because the literary community isn’t interested in ideas, as much as it is characters and prose. This is a shame, really, because these ideas have the opportunity to shape us in a way that good prose – regardless of how good – never can.

I’ll leave you with this – which of these statements have the opportunity to shape our future?

  • There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
  • A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

4 thoughts on “Putting SciFi in its place”

  1. I think you have some very interesting thoughts here and I couldn’t agree with you more. I have read some things here that are for some reason a mockery to the arts, which everyone is entitled to their own thoughts, but must they ridicule others creations?

    What’s very interesting to me is that as much as there is seemingly controversy (that has a place) they sure like wallowing in it! And they seem to return to view more. Maybe they didn’t have anyplace to go or anyone to share their time with.

  2. I may have mentioned before my theory that what falls under the genre of science fiction has little to do with real scientific plausibility. All fictions are, well, fictional. They are false-to-facts. The question is whether they are fictions glamorous enough to cast the spell aptly called the suspension of disbelief.

    In science fiction this verisimilitude is achieved by using explanations, (or simply terms and phrases that hint of explanations) that fit into the scientific world-view: ‘hyperspace’ is a valid setting for a science fiction scene, but ‘heaven’ is not. Psionics is a science fiction concept, but magic is not. The difference is this: science fiction is concerned with realistic side-effects. Assume the impossible, but tell me how it works. Thus, when John Griffin turns invisible, he takes his clothes off, or when Sue Storm turns invisible, the author assures us her uniform is made of ‘unstable molecules’ which take on her transparent properties. But when Frodo or Harry Potter turns invisible, by donning a magic ring or a magic cloak, it is not fair to ask “How does it work?” or “What are the realistic problems and drawbacks to being transparent?”

    My point is that even a comic-book concession to realism is in the attitude of science fiction. To ask why Uncle Martin’s clothes turn invisible when he raises his antennae is a legitimate question, one which will not spoil the mood of the story.

    The attitude is one of investigation. If Frodo were SF rather than F, he would ask: “Would this ring work if I put it on my toe? If I put the ring on my finger, and my finger is bitten off by Gollum, why isn’t the severed finger still invisible? Would Captain Hook turn invisible if he threaded the ring over the end of his hook?”

    Note that taking too literal an approach in a fantasy book runs the risk of spoiling the mood. When Scrooge travels into the past or future, it is a vision, and it would break the mood if he were to make banking investments based on what the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come had showed him. But when a Robert Heinlein or Keith Laumer character is catapulted through time, we expect him to end up as his own grandpa: the time paradox is the point of the tale, the question of how it would actually work.

    The reason why Time Machines, Hyperspace, Faster-than-light drive, telepathy, resurrection machines, dimensional gateways, are all SF is because, while they are impossible according to the current model of real science, they are props of a scientific world-view. People don’t go to hyperspace by chanting a Mass for Masslessness with a priest: they flip a switch on their Bergenholm drive. The Time Traveler of HG Wells was on a physical, not a spiritual journey: his Time Machine was no more supernatural than the Nautilus.

    The difference between written SF and television or film SF is the difference of the medium. STAR WARS was one of the first SF films to make the spaceships look plausible to the eye, even if they were doing banked turns in space, because they looked battered, complex, and realistic. 2001 A SPACE ODDESEY made the SF elements look plausible, because the Space Station and the Discovery had the right aerospace-engineering appearance to it. In the case of media SF, it is the eye, not the idea, that needs to be fooled for the spell to work, and disbelief to be suspended.

  3. I like JCW’s addition – that it’s the exploration of these ideas (the consequences of genetic manipulation, faster than light travel, or even laser blasters as weapons) that makes SF what it is. It seems so much more honest than ‘high fantasy’.

    But the ideas themselves are the key. My wife perfers realistic crime drama / mystery stories. Sometimes I read them if she indicates one was worth my time. They present a fictional event (the stabbing death of a young man in a locked room with nothing but water on the floor) and then put the protagonist in the role of figuring it out. He has to live within the real world and his actions have consequences, so it does matter what he does or does not do. But rarely do I get anything out of them other than the mere pleasure of reading in general. I suppose I might spend a couple of seconds thinking about what I might do in the same situation, but other than that I’m done with it the moment I set it down.

    But read a book like Frameshift and suddenly I can’t stop thinking about the implications of genetic testing and genetic manipulation for weeks. This happens to me often in sci-fi, and ultimately why I get more out of it than other genres.

    I don’t in any way want to attack the artist or make objective statements on art. But attempting to figure out the place of sci-fi in the broader body of work known as literature does often have me delving into opinions, rather than facts.

  4. I absolutely agree with the statement that “what falls under the genre of science fiction has little to do with real scientific plausibility.” (No doubt here. Star Trek *is* science fiction, despite “faster-than-light-travel”) But I don’t think that describing the difference between fantasy and science fiction as one of the “attitude of investigation” really puts the finger on it. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for instance, has a lot of mystical or even “magical” elements that defy any sort of scientific inquiry. And I am not even thinking about the obviously mystical here: take just the way of travelling done by the members of the guild of navigators. IIRC, they fold space with their minds. Oh, well … On the other hand: there is a tendency in some not-so-good fantasy stories to offer a pseudo-explanation for everything. Tolkien didn’t explain the workings of the ring, but some other writers might have done. There are fantasy stories which bother the reader with detailed descriptions of how and in which way a magician applies some magical energy. They are still fantasy stories, although they treat magic like some sort of fancyful electricity.

    My point of view is: it is impossible to define a single criterion, or even a set of criteria, which separate the genres of science fiction and fantasy entirely. That, however, does not mean that they are the same. It just means that distinguishing fantasy from science fiction is not as easy as finding the single rule that makes them different. You rather have to look for “family resemblances”: aunt Alberta may not have any physical feature at all in common with nephew Bob. But if you put them on a picture together with grandpa Charlie, you discover that Alberta has Charlie’s nose and Bob has Charlie’s eyes. You can’t name a single physical feature (the criterion), but putting them all together you see that they belong to the same family by making out a bundle of common traits.

    If in a story people fly around in space ships, this is probably a science fiction story; if people use magic, this is probably a fantasy story. Those are the noses and eyes to look out for. (And of course: that also means that there are cases that are not decidable. Stanislav Lem’s “Robot Fairy Tales” and his “Kyberiade” are definitely both science fiction and fantasy.)

    That said, I do think that John named a couple of very important traits. (I just say they can’t be defining criteria; taken too literally, by the way, you’d get the kind of science fiction that I really hate: where have to skim pages of pseudo-scientific bullshit to explain fantastical devices). One of the more important traits is probably this one: “The reason why Time Machines, Hyperspace, Faster-than-light drive, telepathy, resurrection machines, dimensional gateways, are all SF is because, while they are impossible according to the current model of real science, they are props of a scientific world-view.” Just one correction here: it is not the *scientific* world view, but the *technical* one. What most people (including myself) know about the workings of a telephone is not really much better than the explanation of a shaman why his exorcism dance causes the pain to go away. But our modern way of dealing with a telephone is different from an animist’s dealing with a fetish. It’s the way of dealing with a warp drive, the way the characters regard it as a technical device, that makes it different from seven-miles-boots.

    So yes, I agree that fantasy and science fiction belong to the same genre. I am not convinced, though, that it is a good idea to name the super-class “fantasy”, because that might cause confusion. My mother tongue offers the term “phantastische Literatur”, which was originally coined to cover the works of artistic writers like Jorge Louis Borges, Buoy Cesares or Italo Calvino; I guess it would translate to “phantasmagorical literature”. I seem to recall that I have seen the term “speculative fiction” on the net. How about that?

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