MIND MELD: Today’s SF Authors Define Science Fiction (Part 2)
In our Mind Meld posts, we pose a single question to a slice of the sf/f community and, depending on the question, other folks as well.
This week, continuing the answers from part one, we asked a seemingly simple question about the definition of science fiction.
You don’t need a lot of careful parsing to define what science fiction is. It’s very simple. Science fiction is fiction that has science as a central topic. It doesn’t necessarily have to be *the* central topic, but it’s *a* central topic.
This definition allows us to include lots of stuff that all SF geeks reflexively know to be science fiction (Neal Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE) as well as lots of stuff that the mainstream refuses to recognize as science fiction (Audrey Niffenegger’s TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE). It even lets us include many works of alternate history (Philip K. Dick’s MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE), insofar as those works take a rational, scientific approach to understanding the effects of that changed history. As an added side benefit, it lets us put some distance on works that only use science in the most tangential way (STAR WARS).
Unfortunately that definition also pulls in some things that most SF folk would rather not see in our camp (Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK). But as far as I’m concerned, the more inclusive the definition the better. Anything to get serious readers to wander down the aisle in the bookstore with the life-size cutout of Mace Windu standing at the end of it. And hopefully even — gasp! — spend some money there.
How would I define science fiction?
A survival skill.
The most meaningful definition I can supply, in this case, is a personal one. When I write science fiction, I’m deliberately conducting a thought experiment to explore my own curiosity about something specific in science, be it an idea, discovery or application of technology. The What if … From that point, I build everything in the story to service that exploration, keeping the science that isn’t part of my experiment — the variables — as controlled and credible as my knowledge and research time permits. That being said, I’m using the medium of a story rather than messing with the planet directly. It’s safer. That means adding things that are not quantifiable, but hopefully as credible, such as human passions, foibles, and the occasional ridiculous pratfall. I don’t get or expect answers from my science fiction experiments. I always gain insight. Survival skill? I see such questions and reasoned wonder about them to be utterly essential.
I’ve always had this theory that literature is humanity dreaming. When you dream you process your past and what has happened to you. And to match that, I think that science fiction is our imagination, the daydreaming of the species. It’s something completely different, and it explains why science fiction works so differently for many different people.
The imagination of inventors, the question ‘what if,’ the suspicion that the world may be different than it seems, that is where genre lies.
But that’s just *my* imagination at work.
Defining SF has always been problematic, since there’s no definitive plot element (as in Romance, or Mystery) or mood (as in Horror, Comedy, and Suspense) or setting (all Historical Novels) that helps us in defining most other genres. To this is added SF’s Siamese-twin, Fantasy, a separate genre that carries the same lack of definitive plot elements, mood, or setting.
In most popular discourse the definition of SF and Fantasy ends up being definition via trope. (It has a starship, it goes here. A dragon, over there. What? Pern? Head’splode.) The other popular method of separating the twins is by splitting things up along a possible/impossible axis. This has its own consequences, such as slotting time travel and FTL into the fantasy realm. It also excludes from the SF fold stories whose point is to logically extrapolate from some fiddling with natural law– I mean a novel about a box that adjusts the gravitational constant should be shelved in fantasy?
My own definition of SF comes in two distinct parts. First, while the story’s world is not the same as the author’s, there is some explicit or implicit congruency between the story’s universe and the author’s. There is a map from here to there, even if it’s to go back to 1908 Siberia and take a hard right at Tunguska.
Second, and more important, the story is written from the perspective that the universe runs by predictable and knowable laws, and those laws are the same as those in the author’s universe. If they differ at all, the difference must be explained in such a way that the story doesn’t loose its connection to the author’s universe.
There are many ways to define science fiction. We could go the Damon Knight route, and say that science fiction is what we point to when we say “science fiction,” but that’s about as broad as the side of a barn.
Here are my thoughts. Science fiction encompasses the following:
- All stories set in the future
- All alternate history stories
- All stories set on other worlds
- All stories that contradict the laws of nature as we believe we now understand them
- All stories that assume a higher level of technology than we have now
Of course, “hard science fiction” encompasses a narrower band, and in some ways, a more exciting one. But you didn’t ask me to define that term, so you’ll just have to wait until the next time.
Finally, I’m amused by being identified as a member of the “New Guard.” I doubt that any of the “New Guard” would approach this definition much differently than the “Old Guard.”
First and foremost, as a member of the New Guard, I have to say that all my loyalties are with the Old Guard: I follow the traditions and definitions of the authors I read in my youth.
However, the Old Guard kept trying to define what was and was not science fiction using an analytical definition: by trying to find one property of the story setting that made it science fiction. So they would answer: if you travel to the future by means of a Time Machine (as H.G. Wells would have it) it is science fiction; whereas if you travel into the future by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be (as Dickens would have it) then this is fantasy. Then they would fall into an argument over whether a Time Machine was scientifically possible or impossible.
Such arguments are wasted words, because they miss the point of what science fiction is about. Our analytical Old Guard friends were not taking science fiction into his context in history. Every story is a myth for its age.
Science fiction is the mythology of a scientific age. Science Fiction stories form those myths unique to the modern age.
Some people use the word “myth” merely to mean a falsehood. That is not what the word means. A myth is a non-literal truth: something that feels like the truth even when it does not look like the truth. A myth is a representation of reality that is internal rather than an external, an emotional rather than a rational. It is the difference between saying, “My wife is blonde” and saying “My wife is beautiful.” Only a fool would tell a bridegroom that his bride was not beautiful, or that this statement is not a truth: but it is not, so to speak, external to the eye of the beholder.
Science Fiction consists of those stories that depict internal and emotional truths concerning the scientific world view.
No matter what imaginary voyages to the moon or to upper regions of a Ptolemaic cosmos were dreamed by Dante or by Cyrano de Bergerac, tales set beyond the earth before the scientific age took place in a traditional mythological or religious background. When Astolpho flies to the moon on a hippogriff in Ariosto’s fantasy-epic ORLANDO FURIOSO, he does not meet Moon-Men, he meets Saint John of Patmos. The scene was set in heaven, not in Outer Space.
The earliest story that seriously can be called Science Fiction is FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelly. The morbid idea consisted of a scientist who, by bringing to life a creature stitched together of corpses, instead of loving his new Adam, makes his creation into a monster. The theme was so often repeated that it became a cliché: the Mad Scientist is one who tampers with nature unwisely, and meddles with What Man Was Not Meant To Know. This theme is unique to the scientific age: men in former ages did not have the knowledge or power or technology to tamper with nature wisely or unwisely. It is an emotional reaction to the scientific revolution, albeit a negative one, still one unique and particular to the scientific age. The moral involved is simply one that would have no meaning to men of the Iron Age or the Bronze Age: you could warn them not to meddle with the doings of priests and wizards, or not to break the sacred laws of tribe or city, but you could not warn them not to experiment with radium or genetic recombination.
Now, to call FRANKENSTEIN a fantasy, and place it in the same genre as a story about a werewolf or a mummy is imprecise. Literally, we cannot reproduce Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment. But figuratively, there are any number of dangerous experiments where the ambition of Dr. Frankenstein serves as the most apt figure. One need only be reminded that, before the first Atomic bomb test, at least one scientist on the Manhattan project had a reasonable expectation that the blast would ignite the atmospheric carbon in a chain reaction and incinerate the Earth. Men in the Iron Age had plenty of worries, but did not need to fret about blowing up the world.
The theme of hubris, of overweening pride, I grant you is seen in every age of time. The theme of scientific hubris, of overweening pride in scientific accomplishments, you must grant me only exists in times when science is powerful enough to be a source of pride: times like now. We live in the days when technology changes lives within the span of one lifetime.
The opposite theme, the idea that pride in the accomplishments of science is merited, and that our ambitions should grow to match, is one that has no precedent in any other literature. There are simply no ancient folk tales telling fishermen that it is great idea to open the bottle and shake out the genii.
So a story theme need not be bleak to be a Science Fiction theme. More than half the stories we read tell us that that Meddling With Nature is a Swell Idea. Look at H.G. Wells’ THINGS TO COME. Cabal the Master Scientist makes a stirring speech at the end of the tale:
For MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.
And that, my friends, is science fiction of the purest possible quill.
Indeed, any fiction starring a futuristic Utopia (or a STAR TREK like Pretty-Nice-topia) and you see this theme. Men in the Iron Age had plenty of fond daydreams, but the daydream about creating a heaven on earth through the power of SCIENCE!! was not one of them.
Cabal talks with the ambition of a Mad Scientist, for he speaks of conquering all of time and all of space: but he is as sane as they come. In his tale, the scientists of the world, no one else, save the world from the politicians and war-leaders. If you have any notion of how modern scientific research is funded, or how fawning and politically-correct most scientists are in real life, you will laugh at this mythic figure. But no one laughs at the stirring end of THINGS TO COME. The mythic figure of Science as a Savior is just as deeply rooted in the modern mind as the mythic figure of Science as a Monster.
I insist again that these myths are true myths. Anyone whose child was saved from polio by a wonder-drug has seen Science as a Savior touch his life. Anyone whose child died due to an allergy to a routine vaccination has seen Science as a Monster touch his life.
A clearer case of the scientific myth is THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells. No one will claim the tale has any trace of literal reality to it. Time travel is a fantasy. But this story is Science Fiction, not fantasy, because it reflects a myth of the Scientific Age: it is an internal truth, an emotional truth, about the nature of the future. When the Time Traveler travels to A.D. 802701 he does not land in New Jerusalem nor see the Twilight of the Gods or the Age of Kali. It is not the end of the world as imagined by a religious or spiritual world-view: the Time Traveler sees a uniquely and chillingly Darwinian idea of the End of Man. Natural selection has bred the languid upper classes into useless food animals, and bred the lower classes into troglodyte cannibals.
Granted, the idea that the class divisions of Victorian England would be preserved across geologic timespans is a fantastical as the idea of genii in bottles. Again, that is not the point. As a myth, it has power.
It is not the props or the setting that makes a story Science Fiction. The story is Science Fiction if it is telling you an internal truth about the scientific age and our fate in it: if the story is showing you a figure or symbol that represents.
The future where Morlocks prey eternally on helpless childlike Eloi lives forever in our imaginations precisely because the sheer indifference of the Darwinian natural selection involved: mankind is merely one more bug, mutating under environmental pressure, shown no special favors. The high culture of the near future does nothing to protect the far future: a Sphinx is the very first object the Time Traveler sees at journey’s end, but erected by some Ozymandias as remote to our future as the Pharaoh Ramses is to our past. The far future landscape is dotted with ruins.
The TIME MACHINE is a story that mocks the greatness of man, but it does so in a way that makes emotional sense only to someone who believes the world-view of the scientific age. Homer could sing of Circe, but he could not have sung a song to his audience about a natural evolutionary process that turned men into swine. “Entropy always wins” is a moral meant only for those who know the Second Law of Thermodynamics. For such reasons, THE TIME MACHINE is science fiction, even if the Time Machine is a fantasy.
To use another example, DUNE by Frank Herbert is science fiction, even though the main characters, witches and messiahs, have magic powers, and Baronets and Ducal heirs fight with sword and dagger. You see, the emotional point of DUNE is that Paul Mu’ad-Dib is not a messiah, but a genetically-bred superman: Paul is not a god, and he cannot control the events he sets in motion. No matter where the plot climax is placed, the emotional climax of the story is the scene where Paul in a vision travels to all the possible futures and sees that, no matter what he does, the Jihad is certain to incinerate all the civilized worlds of the Empire of Known Space. The emotional figure involved is the same as the bleak vision of the Time Traveler. The Bene-Gesserit Witches meddled with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. The Darwinian view is amply and bleakly represented in DUNE; both the Sardaukar terror-troops and the undefeatable Fremen are what they are due to evolutionary pressures of their absurdly harsh environments, for example. The life-or-death test with a poisoned needle that opens the story is based on an idea that only makes sense under Darwinian assumptions about men evolving into supermen or devolving into Eloi. The central Darwinian figure in the story is Paul: he is the superman, the next step of evolution.
Anyone who argues that a story containing prophecy-inducing longevity drugs is not science fiction, is missing the point. It is not whether the science in the story is literally realistic that matters for our classification. The “hardness” of the science on the hard-to-soft scale does not matter. It is whether the story is figuratively realistic concerning the world-view of the Scientific Age that matters. The movie DUNE directed by David Lynch shattered the mood so carefully and ruthlessly constructed by Frank Herbert in his award-winning book, because, in the movie, Paul is the messiah of a real God, and can make it on the rainless world rain by an out-and-out miracle.
Now, I must hasten to say that any stories that use the props and settings of Science Fiction, but tell no other myths of a Scientific Age, are still considered Science Fiction, merely a less science-fictional form of the breed.
They get the basic idea right that the times, they are a-changing. This awareness of change is the unique feature of the Scientific Age. Old stories did not have a built-in assumption that the future must differ from the present. For example, Mallory attributes to Fifth Century England the arms and equipment of Fourteenth Century knighthood; Chaucer commits similar anachronism concerning Hector of Troy. On the other hand, Stories told in the Jet Age, even the lightest comedy, if set in the future, assumes the mythic elements of talking robots and flying cars: for example, in THE JETSONS.
A Space Opera is an adventure story involving cosmic battles and larger-than-life heroes and armored battle stations that blow up whole worlds with one shot: but even a tale where your hero is an ageless man who travels after death by astral projection to the planet Mars, fights the four-armed Green Men and marries the egg-laying Space Princess, the fact of the matter is, the tale takes place in Outer Space, and not in Heaven.
Again, imagine how un-science-fictional STAR WARS would seem to us if The Force, instead of being described as a type of mystic “energy field”, were a god like Jove or Jehovah, a being that issued commandments and punished Oathbreakers.
This might seem a bad example, because STAR WARS, much as we love it, is arguably on the edge of science fiction, not near the core. It is an homage to Flash Gordon movie serials, not an homage to Doc E.E. Smith: it is a remake of sciffy moviedom, not a remake of a Space Opera pulp novel. We can subconsciously tell it is not science fiction if we wince when The Force is explained as being the byproduct of micro-organisms in the blood stream. We wince because psionic micro-organisms is too scientific, and not enough mysticism, to serve as an explanation for the vaguely Zen-sounding Age of Aquarius idea so briefly but clearly depicted in the first STAR WARS film. But this is a discussion for another day.
The point is that gods and magic make a story fantasy whereas space ships and atomic laser-swords make it a space opera. Gods only appear in science fiction stories in the guise of alien super-beings. Even Apollo, if he has the bad luck to blunder into a STAR TREK episode, is an energy-being that uses some sort of mechanism hidden in his temple to manipulate matter-energy, and the so-called god is as mortal as a man, one who can be killed with a phaser blast.
There is no magic in a science fiction story: there is only the fraud of stage-magic (the Great God in Fritz Leiber’s GATHER, DARKNESS is a puppet pretending to be a god, for example, and so are countless benevolent-but-inhuman computers in STAR TREK) and the powers of psionics.
If you say psionics is indistinguishable from magic, you miss the point: magic is supernatural whereas psionics is based on a yet-undiscovered set of laws of nature that can be investigated, not by priests, but by parapsychologists at Duke University.
If you say a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then both the Krell and the Elves will laugh at you. The Krell Machine can be investigated: it has an energy supply and operates by laws of nature that are natural, despite being unknown, as yet, to men. The magic of the elves is a twilight thing, the sound of distant silver horns, a fairy gold that turns to dust by noonday, and it is meant to chide the pride of foolish mortal men.
Whether it is true in real life or not, I will leave as an exercise for the reader to decide: but the central myth of the Scientific Age is that everything has a natural explanation, we merely need to investigate to find the causes.
It is by no coincidence that Science Fiction shares with one other type of story the honor of being a completely new genre of literature invented by mankind, particular to the modern age: the other is the Detective Story.
Tagged with: Michael A. Burstein
Filed under: Mind Meld
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