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Science Fiction and the Literature of Ideas
The Sky Was Never the Limit: Science Fiction and the Literature of Ideas

Supersonic flight. Space stations. Television. Nuclear power. Genetic engineering. Mobile phones. Computers.

All of these things are part of our everyday lives, and directly or indirectly, have an impact upon us and upon our society. Also, they have something in common: before they became pervasive reality, they were explored in science fiction.

The dictionary definition of “science fiction” is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals; broadly : literary fantasy including a scientific factor as an essential orienting component” [Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.] While it’s good to know the definition to begin our understanding of this peculiar genre, it’s not sufficient. As with another modern invention, rock & roll, the term is overused, abused, and misused to the point where its true meaning becomes lost and diluted.

What science fiction is, is the literature of ideas.

Not just any ideas, no – ideas that are, to one degree or another, plausible; ideas that are in conformance with current scientific theories, discoveries and speculations. Not necessarily likely, or even realistic ideas; but at the very least, they should be grounded in scientific exploration or technological breakthroughs. As a negative example, a piece of fiction dealing with unicorns and dragons is generally not science fiction – unless, of course, the author presents a compelling description of how such creatures have been genetically engineered or produced through some other technological means. No, the ideas of science fiction are those that have some grounding in reality – perhaps not consensus reality; perhaps only the strange reality of quantum physics and rarefied mathematics, but reality, nonetheless.

As literature, though, ideas are also insufficient. You can sit and speculate all day about efficient space propulsion systems, yet without the common literary tools of theme, plot, character development, setting and so on, all you have is speculation about space propulsion systems. Yawn. No, the important thing about science fiction is not just the ideas and the science – but also the fiction.

In the bookstores, you generally find science fiction and fantasy lumped together – and increasingly, for some unexplained and no doubt deeply sinister reason, along with horror. There’s a reason for science fiction and fantasy to be related, though; they both deal with ideas, they both generally deal with consistent worlds that are not our own, and in many cases, they’re written by the same authors. One such crossover author, Orson Scott Card, once said that you can always tell science fiction from fantasy by looking at the cover: Fantasy covers have trees. Science fiction covers have rivets.

While Card has a point, it’s not always that simple. Star Wars movies and books, for example, tend to rivets – but Star Wars is, in truth, not science fiction.

Wait, wait, don’t stop reading. I’m serious. The genre of Star Wars is the same as that of Lord of the Rings: fantasy; specifically, heroic fantasy. Star Wars is swords-and-sorcery fantasy that uses many of the devices of science fiction (though at a stretch, it may fall under the broad definition quoted above). This assertion probably deserves its own essay, I know – perhaps another time. Suffice it to say that with a little practice, you can tell the difference; though in most cases, if you’re just looking for a good story, it just doesn’t matter. And that’s my point – having a tight story is just as essential, perhaps more so, in science fiction.

Incidentally, one of the great science fiction writers, Arthur C. Clarke (of 2001: A Space Odyssey), once asserted that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This has become known as Clarke’s Law, and it is important for any science fiction (or fantasy!) writer to keep in mind.

So we have the two important points, inherent in the name of the genre: science, meaning what’s plausible within the body of scientific knowledge and speculation; and fiction, emphasizing the necessity for the work to possess at least some of the attributes of conventional literature, such as plot and character development.

Within that framework, there are few other rules. Science fiction, unlike the aforementioned heroic fantasy, or romance, or mystery, or so many other genres, has no predefined formula. Of course, it uses and encompasses all those other genres – sometimes all in one book – and, admittedly, as a body of work it’s quite heavy on the action/adventure-type plot, probably a holdover from the genre’s adolescence when it was light on theme and heavy on the “Captain Squarejaw Blasts Aliens to Green Goo” type of thing. Unfortunately, that sort of story, and its popularized movie spinoffs such as Plan 9 from Outer Space, colored public perception of the genre as a whole. And, yes, there’s a lot of crap out there – one influential science fiction author, Theodore Sturgeon, promulgated what is known as Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of science fiction is junk. But, since approximately 90% of everything is junk (think television and Internet sites and Harlequin Romances), that is nothing unique to science fiction.

One of the few rules of the genre – which, in its breaking, is quite conspicuous – is that science fiction deals with humans. Individual humans, yes, but also societies. I believe that science fiction – at least, the most outstanding examples of the genre – deals with the triumvirate of human, society, and technology. Humans make up society; society’s needs drive the production of technology; and technology influences human thought and deed. Looked at the other way, technology supports society’s aims; society exists as a framework for the individual; and individuals produce technology. The best stories in science fiction are designed such that these three elements play off each other, in harmony or tension or both.

Another rule, which is actually a rule for all fiction, is the creation of a consistent universe – well, in some cases, multiverse. If you’re going to have spaceships and flint weapons, for example – two disparate levels of technology – there needs to be a good reason for it, or it becomes fantasy. The reason this is a rule for all fiction is that, no matter how closely you try to model the “real” world in your fiction, it is always filtered through your perceptions, preconceived notions, limited experience, and imagination.

These two rules, in science fiction, actually work together. Even a cursory study of the history of the last hundred years will provide insight into the interplay of human, society and technology. It doesn’t take an historian to see that the invention and widespread use of airplanes, television, birth control pills, computers and many other products of technology has changed society for better or worse. Extrapolating these effects to yet unknown inventions, and yet unknown societies, is a primary job of the science fiction writer.

In this time of fast-changing technology, unstable societies (though that’s nothing new), and rapid perception shifts, science fiction is more valuable than ever. Not every technological breakthrough was anticipated by science fiction, but science fiction prepares us for the fact that there will be technological breakthroughs. And for those that were anticipated, sometimes it’s hard to tell where prediction ends and creation begins – in his vastly influential Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, Robert A. Heinlein conceived of a waterbed – in 1961, long before they were made. A minor invention in the grand scheme of things, it’s true, but it has never been convincingly demonstrated that the novel either did or did not influence the waterbed’s inventor. Similarly, Clarke speculated about – and calculated the required orbits for – geosynchronous satellites long before one was placed in orbit (and, incidentally, had related speculations on the effect of free access to censored information that eerily anticipated the effect of the Internet on society).

The Internet itself, of course, was anticipated in science fiction – though I’m not sure anyone ever envisioned it being accessed through what is essentially a high-tech typewriter!

That’s science fiction’s effect on technology. It also had a direct effect on society. It has, for example, been speculated convincingly that Stranger in a Strange Land, if not kick-started, at least spread K-Y Jelly on, the sexual revolution of the 60s. Less than a decade later, a science fiction television show went where no TV had gone before in displaying a kiss between a white man and an African-American woman; it took Star Trek to knock the wall out of that old taboo. And it must be acknowledged that L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, was originally a science fiction writer.

All this aside, it is not necessary to have a working knowledge of quantum physics or rocket science to write science fiction. In fact, sometimes that gets in the way, emphasizing cold math over scenes and characters. It is, however, essential to have at least some knowledge of history, anthropology, psychology, geology, mathematics, cosmology, biology, literature, language theory, physics, theology, chemistry, astronomy… science, after all, literally means knowledge; and the more, the better. Of course, professional science fiction writers have scientist friends who read their manuscripts for glaring errors (i.e., they cheat!)

Many people separate “hard” science fiction, dealing with physics, astronomy, etc. from “soft” science fiction, with its greater emphasis on the social sciences such as anthropology and psychology – either way, though, you still have the literature of ideas.

So… why write science fiction? Well, some ideas just can’t be explored in the framework of the everyday. The essential question is “What if…?” In other words, what if someone invented a stardrive that enabled faster-than-light travel? Heck, what if no one ever does? What if there were an advanced alien device hidden under the sands of Mars? What if there are no aliens, and life on Earth is unique? What if the South had won the war? What if we could live for a thousand years? These sorts of questions have powered nearly two centuries of speculative flights, from the deepest ocean to undiscovered countries to the top of the atmosphere – and far beyond. In science fiction, the sky was never the limit. It is science fiction that takes us beyond what we know. It pushes the boundaries, explores the unknown, and approaches the unknowable.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley penned Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus less than 200 years ago. In it, she asked – and explored – the question, “What if we humans could create a living creature out of dead matter?” This novel is often regarded as the first science-fiction story: its inspiration was, in part, actual experiments being done by contemporaneous scientists on revivification of dead creatures; it contains no supernatural or purposely fantastic elements; and it deals, at great length, with the interplay between society, individuals and technology. Though science fiction is popularly thought to be a male genre (in the same sense that romance is considered to be a female genre), it should always be remembered that its progenitor, and many of its greatest contemporary writers, are women. And, of course, as any good science fiction writer will tell you: in the final analysis, we’re all Earthlings together.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.
Encyclopædia Britannica http://www.britannica.com
Books and Writers: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/mshelley.htm
Stranger in a Strange Land http://www.wegrokit.com/stranger_in_a_strange_land.htm

Suggested Reading:
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus
H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Theodore Sturgeon, Venus Plus X
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Harlan Ellison, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (short story)
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
Julian May, The Many-Colored Land
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cordelia’s Honor
[Note: this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I believe it presents a decent cross-section of themes and writing styles, as well as essential examples of the genre. Nor do I particularly like all of these, myself; specifically, the LeGuin book annoys me, and the Sturgeon book frustrates me – but they’re recognized as literature, and were greatly influential. And I suggest not reading the Ellison story before bedtime.]

Suggested Viewing:
(Film) Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (Ridley Scott, 1982)
(Film) 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1996)
(Film) Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
(Film) Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)
(Film) Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)
[Astute readers may note that The Matrix (Wachowskis, 1999) is missing from this list. That’s because it’s derivative, overproduced, poorly written and badly acted – though it is, technically, science fiction. Hey – I get to have an opinion.]
(TV Series) Babylon 5
(TV Series) Star Trek: The Next Generation
(TV Series) Firefly

Author's Note: "The Sky Was Never the Limit
© Copyright 2005 Robert Waltz (cathartes02 at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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