I grew up watching and reading Science Fiction. Some of it was actually old by the time I had already been born, but it had a natural appeal to me when I was young. The idea of getting in a starship and flying to another world appealed to me.
A lot of the movies I saw were very silly, and they didn’t always have the best special effects. Not only were the posters for Forbidden Planet, done by a cartoonist, a cartoonist did the special effects as well. As silly and fun as many were, they had a subversive effect on me and many others that is usually discounted. Those movies started you on a path of wondering what we might someday be able to do. It isn’t necessary for the movie to answer the question, all it has to do is raise it.
Aliens invading the Earth can quickly become an allegory for another sort of invasion, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers had all sorts of political relevance without mentioning politics at all. Every time you talk about taking a trip to a new world, it follows that your going to talk about what might happen next, or what the consequences of a technology might be. Even the silliest and most escapist of movies encourages the young to think about what could be.
Today, it seems to me that there is a strong desire to break away from the confines of the genre, as people who write work that originally would have been defined as Science Fiction want to call it something else, and sometimes I hear statements that reveal a strange kind of disrespect for Science Fiction.
Orson Scott Card described Science Fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy, which I thought was a way of disrespecting a genre which has been very good to him. He characterized Science Fiction as being fantasy with laser guns. I don’t agree with that, and I think it speaks more to his own limitations as a writer then it does the genre.
He certainly isn’t alone in that view though. For instance, Margaret Atwood wrote a book called The Handmaid’s Tale, which to my mind is a great work of Science Fiction. When her book was placed in that genre she objected, saying it was speculative fiction.
“For me, the science fiction label belongs on books with things in them that we can’t yet do, such as going through a wormhole in space to another universe; and speculative fiction means a work that employs the means already to hand, such as DNA identification and credit cards, and that takes place on Planet Earth. But the terms are fluid. Some use speculative fiction as an umbrella covering Science Fiction and all its hyphenated forms – Science Fiction. Fantasy, and so forth – and others choose the reverse.”
While it may sound silly to argue about these things, the genre that a book is placed in is a very serious thing for a writer, because it decides what bookshelf their work is placed on. If the sort of people who would like their work never happen to come across it because they don’t check that shelf very often, that costs the author money and attention, and if that goes on for very long they may not be able to support themselves as a writer. As more work is bought over the internet that may come to matter less, but I can understand why authors would be concerned.
My reason for wanting people to think about the meaning of the genre is different from that. I think that defining a genre by the terms Atwood gave is trivial, as is Card’s, and they define it that way because like most people out there, they don’t understand what science really is.
Fantasy is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and that will always be true for me no matter how many more fantasy books are sold than Science Fiction. The difference has nothing to do with laser guns or whether the story is set in the future, or the past. The difference is simply that someone who writes Science Fiction wants his story to be logical, and connect with the real world in some way. The tools are used in a way we understand, and have consequences that we can follow in our own society.
Science isn’t gadgets or ray guns, it’s whatever is derived from the scientific method, and the scientific method begins simply with a hypothesis; in other words, a theory. The scientist then strives to find out whether the theory is true. He tests it, looking for objectively gathered data, and backs it up by sending his results to his peers who can examine it with fresh eyes. He does these things in order to remove his own bias, and to try to see the world as it truly is, as opposed to what he wishes it were. It’s all about being objective. And that entire process always begins with someone asking a question.
The problem with writing a novel about a star-ship making a journey to some far off planet is that we don’t know how to do it yet. Whenever you write such a book, your more hardcore Science Fiction fans will nitpick little details and argue about what is scientifically possible. Sometimes authors choose Fantasy over Science Fiction just to avoid that problem. An author might dread an argument over physics, and instead write a book that skips the journey and uses an extradimensional portal made by a seemingly magical process. Having done that, nobody will argue whether the ship could be built, or what the consequences of what the trip might be. Fantasy usually ends up being about power struggles between different characters and very little else.
When a writer is willing to go the extra mile and write something that makes us question what is possible for us to do, or the consequences of our actions, we should respect that.
We live now in the richest and most escapist society the world will ever know. The people who came before us could not dream of the inventions we possess, and never lived so well. Our children will not be so able to escape, because more people live now on Earth than it can support indefinitely. Even as major natural catastrophes occur one after the other, journalists will cover the damage extensively, but resist even mentioning climate change, as though the cause is somehow irrelevant.
All art is escapist to some extent, but some teaches us to ask questions. Today, we read less, we watch more escapist films which seem to mean nothing at all, and we ask very few questions.
These days, most of the books sold are actually ebooks and don’t really sit on a shelf at all. You can do a search based on the author’s name without leaving your chair, but twenty years ago the only way you’d locate a book is by physically walking to the right part of the store. It’s just as well, because authors and readers alike aren’t quite certain what the names they place over the shelves really mean more.
I read books from all the shelves, so I’ve never placed that much importance in the name of a genre. Still, I have always known what Science Fiction was to me. It’s the literature of ideas, and of questions. I hope that when I read more books in the coming year, I will see more of it.