An Introduction to The Modified Brotherton-Troughton-Davidson-Scale-of-Science-Fiction-ness.
The other day R.K. Troughton opened up a discussion on the line (if there is one) between fantasy and science fiction.
R.K., having an affinity for games, offered up a table, borrowing from technology scales that are familiar to those of us who have engaged with science fiction games. Various theories regarding the nature of that line were presented and then discussed in the comments section, at which point Mike Brotherton (a member of the Order of the Damon Knights Defenders of Science in Science Fiction – do NOT ask him what sign he is!) offered up a link to his previously conceived Hardness Scale for Science Fiction at which point I – a former game designer myself – began looking at everything from a game-design perspective.
In attempting to simplify the discussion and generate some parameters for future thought I offered up the idea that science fiction (the kind Damon Knight continually points to) must meet two important criteria or ‘tests’ that fantasy does not, one being the Campbellian dictate that SF illustrates the effects of science and technology and its influence and interaction with human beings and the other being the plausibility or rightness of the extrapolated science presented in a given work. (For my purposes, unresolved scientific questions leave room for extrapolation.)
A work that meets both of those criteria is easily discernible as science fiction, while one that doesn’t could be a fantasy. A game theory matrix for this relationship would look something like this (typically a “yes” or “meets the condition” is represented as a ‘1’, while a “no” or a “doesn’t apply/doesn’t meet the condition” is represented as a 0):
PRESUMED TYPE OF WORK
(?) FANTASY SCIENCE*
*I’m not sure how a work could have plausibly extrapolated science and NOT show the effects and interactions it had on people, but the table suggests that such could exist. Perhaps Abbott’s Flatland meets these criteria…?
There are of course other tests that good science fiction – SF loosely defined at the moment as those works that the majority of us would place into such a class – can be subjected to – but using such tests simply adds more columns to the matrix and more finely dices the pseudo-forms that might exist between science fiction and fantasy; a quick study of those tests will reveal that they are ALL exclusionary so far as fantasy is concerned (an SF work might get a 1, a fantasy work will always receive a 0). After all, we’re trying to determine what an SF work has that a fantasy work doesn’t (or vice versa).
Now before I go on and lest anyone get the wrong impression: stating that a work fails one or more tests for science fictionness is NOT the same thing as saying it is a bad work. An apple tests out to zero on all of the qualities that go into making an excellent orange. Failing the apple test, the orange remains a very good orange and need not be ashamed of its failure at all. Unless of course the orange has been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and thinks that it has been writing science fiction all along, which raises an entirely different question about the future capabilities of oranges that we don’t have time to get into here.
Also in the comments, Astrid Nielsch addressed a common accusation leveled against fantasy; that because of the rigor required of science and the absence of (real) science from fantasy, fantasy works are ‘easier’ to write, lack logical consistency & etc. Astrid rightly pointed out that the crafting of fantasy works (especially in these days of GRRM dominance) has become an exercise that is equally as complicated, logical and rigorous as the writing of Science Fiction, the works adhering to and restricting themselves to an internal logic that can be just as confining (within the work itself) as works of SF. This is true but I have moved the goal posts on Astrid. SF (again, works we agree are good SF, easily definable as such by the vast majority of its audience) still operates under a greater set of restrictions than fantasy, restrictions external to the logics presented in a story. Science Fiction must take our present day scientific knowledge into account. A work of fantasy need not. This difference in no way diminishes one genre or the other. It is also a difference that is encompassed in the plausibility question in the above matrix.
To continue. Mike Brotherton’s Scale of SF Hardness(TM) – reproduced here –
1. Star Wars.
2. Most Superhero Movies (e.g. Spider-Man)
3. Event Horizon.
5. Star Trek.
6. Space Cowboys.
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey
The scale restricts itself to science fiction, or things that one can at least argue are of a science fictional nature. It also restricts itself to film and television forms of SF which makes it far more accessible to a much wider audience, which is beneficial at least in the creating of benchmarks.
I have a few disagreements with Mike on the works selected to illustrate his scale. Beginning with 0, Furturama. I don’t think it belongs so far down the totem pole because Futurama is comedy and where it relates to SF it often employs a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek approach. I’d contend that one needs to be intimately familiar with science and technology (and their possible extrapolations) in order to so effectively make fun of them (the Smell-o-scope as an instrument of astronomical investigation springs immediately to mind) and equally familiar with the tropes and history of the genre (there is no such thing as an FTL drive. Futurama’s in-joke in dealing with this problem is to totally ignore it – which is a very telling humorous comment on that trope). I’d put Futurama at the top of the scale with a note to the effect that this show’s lack of scientific rigor and plausibility is a comedic turn on the presence of such in Hard SF. Qualification through negation, if you will.
My subjective difference here reveals our initial problem in adopting Mike’s scale. (Though it occurs to me that placing Futurama at ‘0’ AND having a tenth item on the scale might be Mike’s elegant way of pointing out what I took a paragraph to elaborate on.) But it also reveals that not everyone is going to put the same films and television shows at the same level. It is a starting point and looking at properties from the big and little screens offers us one major advantage (beyond accessibility) that the written form does not: we can all observe the science, the tech and the human interactions with the same. Observation is a hallmark of the scientific method. We can use our observations to create a list of facts – facts that are testable and verifiable, another hallmark of conducting good scientific research.
(Shouldn’t Science Fiction be accessible to analysis by scientific method? It would seem to be a natural.)
Literature also differs from the visual arts by introducing a greater degree of subjectivity to the experience we glean from it; my interpretation of a passage’s inherent factiness may differ wildly from your own, while in visual media we not only hear the words being said, we can actually witness the one specific manner in which the characters interact with the science and the technology. (For example – the Pod Escape scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Reading about the incident does not provide any true time frames for how long Bowman spends in hard vacuum. The film presentation of the story can actually be timed (24 seconds; according to NASA, a human can survive – and recover from – such exposure of approximately 30 seconds.)
What I propose therefore is that we first create a list of visually accessible science fiction properties, massaging Mike’s original list through the addition of other works and then, once we’ve got a nice scale with a few exemplars for each, we begin comparing various works of literature to that scale. For example – Futurama finds itself in the 0 classification. Do other SF comedic works – such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Spaceballs or even Hot Tub Time Machine – belong in the same category? And would that category then be a match for the science fictionness of such literary works as The Technicolor Time Machine (Harrison), The High Crusade (Anderson), Piper’s Jay Score stories or Padget’s (Moore & Kuttner) Gallagher stories?
Of course this whole exercise does beg the question: Should we even be trying to stuff science fiction into a box?