Science fiction and fantasy
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Science fiction and fantasy What is science fiction? At times called scientifiction, scientific fiction, sci-fi or, originally, scientific romance, this literary genre’s common visions, or tropes, often include white-coated scientists who are often “mad,” outer space, space ships, bug-eyed monsters (BEMs) and other alien beings, computers, robots, ray guns, suspended animation, matter transmitters, time machines, the end of the world, and universal peace or war. Some common subgenres: straight SF, hard SF, soft (or sociological) SF, military SF, humorous SF, space opera, cyberpunk, steampunk. Descriptions of SF genres can be found at www.writing-world.com/sf/ genres.shtml . Sci-fi is part of the larger genre speculative fiction, which includes fantasy and its subgenres horror (gothic and otherwise), sword & sorcery, alternative history and magic realism. What is a genre? Ursula K. LeGuin defines it as a community: “Authors and readers of any genre form a community, with certain shared interests and expectations. … Genre writers and readers share a common stock of concepts, icons, images, manners, patterns. … A genre is a formal tradition.” (Norton’s Anthology of Sci Fi) Here’s a good example of sci-fi by Fredric Brown in 1953 (and yes, these three sentences are the whole story): “After the last atomic war, Earth was dead; nothing grew, nothing lived. The last man sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Later in the decade, this was fleshed out for radio’s “X Minus One.” Here’s an SF definition from Wikipedia.com: “Science fiction … is a broad genre of fiction in which the narrative world differs from our own present or historical reality in at least one significant way. This difference may be technological, physical, historical, sociological, philosophical, metaphysical, etc., but it should always be logically explicable with reference to the world we know (thus distinguishing it from fantasy). Exploring the consequences of such differences (asking ‘What if...?’) is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a relatively highbrow ‘literature of ideas.’ However, there are also many purported works of science fiction in which a superficially ‘sci-fi’ setting is superimposed upon an otherwise conventional tale, and it is this ‘lowbrow’ form of the genre that is most widely recognized outside science-fiction fandom. As such, there is often a perception that science fiction is escapist or juvenile.” The entry goes on to say: “Science fiction often involves one or more of the following elements: a setting in the future or on an alternative time-line; a setting in outer space, or involving space travel or aliens; new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics; advanced technology. In consequence of some items listed above, sci-fi stories often portray completely or very different political or social realities.” SF grand master Robert A. Heinlein once wrote: “A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” SF historian Sam Moskowitz adds: “Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science and philosophy.” In fact, many sci-fi authors have a science background – Isaac Asimov was a biochemist, for instance, and Heinlein an engineer – so SF often predicts real science. In 1903, H.G. Wells envisioned the rise of the tank in modern warfare (used devastatingly in World War II in 1939), and in 1907 predicted a world war utilizing weapons based in the air (realized in World War I in 1914). In 1914, 31 years before Hiroshima, he wrote about an atomic bomb. In the 1940s, writer Arthur C. Clarke forecast that man would reach the moon by the year 2000, an idea experts dismissed as rubbish. When Neil Armstrong landed in 1969, the United States said Clarke “provided the essential intellectual drive that led us to the moon.” Clarke also envisioned the geostationary/ geosynchronous orbit – in other words, the same 24-hour period as the Earth’s rotation – for communications satellites in 1945, and the first satellites in such an orbit went up in 1963. This 22,000-mile-high orbit where all satellites now reside is called the Clarke Belt.
Here are a few other ways authors have tried to define the slippery beast that is science fiction: Hugo Gernsback: “a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” John Boyd: “Science fiction gives reality to possible events, usually in the future, extrapolated from present scientific knowledge or existing cultural and social trends.” Brian Stableford: “Science fiction is essentially a kind of fiction in which people learn more about how to live in the real world, visiting imaginary worlds unlike our own, in order to investigate by way of pleasurable thoughtexperiments how things might be done differently.” J.O. Bailey: “It describes an imaginary invention or discovery in the natural sciences. The most serious pieces of this fiction arise from speculation about what may happen if science makes an extraordinary discovery. The romance is an attempt to anticipate this discovery and its impact upon society, and to foresee how mankind may adjust to the new condition.” Isaac Asimov: “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” Theodore Sturgeon: “A good science-fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.” Rod Serling: “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.” Darko Suvin emphasizes a “cognitive” element in science fiction. According to Suvin, the purpose of science fiction is to introduce scientific or technological novelties in order to create narratives that enable us to perceive everyday
reality at a reflective distance. He uses the term cognitive estrangement to label this effect. Frederik Pohl: “Does the story tell me something worth knowing, that I had not known before, about the relationship between man and technology? Does it enlighten me on some area of science where I had been in the dark? Does it open a new horizon for my thinking? Does it lead me to think new kinds of thoughts, that I would not otherwise perhaps have thought at all? Does it suggest possibilities about the alternative possible future courses my world can take? Does it illuminate events and trends of today, by showing me where they may lead tomorrow? Does it give me a fresh and objective point of view on my own world and culture, perhaps by letting me see it through the eyes of a different kind of creature entirely, from a planet light-years away?” Gregory Benford: “SF is a controlled way to think and dream about the future, an integration of the mood and attitude of science (the objective universe) with the fears and hopes that spring from the unconscious.” From the Writing World site (http://www. writing-world.com/sf/sf.shtml ), specifically “Science Fiction: The Literature of Ideas” by Marg Gilks, Paula Fleming and Moira Allen: “Good science fiction, like all other forms of fiction, is about people. It examines the human condition, perhaps in a whole new landscape, perhaps from an “alien” perspective. But it has to be about people, or readers will have no frame of reference, nothing to relate to. Even if there isn’t a human anywhere in your story, you’re human, and your readers are human. To create that all-important empathy between reader and character, you’ll be describing your aliens (or robots, or artificial intelligences) through human perceptions.”
Most of the following ideas are paraphrased from Science Fiction, What It’s All About (1971), by Sam J. Lundwall. Any quotations not attributed are by Lundwall. How is sci-fi different from fantasy? The same idea can be sci-fi or fantasy, depending on how it is presented (see “King Midas” at end of handout). This can be seen in the third of Clarke’s “Three Laws of SF” (not to be confused with Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics,” both of which are on the wall): “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“The author of a ‘straight’ science fiction story proceeds from (or alleges to proceed from) known facts, developed in a credible way,” Lundwall writes, “whereas the author of a fantasy story starts with an idea and builds a world around it.” Then it depends upon the device the author uses to tell the story: “This is a logical or probable assumption based upon known science, which is going to develop from known science or from investigations of areas not yet quite explored but expected” = sci-fi, or “But if [the author] asks the reader to suspend his disbelief simply because of the fun of it, in other words, just to say, ‘Here is a fairy tale’ ” = fantasy. An SF author asks, “What reactions will such a situation start, and what will the consequences be?” John W. Campbell Jr. wrote: “The major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few, new postulates, and develops the rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along. ... The basic nature of fantasy is ‘The only rule is, make up a new rule any time you need one!’ The basic rule of science fiction is ‘Set up a basic proposition – then develop its consistent, logical consequences.’ ” There are sci-fi/fantasy hybrids that mix both worlds, most notably Frank Herbert’s Dune series and Anne McCaffrey’s Dragon series. *** In its present form, sci-fi nearly always deals with social criticism and reform: overpopulation, food availability, environment, atomic power, the “goal” of humanity. Its themes are a good “indicator of social and intellectual tides” of a particular society in a particular time, Lundwall says. For instance, the fantastic novel was definitely a product of the Age of Enlightenment. Mary W. Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein in 1818 showed her society’s misgivings about the Industrial Revolution, when “the universe suddenly threw open its gates wide open and nothing was impossible any longer,” Lundwall wrote. “The holy machine was placed in the high seat, and with its help one could accomplish absolutely anything.” In her age of rampant technological growth, Shelley was responding, “No, some knowledge should be forbidden” (much like the Adam and Eve story), “some science not attempted.” Restraint is perhaps called for, considering that most new technologies – steam power, electricity, internal combustion, nuclear power – at their creation were lauded as a key ingredient of a perfect future, but they all fell short of perfection in one way or another. Most, in fact, were used to harm mankind. Because of apocalyptic visions of the future (think The Terminator or Blade Runner) and often regressive views toward women, there is a common view by non-fans that sci-fi is negative, pessimistic and defeatist. Yet most sci-fi writers believe in progress – sci-fi almost always offers the prospect of change, both technical and social. A common message of sci-fi is “Nothing should be taken at face value … nothing will go on being what it is.” H.G. Wells once wrote: “All history is adaptation.” *** King Midas – fantasy or SF? Idea illustrated by Fredric Pohl in 1954, taken from Lundwall’s book: The short version of the Greek mythology story of King Midas is that the king did the god Bacchus a favor and got a wish as a reward. Midas wished that everything he touched turned to gold. The wish was granted, but Midas realized the gift had drawbacks, so he asked for the gift to be taken back, and it was. This is fantasy. “Mr. Midas, who runs a Greek restaurant in the Bronx, happens to save the life of an extraterrestrial from a far planet who is living in New York anonymously as an observer for the Galactic Federation, to which Earth for obvious reasons is not yet ready to be admitted. Same offer of reward, same request. The extraterrestrial, who is master of sciences far beyond ours, makes a machine that alters the molecular vibrations of Mr. Midas’s body so his touch will have a transmuting effect upon other objects.” This is SF – of a sort. *** Some notable SF authors Mr. Rhodes recommends: Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear, Ray Bradbury, David Brin, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, William Gibson, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Aldous Huxley, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, George Orwell.