"...And I Don't Even Like Science Fiction"
A Defense of the Genre

Science fiction has a serious image problem, and has had for a long time. It isn't that people don't like it, sci-fi films like Star Wars and Jurassic Park have been among the highest grossing of all time, but a lot of people see it as "non-adult" and essentially trivial and refuse to take it seriously. I must declare an interest, I wrote a novel about artificial intelligence called SIRAT that came out in the year 2000, and the heading to one of the first reviews it received on Amazon was "... And I don't even like science fiction". The gist of the piece was that this woman had read the book, presumably unaware of its genre, and liked it in spite of her anti-sci-fi leanings. All credit to her for rising above her prejudice, but this is a pretty big barrier for a writer to overcome.
        There are two tactics that writers and their editors employ to combat this knee-jerk negative reaction. One is to explain that although this book has science fiction elements it isn't, in fact, science fiction. Another is to try to redeem the image of the genre itself, which is a much longer and bumpier road.

Historical Dimension

Science fiction has an honourable pedigree, which some writers have tried to push back to Classical times (e.g. the flight of Icarus), but the label only became attached to the genre in late Victorian times, when people began to get excited about what science and technology might be able to achieve. The Victorians reasoned thus: We have trains that can carry us around at ten times the speed of a horse, ships that need no sails, balloons that can carry us thousands of feet into the air. Where might it all end? Could we have a vehicle that would carry us to the moon (Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon) or a machine that would allow us to travel backwards and forwards in time (H.G. Wells The Time Machine), or might we even be able to create an artificial human being (Mary Shelley Frankenstein)? Might there not be intelligent beings on other planets whose science is far superior to ours (H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds)?



        As the achievements of science became ever more spectacular so did the speculations of science fiction writers. Everyone could see how radically such technologies as electricity, radio, heavier- than-air flight, the internal combustion engine and scientific medicine had transformed human life and human society. It was but a small step to imagine the social changes that the next scientific revolution might engender. What if a technology came along that allowed us to live forever, or to spy on one another with hidden cameras, or set up colonies on other planets, or control people's thoughts, or create artificial brains? The speculations of the science fiction writers expanded with the ambitions of science itself.
        Alongside this advance of what came to be called "hard science fiction", writers also emerged whose speculations centred on social change per se, new social science or sociology rather than new science or technology. This field seems to be the one that has attracted most of the women writers in science fiction, such as Ursula le Guin, Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy. Unsurprisingly, to distinguish it from hard science fiction it came to be called "soft science fiction", or sometimes "speculative fiction", which is a catch-all that covers things like alternative histories and political fiction as well as work with a magical or supernatural basis. In my opinion the term doesn't define a sharp enough category to be very useful.

Space Fiction

I suppose a lot of people believe that science fiction means space ships, ray guns and meetings with monsters on alien planets. The cinema feeds this perception, with films like the Star Wars series, the Alien series, Starship Troopers, War of the Worlds and the embarrassingly similar Independence Day; TV feeds it even more, with such offerings as Star Trek, Dr Who, Planet of the Apes, Lost in Space, Blake's Seven, Battlestar Galactica and many similar series. Often there is cross-over between the two, so that the Star Trek TV series spawns the Star Trek feature films, and the 1970s Planet of the Apes feature films spawn successive waves of Planet of the Apes TV serials, leading in turn to yet more Planet of the Apes feature films. In reality all this is very, very old-fashioned science fiction. War of the Worlds was written in 1898 (!) and Star Wars is based on the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comic strips, first published in the years between the wars and continuing through World War Two. It is, to a large extent, a series of WW2 fighter-plane dogfights transposed into a special effects "space" setting. The golden era of space fiction was between the end of WW2 and about 1965, when Charles Chilton wrote the Journey into Space radio series and Nigel Kneale the Quatermass TV series. In the book world, Isaac Asimov was writing his Galactic Empire series, E.E. (Doc) Smith his Lensman series, Robert Heinlein his early space operas like Starship Troopers (1959 source for the 1998 Paul Verhoeven film!) and the Space Cadet Ballantine series, and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard such rightfully forgotten works as Forbidden Voyage, The Emperor of the Universe and The Conquest of Space.
        The point I'm making is that space fiction as a genre had almost exhausted itself by the time we took our first faltering steps into real space in the late 1960s, although television and the cinema have arguably yet to catch up. Space fiction began to parody itself, with the gentle satires of the likes of Robert Sheckley, Kurt Vonnegutt and Philip Josť Farmer, culminating in the all-out spoofs of Douglas Adams' Hitch-hiker "trilogy" (in five parts!) and the Red Dwarf TV series. An entire subgenre grew up around the notion of science fiction writers lampooning what had gone before. Comic science fiction, aimed originally at people who were in on the joke, was taken up with enthusiasm by the popular culture of the 1980s. It seems difficult to imagine that anybody in the last two or three decades could have gone on writing full-blown old-fashioned space fiction without their tongue firmly in their cheek.



Retro Space Fiction

Yet there were, and are, people still doing it: most notably Larry Niven with his Ringworld series (lampooned by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld series) and Alastair Reynolds, a Welsh physicist of barely thirty summers, whose latest offering The Prefect (May 2007) even sports a spaceship-adorned cover that seems to harp back to the days when the adventures of Dan Dare were on Radio Luxembourg and the latest edition of Astounding Science Fiction had just dropped through the letterbox. Why would anybody want to write this kind of thing in the 21st century? Why would anybody want to read it?
        Well, the audience for the retro science fiction of Reynolds and a few others certainly seems to exist, because The Prefect is the seventh of his novels published by Gollancz, long-time publishers of luminaries such as Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein. For the purposes of this article I decided that I would read The Prefect, with the most open mind I could muster, and see what, if anything, I got out of it.
        Initially, I have to admit, it was a pleasurable experience. I had been given back my comfort blanket, I was in very familiar territory, borne forward on a great wave of nostalgia for the reading experiences of my long lost youth. But nostalgia, I have discovered, is insufficient to sustain someone for 400 pages, and about a third of the way through I realised that I had stopped paying attention and didn't really care what was going to happen next.
        For me, and this may be a purely personal reaction, the creation of a plausible future society of humans living in hollowed-out asteroids, designed by extrapolating carefully and minimally from present-day technologies, is only interesting insofar as it provides a backdrop for conflict and its resolution involving characters that I care about. My problem in this instance was my inability to care about or to believe in Reynolds' human (or alien) characters. If this is indeed science fiction I agree with the reviewer of SIRAT, I don't really like it either.
        I forced my way through about half the book, floundering as to what the point of it all might be, when suddenly the penny dropped. What I was reading was a descriptive account of a computer game: all action, explosions and exotic off-earth settings. Full of sound and fury. Nintendo and Game Boy are the true 21st century heirs to the space opera of the 1950s. They address exactly the same needs in exactly the same audience: late adolescent boys. The only thing that was unusual about Alastair Reynolds' material was that he had written it into a book instead of programming it into a machine. This is Resident Evil for people who relate better to the written word than the flickering screen.
       

Other Kinds of Science Fiction

So where did science fiction itself go? The answer is, all over the place. The same authors like Asimov and Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Clifford Simak, who had tried their hand at the ray gun stuff in the Dan Dare years, started speculating about immortality, free will, telepathy, multi-world-line universes, adjacent dimensions, different kinds of reality, intelligent robots, environmental catastrophe, afterlife through the freezing of dead bodies, races of genetically-engineered super-humans and human/machine hybrids. They also introduced into their writing philosophical speculations up to and including the nature of the Universe and of various imagined versions of its Creator. Post-nuclear wastelands and other dystopias here on earth replaced the acid seas and man-eating fungi on distant planets. Each new technology, such as the computer, genetic engineering or virtual reality, was pushed to its logical conclusion and a bit beyond to see where it might possibly take us if we let it run forward unchecked. Social issues like attitudes to women (The Stepford Wives), over-population (Make Room! Make Room! and its screen adaptation Soylent Green) and the possibility that artificial intelligence might supersede our own (Asimov's Multivac stories, the Terminator series, HAL in 2001, Supertoys Last All Summer Long and its screen adaptation AI, and my own humble SIRAT) were all explored. But still the stigma of the Dan Dare years persisted, and a convention was adopted that any work that was good in the literary sense would no longer be called science fiction (1984, Brave New World, Flowers for Algernon, Metamorphosis, Naked Lunch, Solaris, The Midwich Cuckoos, Slaughterhouse Five).



Cyber Punk

In the 1980s and 90s a new sub-genre emerged, written mainly by the computer-game generation and usually set in a future dystopia in which computers and people had reached some new level of integration. It was usually peopled by the violent and alienated young who swore a lot, took drugs which might totally change their view of reality, filled their lives with loud music and communicated with one another in an invented slang of their own. This was cyber-punk. Anthony Burgess anticipated most of its elements in his 1961 A Clockwork Orange, but it had to wait for the IT revolution and the Internet to attain its full potential. A recent mainstream spill-over from this genre was the Matrix series of films, within which space was found for a bit of Kung Fu and a few lively car chases for good measure, and the similar but significantly different Equilibrium.
        Cyber punk, in my estimation, occupies the territory that the pulp Western once did: it's a literature of action, excitement, he-man derring- do, good guys and bad guys acting out teenage fantasies in a world beyond the rule of ordinary law.
        Unlike the Western though, it has dated rather rapidly and fallen from prominence in the new century.

Can We Sum It All Up?

With the proliferation of sub-genres and the emergence of more experimental kinds of writing it is no longer at all clear what is and isn't science fiction, whether in books or on film. Perhaps it doesn't matter, but if the term is to be used as a way of dismissing work as valueless without examining it, then it matters at least to writers.
        Is it possible to reach a definition of the genre on which we can all agree? A definition that avoids reference to specific content or subject matter, like space travel, robots or futuristic settings, because that is precisely the stereotype of the genre that we need to transcend?
        Foremost among science fiction's defining characteristics I would want to stipulate that the plot and setting need to have at least some basis in scientific plausibility, and extend some scientific idea or area of technology beyond where it is at the time of writing. This separates science fiction from, for example, fantasy, like the magical realm of Harry Potter, where no basis in scientific plausibility is required, or horror, where the subconscious fears of the reader are manipulated to evoke a response, and plausibility or realism are at best very secondary considerations. For me, it's still science fiction if I can seriously entertain the possibility of it happening. Miriam Allen de Ford has a mindbending quote that: "Science fiction deals with improbable possibilities, fantasy with plausible impossibilities".
        Another defining characteristic, which is more subtle, is that science fiction speculates primarily about the world and how it's put together and how it might change, rather than about human beings and their feelings and interactions. The human interest dimension needs to be included, although not necessarily through human characters, and is what gives the story much of its appeal to readers, but it isn't primarily what gives the story its point. Unlike conventional mainstream literature, science fiction isn't just about us, it's about our relationship to the universe we inhabit. It is at root and at its best philosophical fiction. And a person who isn't interested in or excited by philosophical ideas probably won't be drawn to science fiction either, even science fiction of the very best kind.

The Very Best Kind

Science fiction, in my opinion, is at its best when it reveals a way of seeing things that I was never aware of before. I could say precisely the same of the formal study of philosophy, and, at least for me, the difference between the two is mainly one of presentation. An outstanding example of science fiction as philosophical exploration would be Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, in which the inhabitants of a space station investigating the seemingly sentient ocean that covers an alien planet come under reciprocal investigation themselves from the planetary-sized organism. The ocean tries, in a faltering but benign way, to give them what they want. The question at the heart of the story is: Can human beings ever be given what they want? What is the fundamental aim and fulfillment of human existence? Tarkovsky's 1972 film is about a tenth as good as the book itself, Stephen Soderberg's 2002 adaptation about a fiftieth as good, but that makes both of them excellent films.
        For a novel that examines the interface between scientific medicine and human beings at its most poignant, look no further than Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon, filmed in 1968 as Charly and rather more successfully for TV in 2000 under its original title.
        The story is told through the journal of Charlie Gordon, a bakery worker with a learning disability who is recruited to take part in an experiment to enhance human intelligence. The experiment seems to be a great success at first, Charlie's intelligence rapidly outstripping that of the researchers themselves, but his emotional development lags far behind his intellectual mastery. As a churlish and insensitive genius he finds himself as much alienated from mainstream humanity as he ever was. Now disillusioned and resentful, he realises through his own research that the experiment was fatally flawed, and he must suffer the final indignity of the loss his newfound brilliance and regression to a level below that at which he started.
        These are among the all-time classics, but where should one look for the very best modern science fiction that is destined to survive the filtering effect of time? This becomes a highly personal selection, but among the ones I would recommend you to consider would be: Greg Bear (Moving Mars, Darwin's Radio), Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Prey, The Andromeda Strain), Gregory Benford (Cosm, Eater), Greg Elan (Schild's Ladder, Our Lady of Chernoble, Diaspora), Kim Stanley Robinson (The Three Californias series, the Science in the Capital series), Geoffrey A. Landis (Impact Perimeter), and anything by Brian W. Aldiss or Arthur C Clarke (both the wrong side of 80 and still able to dazzle).
        Try to remember always that science fiction obeys Sturgeon's Law, invented by sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, who stated that: "Ninety per cent of science fiction is crud", but explained, "that's because ninety per cent of everything is crud". Sometimes he is credited with having added the more optimistic rider: "...but the remaining ten per cent is worth dying for".



SEND ME AN EMAIL  email