Monday, April 28, 2008

What is Science Fiction

I managed 890 words on Rigel Kentaurus today, which brings to mind the comment I made yesterday about discussiing hard SF today. Just what is science fiction?

Most people picture movies like Star Wars or the television show Star Trek when they think about science fiction. Wrong. What, you say? Star Wars isn't science fiction?

Part of the problem facing true science fiction today is the misconception of what is embodied in the genre. In order to discuss that, we need to define exactly what science fiction is. That's not necessarily an easy task, but I do have a definition to throw out. I'd better have one if I write the stuff. You'll find much disagreement, and as many definitions as there are writers, but this is the one I work by.

Science fiction, quite simply, is an extrapolation of today into tomorrow by posing the question 'what if?'. That definition is extremely broad, and encompasses hard SF of the type Arthur C. Clarke wrote. It also encompasses dystopian socio-fiction of the type Philip K. Dick wrote. It also contains pseudo-fantasy like Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey.

There is one other aspect to my defintion. Almost every science fiction story has a bit of what Larry Niven calls bolognium. Simply, the writer needs to break a rule of science to make the story work. That's okay provided it's kept in perspective. In his book Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold says the typical writer can get away with one major bit of bolognium without raising any red flags with readers. A good writer can get away with two. It takes a grand master to get away with more than two. For the rest of us, by passing two, you leave the realm of science fiction and enter that of science fantasy.

People will argue over the definition of science fantasy also, but my defintion excludes anything that involves magic. Preposterous technology, yes. Magic, no. So are you getting the picture? Where does Star Trek fall on this spectrum? Warp Drive, subspace radio, transporters, the Vulcan Mind Meld, shape-changing creatures, tachyons, parallel universes. Shall I go on? Clearly, Star Trek is, by my definition, science fantasy. Where does that leave Star Wars?

Star Wars walks a narrow tightrope between techno-fantasy and future fantasy--where technology and magic are mixed liberally. It really depends on your interpretation of "The Force," but to me it's just another name for magic.

Tomorrow, I'll go into more detail about what makes a story hard science fiction.

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