A Sci-Fi thread

#1

This is a thread about sci-fi. All kinds of sci-fi.

Sci-fi is hard to describe. So hard that Wikipedia has an entire article called “Definitions of Sci-fi”.
Here’s one definition:

“Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.”

  • Norman Spinrad, 1974

Well then.

You’ve also got your specifications of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I thought that was still a thing, but then Wikipedia tells me this:

Science Fiction has historically been sub-divided between hard science fiction and soft science fiction – with the division centering on the feasibility of the science central to the story.[176] However, this distinction has come under increasing scrutiny in the 21st century. Authors including Tade Thompson and Jeff VanderMeer have pointed out that stories that focus explicitly on physics, astronomy, mathematics, and engineering tend to be considered “hard”, while stories that focus on botany, mycology, zoology or the social sciences tend to be categorized as, “soft,” regardless of the relative rigor of the science.[177]

So. Hunh.

Personally, I think sci-fi should involve space in some way. It occurred to me while writing this that you may be able to divide sci-fi into “possible futures” and “impossible futures”. In other words, futures without magic, and futures with magic. I would put Kim Stanley Robinson into the first camp, and older sci-fi books where the protaginists come across planets with god-like floating clouds of gas in the second camp (sort of like The Jesus Incident by Frank Herbert).

One of my favorite sci-fi authors is Kim Stanley Robinson.

My favorite of his is the Mars Trilogy, which is a fairly realistic look at what might happen if humans colonized Mars. I also have enjoyed Aurora, 2312, New York 2140. I’ve also enjoyed Shaman (a look at the life of early humans) and The Years of Rice and Salt (historical fiction that explores what would have happened had Europe been totally been wiped out by the plague, leading to world domination by the Muslim and Chinese world, rather than Europeans, with a storyline connected by reincarnation).

How would you define sci-fi? What’s your favorite sci-fi? Are you reading/want to read any specific sci-fi at the moment?

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#2

I love Spinrad’s definition. He’s really hacking away at the semantic Gordian knot there.

I also really agree with Jeff VanderMeer’s take on the hard/soft binary… I have a copy of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s Big Book of Science Fiction collection that I’ve been reading a story out of every once in a while. Great selection.

Personally, my favorite sci-fi is the wacky and surreal stuff. The Hitchhiker’s Guide books and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series come to mind.

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#3

I don’t know if I need space in my sci fi necessarily—for me, elements like time travel, parallel universes, and robots (/artificial intelligences) totally count even when totally earthbound. For me I think it has to do with taking some scientific (or maybe even societal?) concept from the real world and extrapolating it into a story/scenario where the idea is taken to an extreme? I don’t know if that holds up to scrutiny though. Ultimately Spinrad is right, I think lol

There’s also a very blurry line between fantasy and sci fi (even though dragons and intergalactic travel usually aren’t found in the same book.) I guess because they’re both based on totally imaginary worlds of the authors creation?

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#4

I think @jinjin hit on that point really well, imaginary worlds of the author’s creation.

I always look at sci-fi as having a definable x-factor. If you haven’t listened to Ezra Klein’s N.K. Jemisin interview you absolutely should. They focus a ton on what it means to build a world that feels like people and stories actually live in it, she references a few times that fantasy really turns the dial up on this, while sci-fi strives to keep the x-factor imperceptible and I think that’s exactly where the definition sits for me. I love a sci-fi story that doesn’t seem impossible if a couple known rules of reality are bent in favor of the story.

Ted Chiang is a master at this (his style is often called ‘humanist science fiction’), if you’ve seen Arrival you know his work, but I highly suggest reading as many of his short stories as you can.

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#5

Great topic, this is really interesting. The hard vs. soft division, and biases there, is something I hadn’t thought about.

While I like the recursive definition I guess it’s not particularly useful…but then, much of genre boundaries tend to not be all that useful outside of fairly narrow circumstances like “where should I shelve this?” or “what awards is this eligible for?” The most useful part of distinguishing different genres is probably in easing discovery, helping us more easily find books we’re actually likely to enjoy reading.

To me, “speculative fiction” is an interesting term because it seems to be an attempt at a more broad genre that encompasses sci-fi, fantasy, magic, dystopian and similar. It also feels like an attempt to be a bit more highbrow, similar to how “graphic novel” emerged as a broader alternative to “comic book” with less genre baggage.

My favorite sci-fi:

  • Three Body Problem / Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy
  • The Dispossessed
  • Dune
  • Star Maker
  • Cat’s Cradle
  • Cosmicomics
  • Dawn / Xenogenesis trilogy
  • Stories of Your Life and Others (Ted Chiang! yes!)

Some that I’m not sure I’d think of as sci-fi but, considering now, might fit!

  • Invisible Cities (not science focused, but highly speculative)
  • Flatland (more a math parable haha)
  • His Dark Materials (maybe “fantasy” but…parallel worlds!)

For me another important aspect might be something like “creative thought experiments”. I guess in some sense maybe that describes all fiction. But specifically, creating worlds / scenarios where the impossible becomes possible, requiring a sort of suspension of disbelief, and extrapolating what happens based on that premise. I think this ties in with the “x-factor” @gabekelley mentioned!

Thinking about what books meet this criteria…The Martian comes to mind as a book that superficially seems like sci-fi, but to me feels too flat, not enough distinctive worldbuilding / thought experiments / x-factor happening…feels more like “disaster movie” than sci-fi or speculative fiction to me.

I like the possible vs. impossible / magic vs. magic-less distinction as well. This reminds me of a couple great articles by Brandon Sanderson, a fantasy author (I actually haven’t read any of his books yet) who wrote about his approach to thinking about magic systems:


Ursula K. Le Guin comes to mind as an author who often gets pigeonholed by genre, as her most well known works are typically labeled sci-fi or fantasy, but actually wrote a wide range of stuff, including poetry and more experimental stuff like Always Coming Home

Returning to Spinrad’s definition, maybe what feels comically useless as a descriptive definition is actually important as a prescriptive one — that is, perhaps a key aspect of sci-fi is boundary pushing and extending the genre in new dimensions. Le Guin, for example, brought a much more feminist / humanist approach to a genre that was previously largely a boy’s club about space adventures. Maybe all great sci-fi in some way attempts to expand or redefine the genre!

#6

God I havent read Flatland since geometry class sophomore year of high school. I definitely need to reread it.

I think creative thought experiments is a pretty wide net to cast, and that “science fiction” should involve some type of technology (or perhaps a conspicuous lack of it) that is not available in today’s world. Otherwise, it’s just fiction, right?

It seems like science fiction has similar breakdowns to a lot of other genres. You have your shoot 'em ups (John Scalzi comes to mind), your more cerebral (Three Body Problem), your “aliens on earth” (Ted Chiang), your fantasy (Dan Simmon’s Hyperion), your parables (Ray Bradbury?) your YA (Red Rising?).

Has anyone read any China Mieville? Would he be fantasy or sci-fi? Or the really trashy Atrocity Archive books by Charles Stross. Oh! Charles Stross did write Accelerando though, which is super wild and involves the cosmic consciousness of the lobster.

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#7

I finally read through the whole Wikipedia articles on science fiction + definitions, wanted to highlight some favorite passages.

This is interesting re: tensions between literary and genre fiction and the certain degree of arbitrariness in how a book is defined and marketed:

David Barnett has remarked: “The ongoing, endless war between “literary” fiction and “genre” fiction has well-defined lines in the sand. Genre’s foot soldiers think that literary fiction is a collection of meaningless but prettily drawn pictures of the human condition. The literary guard consider genre fiction to be crass, commercial, whizz-bang potboilers. Or so it goes.” He has also pointed out that there are books such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which use recognizable science fiction tropes, but whose authors and publishers do not market them as science fiction.

From the definitions article, sounds like this one is regarded as at least among the most useful for sparking debate. Very academic, not entirely sure what’s meant by “estrangement and cognition”, but I like the idea of the “imaginative framework” / alternate reality as key:

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction…contains an extensive discussion of the problem of definition, under the heading “Definitions of SF”. The authors regard Darko Suvin’s definition as having been most useful in catalysing academic debate, though they consider disagreements to be inevitable as science fiction is not homogeneous. Suvin’s cited definition, dating from 1972, is: “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment”.

A pretty nice simple definition from Robert Heinlein:

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. To make this definition cover all science fiction (instead of ‘almost all’) it is necessary only to strike out the word ‘future’.

A super pithy one by Rod Serling:

Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.

And I love this, from Ray Bradbury; not a rigorous definition but some nice passages getting at science fiction’s aims:

Science fiction is the one field that reached out and embraced every sector of the human imagination, every endeavor, every idea, every technological development, and every dream. … It triangulates mankind amongst these geometrical threads, praising him, warning him. … Science fiction then is the fiction of revolutions. Revolutions in time, space, medicine, travel, and thought…Above all, science fiction is the fiction of warm-blooded human men and women sometimes elevated and sometimes crushed by their machines.

And from Philip K Dick; I like the crux of a “conceptual dislocation” resulting in a new world, based on our own yet somehow transformed, as the basis for a story:

…So if we separate SF from the future and also from ultra-advanced technology, what then do we have that can be called SF? We have a fictitious world; that is the first step: it is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society; that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate world story or novel. It is our world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet. This world must differ from the given in at least one way, and this one way must be sufficient to give rise to events that could not occur in our society—or in any known society present or past. There must be a coherent idea involved in this dislocation; that is, the dislocation must be a conceptual one, not merely a trivial or bizarre one—this is the essence of science fiction, the conceptual dislocation within the society so that as a result a new society is generated in the author’s mind, transferred to paper, and from paper it occurs as a convulsive shock in the reader’s mind, the shock of dysrecognition. He knows that it is not his actual world that he is reading about.

Fun reading the wide variety and evolution of definitions!

I’ve heard very good things about some of his books, but haven’t yet read any. Embassytown and The City & the City are both on my list. It seems like he crosses both genres and probably others as well. As with Le Guin my impression is some books may lean sci-fi, some fantasy, some kind of in the middle / both / neither. I feel like books where the genre is hard to pin down are often the most interesting!

#8

One interesting element to the “defining sci-fi” debate: If you go back far enough in the history of storytelling, you eventually get to a point where sci-fi doesn’t really exist. A literary genre is kind of defined and constrained by the societal norms of the culture it exists within: If a certain scientific concept isn’t widely known, you won’t get sci-fi stories based on it.

Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick, touches on this with the concept of time and time travel. Here’s what one review says about it:

Among the more fascinating aspects of Gleick’s history of time travel is how new this obsession is. Prior to the nineteenth century, there were no time travel stories, no discussions of how and when it might be possible, no explorations of its possible benefits and paradoxes. “No one bothered with the future in 1516,” Gleick notes. “It was indistinguishable from the present.” Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the present—particularly in the West—was simply a held breath, a fermata between Christ’s ascension and his return. Time travel was unnecessary because it was all-but-guaranteed: If Jesus didn’t return on your watch, you died knowing that, Rip Van Winkle-like, he’d wake you up on Judgment Day.

I’d argue Frankenstein is the first sci-fi novel. There are a lot of older ones that people retrofit into science fiction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a stretch. A True Story, by Lucian of Samosata from the 2nd century, sometimes gets brought up, but I’d call that one more of a parable/fairy tale style story.

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#9

@Adam super interesting! I do think there are certain concepts in sci fi that have been explored for ages and ages, like robots (soulless machines designed to perform some task) and exploration (maybe not always space but lots on the ocean). Before alternate dimensions, people invented alternate continents and alternate cities it seems. But it’s so fascinating that time travel specifically wasn’t really explored.

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#10

Great point! Haven’t thought too much about how every genre has a history, and that history has to start somewhere…maybe more recently than we think.

Re: time travel (and related to some of the discussion here: The Hero’s Journey) now I’m curious about other ways time intersects with literature and storytelling. For example, there are a number of candidates for “first novel”; this list has several interesting “firsts” in various genres and traditions. But what about things like “first story to use nonlinear narrative”? Also curious when “writing about the future” started to be a thing (more general, must predate time travel specifically). Similarly, what stories were first to explore an alternate history or other modes of the “speculative” in some capacity?

Also interesting to consider what new genres are emerging now that may not even fully be identified yet. I think I’ll start a new topic to try brainstorming on this further!

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What new genres or modes of writing are emerging before our very eyes?