The Science Fiction Spectrum

underrated

Friend of the blog Dean Bradley ponders the question “What Makes Good Sci-Fi?” and comes up with some excellent theories:

First, and perhaps most obviously, sci-fi should ask “what if?” (Incidentally, Marvel occasionally runs alternative Marvel history comics titled “What If ____,” and they are usually a lot of fun.) If it doesn’t involve a future or alternate world, it belongs on a different shelf. This is where sci-fi and fantasy run up against each other, and this quality could be a broad description of the Speculative Fiction supergenre (is that a word? it is now).

Science fiction focuses on the “what if?” Where fantasy and space opera are usually much more character-driven, sci-fi generally forces us to consider the consequences of our hypothetical.

“What if we created dinosaurs from mosquito-borne dinosaur blood?” Well, it would start with “ooh, ahh,” but later there’d be a shirtless Jeff Goldblum, and then the running, and the screaming.

“What if we could upload our minds into any available body?” You’d have faceless assassins working for deathless multi-trillionaires in a neon and chrome dystopia.

“What if we fought a war against aliens and had to use near light speed travel to get there?” Relativity is a bitch, my man, and the past is a foreign country. But men still shoot each other.

But what makes books like Jurassic Park, Altered Carbon, and The Forever War work? It’s not really the science. Let’s face it, all of them assume away some limitations, or get the science wrong/oversimplified, or both. It’s not the characters, either. Even in great works of sci-fi, character arc can be negligible (although it needn’t be, and I would always argue in favor of well developed, fleshed out characters). I would argue that what makes a work of sci-fi great is how well the author analyzes the consequences of the differences between his world and the real one.

Take The Forever War. First, if you haven’t read it, stop reading this and buy a copy. It’s that good. Despite writing a military sci-fi novel based on his Vietnam experiences, Haldeman doesn’t just address the first-order consequences of fighting a war that requires near light speed travel. He puts a great deal of thought into the cascading problems caused by centuries of warfare. Cloning, language drift, cultural differences between cohorts of soldiers who may be born to entirely different societies, colonization, maintaining friendships across relativistic aging differences, Haldeman convinces us that he has seen the future he portrays. His vision is complete and coherent, everything he describes seems plausible.

That coherence, the plausibility, is really what sells it. People, alone or in groups, act like real people. Governments behave like governments we have already experienced. Except when he is intentionally bending what is possible under the laws of physics, they apply as we know them today. Future technology has rules, and those rules seem similar to known physics, and those rules are obeyed.

Contrast with your typical young adult dystopian romp. Not to disparage the genre (ok, that’s a lie), but the dystopian societies portrayed frequently appear to have developed merely to inconvenience the heroine (almost always a heroine, these days). Their evil ways are never fully explained, their cruelty is not rationalized. Bad thing happened, and so now we have stormtroopers who oppress teenagers. Shrug. We have some fantastic technologies, they will make a limited appearance when necessary for plot advancement, and then be placed in a mysterious uninventing closet when their appearance might be inconvenient. Hope you connected with the protagonist, and picked the correct side of her love triangle for your team hashtag.

Again, as stated above, good sci-fi can have excellent character development. But it isn’t required. Salvor Hardin is no one’ favorite character (that I’m aware of, maybe you have exceptionally odd friends), but Foundation is surely on any serious short list of sci-fi masterpieces. It has become fashionable to tell people not to fall too much in love with world-building recently, but if you’re writing sci-fi, it is your keystone. Do it poorly, and your book could be so disastrous that Hollywood makes an overwrought four part blockbuster out of your trilogy.

Very interesting ideas. Let’s list them out:

  • A future or alternate world
  • A focus on the “What if . . . ?”
  • Less focus on characters or drama
  • Considers the consequences of the “What if . . . ?” question
  • An analysis of how these consequences compare and contrast with the real world
  • Coherence and plausibility, at least with regards to how people would act if this alternate world were reality and not necessarily regarding the accuracy or truthfulness of the “science” involved

I don’t think science fiction can be reduced to a short bullet-point list, nor do I think it ought to be–and let me clarify, nor do I think Dean thinks so either. But these are important points to consider when trying to explain to someone the difference between a space opera or space-fantasy and science fiction.

The big takeaway to me is the focus on the consequences of the technology explored. And as Dean writes, the more logical or plausible these consequences and their reactions, the  more effective.

Which I guess would push a story more to the “sci-fi” side of the spectrum. I don’t believe in genre checklists, but this is just a good mental framework for trying to conceptualize a work you’re either writing or reading: what will you focus on?

Some spacefaring sci-fi focuses on both. I would argue this is what the Star Trek franchise does in most of its iterations. Contrast this with Star Wars which is all about the plot and characters, with little heed paid to the science and individual’s and organization’s reactions to it.

So is it “world-building” versus “character-building?”

Yes and no. I don’t like the word “versus” in this formulation. I like the idea of discussing where the emphasis lay.

By this token, my novel A Traitor to Dreams, while taking place on Earth, is more sci-fi when viewed through Dean’s prism as a big focus is a startlingly powerful piece of technology and how humanity reacts to it (in addition to character arcs). Whereas interestingly enough, my forthcoming sword-and-gun-and-planet novel The Last Ancestor would be less sci-fi and more space-fantasy/space-opera because it’s about plot and characters first and foremost, and the cool stuff they experience and do.

I had never thought of things in this way before, and for that I have to give Dean a lot of credit.


If you want to see the sci-fi elements inherent in A Traitor to Dreams, it’s on special sale now for $0.99 at Amazon. Buy it and let me know what you think!

ebook-63

24 comments

  1. Boy did he nail it with this paragraph:

    “Contrast with your typical young adult dystopian romp. Not to disparage the genre (ok, that’s a lie), but the dystopian societies portrayed frequently appear to have developed merely to inconvenience the heroine (almost always a heroine, these days). Their evil ways are never fully explained, their cruelty is not rationalized. Bad thing happened, and so now we have stormtroopers who oppress teenagers. Shrug. We have some fantastic technologies, they will make a limited appearance when necessary for plot advancement, and then be placed in a mysterious uninventing closet when their appearance might be inconvenient. Hope you connected with the protagonist, and picked the correct side of her love triangle for your team hashtag.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m confused. Were you asking what makes GOOD science fiction, or were you asking what makes science fiction science fiction?

    With regard to the latter, I like Isaac Asimov’s three types of science fiction:

    + adventure fiction/space opera: man invents car, then gets into a car chase with a villain

    + gadget sci-fi: man invents car, then holds lecture on how it works

    + social sci-fi: man invents car, then gets stuck in traffic in the suburbs

    As for good science fiction, the major takeaways that you bulleted apply less to science fiction than to good fiction as a whole:

    + The future or an alternate world and a focus on the “what if” allow for fantastic tales more interesting than those about some neurotic loser bored to death in his contemporary NYC apartment.

    + A minimal focus on characters or character drama keeps Internet critics from sperging about your wonderful “character development.”

    + The consequences of the “what if” scenario give the characters challenges to overcome.

    + Coherence and plausibility are a must for any story—with exceptions, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The point of Dean’s post was what makes sci-fi sci-fi as opposed to space opera or some other type of story in space/the future/etc. But you’re right: many of these points help make stories compelling regardless of whatever label you put on them.

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  3. Yup! YA dystopian fiction got so damn samey so damn quickly.

    Both of you will be glad to know that my upcoming book, Shining Tomorrow, intentionally avoids these pitfalls.

    – The world is no more “dystopian” than Singapore is in real life.

    – The (female) protagonist doesn’t rebel against her society; instead, she strives to exemplify her society’s virtues. Rescuing her best friend requires her to go against these virtues, which is where some of the conflict comes from.

    – The social values are explained.

    – While the heroine has a crush on a boy, there is no love triangle; their courtship is relatively drama-free and only takes up a small part of the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read “The Forever War” decades ago and really enjoyed it, but ever since Haldeman deliberately trashed Christians and Christianity in his novel “The Accidental Time Traveler,” I swore I’d never read any of his stories again, and certainly not give him one dime of my money.

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  5. I honestly don’t see any reason to draw lines between Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Magic Realism, and so on and so forth. Fiction, by definition, tells stories about things that didn’t happen to people who are willing to pretend that they did happen. The extent to which a story is easy and enjoyable to believe has a lot more to do with style than with what, exactly, is being described.

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    • I agree. I’m not a check-the-box genre guy either. I just thought this was an interesting way of broadly looking at sci-fi if you’re trying to give a quick one-sentence description to someone in an elevator.

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  6. Oh, it’s definitely a spectrum in my experience.

    More seriously, I tend to agree with Misha. Most readers and customers don’t really sweat about this sort of thing. They want to be taken on an adventure and whatever tools the author chooses to use to get them there whether via hard science or magic doesn’t matter much. Just give them something good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. Tools. Adventures. As long as it’s good.

      I couldn’t concur more. I didn’t mean to give the impression I’m a genre checklist kind of guy. I just liked Dean’s thoughts on the matter.

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  7. I definitely think categorization is helpful for readers looking for a certain type of sci-fi book, but I also think that there’s a tendency on the part of writers to try to fit into those boxes instead of writing the story they want to write and let the chips fall where they may. Second-guessing oneself based upon adherence to genre tropes. It’s kind of sad to browse writing boards and see posts asking questions like “If a character has a gun, does that make my book not fantasy?” (real question I just saw)The responses are predictably all over the place, with people offering all kinds of uninformed advice. Another asked the question “Is it ok to write in present tense?” Some people just said No. Some said do whatever you want. Others said No, and gave their reasons, which were all based upon personal preference. My personal philosophy is that if there’s a story inside of me, and it doesn’t fulfill some specific set of genre requirements, too bad, it’s coming out.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. —Thanks for the link to that other guy’s site.

    —I agree with Misha too.

    —Dystopian romp is a funny term. It does seem like a lot of YA (purchased for younger relatives) fit into this category.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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