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How to Define Science Fiction
David Brin   Nov 3, 2011   Contrary Brin  

The question has filled pages and books, resonating across hotel bars and conferences for decades. What, exactly, is science fiction?

It matters for many reasons, not least because the genre encompasses just about everything that’s not limited to the mundane here and now, or a primly defined past.

Up till the early 18th century, when Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding fed a growing appetite for “realism” in fiction, nearly all literature contained elements of the fantastic. From tribal campfire-legends to Gilgamesh and the Odyssey to Dante and Swift. All through that long period, life and death were capricious on a daily basis, but society seemed relatively changeless from one generation to the next—the same chiefdom or kingdom or noble families, the same traditions and stiff social order. Throughout that era, storytelling overflowed with surreal, earth-shaking events and the awe-inspiring antics of demigods.

Then a shift happened. Peoples’ physical lives became more predictable. You and your kids had a chance of living out your natural spans… but civilization itself started quaking and twisting with change. Your daughter would likely survive childbirth. But her assumptions and behavior might turn shocking and your son’s choice of profession—bewildering. Your neighbors might even begin questioning the king, or the gods! Not in fable but in real life.

Amid this shift, public tastes in literature moved away from bold what-if images of heroes challenging heaven, toward close-in obsessions with realistic characters who seemed almost-like-you, in settings only a little more dramatic or dangerous than the place where you lived.

Having made that observation—and having pondered it for years—I’m still not sure what to make of it. Is there a total sum of instability that humans can bear, and a minimum they need?

Nonetheless, into this period of transformation, science fiction was “born.”  The true child of Homer and Murusaki and Swift, yet denounced as a bastard from the start, by those who proclaimed (ignoring 6000 years) that literature should always be myopic, close, “realistic” and timidly omphaloskeptic.

The possibility of social, technological and human change could be admitted… even explored a little… but the consensus on a thousand university campuses was consistent and two-fold.

Proper explorations of how change impacts human beings should:

1) Deal with the immediate near-term, and

2) treat change as a loathsome thing.

This obsession isn’t as unfair or cowardly as it sounds. Yes, pre-1700s fiction incorporated fantastic imagery and other-worldly powers… and yes, science fiction carries on that tradition.  But the nostalgist professors are also right, in perceiving SF as an upstart!

Because all through most civilizations, the storytelling mythos was nearly always past-obsessed. Indeed, it is here that contemporary sci fi betrays its origins.

The First of Sci Fi’s Heresies

Plainly stated: science fiction retains the bold, reality-breaking element of ancient myth-telling, far better than any other genre. But it also rebels against venerable tradition, by portraying change as a protean fluid, sometimes malleable or even good! Violating a core tenet of Aristotle’s Poetics, sci fi contemplates the possibility of successfully defying Fate.

Elsewhere I contrast two perspectives on the Time Flow of Wisdom. By far dominant in nearly all human societies has been a Look Back attitude… that the past contained at least one shining moment when society and people in general were better than today, a pinnacle of grace from which we fell, doomed to lament. You find this theme in everything from the Bible to Tolkien to Crichton: a dour reflex toward viewing change as synonymous with deterioration, the grouchiness of grampas who proclaim that everything—even folks—had been finer in the past.

Did you notice that the two authors I just mentioned have their books in the sci fi section of the store? All the tales on these shelves share that ancient, homeric willingness to be vivid and depart from the here and now. But there any resemblance to science fiction stops, because Tolkien, Crichton, and their ilk cling to the Look Back view.

It’s plain that a deep river of nostalgia flows through most fantasy novels and films, especially those that dwell lovingly on feudal tropes and images. Chosen Ones. Prophecies. Kingly lineages that deserve to inherit rulership, by right of blood alone.

Ponder that, a moment. Millions of contemporary citizens of a free and scientific civilization—heirs of Enlightenment revolutionaries—now yearn for elvish mystics and secretive mages who never publish or share knowledge, nor open schools, nor turn palantirs into Internets, nor offer the flea-ridden peasants flush toilets, nor even teach the germ theory of disease. Hierarchy and overall changelessness are somehow portrayed as romantically attractive. And always, there’s that notion of better/wiser times, somewhere in the past.

The Impudent, Upstart Path


Compare this attitude to the uppity Look Ahead zeitgeist. That humanity is on a rough and difficult upward path. That past utopias were fables. That any glowing, better age must lie ahead of us, to be achieved through skill and science, via mixtures of cooperation, competition and negotiation. Along with (one hopes) heaping improvements in overall wisdom.

The paramount example of this world-view would be, of course, Star Trek, though authors like Iain Banks carry the torch of long-term optimism very well.

Let there be no mistake—this is the giant fault line down the middle of science fiction’s broadly varied and tolerantly diverse community of authors and readers. The notion that children might, possibly, sometimes, learn from the mistakes of their parents, avoid repeating them… then forge on to make new mistakes all their own, overcoming obstacles on their way to becoming better beings than ourselves.

It sounds like a fine desideratum. What every decent parent wants, right? Except for sourpusses.

Yet, I’ve found that whole notion of progress is so anathema, to such a vast range of people, that something deeply inherent in human nature must be involved. The widest cultural gap I’ve ever seen, about something absolutely fundamental, it explains why so many feel reflex hostility toward science fiction. Especially those who believe in “eternal verities.”

Example: when I spoke about SF in China, nearly all the readers, publishers, and press folk seemed deeply worried that any hint of optimism in literature might insult their ancestors, by implying generations can improve with time.

I replied in bewilderment—isn’t that the point?

Rejection of Optimism

Apparently not. Almost like an immunal rejection to the 1960s can-do spirit of Star Trek, wave after wave of stylish grouches swarmed over science fiction itself, claiming to have discovered dark cynicism as something fresh and original.

As critic Tom Shippey put it, in an excellent recent Wall Street Journal review:

As science fiction approached the millennium, it began to trade the future for the past and real worlds for fantasy or virtual realities. We’ve had ‘cyberpunk’, with ‘biopunk’ coming along a little uneasily behind… Other popular sci fi scenarios include alternate history (looking backward, as if to wonder where things went wrong) and its nostalgic spin-off ‘steampunk’ (fantasy with a history-of-science additive). The popularity of post-apocalyptic novels suggests that no convincing techno-future can be imagined.

Shippey’s essay is insightful and important. I strongly recommend it… though I do quibble with that last point. Progress isn’t impossible to imagine. It just takes hard work.

Any lazy author or director knows this trick; it’s astonishingly easy to craft a a pulse-pounding plot and get your heroes in jeopardy—via either prose or film—if you start by assuming civilization is crappy. That your fellow citizens are fools and all their hard-wrought institutions are run by morons. If accountability utterly fails and 911 calls are only answered by villains or Keystone Kops, and the Republic never does a single thing right… then you can sniff some coke and scribble almost any story-line. It writes itself! Bring on the special effects and heavy sighs over human doom.

No, I am not denouncing all works that express skepticism toward progress. Some do arise from stronger roots than mere cynical laziness. Among these are sincere and deeply-moving critiques of modern civilization’s many faults. But here is where a delicious irony emerges. That criticism is the only known antidote to error. The best and most savagely on-target critiques are helpful in moving us forward through the minefield of progress.

After all, the core postulate of true SF is that children can sometimes learn from their parents’ mistakes… not that they will always do so! This is why genuine sci fi tragedies like On The Beach and Soylent Green are so powerful.

“This does not have to happen,” say Huxley and Orwell and Slonczewski and Tiptree, in their masterful self-preventing prophecies. Be smarter, better people. Be a better people.

The Empire of Cynicism Strikes Back

Alas, other authors who are lionized, like Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin, use dystopia as a rationale for finger-wagging polemic and formulaic prescriptions, rather than gedankenexperiment. With their gifts, this limiting flaw is just tragic. Shippey is especially biting toward Ms. Atwood’s sycophants, who claim her works are “realistic” and therefore “speculative”—not that childish science fiction junk.

Um, sorry—not quite. For one thing, Ms. Atwood’s cartoon portrayals of science are tendentiously inaccurate to the point of libel. db3Like Crichton, her premise always depends on the absence of cleansing transparency, which would resolve nearly all of her complaints. Moreover 70% of males in North America would have died fighting to prevent the scenario she portrays so chillingly in The Handmaid’s Tale. That book had many merits! But realistic plausibility was not a trait to brag about, distinguishing it from science fiction!

Shippey points to the attribute that really sets Ms. Atwood’s sub-genre apart from the real thing. Like Nabakov, in his weird alternate reality tale Ada, Atwood crafts no plausible scenario for her world to come into being. She just doesn’t think it important. And yes, that is a departure from mainstream sci fi.

Shippey is not alone in noticing the stunning swerve from ambition to finger wagging nostalgia and dour past-obsession. (Does one really need to be convinced, after watching Avatar?) Science fiction scholar Judith Berman skewered one of the flagship sci fi publications—Isaac Asimov’s Magazine—and its longtime editor Gardner Dozois, for publishing, year after year, a nearly perfect stream of grouchy, anti-future manifestos. Tales about regret, navel-contemplation and disdain toward any semblance of optimism, with “no more than a handful of stories…that look forward to the future.”

Jiminy, for how many decades can some people convince themselves that Star Trek is “the man” needing a good, hard shove? Will there ever come a time when it becomes clear that Gene Roddenberry’s can-do spirit was… is… and always will be the rare thing? The underdog? The only attitude—after 6000 years of dyspeptic nostalgia—that’s not a cliche?

When leftist-darling Margaret Atwood joins the late, extreme-conservative author Michael Crichton in common cause—both of them slamming the arrogant hubris of science and progress—maybe it’s time to sit up and ponder what it all means. Yes, one wing of the left-right axis appears to be more dangerously insane at this moment, than the other. But both wings are rife with dogmatic, oversimplifying grouches pushing renunciation—the notion that scientific advancement was fine up till right now… but any further progress can bring nothing but bad news.

And what if everybody feels that way, not only on Earth but across the galaxy? Could renunciation explain the great silence out there? Race after sapient race choosing to hunker in feudal—or pastoral or feminist or zen-like or whatever—simplicity, cowering away from ambition or the stars?

“Perhaps we should leave well enough alone,” Shippey quotes Atwood as saying, just before his final, brilliant rebuttal. (Do read it.)

The Rebels

I can do no better than Shippey at refuting this malignant meme, except to point out, yet again, that renunciation, nostalgia and suspicion of change were timeless themes across all of recorded history, pervading nearly every religious and mythic tale that comes down to us from that long epoch of relentless repression and pain.

There was a lot of great art in those myths! I have spent countless hours with Odysseus and Dante and Rama and the Monkey King. We can learn important things, both by heeding the lessons that ancient stories try to teach… and sometimes by reaching diametrically opposite conclusions.

Because we are the rebels. We who think change might (possibly) bring good.

The nostalgists who doubt this are welcome to criticize! That searing light of rebuke is exactly how to move forward while avoiding the pitfall-penalties of hubris. Sometimes, authors like LeGuin and Atwood and Gibson and Russ and so many other stylish grouches offer on-target points! Potential failure modes to take into account, then evade as we forge ahead.

But let there be no mistake. They are the Old Empire. Quenchers and belittlers, maintaining the ancient, relentless tyranny of nostalgia. Ten thousand years from now, the ones who will be remembered will be those who encouraged.

Those who said, let’s try.

David Brin
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


It is fear. The fear of the unknown. The what will happen to me because I don’t know the end of this tale and I hate that I cannot control it. With the past, I can have some control—so these people fool themselves.  Or that is one idea I can come up with dealing with psychoses.

I am not a book worm at all, would rather read non-fiction, and normally reject all forms of Sci-Fi literature with only few exceptions. And this is because I always find the rhetoric of 23rd (+) century conversation and dialogue, even between alien intelligences, does not inspire my imagination to envision anything but humans attempting to describe some thing novel and extra-ordinary within the context of the mundane and ordinary, (written language).

This may simply be because my ability to envision from written text is limited by my own rationality and imagination? In other words, “I need to be shown” a vision of the future, (emphasis on vision and not the mental eye). And your article applies equally to most contemporary Sci-Fi movies, (stories customarily taken from literature or inspired from such anyhow - including ancient myth and legend).

You make a good point regarding a culture of cynicism as supplanting methodological scepticism in story telling, and this trait of doom and gloom in pursuit of techno-logical enterprise as filled with dystopia and destruction and decadence and even .. more Selfishness? “It’s a dog eat demi-god world out there, and it’s only going to get much worse?”

Yet it’s not so much that Sci-Fi needs closer scrutiny and examination, but humanism, Self-understanding and progressive ethics, (which may include more Zen, like it or not), egalitarianism, the balance of competition “and” cooperation, (empathy) - as I’m pleased you highlight, as well as many other factors. Stories, no matter what genre, will still reflect our past history and current contemporary views and outlooks on the sociocultural and of societies and human inter-relations?

And yes, most Star Trek fans, (like me), would agree that they watch and savour for the Roddenberry future of promise, that is founded upon existentialism, and directed towards that pioneering “can do” attitude to overcome obstacles and dilemmas and to satisfy incessant human curiosity.

I recently posted a comment at Reflections on the New Star Trek
by Athena Andreadis

The article briefly highlights critique and praise for two polemics “Star Trek” and “Firefly”. I was originally going to post further in comparison of these two future scenario’s, so I will take opportunity to briefly comment here.

Both Star Trek and Firefly offer two rather distinct visions of the future, and as highlighted here in this article, the ST Franchise, (even the new generation movies by Abrams?), aim towards the positive, whilst “Firefly” and “Serenity” offers a retrospective and rather dystopian view of a technological future fraught with struggle and conflict and increased poverty, (a future vision reflecting on a colonial US history and past, as ironically aired on Fox).

I do contemplate that it is quite possible that socio-economic chaos, (due to stagnation and obstruction to sociocultural and economic change), may lead us all into this “Firefly” vision of the future. In fact, recently I am beginning to feel it more likely, as compared to my preferred Roddenberry vision of the future, (which I had always kind of took for granted).

Humanity is distraught, life is burdensome and heavy in Firefly, and why? Because on reflection, humanity and humanism has not progressed, (or is simply portrayed as non progressive?), and yet the premise of the entire series is one based upon sound human ethical and moral values that deserve reflection, recognition and praise. The attraction of the Firefly series, (product), is so fundamentally grounded with my own understanding of what it is to be human, that I simply adore it, and make no apologies for doing so.

Is this what we fear for the future? That the Trans-human and Post-human will forget or shun these valued human characteristics that include and are a part of all of what we have come to be? Is it also due to failure of truly reflecting upon and contemplating what we may also need to discard for a vision of progressive humanism?

And what is it about Roddenberry’s original philosophical vision of the future that is fundamentally lacking? I cannot quite put my finger on it, yet perhaps his egalitarian and multicultural, ( multi-species ), vision of the future is yet still reliant upon his military and authoritarian views and background towards acquiescence and acceptance of duty and responsibility, (alignment and conformity of principles)?

One nation, One planet, One federation, One view, One goal, One dream - Oneness?
Sacrifices may be required?

Fascinating post (and thanks for the brilliant new vocab word, omphaloskeptic, with helpful link to definition).  I’m a big fan—and writer—of science thrillers, and have blogged about what I see as the difference between SciFi and SciThri {}.  But I hadn’t given much thought to the question posed here, what is SciFi?  The trend you point out, with SciFi moving from true futurism toward nostalgia, seems to be correct. 

I would argue part of the explanation is the overall social trend toward snarkiness.  Sincerity is so 1950s.  Earnestness and forthright goodness are not traits that describe most popular culture today.  Now, it’s all dark wit, iconoclasty, and sarcasm.  We see everything—past, present, and future—as flawed.  Our heroes have feet of clay, even those we once venerated (great men such as Thomas Jefferson).  While our admiration for what was good falters, so does our admiration for what might be good in the future.

Your essay is a call to action for science fiction writers.  In the past, SciFi has changed society by warning us of potential pitfalls and preparing us for change.  SciFi can do this again if the genre escapes the retrospective trends you describe.

‘...when I spoke about SF in China, nearly all the readers, publishers, and press folk seemed deeply worried that any hint of optimism in literature might insult their ancestors, by implying generations can improve with time.’

Oh man, this is so Chinese (culture). But change they do. They know if they don’t, Chinese history is going to be same as it ever was. I reckon they’re just making sure that if their ancestors are listening, the ancestors are hearing all the right things from their devoted descendants. You think I’m joking, don’t you? Nope.

“‘...when I spoke about SF in China, nearly all the readers, publishers, and press folk seemed deeply worried that any hint of optimism in literature might insult their ancestors, by implying generations can improve with time.’

Oh man, this is so Chinese (culture). But change they do. They know if they don’t, Chinese history is going to be same as it ever was. I reckon they’re just making sure that if their ancestors are listening, the ancestors are hearing all the right things from their devoted descendants. You think I’m joking, don’t you? Nope. “

I’ll be frank, this is just a bullshit broad misinterpretation of a vast culture. The average Chinese readers probably just aren’t exposed enough to the genre to understand David Brin’s ideas, rather than due to a radical ancestor-worship cultish genes. Indeed, the idea of a recalcitrant retro-romanticism runs contrary to the PEW findings about Chinese optimism of their own future.
Let’s not mistake lack of understanding or unfamiliarity with symptoms of cultural superstitions.
  What’s the percentage of the Chinese public that’s even aware of technological singularity? Less than 0.01%? With all due respect, Sci-Fi is still new in China, their favorite genre still seem to be good old Wuxia about a chivalrous Jianghu that never existed—therefore, my friends, don’t be too quick on your conclusions. Unless David Brin is fluent in Mandarin, I’m pretty sure he misunderstood his audience.

As an avid reader of both Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novels, I am not sure that their social visions are comparable. Yes, Atwood is dark, cynical, and even pessimistic—though I’d argue that there is a forward-looking, cautionary reminder in “The Handmaid’s Tale” about the historical, unequal relationship between genders; and in “Oryx and Crake” about the historical, problematic relationship between profit and technology.

Ursula LeGuin, however, has a very generous view of human beings. Her protagonists are anthropologists hailing from a planet that has tried every form of governance invented, achieved peace, and set out to observe societies that are still in development. This vision of humanity as a work in progress is hardly backward-looking or admonishing. LeGuin is a moralist, but really in the gentlest sense.

That’s not to say that the spec-fic canon wouldn’t benefit from more adventurous, optimistic novels about society’s ability to adapt technology to peaceful purposes. But while we’re making generalizations, I’ll add one of my own: Concurrent with the past 100 years of literature, literature-producing cultures have invented weapons of mass destruction, committed and/or have been decimated by genocide, widely recognized racism and sexism, and developed technology that has radically transformed economies, all while digesting the relatively recent invention of psychology and self-analysis. To the extent that art imitates life, our art is trying to make sense of the psychic aftermath. Maybe in five hundred years, assuming we’re still around and still care to study literature, we will look back at this period in history the way we now look at the Romantics; as atavists responding negatively to the dawn of the Industrial Age.

‘I’ll be frank, this is just a bullshit broad misinterpretation of a vast culture. The average Chinese readers probably just aren’t exposed enough to the genre to understand David Brin’s ideas, rather than due to a radical ancestor-worship cultish genes.’

You might be surprised Sheekus. In Taiwan this week, a country where they are up to speed on the latest technological trends and gadgets but where Chinese traditional culture is most engrained, I’ve been passing furnace after furnace where folks are burning fake ‘ghost money’ so that there dead ancestors will have enough money to spend in the afterlife. If they don’t do this they think the dead will come back to haunt them and cause them trouble. They still enjoy their video games though. Bullshit and science can often coexist in surprising ways. Newton was as much the last of the alchemists as he was the forerunner of today’s scientists. Even in his day, and without denying his brilliance, he was regarded as quite strange. China will change but my point is (admittedly 0ff-topic it will do it in its own time and on its own terms.

Brin revisited: As good a new years Techno-progressive message for 2015 as any other?

“Let them eat dystopia and continual fear of change!”

However, is this fear of change “trickle down” perhaps? Is all contemporary movie production dystopia driven and supported by the fears of Oligarchy, AND by the ignorance and incompetence of Politicians?

Do we need some real Techno-progressive’s and visionaries in the White House, (and institutions the world over?) Seems Innovation and progress is not the remit of Politics traditionally, as this is left entirely in the hands of private enterprise, (at least in the UK).

Yet! There is always and ever necessity for “stylish grouches”, and Sci-Fi that leaves some bitter contemplation may yet be the most valuable in avoiding naivete and pit falls, (Orwell/Huxley in particular comes to mind - is this Sci-fi however?)


I still also stand by my previous comments.

“One nation, One planet, One federation, One view, One goal, One dream - Oneness?
Sacrifices may be required?”

Choose your “leaders” wisely?

#Liberty #Unity #Humanism #Tenacity #Roddenberry



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