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How to Define Science Fiction

David Brin

Contrary Brin

November 03, 2011

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 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."


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