I have had several conversations recently with other writers who have declared themselves “not fans” of science fiction. On exploring further, I have found that when they offer examples of science fiction that they “just didn’t relate to,” their examples are invariably not science fiction. I can’t say that “exploring what science fiction really is” has automatically changed their minds – but it did generally result in them choosing to suspend judgment and return for a second look.
That repeated conversation made me realize just how far out of whack most folks’ understanding of SciFi has become – even writers don’t really know what it is!
I went looking for a clear, current definition – and found that “scholarship” has muddied the waters to the point that there is no longer a common understanding. I think it is great that an influential genre is becoming recognized as a legitimate contributor and is being studied but sometimes trying to slice and dice, add labels, and (for some scholars) “imprint one’s mark on the conversation” – does not serve to clarify.
Defining Science Fiction
I chose to go back to the SciFi explosion of the 40s[i].
In 1947, a wonderful book called Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing gathered the thoughts of half a dozen major influencers of the SciFi explosion regarding what constituted “Science” Fiction.[ii]
Although the definitions given by each author are consistent, my two favorites come from Robert Heinlein (for its thoroughness) and John W. Campbell, Jr.’s (for its feel).
Let’s gather up the bits and pieces and define the Simon-pure science fiction story:
- The conditions must be, in some respect, different from here-and-now, although the difference may lie only in an invention made in the course of the story.
- The new conditions must be an essential part of the story.
- The problem itself—the “plot”—must be a human problem.
- The human problem must be one which is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions.
- And lastly, no established fact shall be violated, and, furthermore, when the story requires that a theory contrary to present accepted theory be used, the new theory should be rendered reasonably plausible and it must include and explain established facts as satisfactorily as the one the author saw fit to junk.
It may be far-fetched, it may seem fantastic, but it must not be at variance with observed facts, i.e., if you are going to assume that the human race descended from Martians, then you’ve got to explain our apparent close relationship to terrestrial anthropoid apes as well.
John W. Campbell, Jr.:
“To be science fiction, not fantasy, an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made.”
In the same year, Campbell wrote an introduction to a book by George O. Smith in which he explained what he felt SciFi is (as opposed to how it is defined):
“Scientific methodology involves the proposition that a well-constructed theory will not only explain every known phenomenon, but will also predict new and still undiscovered phenomena. Science-fiction tries to do much the same—and write up, in story form, what the results look like when applied not only to machines, but to human society as well.”
Applying the Definition: Why Frankenstein is SciFi…
Frankenstein was written in the early 1800s. “Galvanism” (electro-therapy) was being used to treat everything from mental illness to impotence. Galvani’s nephew demonstrated the use of electricity to re-animate dead bodies, causing muscular contractions that appeared to make a corpse move again.[iii]
Mary Shelley extrapolated from this then-modern science to speculate the reanimation of a cobbled-together corpse. Then she used it to examine the very human problems associated with scientific overreach and poorly-thought-out ‘advances’ in knowledge.
When measured against Heinlein’s and Campbell’s definitions, Frankenstein is clearly Science Fiction.
Interestingly, Shelley isn’t the only writer whose science fiction novels are commonly (and not incorrectly) also categorized as horror. One of Campbell’s SciFi novels, for example, was the basis for the movie The Thing.
…And Why Star Wars Isn’t
Let’s be clear – I am a Star Wars fan, and a firm fan of George Lucas as a storyteller, filmmaker, businessman, humanitarian, and human being. I can love every one of those things – and still be able to see them for what they are.
Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker. The prequels are the history of “the conditions and events that created Luke and the need for Luke” – the Iliad to his Odyssey. The sequels are the story of “how Luke Skywalker’s existence shaped and affected the future of his galaxy after his time.” Whether they refer to Luke directly, or to the people he brought together, their offspring, the people who parented him – everything comes back to our favorite Jedi.
And Luke’s story is a myth.
Lucas has described, on multiple occasions, referring to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as he crafted Luke Skywalker’s story arc. Luke is a mythical hero – his tale is a mythic epic.
For simplicity, let’s limit ourselves to the original three films for a moment.
We don’t have to understand the Force – it might be science, it might be religion, it might be magic – or a combination of those things. Like Hermes’ winged sandals – it doesn’t matter whether it’s magic or advanced science. It only matters that it exists. Planet-busting mobile moons, staying alive by huddling in the wet guts of a dead animal as it and the air cool to well-below-freezing around you, and landing your ship in an animal’s stomach without having your shoes eaten away by stomach acid as you wander around are all irrelevant.
Those things are OK because this isn’t Science Fiction. It’s Science Fantasy – and in fantasy, It’s OK for a few things to not make sense, or break a rule. They don’t affect the legitimacy of the story, and they don’t change the heroism of Luke and his Odyssean Band of Brothers (and sisters, and ‘droids).
If we expand our view to the later movies, we see attempts to explain the most glaring items… OK let’s just say it outright: we may love Star Wars, but we know that the whole midi-chlorian thing is lame.
It’s lame science – but that’s not really why it’s lame.
It’s lame because it’s a tacked on attempt to “scientifically explain” something that isn’t science. Yes, Star Trek (wisely) added a reference to a “Heisenberg Compensator” in acknowledgement that they needed to explain faster-than-light travel. But Next Generation was consciously SciFi. With Star Wars frequently mis-identified as SciFi, Lucas felt pressured to do the same – provide a realistic explanation for the Force.
But Star Wars isn’t SciFi. It’s fantasy. The problem here isn’t the lameness of the science – it’s “attempting to force a pseudo-scientific explanation onto a myth.” Trying to explain how a tornado can blow you from Kansas to Oz is pointless, and adds nothing to the story. Rather, it’s a distracting, annoying exercise that detracts from the story, the enjoyment, and the myth.
(But if you really want to know how that happens – I’m pretty sure it involves midi-chlorians directing the breeze through an interplanar portal.)
The Bottom Line on Star Wars and Frankenstein
Star Wars works because it is fantasy. It’s an epic myth, the Hero’s Journey of a likeable boy who starts out a lot like us: Everyman become Savior and Sage.
Fantasy is an excellent thing. It drives and feeds our dreams, our hopes, and our aspirations. Sometimes, it even leads our dreams to practical outcomes and inventions. It can start and end anywhere – and makes us believe we can do the same.
Frankenstein works because it isn’t fantasy. It’s a terrifying examination of how the things we are discovering can be used and misused by misguided but well-meaning people – and the incredibly human price that must be paid if we make the wrong decisions about it. It still works today because those basic technological questions and human impacts still exist. It continues to make us ask ethical and practical questions about how we use the knowledge that we gain. (Frankenstein, Zuckerberg… tuh-MAY-to, tuh-MAH-to…)
Frankenstein is “a well-constructed theory [that] not only explain[s] …known phenomenon, but …also predict[s] new and still undiscovered phenomena” – written up in story form.
Why My Writer Friends Thought They Didn’t Like SciFi
At the beginning, I mentioned that the examples my friends cited were invariably not SciFi. Their examples continually listed Science Fantasy.
I found two common elements to my discoveries about my friends’ tastes:
- They all liked Fantasy – they just each had their own particular favored milieu: Tolkienesque Medieval Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fiction (including specific subgenres that ranged from Pirate Tales to Outlander), Steampunk…. It wasn’t that they disliked fantasy – they just didn’t like “robots and space ships” as a primary setting.
- They all actually liked SciFi – each expressed an appreciation for books they hadn’t been aware were SciFi. Those books tended to be less focused on the “robots and space ships” and more on “anthropology, sociology, and human psychology” – books like Stranger In A Strange Land, Left Hand of Darkness, 1984, and Brave New World.
My Favorite Example of Unexpected SciFi
My favorite example of a SciFi book that my writer friends did not, at first, realize was SciFi: Stranger In A Strange Land. I could spend a lot of time explaining the many reasons why I consider it one of the great works of Science Fiction – and many of the things I find problematic about it – but let’s keep it simple.
Stranger In A Strange Land was the first SciFi novel to hit the New York Times Bestseller List. (Clearly I am not the only one who found it significant, and not the only reader that Heinlein “reached” with this book.)
Kurt Vonnegut, commenting on the 30th anniversary of the book:
“a wonderfully humanizing artifact for those who can enjoy thinking about the place of human beings not at a dinner table but in the universe.”
Ted Gioia on the main character, Valentine Michael Smith:
“Smith is more than a character. He is prototype of an alternative personality structure. The question of whether we can remake the human personality from the ground up”
Stranger In A Strange Land has no robots, and the spaceship only makes a cameo. Like Shelley, Heinlein asks us to examine who we are – and who we will choose to be, or become.
What Do You Think?
Are you a devotee or ‘not a SciFi fan’? Do the midi-chlorians turn Star Wars from Science Fantasy to SciFi? What’s a book or movie you thoughts was Sci-Fi – but wasn’t? Didn’t realize was SciFi?
[i] These definitions don’t really differ from Gernsback’s definition from the mid-1920s. I chose the 40s for its influence on SciFi, and the extent to which the writers of that time still enjoy name recognition as ‘founding forces’ in the genre. (Gernsback was the founder of Amazing Stories, the first SciFi magazine, and is credited with the first definition of the genre – officially in 1929, informally in a letter from 1927.)
[ii] Of Worlds Beyond is considered the first published book about modern SciFi. The 1947 version sold out quickly but there’s a 1960s reprint that is still available from secondhand sources. If you write SciFi, it’s well worth picking up a copy. It includes insights from some of the seminal writers of modern SciFi, including Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp (Conan), E. E. Smith (The Lensman).