I spent some time with multiple-award-winning Canadian SF writer Robert J. Sawyer recently. Rob was leading a couple of workshops, and we got to share some meal time too. As often happens when science fiction fans and writers get together, the conversation came around to the definitions of science fiction versus fantasy.
When I scout the publishing deals announced by Publishers Marketplace, there are more fantasy manuscripts being sold than science fiction, but even the ones that sound like they should be science fiction—they feature alien planets and space ships—often use the tropes of fantasy. They may include magic, quasi-medieval social structures, swords and swashbuckling. Is that really science fiction?
Star Wars is a classic movie, and a lot of fun. Science fiction, right? Nope. Not really.
Yes, it has spaceships, alien species, energy weapons and more, but it also has magic (the Force), knights, swordplay. There’s no actual science involved (and what little science is mentioned, like parsecs and the jump to light speed is best ignored to save everyone embarrassment). The story is a piece of mythology common to many cultures: a young man aided by a wizard to achieve his special destiny. Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. But that isn’t a criticism of it any more than it would be to say that Lord of the Rings is not a science fiction story. It wasn’t meant to be. It doesn’t have to be.
The thorny problem is that everyone loved Star Wars and came to base their expectations of science fiction on it. Adventure plots. Spaceships and blasters. Fun, but nothing to take too seriously. Thus George Lucas unintentionally did science fiction a great disservice, from which it still hasn’t recovered. Some of the most deeply insightful and prophetic works of fiction, by masters like H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many others were branded as escapism by association. And current SF writers struggle to find a market.
So what is science fiction? Is it monster stories that happen to be set on a spaceship? Hmmmm. Romances that depend on some unexplained method of time travel? Not so much. Murder mysteries on another planet? Maybe. But that would depend on whether or not the mystery hinges on the otherworldly setting (as in Rob’s Red Planet Blues).
I expect that Rob Sawyer shares his concept of science fiction with Analogmagazine. Analog’s requirements for authors state that they will only accept “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse”. That’s the key: the science element has to be integral to the story. But, having said that, science fiction is also a literature of allegory. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is really about present day warfare and politics, not something that might happen to us some day. Classics like Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship and intolerance) and Planet of the Apes (about racism and nuclear Armageddon) have minimal science, but use a futuristic setting to offer commentary on our own society. The same is true about movies like Avatar (environmental destruction and marginalizing of indigenous people) and District 9 (apartheid), whereas Interstellar is definitely science-based.
What science fiction is not includes anything that simply isn’t possible according to the physical laws of the universe. If you can’t get there from here, no matter how much time passes or how technology changes, it isn’t science fiction.
There’s nothing wrong with fantasy. Many of my published short stories are fantasy. But I have high hopes that the big screen version of Andy Weir’s The Martian and the coming TV adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End will be faithful to the source material and awaken people to the treasure trove of real science fiction out there.
It’s great stuff. It deserves to find its audience again.