Your Worldwide Sci-Fi Attraction : I have been fascinated with science fiction stories for as long as I can remember, although, I must admit, I never considered science fiction to be mainstream literature. I, like many readers, pursue science fiction as a form of escape, a way to keep up with speculation about the latest scientific discoveries, or simply a way to pass the time.
It wasn’t until I met with my thesis advisor to celebrate the approval of my paper that I had to think about science fiction in a new way. My adviser works for a large, well-known literary foundation that is considered very “canonical” in his tastes. When he asked if I liked science fiction, and if I would be willing to pick about a hundred stories for possible inclusion in the anthology they wanted to produce, I was a bit surprised. When he told me it might lead to a paid show, I was even more surprised. I came home that afternoon feeling very satisfied: my paper had been approved, and I might have gotten a paid job choosing science fiction, of all things.
Then it hit me: I really need to think seriously about some sort of method for choosing from the thousands of sci-fi short stories that have been written in the past century. When I consider that the ideals of the foundation should be reflected in the stories I choose, something almost panic occurs: science fiction is not part of the “cannon”.
“While I was pondering weak and tired, over the many volumes of forgotten and strange knowledge,” I reached a decision: I will first try to find out what “science fiction” is, and then I will develop a series of themes that relate to the essence of science fiction. . Armed with this battle plan, I continued reading what some of the most famous writers had to say about science fiction. This seemed simple enough, until I discovered that no two writers think science fiction means the same thing. Oh, great, I thought: “never again.” (Sorry, Edgar, I can’t stand it).
Failing to find the essence of science fiction, I selected four authors whose work I like to try to determine what they contributed to the art of science fiction. The authors are: Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, and Arthur C Clarke. At the time, I didn’t realize that two writers, Asimov and Clarke were considered “hard” science fiction writers, and the other two, Silverberg and Card, were considered “soft” science fiction writers.
So you might ask: what is the difference between “hard” and “soft” science fiction. I’m glad you asked, otherwise I’d have to stop writing now. “Hard” science fiction has to do with understanding quantitative sciences, such as astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc. “Soft” science fiction is often associated with the humanities or social sciences, such as sociology, psychology or economics. Of course, some writers blend “hard” and “soft” science fiction into their work, as Asimov did in the Foundation trilogy.
So, having chosen the author, I’m ready to move on to my next challenge, which you can read about in the next part of this series. “This whole world is yours: “Science Fiction Fascination, Part II
In the first part of the series, I mentioned that I had been given the task of selecting about a hundred science fiction short stories for inclusion in the anthology that the literary foundation was considering. Initially, I intended to find the “essence” of science fiction, and then chose stories that reflected this essence. Unfortunately, this turns out to be nearly impossible, as different authors have different ideas about what science fiction is all about.
So I took the easy way out, I chose four authors whose work appealed to me, and hoped I could make a choice based on my familiarity with their works. My selection process resulted in four authors who have written science fiction for thirty years or more: Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Orson Scott Card, and Arthur C Clarke. As it turned out, two authors were considered “hard” science fiction writers, and two authors were considered “soft” science fiction writers.
Well, I finally have a plan. And then the wheel fell. I still need some sort of selection criteria, or I’ll have to expand on them as I read. So I did what anyone in my place would do. I started reading. I read, and I read again, and then… I read again. Over three thousand pages and three hundred short stories, actually. I’m almost ready to try the selection process; almost, but not quite.
What, three thousand pages, and still don’t know how to start? How could this happen? OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit. I started dividing the stories into groups around a common theme—it helps when I organize things into groups, so I can apply some sort of selection criteria to seemingly unrelated data points (say thirty years in the business to no avail). )? Gradually, I began to group stories into several main headings: scientific discoveries; life forms (including aliens, artificial life, and artificial life); the search for meaning (which includes the search for God or gods); the death of a group of people, nation, race, or system; understanding of morality.
Now I admit, this grouping may be arbitrary, and may actually reflect my perspective on things, but I have to start somewhere. Surprisingly, this grouping tends to repeat itself, no matter who the author is. When I think about it, this kind of concern is reflected in the more “canonical” texts taught in schools. So, what makes science fiction different from the mainstream texts taught in colleges and universities across the country?
Again, I’m glad you asked that, because it’s the perfect hint for the next part of the series. “This whole world is yours: “The Fascination of Science Fiction, Part III
I think the main difference between science fiction and the more acceptable or “canonical” types of fiction should arise either from the theme used, or the subject matter. In the second part of this series, I mentioned that the themes used by science fiction, namely: the search for life, identity, gods, and morality, are similar to those used in “canonical” literature. With the reduction process, which leaves the subject as the main differentiator between the two genres.
So, by subject matter, we mean science, because we’ve covered fiction (“when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how impossible, must be the truth,” as Sherlock Holmes would say). So, we must conclude that science is the factor that distinguishes science fiction from traditional fiction. By this definition, some traditional fiction should be considered science fiction. For example, The Tempest, by William Shakespeare is often referred to as a type of science fiction if we expand the category to include works that incorporate the latest science into their works. But wait, you say, The Tempest didn’t put science into its construction. Oh really, I replied, English was just starting to finish the New World in earnest when the play was written (“Oh, what a brave new world that doesn’t have people like that.”) Besides, you answer, if anything, it’s a lot more fantasy rather than science fiction. Parting my hair, I replied.
Then what about John Milton, I ask? John Milton… why, he’s so boring and kind, rarely read these days, you answer. Of course he is, but it doesn’t matter. How about Paradise Lost, I rejoined? How about that, you answer (and then in a very low voice… I’ve never read it). The scene in which Satan leaves hell and travels cosmicly before descending to Earth and Paradise has been described by many critics as the first example of an author providing a cosmological view of heaven. In fact, Milton’s scholars point to the fact that Milton, in his Aereopagitica claims to have visited Galileo Galilei at his home in Italy. This same critic also points to the fact that Milton taught astronomy to his nephew, using several texts that were considered progressive for his time. However, most of the criticism will fall on their pens (swords get really messy and hard to come by these days), rather than acknowledging Paradise Lost as…gasp, science fiction.
Still not sure; what do you say about Frankenstein? You say it made for some interesting film, but really, the creature is an exaggeration; bad make-up and all that. I answered: make-up is irrelevant; in this respect, as well as many films, which do not match Mary Shelley’s novels. He didn’t even write a novel, you answer. Oh no, not another apologist for Percy Bysshe Shelley who wrote the novel. Let me state emphatically that I don’t care whether Mary or Percy wrote the novel: it is often cited as the first example of science fiction. But where is the science, you ask: it was only alluded to. That’s why it’s also fiction, I replied.
So, where are we? I think we’ve managed to mess up the waters. It may seem that science is necessary for science fiction, but the science precedents contained in works of fiction are rather unsettling. Perhaps in the next section, we should examine “modern” science fiction and try to determine how science plays a role in the works of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
“This whole world is yours:” The Fascination of Science Fiction, Part IV
Until now, we have defined science fiction as a subset of science, and a subset of fiction. There is no real revolutionary concept there. I have tried to show how previous works can be considered science fiction, with mixed results. I have also said that twentieth century works are easier to classify as science fiction, because they incorporate more elements of modern science into their writing.
To use two brief examples, the Isaac Asimov Foundation trilogy is often considered a “soft” work of science fiction, relying more on social science than physical science in its plots. In the story, Asimov suggests the creation of a foundation that relies on psychohistory, a kind of blend of group psychology and economics that is useful in predicting and ultimately shaping, human behavior. Anyone who has followed the stock and financial markets over the past year can attest to the element of the herd mentality that permeates any large-scale human interaction. The theme of shaping human dynamics through psychohistory, although somewhat far-fetched is not outside the realm of possibility (and, no doubt, would be welcomed by today’s markets).
Asimov’s second example, namely of the three laws of robotics, has taken its own life. Asimov began to develop the laws of robotics to explain how robots work. These three laws are postulated as mechanisms to protect humans and robots. He didn’t expect the law to be so ingrained into the literature on robots; in fact, the law has become a kind of de facto standard in every story or novel written about artificial life, as Asimov notes in several essays.
The case of Asimov’s three laws of robotics influencing other writers is not unusual. In the case of Arthur C. Clarke, his influence was felt beyond writing and extended to science as well. Clarke was the man responsible for postulating the use of geo-synchronous orbits for satellites, and the makers of weather, communications, entertainment and spy satellites are indebted to him for developing this theory. He anticipated a manned landing on the moon, and many discoveries were made on Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and their many moons.
Consider, too, Orson Scott Card, whose novel Speaker for the Dead, postulated a worldwide communication network that closely resembles the world-wide-web and predates the commercial internet by about fifteen to twenty years.
It seems then that science fiction writers popularized science, giving their readers glimpses of possible new discoveries and theories, and at times, anticipating or even discovering new uses for technology. Yet there is still an element missing in our definition of science fiction, namely the fictional side of the equation. We will explore the fictional side of science fiction in the next installment. “This whole world is yours:” Science Fiction Fascination, Part V
Good literature requires a successful plot, character development, and emotional appeal to succeed. Science fiction is no different from traditional forms of fiction in this respect. We have talked about the plot and content (science) in previous installments. In this installment, I want to talk about the emotional reactions that science fiction produces.
In general, I think science fiction appeals to the following emotional responses: terror, the joy of discovery, awe and wonder, the lethargy born of too many spaceflights or too many worlds, and a sense of accomplishment. Examples of terror in science fiction are well documented: for anyone who sees Alien for the first time, terror is a very real emotion. Many science fiction and horror writers also make good use of the emotion of terror. However, the effective use of terror is important. Slasher movies use terror, but sometimes turn into an almost parodic rehearsal of who can make the most blood per minute. True terror is a case of timing and the unexpected. That’s why Arthur C Clarke’s story “A Walk in the Dark” is so effective. The author appointed BEM (insect-eyed monster, from Orson Scott Card) as the pursuit agent; the protagonist had no idea that the monster would actually end up in front of him.
Regarding the joy of discovery, this emotion can work in reverse. In Orson Scott Card’s brilliant short story and novel, Ender’s Game, the child protagonist learns that the war games he practices are actually the real thing. His shock, regret, and confusion had a profound effect on his psyche, and set the stage for his later attempts to achieve some sort of vengeance for the race he and his comrades destroyed.
The works of Robert Silverberg evoke feelings of dj-vu, the feeling of being in too many worlds or too many trips; moral boredom is not found in many writers. Yet somehow, he transcends this eternal boredom to reveal with surprising clarity that there is something behind it; if only the goal is sought.
Perhaps no other science fiction writer offers a sense of wonder and discovery, a sense of joy de vivre, like Arthur C Clarke. In story after story, Clarke describes new worlds, new discoveries, new possibilities (“all these worlds are yours…”). His love of the cosmos is rooted in his love of astronomy and physics, and it is combined with his love of humanity that makes his work so inspiring and evergreen.
But what about our last category, which is a sense of accomplishment? Each of these writers spoke in a certain way about the human experience. In bridging the worlds of science and fiction, in writing for fears, hopes, ups and downs, each of these authors claims to be included in the list of canonical writers. In “Nightfall,” Arthur C Clarke writes about the effects of atomic warfare, and thinks back to an earlier time. He staked his claim for posterity when he wrote:
Freed well for the sake of patience,
To dig hear the attached dvst
Blessed are you with these pieces of stone,
And he will move my bones.
Undisturbed forever the poet can sleep safely now: in the silence and darkness above his head, Avon seeks his new escape to the sea.